You could say that the colour of traditional brickwork is its most memorable feature, but a significant, if subtler, contribution is made to the character of old buildings by the bonding pattern of the bricks, and the style in which they are pointed. Historically, many important brick buildings featured gauged brickwork regular sized, hand-cut bricks, finely jointed with thin (typically just 1/10in wide) layers of lime putty. But during the Georgian period a cheaper and faster alternative developed, whereby un-gauged brick walls could be tuckpointed to imitate the appearance of gauged brickwork.
Tuckpointing was in widespread use into the early 20th century, but it is a rare practice today, kept alive by a few craftsmen working mostly on historic buildings. One of the best is Dave Fovargue from Kent, who started his career as a stonemason and then learnt tuckpointing as an apprentice to his grandfather. Mr. Fovargue, who also lays walls using handmade bricks, practises a range of pointing styles and mixes traditional lime mortars and washes, has worked on many listed buildings, including Clarence House and St James’s Palace. ‘It’s very rare that you’d tuckpoint a new building,’ he says, ‘mostly because of the cost.
For new brickwork, weatherstruck or modern bucket handle jointing using sand and cement is the norm’. Mr Fovargue cautions that the choice of mortar is as important as the profile of the joints. Many builders called in to re-point old buildings fail to realise that modern mortars, which are harder than the brick itself, can cause serious problems; a building should be able to breathe through its joints. Lime mortars are permeable, as well as being flexible and sacrificial, so that any failure (caused, for example, by frost) occurs in the mortar itself and not the brick.
Tuckpointing requires two key tools a long, thin trowel called a hawk and slasher and a tuck iron, with which the tucks are applied. The process involves raking the joints back to remove old lime mortar, and then filling them flush with a ‘stopping’ mix of washed sand and lime. This is tinted with ochres to match the colour of the bricks, so that the 1/3in-wide joints do not stand out. Before it dries, it is scored with a narrow groove, or ‘housing’, into which a thin line of (usually white) lime mortar is then pressed or tucked. These horizontal and vertical ‘tucks’ are carefully measured out and cut at each end to leave perfectly straight ribbons along each joint that disguise any irregularities in the bricks or bonding. The tucks are usually just 1/6in wide, so that the joints look tighter and neater than they really are. It takes about a week to dry out completely.
Mr Fovargue works on brickwork of many different bonds; Flemish Bond, which alternates ‘headers’ (ends) and ‘stretchers’ (lengths) of brick, is his favourite. Often a house is tuckpointed on the front, with less refined flush joints for the sides these can be ‘pennyrole’ joints, finished by running an old penny through the mortar to produce a straight line down the middle.
Dave Fovargue: 01689 850982; www.historicbrickpointing.co.uk
- Get in touch with your local conservation officer; some councils offer grants for restoring tuckpointing on historic buildings
- A building does not necessarily have to be re-pointed because areas of pointing have weathered back a bit; 1/8in to 1/4in behind the face of the brickwork should be alright
- To tell if a building was once tuckpointed, look under the window sills and soffits it usually survives in these areas