Search for Great Deals on Siding
What are you looking for? (check all that apply) What is your Zip Code?

Repointing mortar joints in historic masonry buildings (Part I)

The Old House Web

NPS Preservation Brief #2
Robert C. Mack, FAIA and John P. Speweik

Historical background Identifying the problem Appropriate mortar match Mortar analysis Properties of mortar Components of mortar Mortar type and mix


After years of water damage, the brick and mortar of this arch over a window has collapsed.
Photo: The Old House Web.

Masonry -- brick, stone, terra-cotta, and concrete block -- is found on nearly every historic building. Structures with all-masonry exteriors come to mind immediately, but most other buildings at least have masonry foundations or chimneys. Although generally considered "permanent," masonry is subject to deterioration, especially at the mortar joints.

Repointing, also known simply as "pointing" or--somewhat inaccurately--"tuck pointing," is the process of removing deteriorated mortar from the joints of a masonry wall and replacing it with new mortar. Properly done, repointing restores the visual and physical integrity of the masonry. Improperly done, repointing not only detracts from the appearance of the building, but may also cause physical damage to the masonry units themselves.

The purpose of this Brief is to provide general guidance on appropriate materials and methods for repointing historic masonry buildings and it is intended to benefit building owners, architects, and contractors. The Brief should serve as a guide to prepare specifications for repointing historic masonry buildings. It should also help develop sensitivity to the particular needs of historic masonry, and to assist historic building owners in working cooperatively with architects, architectural conservators and historic preservation consultants, and contractors.

Although specifically intended for historic buildings, the guidance is appropriate for other masonry buildings as well. This publication updates Preservation Briefs 2: Repointing Mortar Joints in Historic Brick Buildings to include all types of historic unit masonry. The scope of the earlier Brief has also been expanded to acknowledge that the many buildings constructed in the first half of the 20th century are now historic and eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and that they may have been originally constructed with Portland cement mortar.

(Tuckpointing technically describes a primarily decorative application of a raised mortar joint or lime putty joint on top of flush mortar joints.)

Back to the top

Historical Background

Mortar consisting primarily of lime and sand has been used as an integral part of masonry structures for thousands of years. Up until about the mid-19th century, lime or quicklime (sometimes called lump lime) was delivered to construction sites, where it had to be slaked, or combined with water. Mixing with water caused it to boil and resulted in a wet lime putty that was left to mature in a pit or wooden box for several weeks, up to a year.

Traditional mortar was made from lime putty, or slaked lime, combined with local sand, generally in a ratio of 1 part lime putty to 3 parts sand by volume. Often other ingredients, such as crushed marine shells (another source of lime), brick dust, clay, natural cements, pigments, and even animal hair were also added to mortar, but the basic formulation for lime putty and sand mortar remained unchanged for centuries until the advent of Portland cement or its forerunner, Roman cement, a natural, hydraulic cement.

Portland cement was patented in Great Britain in 1824. It was named after the stone from Portland in Dorset which it resembled when hard. This is a fast-curing, hydraulic cement which hardens under water. Portland cement was first manufactured in the United States in 1872, although it was imported before this date. But it was not in common use throughout the country until the early 20th century. Up until the turn of the century Portland cement was considered primarily an additive, or "minor ingredient" to help accelerate mortar set time. By the 1930s, however, most masons used a mix of equal parts Portland cement and lime putty. Thus, the mortar found in masonry structures built between 1873 and 1930 can range from pure lime and sand mixes to a wide variety of lime, Portland cement, and sand combinations.

In the 1930s more new mortar products intended to hasten and simplify masons' work were introduced in the U.S. These included masonry cement, a premixed, bagged mortar which is a combination of Portland cement and ground limestone, and hydrated lime, machine-slaked lime that eliminated the necessity of slaking quicklime into putty at the site.

Back to the top

Identifying the problem before repointing

damaged brick
This 19th century brick was damaged by years of leaking roofs and gutters.
Photo: The Old House Web.

The decision to repoint is most often related to some obvious sign of deterioration, such as disintegrating mortar, cracks in mortar joints, loose bricks or stones, damp walls, or damaged plasterwork. It is, however, erroneous to assume that repointing alone will solve deficiencies that result from other problems. The root cause of the deterioration--leaking roofs or gutters, differential settlement of the building, capillary action causing rising damp, or extreme weather exposure--should always be dealt with prior to beginning work.

Masons practice using lime putty mortar to repair historic marble. Photo: NPS files.

