Repointing Mortar Joints in Historic Masonry Buildings

By: Robert C. Mack, FAIA, and John P. Speweik

Masonry—brick, stone, terra-cotta, and concrete block—is found on nearly every historic building. Structures with all-masonry exteriors come to mind immediately, but most other buildings at least have masonry foundations or chimneys. Although generally considered “permanent,” masonry is subject to deterioration, especially at the mortar joints. Repointing, also known simply as “pointing” or—somewhat inaccurately—”tuck pointing”*, is the process of removing deteriorated mortar from the joints of a masonry wall and replacing it with new mortar. Properly done, repointing restores the visual and physical integrity of the masonry. Improperly done, repointing not only detracts from the appearance of the building, but may also cause physical damage to the masonry units themselves.

Historical Background

Mortar consisting primarily of lime and sand has been used as an integral part of masonry structures for thousands of years. Up until about the mid-19th century, lime or quicklime (sometimes called lump lime) was delivered to construction sites, where it had to be slaked, or combined with water. Mixing with water caused it to boil and resulted in a wet lime putty that was left to mature in a pit or wooden box for several weeks, up to a year. Traditional mortar was made from lime putty, or slaked lime, combined with local sand, generally in a ratio of 1 part lime putty to 3 parts sand by volume. Often other ingredients, such as crushed marine shells (another source of lime), brick dust, clay, natural cements, pigments, and even animal hair were also added to mortar, but the basic formulation for lime putty and sand mortar remained unchanged for centuries until the advent of portland cement or its forerunner, Roman cement, a natural, hydraulic cement.

Portland cement was patented in Great Britain in 1824. It was named after the stone from Portland in Dorset which it resembled when hard. This is a fast-curing, hydraulic cement which
hardens under water. Portland cement was first manufactured in the United States in 1872, although it was imported before this date. But it was not in common use throughout the country until the early 20th century. Up until the turn of the century portland cement was considered primarily an additive, or “minor ingredient” to help accelerate mortar set time. By the 1930s, however, most masons used a mix of equal parts portland cement and lime putty. Thus, the mortar found in masonry structures built between 1873 and 1930 can range from pure lime and sand mixes to a wide variety of lime, portland cement, and sand combinations.

In the 1930s more new mortar products intended to hasten and simplify masons’ work were introduced in the U.S. These included masonry cement, a premixed, bagged mortar which is a combination of portland cement and ground limestone, and hydrated lime, machine-slaked lime that eliminated the necessity of slaking quicklime into putty at the site.

Identifying the Problem Before Repointing

The decision to repoint is most often related to some obvious sign of deterioration, such as disintegrating mortar, cracks in mortar joints, loose bricks or stones, damp walls, or damaged plasterwork. It is, however, erroneous to assume that repointing alone will solve deficiencies that result from other problems. The root cause of the deterioration—leaking roofs or gutters, differential settlement of the building, capillary action causing rising damp, or extreme weather exposure—should always be dealt with prior to beginning work.

Without appropriate repairs to eliminate the source of the problem, mortar deterioration will continue and any repointing will have been a waste of time and money.


Use of Consultants

Because there are so many possible causes for deterioration in historic buildings, it may be desirable to retain a consultant, such as a historic architect or architectural conservator, to analyze the building. In addition to determining the most appropriate solutions to the problems, a consultant can prepare specifications which reflect the particular requirements of each job and can provide oversight of the work in progress. Referrals to preservation consultants frequently can be obtained from State Historic Preservation Offices, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), the Association for Preservation Technology (APT), and local chapters of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Finding an Appropriate Mortar Match

Preliminary research is necessary to ensure that the proposed repointing work is both physically and visually appropriate to the building. Analysis of unweathered portions of the historic mortar to which the new mortar will be matched can suggest appropriate mixes for the repointing mortar so that it will not damage the building because it is excessively strong or vapor impermeable.
2016-SP27-Vintage-Design-Mortar-Match-Image-V1Examination and analysis of the masonry units—brick, stone or terra cotta—and the techniques used in the original construction will assist in maintaining the building’s historic appearance. A simple, non- technical, evaluation of the masonry units and mortar can provide information concerning the relative strength and permeability of each—critical factors in selecting the repointing mortar—while a visual analysis of the historic mortar can provide the information necessary for developing the new mortar mix and application techniques.

Although not crucial to a successful repointing project, for projects involving properties of special historic significance, a mortar analysis by a qualified laboratory can be useful by providing information on the original ingredients. However, there are limitations with such an analysis, and replacement mortar specifications should not be based solely on laboratory analysis. Analysis requires interpretation, and there are important factors which affect the condition and performance of the mortar that cannot be established through laboratory analysis. These may include: the original water content, rate of curing, weather conditions during original construction, the method of mixing and placing the mortar, and the cleanliness and condition of the sand. The most useful information that can come out of laboratory analysis is the identification of sand by gradation and color. This allows the color and the texture of the mortar to be matched with some accuracy because sand is the largest ingredient by volume. In creating a repointing mortar that is compatible with the masonry units, the objective is to achieve one that matches the historic mortar as closely as possible, so that the new material can coexist with the old in a sympathetic, supportive and, if necessary, sacrificial capacity. The exact physical and chemical properties of the historic mortar are not of major significance as long as the new mortar conforms to the following criteria:

  • The new mortar must match the historic mortar in color, texture and tooling. (If a laboratory analysis is undertaken, it may be possible to match the binder components and their proportions with the historic mortar, if those materials are available.)
  • The sand must match the sand in the historic mortar. (The color and texture of the new mortar will usually fall into place if the sand is matched successfully.)
  • The new mortar must have greater vapor permeability and be softer (measured in compressive strength) than the masonry units.
  • The new mortar must be as vapor permeable and as soft or softer(measured in compressive strength) than the historic mortar. (Softness or hardness is not necessarily an indication of permeability; old, hard lime mortars can still retain high permeability.)

