Bricklaying Basics

When you build with bricks you’re creating something that can be appreciated for generations. It’s not uncommon to find structures in complete ruin except for the masonry such as a brick chimney or wall.

The reasons for do-it-yourself bricklaying vary, but the primary reason seems to be cost. Others include learning a valuable skill for starting a new business, or simply learning a new hobby. Planning a bricklaying project begins with gathering ideas and envisioning the end result. Don’t overlook this step. Masonry is permanent so be cautious and remember you need to do it right – the results of your efforts will be on public display for a long, long time.

As you begin your planning it’s important to consider size and scale, location, material selection, drainage and appearance. Make deatiled drawings of the planned project so to eliminate design flaws and aid in estimating building costs.

Visit your local home improvement center or hardware store and collect samples of the material you have in mind and evaluate the way they blend with your existing landscaping. Depending on whether you plan on pouring a small slab or building a brick archway, estimate the dimensions of your project as accurately as possible. This eliminates extra shopping trips. Since your using brick the local brickyard is where you’ll find the best supply of bricklayers material. They also carry the tools you are going to need.

Speaking of the tools, and to work effectively you are going to have to buy or rent some special purpose tools. I suggest that if this is a one-time project then by all means rent the tools. What follows is a suggested list of tools for doing brickwork:

Mortar hawk – for holding mortar

Wide pointing tool – for placing mortar on brick

Jointer – for finishing joints

Brick tongs – for carrying multiple bricks

Narrow tuck pointer – for placing mortar on bricks

Mason’s trowel – for applying mortar

Masonry chisels – for splitting brick

Mason’s hammers – for chipping brick

Maul – for driving stakes

Joint chisel – for removing dry mortar

Shop broom – for keeping the work area clean

Bucket and scrub brush

Stiff bristle brush – for removing loose material

Rubber mallet

Pipe clamp – for scoring large quantities of brick

Circular saw (with a masinry blade) – for cutting brick

Hammer drill with masonry bit

Wheelbarrow – for mixing mortar


Cement – for mixing mortar

Particle mask, gloves and protective eyewear

A helpful hint is to build your project, if possible without using mortar. This allows you to see the finished project, make corrections along the way and decide if the end result is really what you wanted.

The last thing I’ll cover is choosing, mixing and throwing the right mortar. Masonry mortar is a mixture of Portland cement, sand and water. Other ingredients include lime and gypsum to improve workability and control setup time. Believe it or not the strongest mortar mixture isn’t always the best for the job. Gone thankfully are the days when do-it-yourselfers had to mix mortar fom scratch, often with disastrous results. These days mortar comes premixed in 50 – 100 lb bags. Today you simply select the correct mix for the job at hand.

Type N mortar is often called for because it offers a good blend of strength and durability. It’s commonly used in non-load-bearing projects such as freestanding walls, BBQ grills and chimneys.

Type S mortar is a high strength mixture for exterior use in foundations, brick and block reatining walls, driveways, walks and patios,

Type M mortar is a very high strength mortar for load-bearing exterior stone walls.

There are other types mixes for special purpose but fo the sake of simplicity I left them out o this article.

Mixing mortar is simple these days. I dump one to two bags of mix into a large wheelbarrow, push it to one side and slowly add water until I get the right texture I want. If it’s too thick , it will fall off the trowel in a heap and not in the smooth line you want. Add to much water and it’s messy and weak. Just follow the manufacturers directions and you should be fine. If you’ve never mixed mortar before experiment in small batches until you find the mixture that works. Keep note of your mixture ratios to use later.

Don’t mix mortar in large batches unless you are willing to use it all in one application. More than one do-it-yourslf bricklayer has ended up with a wheelbarrow filled with 200 lbs of dried mortar for this reason. It’s best to mix mortar as needed. You can’t foresee delays such as bad weather, running out of daylight or worse yet injuring yourself.

Watching a professional bricklayer at work is an impressive sight. I remember as a small child living with my grandparents and watching their new home being built. The mortar practically flew off the workers trowels and the walls seemed to rise out of the ground in minutes. “Mortar throwing” is an acquired skill that takes years to master, but you can use the basic techniques successfully with just a little practice.

Throwing mortar is a quick, smooth technique. Load the trowel with mortar (how much depends on you comfort level), then position the trowel a few inches above the starting point. In one motion, begin turning your wrist over and quickly move the trowel across the surface to spread mortar consistently. Ideally you want ot end up with a line of mortar about 2 1/2 ” wide and about 2 ‘ long.

These are the very basics. There are numerous books and how-to videos on countless masonry projects. Just remember to plan accordingly, take your time and above all … be safe.