Without appropriate repairs to eliminate the source of the problem, mortar deterioration will continue and any repointing will have been a waste of time and money.

Use of Consultants
Because there are so many possible causes for deterioration in historic buildings, it may be desirable to retain a consultant, such as a historic architect or architectural conservator, to analyze the building. In addition to determining the most appropriate solutions to the problems, a consultant can prepare specifications which reflect the particular requirements of each job and can provide oversight of the work in progress. Referrals to preservation consultants frequently can be obtained from State Historic Preservation Offices, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), the Association for Preservation Technology (APT), and local chapters of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Back to the top

Finding an appropriate mortar match

Masons practice using lime putty mortar to repair historic marble.
Photo: NPS files.


This late 19th century granite has recently been repointed with the joint profile and mortar color carefully matched to the original.
Photo: NPS files.

Preliminary research is necessary to ensure that the proposed repointing work is both physically and visually appropriate to the building. Analysis of unweathered portions of the historic mortar to which the new mortar will be matched can suggest appropriate mixes for the repointing mortar so that it will not damage the building because it is excessively strong or vapor impermeable.

This late 19th century granite has recently been repointed with the joint profile and mortar color carefully matched to the original. Photo: NPS files.

Examination and analysis of the masonry units--brick, stone or terra cotta--and the techniques used in the original construction will assist in maintaining the building's historic appearance. A simple, non- technical, evaluation of the masonry units and mortar can provide information concerning the relative strength and permeability of each--critical factors in selecting the repointing mortar--while a visual analysis of the historic mortar can provide the information necessary for developing the new mortar mix and application techniques.

Although not crucial to a successful repointing project, for projects involving properties of special historic significance, a mortar analysis by a qualified laboratory can be useful by providing information on the original ingredients. However, there are limitations with such an analysis, and replacement mortar specifications should not be based solely on laboratory analysis.

Analysis requires interpretation, and there are important factors which affect the condition and performance of the mortar that cannot be established through laboratory analysis. These may include: the original water content, rate of curing, weather conditions during original construction, the method of mixing and placing the mortar, and the cleanliness and condition of the sand. The most useful information that can come out of laboratory analysis is the identification of sand by gradation and color. This allows the color and the texture of the mortar to be matched with some accuracy because sand is the largest ingredient by volume.

In creating a repointing mortar that is compatible with the masonry units, the objective is to achieve one that matches the historic mortar as closely as possible, so that the new material can coexist with the old in a sympathetic, supportive and, if necessary, sacrificial capacity. The exact physical and chemical properties of the historic mortar are not of major significance as long as the new mortar conforms to the following criteria:

  • The new mortar must match the historic mortar in color, texture and tooling. (If a laboratory analysis is undertaken, it may be possible to match the binder components and their proportions with the historic mortar, if those materials are available.)
  • The sand must match the sand in the historic mortar. (The color and texture of the new mortar will usually fall into place if the sand is matched successfully.)
  • The new mortar must have greater vapor permeability and be softer (measured in compressive strength) than the masonry units.
  • The new mortar must be as vapor permeable and as soft or softer (measured in compressive strength) than the historic mortar. (Softness or hardness is not necessarily an indication of permeability; old, hard lime mortars can still retain high permeability.)

Back to the top

Mortar analysis

Methods for analyzing mortars can be divided into two broad categories: wet chemical and instrumental.

Wet chemical analysis
Many laboratories that analyze historic mortars use a simple wet-chemical method called acid digestion, whereby a sample of the mortar is crushed and then mixed with a dilute acid. The acid dissolves all the carbonate-containing minerals not only in the binder, but also in the aggregate (such as oyster shells, coral sands, or other carbonate-based materials), as well as any other acid-soluble materials. The sand and fine-grained acid-insoluble material is left behind.

There are several variations on the simple acid digestion test. One involves collecting the carbon dioxide gas given off as the carbonate is digested by the acid; based on the gas volume the carbonate content of the mortar can be accurately determined (Jedrzejewska, 1960). Simple acid digestion methods are rapid, inexpensive, and easy to perform, but the information they provide about the original composition of a mortar is limited to the color and texture of the sand. The gas collection method provides more information about the binder than a simple acid digestion test.

Instrumental analysis
Instrumental analysis methods that have been used to evaluate mortars include polarized light or thin-section microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, atomic absorption spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction, and differential thermal analysis.

