The Quandary of Removing Cement from Masonry Tools and Equipment
Ugh, your masonry trowel is caked with dried up mortar. What do you do?
You have three choices:
Throw it out.
Work with it as is.
Clean it off.
The first two options are not satisfactory. If you toss your mucky tool, you have to go buy a new one. If you continue working with an unclean implement, your workmanship suffers.
It makes sense to protect your tools and keep them in good working order ready for the next day’s work.
Taking care of tools and cleaning up residual mortar and concrete has been a necessity for ages.
“Old Stone Age” humans surely cleaned their implements especially of blood after a day’s kill. (Sorry to mention gore but these were hunting times.) Large pebbles found along a river’s edge were nicked to create early tools and in these waters is likely where they were washed. We can assume even 40,000 years ago people chose to maintain rather than throw away tools they’d made.
Furthermore, mortar–a pliable substance used to join parts together– has been a building improvement since 6500 BCE. This mud and clay tactic was replaced around 500 BCE when Greeks discovered that pozzolana (volcanic ash around Pozzuoli, Italy) created a better bond when mixed with lime and water.
Before the 1st century CE the Romans strengthened the formula by varying aggregate (fine to coarse) with lime and water. Their results were Roman mortar (with sand) and Roman concrete (with broken stone) that streamlined the building process.
Construction of the Colosseum is a prime example, even though it took 10 years (70-80 CE) to finish. It was restored in the 1800s and more recently in 2016. Repairing such a massive structure meant a lot of masonry tools and equipment were lined up for clean up detail.
Portland cement (PC or cement), named for the English Isle of Portland, gained popularity in the 1800s. This powdered limestone additive bonded quicker and harder and soon became the norm. Proportions of PC and varied aggregate make up the concrete, grout, mortar, plaster, and stucco we use today.
It is important to clean concrete and mortar off of extraneous areas and tools after working with these materials. Extraneous areas can mean smears or splatters of concrete where they should not be. While the best way to cleanse excess from tools is to wipe it off while it is still wet, this is not always possible. However, there are ways to get rid of thick concrete and mortar.
Take precautions if you are using any of these methods. Remember your Personal Protective Equipment or PPE. Make sure to put on safety goggles, and if you are handling acids or dissolving agents, wear gloves. Nitrile ones are strong and flexible.
First, the physical route. Knocking off clumps of congealed cement works very well for tools. But what about large equipment and vehicles?
While care can be taken to avoid damaging surfaces with a wire brush, it is best to avoid this method if excess concrete is being scrubbed from a scratch-prone material. Glass or paint, for instance.
Pressure washing might be unnecessary overkill.
I’d read on a forum once how a mason rubbed off his dirty trowels in sand throughout the day. One replier agreed until seeing that feral cats were treating his pile as one big litter box. In other words, stay sanitary.
Several household acids can be effective in disintegrating concrete and mortar, including hydrochloric (muriatic) acid and vinegar. However, high concentrations are often needed. Beware that generic muriatic acid often contains metal contaminants and is potent. It absolutely must be diluted.
ALERT: Slowly add any acid to a bucket of water and not the other way around. You do not want to taint the chemical. More important, you do not want the concentrate to splash up and harm you or anybody/thing else.
Rinse off with plenty of water once satisfied, and be prepared to touch up the area. Using such strong homemade mixtures will often lead to spotty-looking results, but it gets the job done. Well, sort of.
Retired masonry-teacher-writer Dick Kreh describes a proprietary product in his glossary as
“a chemical compound protected by a patent, copyright, or trademarks, which is used to clean masonry work.”
Today many solutions are safer and more effective. Different cleaning agents address specific problems and take into account varied factors. Examples of some distinctions are listed below:
Efflorescence (white salty deposits) on exterior masonry walls
Hardened cement on tools, equipment, vehicles, and ancillary areas
Smoke stains on a brick chimney
Identify the problem, then address it by cleaning in the mildest way possible. Applying a manufactured tried-and-tested product rather than settling on a cheap, homemade measure might be prudent.
All Cleaning Is Basic.
According to cleaning guru Don Aslett, any cleaning involves these actions:
“eliminate, saturate, dissolve, and remove.”
That is, you get rid of loose debris, apply your cleaning product to the soiled spot, wait while it works, and remove what remains.
Concrete Dissolver (CD)
In general, here is the above 4 step procedure using concrete dissolver:
Wipe off as much loose material as possible. There’s no need to agitate. Just wait for the solution to do its magic in the third step.
Cover the soiled area with diluted concentrate. Spray on or use a nylon brush (brush & bucket method). Some concrete dissolvers foam up on the spot and do not run.
Let the compound dwell (sit for bit). Say, 15 to 20 minutes. Give the chemical ample time to penetrate and separate the cement bond. Do not let the mixture dry up. Re-apply if necessary.
Rinse off the pasty residue.
That’s the process in a nutshell.
