Better Know A Brick: Part 5- Face Vs. Common

Anatomy of A Rowhouse, Bricks, Reclaimed Bricks
A brick is a brick is a brick. Or is it? Here we must take issue with this hasty Gertrude Stein-ism and declare that there is a massive amount of variety in what most might consider to be just another pile of bricks.
It’s no secret that bricks vary from region to region (thanks to differing clays, sizing standards, and traditions of either using, or not using, a frog) but even among bricks laid in the very same house, there is quite a diverse mix on display.
face brick vs common brick

Cutaway of a corner rowhouse showing three types of brick: face brick up front with a thin layer of white lime-Portland mixed mortar, common brick directly behind it with sloppy mortar work, and ‘hard’ brick for the side wall.

Before delving too deep into the nuances of kiln placement and firing temperature (saved for a future post), let’s begin with apples and oranges, the face bricks and common bricks.
Common bricks make up the vast majority of the Baltimore rowhouse. While there are various types of common bricks used to create the party walls, rear wall, and interior wythe of the front wall, they are all essentially the same brick with the same dimensions and basic properties. These bricks can be crude affairs: sizes can vary by a 1/4″ from brick to brick and corners are often imperfect.
Common Brick Side 2

This group of common bricks, (post-salvage and dry stacked without mortar) shows their irregular nature. Some chips and cracks occur during the salvage process, but these bricks were born imperfect.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, common bricks, in Baltimore and elsewhere, were almost always made relatively close to the construction site, probably within a span of a couple miles. Before widespread use of the automobile, these bricks would have been carted by mule, so proximity was key. Once they arrived on site, they’d be laid rather quickly in thick mortar beds.
Why the thick beds? Pardon the following SAT question: Gustav the bricklayer is making a wall. Bricks cost 5 cents apiece, and mortar costs virtually nothing. He can use either 1/16″ or 1/2″ mortar beds: which will allow him to use the least amount of bricks, thereby saving a ton of money?
brick thick mortar bed

Common bricks in situ, showing super fat and sloppy mortar beds.

Beyond decreasing material needs, thick beds enabled the mortar to set consistently around the rough edges of the common brick, allowing for straight courses.
Now let’s move on to face brick, a different beast altogether. Face brick is used on the…face of our rowhouses. These bricks are harder, more standardized, and more durable than your garden variety common brick. Whereas common bricks were often made from clay that had received minimal screening, face bricks were composed of finer clays that were less contaminated with pebbles and other impurities. They were fired at higher temperatures for longer, making them extremely solid and near weatherproof. Check out some examples in the gallery below:
The crisp edges of face brick meant that thinner mortar beds could be used to beautiful effect. Around the turn of the century, face brick were often laid in a thin stripe of a lime-Portland cement mix.
During the 19th century, Baltimore became famous for its pressed face brick and shipped the beautiful product up and down the East coast. By 1910, however, trade winds had changed, and the city that had once been a foremost producer of face brick became a major importer of it, as train cars full of face brick from Western Pennsylvania and Ohio flooded Baltimore. As new rows popped up along the city’s eastern and western peripheries, the houses were fronted with the telltale yellows and browns of PA and OH bricks. These bricks are nearly indestructible- if you see a Formstoned house on one of these rows, you’re witnessing the work of a damn good salesman.
iron spot row

Row of homes in East Baltimore with iconic iron-spot face brick

Brick Fingerprints

Deconstruction, Reclaimed Bricks
File this one under Things You Don’t Find During Traditional Demolition- bear with me:
By the time our bricks were fired in 1906, mechanization had made significant inroads in the brick industry. Throughout the mid-19th century, both American and English brickmakers cum inventors devised machines to hasten the brickmaking process, harnessing steam power to drive an ever-evolving array of fantastical contraptions like the one you see below.
Brick Making Machine

This machine, made by Bradley & Craven, forced slugs of clay into molds. (Image courtesy of

The machines performed many of the duties once assigned to workers: rather than being hand-molded one or several at a time, machines could produce ribbons of clay that were then cut into dozens of bricks with a quick swoop of a mechanical arm. Other machines pressed clay neatly into molds and sent them along a conveyor belt towards drying racks.
brick human machine

Though machines could perform the work of several men, humans were often still required to move the brick from one step in the brickmaking process to the next. (Image courtesy of

While the relentless pursuit of efficiency and profit resulted in the mechanization of much of the work formerly done by humans, it by no means obviated the need for workers in the brickmaking industry. Around the turn of the century, brickmaking operations often relied on humans to move bricks along from one step in the process to the next; though bricks could be machine-molded or cut, workers often handled the bricks as they were sent to drying sheds and, ultimately, the kiln.
We see evidence of this all over the place in East Baltimore. Every so often, we come across a brick with clear fingerprints impressed upon the surface. It’s highly unlikely that our bricks were fully hand-molded when they were made during the first decade of the 20th century, but it’s certain that they were shepherded along the process by several sets of human hands. Our best guess is that the fingerprints landed on our bricks after they were molded but before they’d been fully dried, when a worker lugged them to a drying shed.
brick fingerprints
The giants of modern brick production rely on an almost human-less process, with robots and highly specialized machines guiding the brick along a fully automated sequence. There are machines that stamp textures into the surface of the brick, and other machines that spray on layers of dye to give bricks a “historic look”.
The fingerprinted bricks on our sites are constant reminders that in 1906, real people, real Baltimoreans, made these bricks. A year or so after they were made, real people laid these bricks. And now, more than 100 years later, real people are salvaging these bricks.

reclaimed bricks baltimore

Eager Street Recap: By The Numbers

Bricks, Deconstruction, Reclaimed Bricks, Reclaimed Wood, Salvage
Things are winding down on Eager Street (stay tuned for more info on the latest block we’re deconstructing!) so we thought it’d be a nice time to go through some numbers. Fear not, arithmophobes, though the following numbers are staggering, no math is involved.