All instrumental methods require not only expensive, specialized equipment, but also highly-trained experienced analysts. However, instrumental methods can provide much more information about a mortar. Thin-section microscopy is probably the most commonly used instrumental method. Examination of thin slices of a mortar in transmitted light is often used to supplement acid digestion methods, particularly to look for carbonate-based aggregate. For example, the new ASTM test method, ASTM C 1324-96 "Test Method for Examination and Analysis of Hardened Mortars" which was designed specifically for the analysis of modern lime-cement and masonry cement mortars, combines a complex series of wet chemical analyses with thin-section microscopy.

The drawback of most mortar analysis methods is that mortar samples of known composition have not been analyzed in order to evaluate the method. Historic mortars were not prepared to narrowly defined specifications from materials of uniform quality; they contain a wide array of locally derived materials combined at the discretion of the mason. While a particular method might be able to accurately determine the original proportions of a lime-cement-sand mortar prepared from modern materials, the usefulness of that method for evaluating historic mortars is questionable unless it has been tested against mortars prepared from materials more commonly used in the past.
(Above section by Lorraine Schnabel for NPS.)

Back to the top

Properties of mortar

When repairing this stone wall, the mason matched the raised profile of the original tuckpointing.
Photo: NPS files.

Mortars for repointing should be softer or more permeable than the masonry units and no harder or more impermeable than the historic mortar to prevent damage to the masonry units. It is a common error to assume that hardness or high strength is a measure of appropriateness, particularly for lime-based historic mortars.

Stresses within a wall caused by expansion, contraction, moisture migration, or settlement must be accommodated in some manner; in a masonry wall, these stresses should be relieved by the mortar rather than by the masonry units. A mortar that is stronger in compressive strength than the masonry units will not "give," thus causing stresses to be relieved through the masonry units--resulting in permanent damage to the masonry, such as cracking and spalling, that cannot be repaired easily.

While stresses can also break the bond between the mortar and the masonry units, permitting water to penetrate the resulting hairline cracks, this is easier to correct in the joint through repointing than if the break occurs in the masonry units.

Permeability, or rate of vapor transmission, is also critical. High lime mortars are more permeable than denser cement mortars. Historically, mortar acted as a bedding material--not unlike an expansion joint--rather than a "glue" for the masonry units, and moisture was able to migrate through the mortar joints rather than the masonry units. When moisture evaporates from the masonry it deposits any soluble salts either on the surface as efflorescence or below the surface as subflorescence. While salts deposited on the surface of masonry units are usually relatively harmless, salt crystallization within a masonry unit creates pressure that can cause parts of the outer surface to spall off or delaminate. If the mortar does not permit moisture or moisture vapor to migrate out of the wall and evaporate, the result will be damage to the masonry units.

Back to the top

Components of mortar

Sand is the largest component of mortar and the material that gives mortar its distinctive color, texture and cohesiveness. Sand must be free of impurities, such as salts or clay. The three key characteristics of sand are: particle shape, gradation and void ratios.

When viewed under a magnifying glass or low-power microscope, particles of sand generally have either rounded edges, such as found in beach and river sand, or sharp, angular edges, found in crushed or manufactured sand. For repointing mortar, rounded or natural sand is preferred for two reasons. It is usually similar to the sand in the historic mortar and provides a better visual match. It also has better working qualities or plasticity and can thus be forced into the joint more easily, forming a good contact with the remaining historic mortar and the surface of the adjacent masonry units. Although manufactured sand is frequently more readily available, it is usually possible to locate a supply of rounded sand.

The gradation of the sand (particle size distribution) plays a very important role in the durability and cohesive properties of a mortar. Mortar must have a certain percentage of large to small particle sizes in order to deliver the optimum performance. Acceptable guidelines on particle size distribution may be found in ASTM C 144 (American Society for Testing and Materials). However, in actuality, since neither historic nor modern sands are always in compliance with ASTM C 144, matching the same particle appearance and gradation usually requires sieving the sand.

A scoop of sand contains many small voids between the individual grains. A mortar that performs well fills all these small voids with binder (cement/lime combination or mix) in a balanced manner. Well-graded sand generally has a 30 per cent void ratio by volume. Thus, 30 per cent binder by volume generally should be used, unless the historic mortar had a different binder: aggregate ratio. This represents the 1:3 binder to sand ratios often seen in mortar specifications.

For repointing, sand generally should conform to ASTM C 144 to assure proper gradation and freedom from impurities; some variation may be necessary to match the original size and gradation. Sand color and texture also should match the original as closely as possible to provide the proper color match without other additives.


Caulking was inappropriately used here in place of mortar on the top of the wall. As a result, it has not been durable.
Photo: NPS files.