Real Life Examples
Concrete dissolver will break down any Portland cement product. Here are two from-our-experience examples:
Power Tool: Wet Saw
We rent out a wet saw with diamond blades and table for customers to cut tile and so forth.
When it’s returned, the saw and body are encased with dried up plaster dust. Splatters are all over everything.
We spray the entire unit with concrete dissolver (already-diluted) and let it dwell as long as possible without letting the solution dry out. The foaming action before it dries out seems to increase dwell time.
After the hardened material liquifies and turns to mush, we rinse it off with water sprayed out of a garden hose nozzle. We make sure all residue is gone.
Then, we spray WD-40 on a rag and wipe down the contraption for a final cleaning all over. We look at all moving parts such as bolts and fittings and lubricate as needed with 321 oil using a grease gun.
Last, we put the wet saw kit safely away so it’s stored and ready for next time.
NOTE: For this job we prefer grabbing our already-diluted-CD easy-spray-cap bottle. Exercise safety precautions at all times. In this instance, wear PPE and never clean power tools when they are connected to electricity.
Hand Tool: Masonry Trowel
Expect a mess whenever working with hand tools around masonry work.
We try to clean up, as we go, but aren’t always able to prevent buildup. At the end of the day we clank hand tools to loosen off what mortar or concrete pieces we can.
Next, we immerse our crusty tools in a bath of diluted concrete dissolver in a plastic tub. After 30 minutes or so, we take them out and rinse off residual slop if there is any.
Finally, we wipe them down to finish the cleaning with WD40 metal cleaner that helps resist rust.
NOTE: For this job we prefer to keep a larger container of CD concentrate on hand and dilute it ourselves. We fill up a plastic tub with a dilution ratio of 4:1. That’s four parts water and then we add one part CD to it.
Concrete Dissolver Attributes
Biodegradable (molecular structure originating from sugar cane)
Liquid (color varies by manufacturer)
Less Corrosive (to metals e.g. aluminum, copper, stainless steel)
Nullifies with Water (weakens its effectiveness)
Safe on Ancillary Areas (except concrete because it breaks up cementing agents) NOTE: OK for paint, plastic, wood surfaces and more. Ask expert if unsure.
VOC Compliant (meets regulations for volatile organic compounds)
Options: Already Diluted Solution, Spray Cap, Different Sizes (ranging from 22 fl. oz. to 55 gallon drum and custom requests), Foam Solution (not runny)
I’m using a washing your car example to illustrate aspects about concrete dissolver (CD). The abbreviation CE stands for car example. The material, equipment and cleaner might differ between CE and CD, but the mindset is the same.
Read Instructions – on the CD container and in the MSDS (material safety data sheet). Heed precautions. That means being PPE-ready by wearing safety equipment. Keep first aid handy.
Arrange Work Area – Where will you set up (cleaning) shop? CE: Before you wash your car, you know where you work and have the materials nearby.
Watch Climate Control – Be mindful of hot and cold temperatures. CE: You wait for a temperate day to wash your car. Too hot and the solution might bake. Too cold and the solution might freeze. The same goes for outside masonry work.
Dilute Concentrate – Some CD comes already diluted. If not, follow product instructions about how to proportion.
Do Not Rinse First – Concrete dissolver does not work in water. Let it dwell and then rinse, not vice versa.
Trial Run – Test an inconspicuous area first.
Straighten & Store – Value others your live and work with. Clean up your cleaning area and supplies. Tighten the CD cap and store container away from pets and children. CE: You always clean up after washing your car. You put your car wash materials away, clean and safely stored until you need to use them again.
Seek Advice – Talk to your local building supplier or tool distributor about how to keep your masonry tools and equipment in good condition. Ask them about CD, how to use it, and any questions or concerns you have.
Common Sense – Always use it.
Cleaning is a building best practice.
Prepare for cleaning before actual masonry work begins. Emphasize its importance in phases of your project when:
Planning (cleaning as a factor to take into account)
Constructing (cleaning ongoing as able while working)
Cleaning Up (cleaning daily, weekly, upon project completion)
Whether you’re a DIYer or on-the-job contractor, masonry is a messy job and cleaning must be a variable in your thought process. Indeed, cleaning is an aspect of vocational training. Apprentices are taught to clean up their sites–including the tools and equipment they use.
The non-profit World Skills organization suggests that in concrete construction
“the individual needs to know and understand the purposes, uses, care, maintenance and storage of tools, equipment & materials” and “the individual shall be able to plan the work area to maximize efficiency and maintain the discipline of regular tidying.”
Masonry textbooks organize assignments strategically by:
Objective (what outcome the student should achieve)
Materials (what tools, equipment and supplies will be used)
Procedures (what steps students will take to finish the assignment)
Instructors also share their experiences and offer guidance. And students are graded on their work.
Tackle maintaining your tools the same way: Strive for an “A.”
Prior knowledge of yesteryear and technical improvements impact us every day. Why not take the drudgery out of masonry clean up, if there’s a better way?
Concrete dissolver melts stiff mortar and concrete off your tools and equipment. It’s easy and simple.