DEAR TIM: Our house has a free-standing decorative brick wall with an iron gate. In various places, the bricks are crumbling. In some places, the entire face of the brick has come off. I do not have enough replacement bricks to replace the damaged bricks. Must I replace the bricks that are merely crumbling or could sealants and mortar repair preserve them in their present state? I have had three contractors out for estimates and they all say they cannot match the brick, mostly because it is oversize. What would you do to solve this problem and prevent future brick disintegration? Boyd B. Kalamazoo, MI
DEAR BOYD: While I’ve never been to your city, it’s name is branded in my memory forever because my first electric guitar was a Kalamazoo. I believe Gibson had a plant in your fine town. That powder-blue guitar is long gone, but I still have my Gibson 12-string acoustical guitar. Fortunately for you, I was a so-so guitar player and instead of becoming a rock star, I sauntered down the building and home improvement path so I’m now here to help you!
Based on the photo that you sent to me, I’d render the opinion that you’re not going to be able to repair most of the damaged brick in their present state. If you’re lucky enough to have a few brick where the entire face is loose and you can remove it with no damage to the visible face, there’s an amazing epoxy you can use to permanently attach the brick back again. You can discover more about this multipurpose masonry epoxy and how to use it by watching a video at my AsktheBuilder.com website. CLICK on concrete epoxy repair video to watch the video.
The odds are you’re going to have to use existing brick you have or locate some of the original brick. I realize the contractors told you they couldn’t match the brick, but from your photo your home seems newer and there’s a very good chance the brick suppliers in your area can help you. You’re going to have to take several of your brick around and visit each and every brick supplier to discover the truth if the brick, indeed, are no longer made. Your search may have to be expanded to a 50 or 100-mile radius to every brick supplier you can find. It will be well worth a few short road trips to find the brick.
Let’s talk about why the brick in the decorative wall are failing. Not all brick are the same to start with. Brick starts out as clay and when it’s fired in a kiln the heat changes the mineralogy transforming the soft clay into an artificial rock. The type of clay, the temperature in the kiln and the length of time the brick is fired all combine to control how hard and weather resistant the brick becomes. Some paving brick becomes so hard it almost resembles granite cobblestones with respect to hardness and ability to resist decades of being installed horizontally in a roadway that’s exposed to ice and snow.
Softer brick doesn’t fair well when installed in an exposed wall like you have. The same brick on the walls of your home do quite well because the roof overhang helps minimize water infiltration into the brick. But the rain that falls on the top of your wall in the late fall or during the winter can soak deep into the brick. When the water freezes, it expands and the brick is just not hard enough to prevent fracturing.
You can minimize future damage, once you repair the damaged brick, by applying high-quality clear sealants paying particular attention to the brick-mortar interface. Lots of the water is entering the brick through the mortar and where the mortar and brick touch one another. You may not see micro cracks here, but they exist.
The sealants I prefer are breathable silane-siloxane water repellents. Let price be your guideline for the best ones. I’d also locate a specialty store in your area that sells masonry products to commercial contractors. These businesses tend to carry the absolute best masonry sealants specified by commercial and institutional architects. Avoid the temptation to purchase a sealant from a big box store or home center. That’s the absolute last place I’d go to purchase a brick sealant.
If you run into difficulty finding the exact brick to match what you have, you do have an option you may not have thought of. You can harvest enough brick from a face of the garden wall that’s hidden, or will be, by a dense evergreen shrub. The thought of doing this makes most shudder and I agree that it introduces a permanent scar on your garden wall, but the brick are there. Do this at some location in your garden wall where it faces a neighbor and the shrub that’s planted looks like it belongs. No one will be the wiser. Replace the brick you harvest with ones that are the same size and as close in color as you can find.
There’s another trick you can employ that will help minimize future damage to the wall. I’d purchase some treated plywood that has the same chemicals in it that’s forced into dimensional deck lumber and posts. I’d allow this plywood to dry in a garage out of the sun. After sixty days, I’d cut the plywood into pieces that are six inches wider than the garden wall. I’d then paint the plywood strips in a camouflage manner so they somewhat look like the mottled appearance of the top of the brick walls.
I’d lay these panels over the top of the wall with 3 inches extending over each face of the wall in early November and weight them down so they don’t blow away. These pieces of wood will stop most of the rain from soaking into the brick even though you’ve sprayed them with the clear water repellent. They provide the same protection to the wall that your roof provides the brick on your home. The panels may not look the best over the winter, but you want the wall looking fantastic is the spring, summer and early fall when you can be outdoors to enjoy it.