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

“Forever Together” Loses a Few Letters

With our brick picking/cleaning/stacking operation turning out nearly a dozen pallets per day, we decided we needed a bit more material to work with. Steve Powers’ “Forever Together” mural is now Steve Powers’ “Ever Together” mural.
mural changeOnce the “R” in “Forever” (aka 2340 Eager Street) came down, the only trace of it was this tiny shard of glass with “40” written on it. Fortunately, we reclaimed 500 square feet of flooring, 900 board feet of lumber and 3,500 bricks from 2340, so while the structure may no longer exist, its components will live on.


Goodbye, Joists. You’ve Been Reclaimed.

Reclaimed Wood, Salvage
With the first several buildings down, we started to clear out a sizable chunk of our site for the brick processing area. One thing that helped further this effort was our first sale of material off the lot. Andy Evans, from BTN Salvage, came by with his trailer and hauled off a couple bundles of joists.


The joists we’re pulling are a mix of softwoods, most of which are filed under the commercial name “Southern Yellow Pine” or SYP as its commonly abbreviated. SYP generally refers to:



Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda), grows from New Jersey down to Florida and west all the way to Texas.  The word loblolly is a mix of English words from the 16th century, “lob” meaning a bubbling boil and “lolly” meaning broth. This tree is generally found in lowlands and swampy areas, hence the name which refers to the tree’s muddy habitat. Some old-timers call it Rosemary Pine because it has a pretty unique fragrance when cut. Stop by the site some time and maybe you’ll catch a whiff, as most of what we’re seeing is loblolly.



Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata) has a similar range as the Loblolly, though it grows a bit further north and more extensively in the Carolinas. It’s leaves are not short per se, but they’re shorter than the leaves of a Longleaf Pine, so that’s that. Shortleaf Pines can thrive in a variety of soils and habitats. During the tree’s early years, it grows slower than most other pines, so the experienced wood expert might be able to distinguish a Shortleaf by looking at the end grain.



Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii) grows in Florida and the southern tips of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. Like the Loblolly, it grows in swampy areas which were (and maybe still are?) called “the slashes.”
Longleaf Pine is also considered to be part of the SYP group, but it’s a whole different beast that we’ll cover in a dedicated post. Longleaf is special enough for such an honor.



Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is not a member of SYP: though it creeps a bit into some southern states, it’s range is essentially the entire northeast part of the US into, you guessed it, Canada. And it’s not a pine. Hemlock lumber was, and still is, commonly used in construction, and we’ve come across some joists that seem less piney and more hemlock-y.
The joists we’re salvaging were milled over a century ago and come from trees that were much older. Under the rough sawn exterior, the wood is as bright and fragrant as when the trees were first cut.


And the walls came tumbling down (in a controlled manner!)

The north side of the 2300-2400 blocks of Eager Street may feature 35 houses with unique addresses, but it is basically a block long building. The very essence of rowhouses is that they are attached to neighboring houses- this can make for tightly knit neighbors bound by a shared sense of space and responsibility (“mi casa es su casa”- literally), or it can make for frustrating sleepless nights while you listen to your neighbor watch reruns of Golden Girls through a paper-thin party wall (no hard feelings, Don, it’s fine, really).
From an engineer’s perspective, the essential interconnectedness of rowhouses means that the structural integrity of one home can affect the integrity of its neighbors. This created some tough decisions for us as we faced the next steps in our deconstruction of Eager Street.
During our initial inspections, we had discovered that out of the first seven houses we’d be deconstructing, three had collapsed completely. The roofs had failed in all three, allowing rain to penetrate the structure- water seeped through floorboards, which then saturated joists, which ultimately turned to mush and collapsed, leaving a pile of the material formerly known as wood in the basement. 
We’d toyed around with different techniques for manual removal of the bricks, but none of them were practical considering that certain houses were no more than teetering piles of masonry. With nearly half of our first batch of houses collapsed, and considering that the condition of one house affects its neighbors, we decided that removing the walls mechanically was the only safe option. Before we brought in the machines, we did manage to pop some bricks off the back walls manually.
Once we’d harvested all the bricks we could, we brought in the excavator. Our operator, Reds, works like a surgeon, only his scalpel weighs over 17 tons. The first step was to claw back a block buttress wall that had been laid when several neighboring houses were torn down years ago.
Below you can see just how precise Reds is: once he clawed away the block, the old party wall was revealed with faux wood paneling still intact.
Once Reds had cleared the block wall, he went around back and began to claw away at the rear wall. Towards the right of the frame below, you can just make out the stream from a fire hose that’s used to control dust. We were lucky to have a rainy day while Reds did his thing, but a hose for dust control is always a must.
If you’re anything like us, you could look at photos of excavators smashing buildings all day, but let’s fast forward a bit (don’t worry- there are 34 more buildings that will be coming down!). Once Reds had finished for the day, here’s the scene we were left with:
To the right of the photo is a pile of joists that Reds was able to grab (we’d left them in place to give the first house some structural integrity). To the left of the photo is an assorted pile of scrap metal and smaller pieces of lumber. And that big red pile in the center is what we’ll be working on for the next week: a beautiful mountain of bricks to process! Stay tuned to see how they clean up.