Barrington, Ill. home needs brick step maintenance

Brick stairs on a home in Barrington, Ill.  show signs of mortar deterioration and efflorescence.

As if Chicago’s weather wasn’t hard enough on brick stairs, homeowners can unknowingly make it worse when their  garden sprinklers water the stairs as much as the landscape, or when  salt is applied  to the stairs to melt ice.  When homeowners use rock salt on brick steps, the salt becomes dissolved in melting snow or ice and seeps into the mortar. Expansion and contraction eventually cause cracking of the mortar.

Regular brick stair maintenance can prevent costly stair replacement

Spring is a good time to assess your brick stairs to see if repairs are needed. Look for loose or cracked mortar joints as well as flaking and spalling brick. If you can scrape a knife along the edge of the brick and it flakes and crumbles, it needs immediate attention. Take care of the problem at the onset and you may only need spot tuckpointing and a few bricks, versus a complete stair rebuild.

Older brick is generally more porous.  If water is immediately absorbed and turns the brick dark, the brick may be in need of waterproofing.  Choosing the right sealer is important because the wrong sealer can actually trap in moisture and accelerate the problem.

Before repairing brick stairs with tuckpointing or repointing, a tuckpointing  contractor or masonry contractor  will identify and address the source of any water damage. This is the only way to ensure that repairs will last. Make brick maintenance part of your annual routine and you will probably be able to avoid a costlier project such as a complete stair rebuild. Always seek out a licensed, insured and bonded tuckpointing contractor to provide advice on how to protect your investment.

John Gallagher is the owner of Shamrock Tuckpointing,  a licensed, insured and bonded tuckpointing contractor serving Chicago and the suburbs.

Brick in need of tuckpointing and masonry restoration

Brick in need of tuckpointing

When it comes time to replace old mortar from the joints of masonry, brick or stone in your Chicago older home you may have multiple concerns.  Will it maintain the appearance of the original? Will it strengthen the structure and provide better resistance to Chicago weather? Is it important to maintain the chemical properties of the original mortar? Tuckpointing mortar in Chicago older homes is a masonry restoration process.

In older homes, every brick was laid by hand and the mortar filled with a trowel. Over time, those mortar joints need repair (cut, clean and refill with fresh mortar).


Protect the History of Your Home

If the house was built between 1873 and 1930 the mortar probably includes lime and sand mixes augmented with Portland cement. Original construction techniques offer clues on how to maintain the home’s original appearance if that’s your goal.

Strength and permeability (rate of vapor transmission) as well as a visual inspection of the old mortar will show the tuckpointing professional what kind of mortar mix and techniques should be applied. There are exceptions, but the mortar on homes dating from the mid-1950s on have a fairly homogeneous texture and color.

Identifying the sand and color allows the tuckpointing contractor to match or come very close to matching the original mortar. Sand is the largest ingredient by volume and is what gives mortar its color. If necessary, modern pigments can be added to the mortar at the job site.  Mortar should be measured and mixed carefully to assure visual and physical characteristics.

Matching the chemical properties of the original mortar is not necessary. As long as the new mortar matches the original in color, texture, tooling and sand used, it’s a good result. Components of historic mortar (before 1930) varied a lot because they were made of natural materials. Modern mixes are manufactured so they can be standardized and easily replicated.

Prevent Damage

To prevent damage and ensure proper masonry restoration, replacement mortar should be softer or more permeable than the masonry work. And it should be no harder or more impermeable than the original mortar. If the joint is properly prepared, a good bond forms between the new mortar and the adjacent surfaces, strengthening the structure.

What to Avoid:

  1. Masonry cements at hardware stores are not recommended for older homes because they produce too strong of mortars that can damage historic masonry.
  2. Modern chemical additives may have detrimental effects on historic masonry. Antifreeze compounds may present salts that lead to efflorescence.
  3. Power tools in the hands of unskilled tuckpointers can result in damage. Specialized automatic tools used in conjunction with hand tools by a skilled craftsman will reap the best results.

Mortar joints in homes are called the wall’s “first line of defense.” To maintain the structure and appearance of the home tuckpointing should be completed approximately every 20 to 30 years.  The right tuckpointing mortar in Chicago older homes ensures a successful masonry restoration by protecting the visual and physical integrity of the masonry.

Chicago Chimney Repairs Needed

A deteriorating chimney may be the source of interior leaks and moisture.

