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The Mason’s Guide to Tuck-PointingMarch 30th, 2015 by
This article was crafted with the help of Mel Kahn and Brian King of Early Times Home Solutions.
Brick has served as one of the most durable and attractive building materials for thousands of years. Homeowners today are drawn to brickwork for its classic look, relatively low need for maintenance, and hardy resilience against the elements. Like all things, though, brick structures are susceptible to decay and damage, so skilled masons have perfected a technique called tuck-pointing to restore them to their original glory. We spoke with two such experienced masons, Mel Kahn and Brian King of Early Times Home Solutions, a Chicago Best Pick company, to get a better sense of what goes into this process and when a homeowner might want to have it performed.
What Exactly IS Tuck-Pointing?
Simply put, tuck-pointing is the restoration of brick or stonework by grinding away and removing old or weakened mortar and refilling the joints between with newer, more structurally sound mortar, with the goal being to match the tint of the existing mortar as closely as possible. While this holds true for all types of brick and stone structures, this article is going to focus primarily on brick chimneys. It’s the grinding away and removal of the compromised mortar that Mel and Brian emphasize as the most important aspect. They compare the process to a visit to the dentist: “You have a cavity in your tooth, so the dentist is first going to drill and get rid of the bad stuff and then fill it with new material.” An unskilled or dishonest mason might try to pass off what’s known as face tuck-pointing as a real fix, taking a cheaper, faster shortcut in order to maximize profit (and leave your chimney in a still-weakened state). This is really nothing more than a cosmetic makeover; the mason basically applies a thin layer of new mortar over the bad joint. As Mel and Brian explain, “This makes it look pretty for a while, but you usually don’t even get a season out of it.”
Another shortcut a disreputable mason might take is to tuck-point only those joints in immediate need of repair and ignore the surrounding brickwork that’s likely to fail a month or two down the road. “They fix the five or six bricks, but in reality, there are maybe another dozen, maybe thirty that haven’t broken yet but are ready to break,” they caution. Rather than relying on what they refer to as Band-Aid fixes, Mel and Brian make it a point to “figure out what’s causing the problem and fix it at the same time.”
So What ARE Some of the Causes of the Problem?
Aside from the inevitable wear and tear from weather and time, tuck-pointing might be necessary for a variety of reasons. “It could just be a bad batch of bricks,” Mel and Brian explain, “or it could be the appliances that are venting into the chimney.” When homeowners purchase a new appliance that puts out some sort of exhaust—a furnace, for example—they don’t always take into account how the exhaust from that appliance may affect the brickwork of their existing chimney. Because condensation is formed when warm exhaust from the new appliance meets cool air in the chimney, the interior bricks of the chimney get saturated. Likewise, Mel and Brian have seen numerous instances in which a homeowner has left the damper open 24 hours a day, all year long. This leads to frost accumulation near the top of the chimney. Over time, this moisture will most certainly compromise the structural integrity of the mortar joints.
How Will I Know If I Need to Have My Chimney Tuck-Pointed?
There are a number of telltale signs that your chimney may require a visit from a qualified mason. “Many homeowners discover problems with their chimney by simply cleaning their gutters or when they’re cutting their lawn,” say Mel and Brian. They’ll often find pieces of brick or mortar lying in the gutter or in the yard. At this point, unless the brick damage is clearly visible from a safe vantage point, homeowners are advised to contact a qualified mason to diagnose the damage. While Mel and Brian have encountered some do-it-yourselfers who thought they could repair their own chimneys (sometimes even using silicone caulk rather than brick mortar), it’s almost never the case that homeowners should attempt to take on tuck-pointing themselves. Aside from the artistry involved in the proper application and tinting of the mortar, there are safety concerns to take into consideration. Chimney tuck-pointing involves ladders, rooftops, and power tools, so it’s a dangerous business that should be left to experienced professionals. Qualified masons will also know how to correctly set up scaffolding, protect the roof, and leave the scene as clean as when they first arrived.
Brick is a timeless building material that most homeowners find to be well worth the up-front investment. And while it’s far more durable than many other options, it, like all things, needs to be properly maintained. Fortunately, masons have thousands of years of experience and knowledge from which to draw, and proper tuck-pointing can keep a chimney in perfect working order and as attractive as the day it was first constructed.
This spotlight article was crafted with the help of Early Times Home Solutions, a Masonry – Brick & Stone Best Pick in Chicago. While we strive to provide relevant information to all homeowners, some of the material we publish may not pertain to every area. Please contact your local Best Pick companies for any further area-specific advice.