This mortar is the proper consistency for repointing historic brick. Photo: John P. Speweik.

This mortar is the proper consistency for repointing historic brick. Photo: John P. Speweik.

Mortar Analysis

Methods for analyzing mortars can be divided into two broad categories: wet chemical and instrumental. Many laboratories that analyze historic mortars use a simple wet-chemical method called acid digestion, whereby a sample of the mortar is crushed and then mixed with a dilute acid. The acid dissolves all the carbonate-containing minerals not only in the binder, but also in the aggregate (such as oyster shells, coral sands, or other carbonate-based materials), as well as any other acid-soluble materials. The sand and fine-grained acid-insoluble material is left behind. There are several variations on the simple acid digestion test. One involves collecting the carbon dioxide gas given off as the carbonate is digested by the acid; based on the gas volume the carbnate content of the mortar can be accurately determined (Jedrzejewska, 1960). Simple acid digestion methods are rapid, inexpensive, and easy to perform, but the information they provide about the original composition of a mortar is limited to the color and texture of the sand. The gas collection method provides more information about the binder than a simple acid digestion test.

Instrumental analysis methods that have been used to evaluate mortars include polarized light or thin-section microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, atomic absorption spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction, and differential thermal analysis. All instrumental methods require not only expensive, specialized equipment, but also highly-trained experienced analysts. However, instrumental methods can provide much more information about a mortar. Thin-section microscopy is probably the most commonly used instrumental method. Examination of thin slices of a mortar in transmitted light is often used to supplement acid digestion methods, particularly to look for carbonate-based aggregate. For example, the new ASTM test method, ASTM C 1324-96 “Test Method for Examination and Analysis of Hardened Mortars” which was designed specifically for the analysis of modern lime-cement and masonry cement mortars, combines a complex series of wet chemical analyses with thin-section microscopy.

The drawback of most mortar analysis methods is that mortar samples of known composition have not been analyzed in order to evaluate the method. Historic mortars were not prepared to narrowly defined specifications from materials of uniform quality; they contain a wide array of locally derived materials combined at the discretion of the mason. While a particular method might be able to accurately determine the original proportions of a lime-cement-sand mortar prepared from modern materials, the usefulness of that method for evaluating historic mortars is questionable unless it has been tested against mortars prepared from materials more commonly used in the past.

Properties of Mortar

Mortars for repointing should be softer or more permeable than the masonry units and no harder or more impermeable than the historic mortar to prevent damage to the masonry units. It is a common error to assume that hardness or high strength is a measure of appropriateness, particularly for lime-based historic mortars. Stresses within a wall caused by expansion, contraction, moisture migration, or settlement must be accommodated in some manner; in a masonry wall, these stresses should be relieved by the mortar rather than by the masonry units. A mortar that is stronger in compressive strength than the masonry units will not “give,” thus causing stresses to be relieved through the masonry units—resulting in permanent damage to the masonry, such as cracking and spalling, that cannot be repaired easily.

This early 19th century building is being repointed with lime mortar. Photo: Travis McDonald.

This early 19th century building is being repointed with lime mortar. Photo: Travis McDonald.

While stresses can also break the bond between the mortar and the masonry units, permitting water to penetrate the resulting hairline cracks, this is easier to correct in the joint through repointing than if the break occurs in the masonry units.

Permeability, or rate of vapor transmission, is also critical. High lime mortars are more permeable than denser cement mortars. Historically, mortar acted as a bedding material—not unlike an expansion joint—rather than a “glue” for the masonry units, and moisture was able to migrate through the mortar joints rather than the masonry units. When moisture evaporates from the masonry it deposits any soluble salts either on the surface as efflorescence or below the surface assubflorescence. While salts deposited on the surface of masonry units are usually relatively harmless, salt crystallization within a masonry unit creates pressure that can cause parts of the outer surface to spall off or delaminate. If the mortar does not permit moisture or moisture vapor to migrate out of the wall and evaporate, the result will be damage to the masonry units.

Components of Mortar


Sand is the largest component of mortar and the material that gives mortar its distinctive color, texture and cohesiveness. Sand must be free of impurities, such as salts or clay. The three key characteristics of sand are: particle shape, gradation and void ratios.

When viewed under a magnifying glass or low-power microscope, particles of sand generally have either rounded edges, such as found in beach and river sand, or sharp, angular edges, found in crushed or manufactured sand. For repointing mortar, rounded or natural sand is preferred for two reasons. It is usually similar to the sand in the historic mortar and provides a better visual match. It also has better working qualities or plasticity and can thus be forced into the joint more easily, forming a good contact with the remaining historic mortar and the surface of the adjacent masonry units. Although manufactured sand is frequently more readily available, it is usually possible to locate a supply of rounded sand.

The gradation of the sand (particle size distribution) plays a very important role in the durability and cohesive properties of a mortar. Mortar must have a certain percentage of large to small particle sizes in order to deliver the optimum performance. Acceptable guidelines on particle size distribution may be found in ASTM C 144 (American Society for Testing and Materials). However, in actuality, since neither historic nor modern sands are always in compliance with ASTM C 144, matching the same particle appearance and gradation usually requires sieving the sand. A scoop of sand contains many small voids between the individual grains. A mortar that performs well fills all these small voids with binder (cement/lime combination or mix) in a balanced manner. Well-graded sand generally has a 30 per cent void ratio by volume. Thus, 30 per cent binder by volume generally should be used, unless the historic mortar had a different binder: aggregate ratio. This represents the 1:3 binder to sand ratios often seen in mortar specifications. For repointing, sand generally should conform to ASTM C 144 to assure proper gradation and freedom from impurities; some variation may be necessary to match the original size and gradation. Sand color and texture also should match the original as closely as possible to provide the proper color match without other additives.


