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.
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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.
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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

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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.

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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.
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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.

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During the first step, picking, there are a couple basic things we’re looking for:
1. Complete bricks: no partial bricks allowed.
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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.

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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.

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