Since most people don’t spend a lot of time on their roof, the first time they may notice a problem is on interior walls and ceilings. When chimney brick and mortar deteriorates, water is able to penetrate. Leaks eventually moisten interior walls. Here are some of the places you might first notice a problem.

1)      Moisture on the ceiling around a fireplace

2)      Moisture at the base of the fireplace or basement

3)      Moisture on plaster walls on the side of a chimney

Moisture enters the chimney through cracked chimney caps, porous brick, deteriorated mortar joints and improperly designed and installed roof flashings. Condensation can sometimes collect in cracked or separated flue tiles, blocked flues and chimney caps.

A Hinsdale client recently discovered a leak when the paint started to peel on the wall on the side of the fireplace. The wall also felt damp. It turned out the chimney crown had cracked, allowing moisture to penetrate the brick. Shamrock Tuckpointing replaced the chimney crown, tuckpointed the chimney and also applied a waterproof sealant to the brick, as an added measure of protection.

Every year or two, it’s a good idea to inspect your brick chimney for evidence of moisture damage. Look for signs of moisture damage such as efflorescent salt stains, deteriorated mortar joints, spalled bricks, or cracked chimney caps. Check the angle of the chimney to see if it might be leaning, indicating a structural issue. Flashings should fit tightly against the chimney.

Early detection of potential issues will keep you from more expensive repairs in the future. If you suspect a leaking brick chimney, contact a professional masonry contractor to see if chimney repair is needed.

John Gallagher is the owner of Shamrock Tuckpointing, based in Alsip, Ill..  The company serves the Chicago metro area from the South Suburbs to Northwest Suburbs, Western Suburbs, North Suburbs, O’Hare area, North Suburban Lake County, East-West Corridor/DuPage County, and Northwest Indiana.

Efflorescence on Brick

Efflorescence on Brick.

Bricks naturally contain water-soluble salts. When moisture penetrates the brick, salts make their way to the surface and when the water evaporates, a white powdery substance containing salt is left behind. Water from behind or underneath the brick, poor caulking, bad flashing or underground water migrating up can cause efflorescence.

How to Remove Efflorescence

Removal of the white powder depends on what phase the “flowering” is in. In its earliest phase it can be removed with water and a bristle brush.  After it has become insoluble, a mild acid solution can work. The Masonry Institute of America has seen good results using muriatic acid in a mild solution. Rather than one big dose, several mild applications are recommended. Thoroughly rinsing the area with clean water is very important. Other commercial products are available but must be applied properly to get good results.

Note that cleaning efflorescence will not end the problem. It will reappear unless the natural process of efflorescence is stopped.

How to Protect Against Efflorescence

To protect against efflorescence, people often try using a sealer that repels water and penetrates deep into the brick. However, in Chicago, sealers may actually lead to damage from the freezing and thawing cycles. Vapor barriers, sealers and coatings should be assessed for your conditions. Instead, reduce excessive moisture exposure with copings and flashings. Keep garden hoses and sprinklers away from the brick.

Brick discoloration from efflorescence is a cosmetic problem caused by a natural process. However, excess moisture that causes efflorescence can also cause more serious brick problems over time. Add brick maintenance to your spring cleaning list to keep your brick looking beautiful. Pay attention to water issues that could turn into more serious brick problems.

Parapet walls are a familiar sight in Chicago. Parapet walls are portions of an exterior wall that extend above the roof. They serve both an aesthetic and practical purpose, acting as a firewall between buildings.

Parapet walls can cause problems for Chicago building owners. Because they are exposed to the harsh weather elements on three sides, parapet walls are more susceptible to cracking, spalling and efflorescence. Left unrepaired, a deteriorating parapet wall can cause water to leak down inside and outside the building walls, causing further damage.

While the weather’s still warm, check your parapet wall for signs of damage and overall structural integrity. Here’s what to look for:

  • Horizontal cracking at the roof line
  • Random vertical cracking, spalling or deterioration of the mortar due to excessive water penetration.
  • Test coping and flashing should for water-tightness.

If you find damage or have concerns, give us a call for a free consultation and estimate. Shamrock Tuckpointing can repair or rebuild your parapet walls.



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About the Owner


John Gallagher

John Gallagher learned the craft of tuckpointing while in his late teens. His father, a first generation Irish immigrant and construction worker, encouraged his son’s entrepreneurial spirit. John earned a business degree from Loras College, and soon afterward he founded Shamrock Tuckpointing.

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