Mortar formulations prior to the late-19th century used lime as the primary binding material. Lime is derived from heating limestone at high temperatures which burns off the carbon dioxide, and turns the limestone into quicklime. There are three types of limestone—calcium, magnesium, and dolomitic—differentiated by the different levels of magnesium carbonate they contain which impart specific qualities to mortar. Historically, calcium lime was used for mortar rather than the dolomitic lime (calcium magnesium carbonate) most often used today. But it is also important to keep in mind the fact that the historic limes, and other components of mortar, varied a great deal because they were natural, as opposed to modern lime which is manufactured and, therefore, standardized. Because some of the kinds of lime, as well as other components of mortar, that were used historically are no longer readily available, even when a conscious effort is made to replicate a “historic” mix, this may not be achievable due to the differences between modern and historic materials.

Caulking was inappropriately used here in place of mortar on the top

Caulking was inappropriately used here in place of mortar on the top of the wall. As a result, it has not been durable.

Lime, itself, when mixed with water into a paste is very plastic and creamy. It will remain workable and soft indefinitely, if stored in a sealed container. Lime (calcium hydroxide) hardens by carbonation absorbing carbon dioxide primarily from the air, converting itself to calcium carbonate. Once a lime and sand mortar is mixed and placed in a wall, it begins the process of carbonation. If lime mortar is left to dry too rapidly, carbonation of the mortar will be reduced, resulting in poor adhesion and poor durability. In addition, lime mortar is slightly water soluble and thus is able to re-seal any hairline cracks that may develop during the life of the mortar. Lime mortar is soft, porous, and changes little in volume during temperature fluctuations thus making it a good choice for historic buildings. Because of these qualities, high calcium lime mortar may be considered for many repointing projects, not just those involving historic buildings.

For repointing, lime should conform to ASTM C 207, Type S, or Type SA, Hydrated Lime for Masonry Purposes. This machine-slaked lime is designed to assure high plasticity and water retention. The use of quicklime which must be slaked and soaked by hand may have advantages over hydrated lime in some restoration projects if time and money allow.

Lime Putty

Lime putty is slaked lime that has a putty or paste-like consistency. It should conform to ASTM C 5. Mortar can be mixed using lime putty according to ASTM C 270 property or proportion specification.

Portland Cement

More recent, 20th-century mortar has used portland cement as a primary binding material. A straight portland cement and sand mortar is extremely hard, resists the movement of water, shrinks upon setting, and undergoes relatively large thermal movements. When mixed with water, portland cement forms a harsh, stiff paste that is quite unworkable, becoming hard very quickly. (Unlike lime, portland cement will harden regardless of weather conditions and does not require wetting and drying cycles.) Some portland cement assists the workability and plasticity of the mortar without adversely affecting the finished project; it also provides early strength to the mortar and speeds setting. Thus, it may be appropriate to add some portland cement to an essentially lime-based mortar even when repointing relatively soft 18th or 19th century brick under some circumstances when a slightly harder mortar is required. The more portland cement that is added to a mortar formulation the harder it becomes—and the faster the initial set. For repointing, portland cement should conform to ASTM C 150. White, non- staining portland cement may provide a better color match for some historic mortars than the more commonly available grey portland cement. But, it should not be assumed, however, that white portland cement is always appropriate for all historic buildings, since the original mortar may have been mixed with grey cement. The cement should not have more than 0.60 per cent alkali to help avoid efflorescence.

Masonry Cement

Masonry cement is a preblended mortar mix commonly found at hardware and home repair stores. It is designed to produce mortars with a compressive strength of 750 psi or higher when mixed with sand and water at the job site. It may contain hydrated lime, but it always contains a large amount of portland cement, as well as ground limestone and other workability agents, including air-entraining agents. Because masonry cements are not required to contain hydrated lime, and generally do not contain lime, they produce high strength mortars that can damage historic masonry. For this reason, they generally are not recommended for use on historic masonry buildings.

Lime Mortar (pre-blended)

Hydrated lime mortars, and pre-blended lime putty mortars with or without a matched sand are commercially available. Custom mortars are also available with color. In most instances, pre-blended lime mortars containing sand may not provide an exact match; however, if the project calls for total repointing, a pre-blended lime mortar may be worth considering as long as the mortar is compatible in strength with the masonry. If the project involves only selected, “spot” repointing, then it may be better to carry out a mortar analysis which can provide a custom pre-blended lime mortar with a matching sand. In either case, if a preblended lime mortar is to be used, it should contain Type S or SA hydrated lime conforming to ASTM C 207.


Water should be potable—clean and free from acids, alkalis, or other dissolved organic materials.

Other Components

Historic components
In addition to the color of the sand, the texture of the mortar is of critical importance in duplicating historic mortar. Most mortars dating from the mid-19th century on—with some exceptions—have a fairly homogeneous texture and color. Some earlier mortars are not as uniformly textured and may contain lumps of partially burned lime or “dirty lime”, shell (which often provided a source of lime, particularly in coastal areas), natural cements, pieces of clay, lampblack or other pigments, or even animal hair. The visual characteristics of these mortars can be duplicated through the use of similar materials in the repointing mortar. Replicating such unique or individual mortars will require writing new specifications for each project. If possible, suggested sources for special materials should be included. For example, crushed oyster shells can be obtained in a variety of sizes from poultry supply dealers.