Number of houses deconstructed:


Number of bricks salvaged:


Number of square feet of flooring salvaged:


Number of board feet of lumber salvaged:


Number of nails pulled:


Landfill diversion rate:

95diversion rate

Number of tons of salvaged material:


Number of jobs created for BALTIMORE residents:


All good numbers and all good news. The better news is that all of these numbers are going to increase with every project we take on: more houses, more bricks, more jobs, more of an impact in our beautiful, charming, working city.

No Board Uncounted

Deconstruction, Reclaimed Bricks, Reclaimed Wood, Salvage
The careful observer may have noticed that the wood we salvage from Eager Street is usually marked with numbers. What gives?
These pine floorboards are marked with the street address they came from and the number of lineal feet in each bundle.

These pine floorboards are marked with the street address they came from and the number of lineal feet in each bundle.

Deconstruction forces you to slow down; rather than sending a 6 ton ball of steel through the houses on Eager Street, we’ve been taking apart the buildings surgically. One of the advantages of our methodical approach is the ability to track every ounce of salvageable material that leaves each house.
We’re not the only ones interested in our yields. The City of Baltimore, our steadfast partner through this entire endeavor, set goals for us: for every house in salvageable condition (i.e. houses unaffected by fire, water damage, or collapse) we’ve been aiming to salvage 800 board feet of lumber, 400 square feet of flooring, and 3000 bricks.
Bill (right) and site superintendent Chris look over the daily reclamation logbook. Photo was not staged, I promise.

Bill (right) and site superintendent Chris look over the daily reclamation logbook. Photo was not staged, I promise.

Every day, intrepid City Building Inspector Bill (above, right) comes by to check on our progress. We bundle our items by house number, creating stacks of salvaged flooring and lumber that correspond to each address. Bill eyeballs our harvests, checks our math, and signs off on our daily reclamation totals.
For flooring, we generally measure in lineal feet and then convert to square feet for the final tally.
reclaimed long floorboards
For lumber, we measure each joist individually, write the length on the cut side, and bundle them in stacks with their housemates.
reclaimed joists in bundles
As for the bricks: we’ll need 105,000 to hit our goal and our pallets are stacked with 520 of ’em. That’s 201pallets if you’re counting, and if you’re not counting, rest assured that Bill is.

colorful reclaimed brick pallets

Bricks: From the Pile to the Pallet

Bricks, Reclaimed Bricks, Salvage
The first seven rowhouses on Eager Street have now been reduced to piles of bricks and mortar. Our job for the past week or so has been to take these piles and organize them into neatly stacked pallets of beautiful Baltimore brick. Before we began pulling bricks from the piles, we separated any wood matter so that it could be recycled.


With our operator Reds’ help, we then transformed our massive pile of bricks into several slightly less massive piles of bricks. Reds scooped up shovelfuls of brick and deposited them in three processing areas.
We then began the laborious (but very Zen) process of sorting through tens of thousands of bricks and identifying the ones we can salvage. On our site, brick processing follows a three part rhythm: pick, clean, stack.


During the first step, picking, there are a couple basic things we’re looking for:
1. Complete bricks: no partial bricks allowed.
2. There must be a clean face with minimal to no chipping.
cleanfacesOnce these very basic standards have been met, we begin the process of cleaning the bricks. The idea here is to remove any mortar left clinging to the brick. The bricks from Eager Street were laid with lime-based mortar, which makes our job infinitely easier than if we had to remove Portland cement-based mortar. Portland cement became popular during the late 19th century, and by the 1930s it had supplanted lime as the primary binding agent in mortar. Portland cement mortar sets quicker and harder than lime mortar, which has made it a preferred construction material. For folks involved in deconstruction, it’s something of an arch nemesis; it’s just not practical to chip it away, tiny piece by tiny piece. Lime-based mortar, on the other hand, flakes away relatively easily and can be removed without too much trouble.
The photo below shows some of the tools we use. From the left, they are: a) a wire brush for removing bits of weakly adhered mortar, b) a brick hammer (sometimes called a mason’s hammer) that can be used to knock off chunks of mortar,with either the traditional hammer end used against a separately held chisel, or the chisel end used directly against the mortar, c) a mason’s chisel that can be used to break away chunks of mortar or as a beefy scraper, d) a 5-in-1 scraper tool to remove any stubborn bits of mortar from the brick’s surface, e) a smaller “beater” chisel that’s good for removing large chunks of mortar when placed just so, and f) a wire welding brush with slightly tougher bristles.


Once the bricks are cleaned, they’re tossed to a stacker who arranges them on pallets in a basket-weave pattern. We stack our pallets 13 courses high with 40 bricks per course for a total of 520 bricks per pallet. We then shrink wrap them and, voila!, a pile of century-old rubble turns into a gorgeous arrangement of reclaimed bricks, ranging in color from pomegranate (thanks to crew-member Reggie for the naming suggestion) to cherry red to a dark salmon hue.