Some historic mortars, particularly in the late 19th century, were tinted to match or contrast with the brick or stone. Red pigments, sometimes in the form of brick dust, as well as brown, and black pigments were commonly used. Modern pigments are available which can be added to the mortar at the job site, but they should not exceed 10 per cent by weight of the portland cement in the mix, and carbon black should be limited to 2 per cent. Only synthetic mineral oxides, which are alkali-proof and sun-fast, should be used to prevent bleaching and fading.

Modern Components
Admixtures are used to create specific characteristics in mortar, and whether they should be used will depend upon the individual project. Air entraining agents, for example, help the mortar to resist freeze-thaw damage in northern climates. Accelerators are used to reduce mortar freezing prior to setting while retarders help to extend the mortar life in hot climates. Selection of admixtures should be made by the architect or architectural conservator as part of the specifications, not something routinely added by the masons.

Mortar Type and Mix

Mortars for repointing projects, especially those involving historic buildings, typically are custom mixed in order to ensure the proper physical and visual qualities. These materials can be combined in varying proportions to create a mortar with the desired performance and durability. The actual specification of a particular mortar type should take into consideration all of the factors affecting the life of the building including: current site conditions, present condition of the masonry, function of the new mortar, degree of weather exposure, and skill of the mason.

Here, a hammer and chisel are being correctly used to prepare a joint for repointing. Photo: John P. Speweik.

Here, a hammer and chisel are being correctly used to prepare a joint for repointing. Photo: John P. Speweik.

Thus, no two repointing projects are exactly the same. Modern materials specified for use in repointing mortar should conform to specifications of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or comparable federal specifications, and the resulting mortar should conform to ASTM C 270, Mortar for Unit Masonry.

Specifying the proportions for the repointing mortar for a specific job is not as difficult as it might seem. Five mortar types, each with a corresponding recommended mix, have been established by ASTM to distinguish high strength mortar from soft flexible mortars. The ASTM designated them in decreasing order of approximate general strength as Type M (2,500 psi), Type S (1,800 psi), Type N (750 psi), Type O (350 psi) and Type K (75 psi). (The letters identifying the types are from the words MASON WORK using every other letter.) Type K has the highest lime content of the mixes that contain portland cement, although it is seldom used today, except for some historic preservation projects. The designation “L” in the accompanying chart identifies a straight lime and sand mix. Specifying the appropriate ASTM mortar by proportion of ingredients, will ensure the desired physical properties. Unless specified otherwise, measurements or proportions for mortar mixes are always given in the following order: cement-lime-sand. Thus, a Type K mix, for example, would be referred to as 1-3-10, or 1 part cement to 3 parts lime to 10 parts sand. Other requirements to create the desired visual qualities should be included in the specifications. The strength of a mortar can vary. If mixed with higher amounts of portland cement, a harder mortar is obtained. The more lime that is added, the softer and more plastic the mortar becomes, increasing its workability. A mortar strong in compressive strength might be desirable for a hard stone (such as granite) pier holding up a bridge deck, whereas a softer, more permeable lime mortar would be preferable for a historic wall of soft brick. Masonry deterioration caused by salt deposition results when the mortar is less permeable than the masonry unit. A strong mortar is still more permeable than hard, dense stone. However, in a wall constructed of soft bricks where the masonry unit itself has a relatively high permeability or vapor transmission rate, a soft, high lime mortar is necessary to retain sufficient permeability.

Budgeting and Scheduling

Repointing is both expensive and time consuming due to the extent of handwork and special materials required. It is preferable to repoint only those areas that require work rather than an entire wall, as is often specified. But, if 25 to 50 per cent or more of a wall needs to be repointed, repointing the entire wall may be more cost effective than spot repointing.

When repairing this stone wall, the mason matched the raised profile of the original tuckpointing.

When repairing this stone wall, the mason matched the raised profile of the original tuckpointing.

Total repointing may also be more sensible when access is difficult, requiring the erection of expensive scaffolding (unless the majority of the mortar is sound and unlikely to require replacement in the foreseeable future). Each project requires judgment based on a variety of factors. Recognizing this at the outset will help to prevent many jobs from becoming prohibitively expensive.

In scheduling, seasonal aspects need to be considered first. Generally speaking, wall temperatures between 40 and 95 degrees F (8 and 38 degrees C) will prevent freezing or excessive evaporation of the water in the mortar. Ideally, repointing should be done in shade, away from strong sunlight in order to slow the drying process, especially during hot weather. If necessary, shade can be provided for large-scale projects with appropriate modifications to scaffolding.

The relationship of repointing to other work proposed on the building must also be recognized. For example, if paint removal or cleaning is anticipated, and if the mortar joints are basically sound and need only selective repointing, it is generally better to postpone repointing until after completion of these activities. However, if the mortar has eroded badly, allowing moisture to penetrate deeply into the wall, repointing should be accomplished before cleaning. Related work, such as structural or roof repairs, should be scheduled so that they do not interfere with repointing and so that all work can take maximum advantage of erected scaffolding.

A mechanical grinder improperly used to cut out the horizontal joint and incompatible repointing have seriously damaged the 19th century brick.

A mechanical grinder improperly used to cut out the horizontal joint and incompatible repointing have seriously damaged the 19th century brick.

Building managers also must recognize the difficulties that a repointing project can create. The process is time consuming, and scaffolding may need to remain in place for an extended period of time. The joint preparation process can be quite noisy and can generate large quantities of dust which must be controlled, especially at air intakes to protect human health, and also where it might damage operating machinery. Entrances may be blocked from time to time making access difficult for both building tenants and visitors. Clearly, building managers will need to coordinate the repointing work with other events at the site.

Contractor Selection

Contractor Selection The ideal way to select a contractor is to ask knowledgeable owners of recently repointed historic buildings for recommendations. Qualified contractors then can provide lists of other repointing projects for inspection. More commonly, however, the contractor for a repointing project is selected through a competitive bidding process over which the client or consultant has only limited control. In this situation it is important to ensure that the specifications stipulate that masons must have a minimum of five years’ experience with repointing historic masonry buildings to be eligible to bid on the project. Contracts are awarded to the lowest responsible bidder, and bidders who have performed poorly on other projects usually can be eliminated from consideration on this basis, even if they have the lowest prices. The contract documents should call for unit prices as well as a base bid. Unit pricing forces the contractor to determine in advance what the cost addition or reduction will be for work which varies from the scope of the base bid. If, for example, the contractor has fifty linear feet less of stone repointing than indicated on the contract documents but thirty linear feet more of brick repointing, it will be easy to determine the final price for the work. Note that each type of work— brick repointing, stone repointing, or similar items—will have its own unit price. The unit price also should reflect quantities; one linear foot of pointing in five different spots will be more expensive than five contiguous linear feet.

Execution of the Work

Test Panels

These panels are prepared by the contractor using the same techniques that will be used on the remainder of the project. Several panel locations—preferably not on the front or other highly visible location of the building—may be necessary to include all types of masonry, joint styles, mortar colors, and other problems likely to be encountered on the job.

Unskilled repointing has negatively impacted the character of this late-19th century building.

Unskilled repointing has negatively impacted the character of this late-19th century building.

If cleaning tests, for example, are also to be undertaken, they should be carried out in the same location. Usually a 3 foot by 3 foot area is sufficient for brickwork, while a somewhat larger area may be required for stonework. These panels establish an acceptable standard of work and serve as a benchmark for evaluating and accepting subsequent work on the building.

Joint Preparation

Old mortar should be removed to a minimum depth of 2 to 2-1/2 times the width of the joint to ensure an adequate bond and to prevent mortar “popouts.” For most brick joints, this will require removal of the mortar to a depth of approximately Ω to 1 inch; for stone masonry with wide joints, mortar may need to be removed to a depth of several inches. Any loose or disintegrated mortar beyond this minimum depth also should be removed.

Although some damage may be inevitable, careful joint preparation can help limit damage to masonry units. The traditional manner of removing old mortar is through the use of hand chisels and mash hammers. Though labor-intensive, in most instances this method poses the least threat for damage to historic masonry units and produces the best final product.

The most common method of removing mortar, however, is through the use of power saws or grinders. The use of power tools by unskilled masons can be disastrous for historic masonry, particularly soft brick. Using power saws on walls with thin joints, such as most brick walls, almost always will result in damage to the masonry units by breaking the edges and by overcutting on the head, or vertical joints.

However, small pneumatically-powered chisels generally can be used safely and effectively to remove mortar on historic buildings as long as the masons maintain appropriate control over the equipment. Under certain circumstances, thin diamond-bladed grinders may be used to cut out horizontal joints only on hard portland cement mortar common to most early-20th century masonry buildings. Usually, automatic tools most successfully remove old mortar without damaging the masonry units when they are used in combination with hand tools in preparation for repointing. Where horizontal joints are uniform and fairly wide, it may be possible to use a power masonry saw to assist the removal of mortar, such as by cutting along the middle of the joint; final mortar removal from the sides of the joints still should be done with a hand chisel and hammer. Caulking cutters with diamond blades can sometimes be used successfully to cut out joints without damaging the masonry. Caulking cutters are slow; they do not rotate, but vibrate at very high speeds, thus minimizing the possibility of damage to masonry units. Although mechanical tools may be safely used in limited circumstances to cut out horizontal joints in preparation for repointing, they should never be used on vertical joints because of the danger of slipping and cutting into the brick above or below the vertical joint. Using power tools to remove mortar without damaging the surrounding masonry units also necessitates highly skilled masons experienced in working on historic masonry buildings. Contractors should demonstrate proficiency with power tools before their use is approved.

Using any of these power tools may also be more acceptable on hard stone, such as quartzite or granite, than on terra cotta with its glass-like glaze, or on soft brick or stone. The test panel should determine the acceptability of power tools. If power tools are to be permitted, the contractor should establish a quality control program to account for worker fatigue and similar variables.

Mortar should be removed cleanly from the masonry units, leaving square corners at the back of the cut. Before filling, the joints should be rinsed with a jet of water to remove all loose particles and dust. At the time of filling, the joints should be damp, but with no standing water present. For masonry walls—limestone, sandstone and common brick—that are extremely absorbent, it is recommended that a continual mist of water be applied for a few hours before repointing begins.

Mortar Preparation

Mortar components should be measured and mixed carefully to assure the uniformity of visual and physical characteristics. Dry ingredients are measured by volume and thoroughly mixed before the addition of any water. Sand must be added in a damp, loose condition to avoid over sanding. Repointing mortar is typically pre-hydrated by adding water so it will just hold together, thus allowing it to stand for a period of time before the final water is added. Half the water should be added, followed by mixing for approximately 5 minutes. The remaining water should then be added in small portions until a mortar of the desired consistency is reached. The total volume of water necessary may vary from batch to batch, depending on weather conditions. It is important to keep the water to a minimum for two reasons: first, a drier mortar is cleaner to work with, and it can be compacted tightly into the joints; second, with no excess water to evaporate, the mortar cures without shrinkage cracks. Mortar should be used within approximately 30 minutes of final mixing, and “retempering,” or adding more water, should not be permitted.

Using Lime Putty to Make Mortar

Mortar made with lime putty and sand, sometimes referred to as roughage or course stuff, should be measured by volume, and may require slightly different proportions from those used with hydrated lime. No additional water is usually needed to achieve a workable consistency because enough water is already contained in the putty. Sand is proportioned first, followed by the lime putty, then mixed for five minutes or until all the sand is thoroughly coated with the lime putty. But mixing, in the familiar sense of turning over with a hoe, sometimes may not be sufficient if the best possible performance is to be obtained from a lime putty mortar. Although the old practice of chopping, beating and ramming the mortar has largely been forgotten, recent field work has confirmed that lime putty and sand rammed and beaten with a wooden mallet or ax handle, interspersed by chopping with a hoe, can significantly improve workability and performance. The intensity of this action increases the overall lime/sand contact and removes any surplus water by compacting the other ingredients. It may also be advantageous for larger projects to use a mortar pan mill for mixing. Mortar pan mills which have a long tradition in Europe produce a superior lime putty mortar not attainable with today’s modern paddle and drum type mixers.

For larger repointing projects the lime putty and sand can be mixed together ahead of time and stored indefinitely, on or off site, which eliminates the need for piles of sand on the job site. This mixture, which resembles damp brown sugar, must be protected from the air in sealed containers with a wet piece of burlap over the top or sealed in a large plastic bag to prevent evaporation and premature carbonation. The lime putty and sand mixture can be recombined into a workable plastic state months later with no additional water.

If portland cement is specified in a lime putty and sand mortar—Type O (1:2:9) or Type K (1:3:11)—the portland cement should first be mixed into a slurry paste before adding it to the lime putty and sand. Not only will this ensure that the portland cement is evenly distributed throughout the mixture, but if dry portland cement is added to wet ingredients it tends to “ball up,” jeopardizing dispersion. (Usually water must be added to the lime putty and sand anyway once the portland cement is introduced.) Any color pigments should be added at this stage and mixed for a full five minutes. The mortar should be used within 30 minutes to 10 hours and it should not be retempered. Once portland cement has been added the mortar can no longer be stored.

Filling the Joint

Where existing mortar has been removed to a depth of greater than 1 inch, these deeper areas should be filled first, compacting the new mortar in several layers. The back of the entire joint should be filled successively by applying approximately 1/4 inch of mortar, packing it well into the back corners. This application may extend along the wall for several feet. As soon as the mortar has reached thumb-print hardness, another 1/4 inch layer of mortar—approximately the same thickness—may be applied. Several layers will be needed to fill the joint flush with the outer surface of the masonry. It is important to allow each layer time to harden before the next layer is applied; most of the mortar shrinkage occurs during the hardening process and layering thus minimizes overall shrinkage.

When the final layer of mortar is thumb-print hard, the joint should be tooled to match the historic joint. Proper timing of the tooling is important for uniform color and appearance. If tooled when too soft, the color will be lighter than expected, and hairline cracks may occur; if tooled when too hard, there may be dark streaks called “tool burning,” and good closure of the mortar against the masonry units will not be achieved.

If the old bricks or stones have worn, rounded edges, it is best to recess the final mortar slightly from the face of the masonry. This treatment will help avoid a joint which is visually wider than the actual joint; it also will avoid creation of a large, thin featheredge which is easily damaged, thus admitting water. After tooling, excess mortar can be removed from the edge of the joint by brushing with a natural bristle or nylon brush. Metal bristle brushes should never be used on historic masonry.

Curing Conditions

The preliminary hardening of high-lime content mortars—those mortars that contain more lime by volume than portland cement, i.e., Type O (1:2:9), Type K (1:3:11), and straight lime/sand, Type “L” (0:1:3)—takes place fairly rapidly as water in the mix is lost to the porous surface of the masonry and through evaporation. A high lime mortar (especially Type “L”) left to dry out too rapidly can result in chalking, poor adhesion, and poor durability. Periodic wetting of the repointed area after the mortar joints are thumb-print hard and have been finish tooled may significantly accelerate the carbonation process. When feasible, misting using a hand sprayer with a fine nozzle can be simple to do for a day or two after repointing. Local conditions will dictate the frequency of wetting, but initially it may be as often as every hour and gradually reduced to every three or four hours. Walls should be covered with burlap for the first three days after repointing. (Plastic may be used, but it should be tented out and not placed directly against the wall.) This helps keep the walls damp and protects them from direct sunlight. Once carbonation of the lime has begun, it will continue for many years and the lime will gain strength as it reverts back to calcium carbonate within the wall.

This 18th century pediment and surrounding wall exhibit distinctively different mortar joints.

This 18th century pediment and surrounding wall exhibit distinctively different mortar joints.

Aging the Mortar

Even with the best efforts at matching the existing mortar color, texture, and materials, there will usually be a visible difference between the old and new work, partly because the new mortar has been matched to the unweathered portions of the historic mortar. Another reason for a slight mismatch may be that the sand is more exposed in old mortar due to the slight erosion of the lime or cement. Although spot repointing is generally preferable and some color difference should be acceptable, if the difference between old and new mortar is too extreme, it may be advisable in some instances to repoint an entire area of a wall, or an entire feature such as a bay, to minimize the difference between the old and the new mortar. If the mortars have been properly matched, usually the best way to deal with surface color differences is to let the mortars age naturally. Other treatments to overcome these differences, including cleaning the non-repointed areas or staining the new mortar, should be carefully tested prior to implementation. Staining the new mortar to achieve a better color match is generally not recommended, but it may be appropriate in some instances. Although staining may provide an initial match, the old and new mortars may weather at different rates, leading to visual differences after a few seasons. In addition, the mixtures used to stain the mortar may be harmful to the masonry; for example, they may introduce salts into the masonry which can lead to efflorescence.

Cleaning the Repointed Masonry

If repointing work is carefully executed, there will be little need for cleaning other than to remove the small amount of mortar from the edge of the joint following tooling. This can be done with a stiff natural bristle or nylon brush after the mortar has dried, but before it is initially set (1-2 hours). Mortar that has hardened can usually be removed with a wooden paddle or, if necessary, a chisel.

Further cleaning is best accomplished with plain water and natural bristle or nylon brushes. If chemicals must be used, they should be selected with extreme caution. Improper cleaning can lead to deterioration of the masonry units, deterioration of the mortar, mortar smear, and efflorescence. New mortar joints are especially susceptible to damage because they do not become fully cured for several months. Chemical cleaners, particularly acids, should never be used on dry masonry. The masonry should always be completely soaked once with water before chemicals are applied. After cleaning, the walls should be flushed again with plain water to remove all traces of the chemicals.

Several precautions should be taken if a freshly repointed masonry wall is to be cleaned. First, the mortar should be fully hardened before cleaning. Thirty days is usually sufficient, depending on weather and exposure; as mentioned previously, the mortar will continue to cure even after it has hardened. Test panels should be prepared to evaluate the effects of different cleaning methods. Generally, on newly repointed masonry walls, only very low pressure (100 psi) water washing supplemented by stiff natural bristle or nylon brushes should be used, except on glazed or polished surfaces, where only soft cloths should be used.** New construction “bloom” or efflorescence occasionally appears within the first few months of repointing and usually disappears through the normal process of weathering. If the efflorescence is not removed by natural processes, the safest way to remove it is by dry brushing with stiff natural or nylon bristle brushes followed by wet brushing. Hydrochloric (muriatic) acid, is generally ineffective, and it should not be used to remove efflorescence. It may liberate additional salts, which, in turn, can lead to more efflorescence.

Surface grouting is sometimes suggested as an alternative to repointing brick buildings, in particular. This process involves the application of a thin coat of cement-based grout to the mortar joints and the mortar/brick interface. To be effective, the grout must extend slightly onto the face of the masonry units, thus widening the joint visually. The change in the joint appearance can alter the historic character of the structure to an unacceptable degree. In addition, although masking of the bricks is intended to keep the grout off the remainder of the face of the bricks, some level of residue, called “veiling,” will inevitably remain. Surface grouting cannot substitute for the more extensive work of repointing, and it is not a recommended treatment for historic masonry.

Visually Examining the Mortar and the Masonry Unit

A simple in situ comparison will help determine the hardness and condition of the mortar and the masonry units. Begin by scraping the mortar with a screwdriver, and gradually tapping harder with a cold chisel and mason’s hammer. Masonry units can be tested in the same way beginning, even more gently, by scraping with a fingernail. This relative analysis which is derived from the 10-point hardness scale used to describe minerals, provides a good starting point for selection of an appropriate mortar. Mortar samples should be chosen carefully, and picked from a variety of locations on the building to find unweathered mortar, if possible. Portions of the building may have been repointed in the past while other areas may be subject to conditions causing unusual deterioration. There may be several colors of mortar dating from different construction periods or sand used from different sources during the initial construction. Any of these situations can give false readings to the visual or physical characteristics required for the new mortar. Variations should be noted which may require developing more than one mix.

  1. Remove with a chisel and hammer three or four unweathered samples of the mortar to be matched from several locations on the building. (Set the largest sample aside–this will be used later for comparison with the repointing mortar). Removing a full representation of samples will allow selection of a “mean” or average mortar sample.
  2. Mash the remaining samples with a wooden mallet, or hammer if necessary, until they are separated into their constituent parts. There should be a good handful of the material.
  3. Examine the powdered portion—the lime and/or cement matrix of the mortar. Most particularly, note the color. There is a tendency to think of historic mortars as having white binders, but grey portland cement was available by the last quarter of the 19th century, and traditional limes were also sometimes grey. Thus, in some instances, the natural color of the historic binder may be grey, rather than white. The mortar may also have been tinted to create a colored mortar, and this color should be identified at this point.
  4. Carefully blow away the powdery material (the lime and/or cement matrix which bound the mortar together).
  5. With a low power (10 power) magnifying glass, examine the remaining sand and other materials such as lumps of lime or shell.
  6. Note and record the wide range of color as well as the varying sizes of the individual grains of sand, impurities, or other materials.

Other Factors to Consider

Regardless of the color of the binder or colored additives, the sand is the primary material that gives mortar its color. A surprising variety of colors of sand may be found in a single sample of historic mortar, and the different sizes of the grains of sand or other materials, such as incompletely ground lime or cement, play an important role in the texture of the repointing mortar. Therefore, when specifying sand for repointing mortar, it may be necessary to obtain sand from several sources and to combine or screen them in order to approximate the range of sand colors and grain sizes in the historic mortar sample.

Pointing Style
Close examination of the historic masonry wall and the techniques used in the original construction will assist in maintaining the visual qualities of the building. Pointing styles and the methods of producing them should be examined. It is important to look at both the horizontal and the vertical joints to determine the order in which they were tooled and whether they were the same style. Some late-19th and early-20th century buildings, for example, have horizontal joints that were raked back while the vertical joints were finished flush and stained to match the bricks, thus creating the illusion of horizontal bands. Pointing styles may also differ from one facade to another; front walls often received greater attention to mortar detailing than side and rear walls. Tuckpointing is not true repointing but the application of a raised joint or lime putty joint on top of flush mortar joints. Penciling is a purely decorative, painted surface treatment over a mortar joint, often in a contrasting color.

Masonry Units
The masonry units should also be examined so that any replacement units will match the historic masonry. Within a wall there may be a wide range of colors, textures, and sizes, particularly with hand-made brick or rough-cut, locally-quarried stone. Replacement units should blend in with the full range of masonry units rather than a single brick or stone.

Matching Color and Texture of the Repointing Mortar
New mortar should match the unweathered interior portions of the historic mortar. The simplest way to check the match is to make a small sample of the proposed mix and allow it to cure at a temperature of approximately 70 degrees F for about a week, or it can be baked in an oven to speed up the curing; this sample is then broken open and the surface is compared with the surface of the largest “saved” sample of historic mortar.

If a proper color match cannot be achieved through the use of natural sand or colored aggregates like crushed marble or brick dust, it may be necessary to use a modern mortar pigment.

During the early stages of the project, it should be determined how closely the new mortar should match the historic mortar. Will “quite close” be sufficient, or is “exactly” expected? The specifications should state this clearly so that the contractor has a reasonable idea how much time and expense will be required to develop an acceptable match.

The same judgment will be necessary in matching replacement terra cotta, stone or brick. If there is a known source for replacements, this should be included in the specifications. If a source cannot be determined prior to the bidding process, the specifications should include an estimated price for the replacement materials with the final price based on the actual cost to the contractor.

Mortar Types (Measured bu Volume)

Designation Cement Hydrated Lime or Lime Putty Sand
M 1 ¼ 3 – 3¾
S 1 ½ 4 – 4½
N 1 1 5 – 6
O 1 2 8 – 9
K 1 3 10 – 12
“L” 0 1 2¼ – 3

Suggested Mortar Types for Different Exposures

Masonry Material Sheltered Moderate Severe
Very Durable: granite, hard-cored brick, etc. O N S
Moderately Durable: limestone, durable stone, molded brick K O N
Minimally Durable: soft handmade brick “L” K O

Summary and References

For the Owner/Administrator

The owner or administrator of a historic building should remember that repointing is likely to be a lengthy and expensive process. First, there must be adequate time for evaluation of the building and investigation into the cause of problems. Then, there will be time needed for preparation of the contract documents. The work itself is precise, time-consuming and noisy, and scaffolding may cover the face of the building for some time. Therefore, the owner must carefully plan the work to avoid problems. Schedules for both repointing and other activities will thus require careful coordination to avoid unanticipated conflicts. The owner must avoid the tendency to rush the work or cut corners if the historic building is to retain its visual integrity and the job is to be durable.

For the Architect/Consultant

Because the primary role of the consultant is to ensure the life of the building, a knowledge of historic construction techniques and the special problems found in older buildings is essential. The consultant must assist the owner in planning for logistical problems relating to research and construction. It is the consultant’s responsibility to determine the cause of the mortar deterioration and ensure that it is corrected before the masonry is repointed. The consultant must also be prepared to spend more time in project inspections than is customary in modern construction.

For the Masons

Successful repointing depends on the masons themselves. Experienced masons understand the special requirements for work on historic buildings and the added time and expense they require. The entire masonry crew must be willing and able to perform the work in conformance with the specifications, even when the specifications may not be in conformance with standard practice. At the same time, the masons should not hesitate to question the specifications if it appears that the work specified would damage the building.


A good repointing job is meant to last, at least 30 years, and preferably 50- 100 years. Shortcuts and poor craftsmanship result not only in diminishing the historic character of a building, but also in a job that looks bad, and will require future repointing sooner than if the work had been done correctly. The mortar joint in a historic masonry building has often been called a wall’s “first line of defense.” Good repointing practices guarantee the long life of the mortar joint, the wall, and the historic structure. Although careful maintenance will help preserve the freshly repointed mortar joints, it is important to remember that mortar joints are intended to be sacrificial and will probably require repointing sometime in the future. Nevertheless, if the historic mortar joints proved durable for many years, then careful repointing should have an equally long life, ultimately contributing to the preservation of the entire building.


Robert C. Mack, FAIA, is a principal in the firm of MacDonald & Mack, Architects, Ltd., an architectural firm that specializes in historic buildings in Minneapolis, Minnesota. John P. Speweik, CSI, Toledo, Ohio, is a 5th-generation stonemason, and principal in U.S. Heritage Group, Inc., Chicago, Illinois, which does custom historic mortar matching. Anne E. Grimmer, Senior Architectural Historian, National Park Service, was responsible for developing and coordinating the revision of this Preservation Brief, incorporating professional comments, and the technical editing.

The authors and the editor wish to thank the following for the professional and technical review they provided: Mark Macpherson and Ron Peterson, Masonry Restoration Contractors, Macpherson-Towne Company, Minneapolis, MN; Lorraine Schnabel, Architectural Conservator, John Milner Associates, Inc., Philadelphia, PA; Lauren B. Sickels-Taves, Ph.D., Architectural Conservator, Biohistory International, Huntington Woods, MI; and the following National Park Service professional staff, including: E. Blaine Cliver, Chief, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record; Douglas C. Hicks, Deputy Superintendent, Historic Preservation Training Center, Frederick, MD; Chris McGuigan, Supervisory Exhibits Specialist, Historic Preservation Training Center, Frederick, MD; Charles E. Fisher, Sharon C. Park, FAIA, John Sandor, Technical Preservation Services Branch, Heritage Preservation Services, and Kay D. Weeks, Heritage Preservation Services.

The original version of this brief, Repointing Mortar Joints in Historic Brick Buildings, was written by Robert C. Mack in 1976, and was revised and updated in 1980 by Robert C. Mack, de Teel Patterson Tiller, and James S. Askins.

This publication has been prepared pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended, which directs the Secretary of the Interior to develop and make available information concerning historic properties. Technical Preservation Services (TPS), National Park Service prepares standards, guidelines, and other educational materials on responsible historic preservation treatments for a broad public.

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