Mortar formulations prior to the late-19th century used lime as the primary binding material. Lime is derived from heating limestone at high temperatures which burns off the carbon dioxide, and turns the limestone into quicklime.

There are three types of limestone--calcium, magnesium, and dolomitic--differentiated by the different levels of magnesium carbonate they contain which impart specific qualities to mortar. Historically, calcium lime was used for mortar rather than the dolomitic lime (calcium magnesium carbonate) most often used today. But it is also important to keep in mind the fact that the historic limes, and other components of mortar, varied a great deal because they were natural, as opposed to modern lime which is manufactured and, therefore, standardized. Because some of the kinds of lime, as well as other components of mortar, that were used historically are no longer readily available, even when a conscious effort is made to replicate a "historic" mix, this may not be achievable due to the differences between modern and historic materials.

Lime, itself, when mixed with water into a paste is very plastic and creamy. It will remain workable and soft indefinitely, if stored in a sealed container. Lime (calcium hydroxide) hardens by carbonation absorbing carbon dioxide primarily from the air, converting itself to calcium carbonate. Once a lime and sand mortar is mixed and placed in a wall, it begins the process of carbonation. If lime mortar is left to dry too rapidly, carbonation of the mortar will be reduced, resulting in poor adhesion and poor durability. In addition, lime mortar is slightly water soluble and thus is able to re-seal any hairline cracks that may develop during the life of the mortar. Lime mortar is soft, porous, and changes little in volume during temperature fluctuations thus making it a good choice for historic buildings. Because of these qualities, high calcium lime mortar may be considered for many repointing projects, not just those involving historic buildings.

For repointing, lime should conform to ASTM C 207, Type S, or Type SA, Hydrated Lime for Masonry Purposes. This machine-slaked lime is designed to assure high plasticity and water retention. The use of quicklime which must be slaked and soaked by hand may have advantages over hydrated lime in some restoration projects if time and money allow.

Lime putty
Lime putty is slaked lime that has a putty or paste-like consistency. It should conform to ASTM C 5. Mortar can be mixed using lime putty according to ASTM C 270 property or proportion specification.

Portland cement
More recent, 20th-century mortar has used Portland cement as a primary binding material. A straight Portland cement and sand mortar is extremely hard, resists the movement of water, shrinks upon setting, and undergoes relatively large thermal movements. When mixed with water, Portland cement forms a harsh, stiff paste that is quite unworkable, becoming hard very quickly. (Unlike lime, Portland cement will harden regardless of weather conditions and does not require wetting and drying cycles.) Some Portland cement assists the workability and plasticity of the mortar without adversely affecting the finished project; it also provides early strength to the mortar and speeds setting. Thus, it may be appropriate to add some Portland cement to an essentially lime-based mortar even when repointing relatively soft 18th or 19th century brick under some circumstances when a slightly harder mortar is required. The more Portland cement that is added to a mortar formulation the harder it becomes--and the faster the initial set.

For repointing, Portland cement should conform to ASTM C 150. White, non-staining Portland cement may provide a better color match for some historic mortars than the more commonly available grey Portland cement. But, it should not be assumed, however, that white Portland cement is always appropriate for all historic buildings, since the original mortar may have been mixed with grey cement. The cement should not have more than 0.60 per cent alkali to help avoid efflorescence.

Masonry cement
Masonry cement is a pre-blended mortar mix commonly found at hardware and home repair stores. It is designed to produce mortars with a compressive strength of 750 psi or higher when mixed with sand and water at the job site. It may contain hydrated lime, but it always contains a large amount of Portland cement, as well as ground limestone and other workability agents, including air-entraining agents. Because masonry cements are not required to contain hydrated lime, and generally do not contain lime, they produce high strength mortars that can damage historic masonry. For this reason, they generally are not recommended for use on historic masonry buildings.

Lime mortar (pre-blended)
Hydrated lime mortars, and pre-blended lime putty mortars with or without a matched sand are commercially available. Custom mortars are also available with color. In most instances, pre-blended lime mortars containing sand may not provide an exact match; however, if the project calls for total repointing, a pre-blended lime mortar may be worth considering as long as the mortar is compatible in strength with the masonry. If the project involves only selected, "spot" repointing, then it may be better to carry out a mortar analysis which can provide a custom pre-blended lime mortar with a matching sand. In either case, if a pre-blended lime mortar is to be used, it should contain Type S or SA hydrated lime conforming to ASTM C 207.

Water should be potable -- clean and free from acids, alkalis, or other dissolved organic materials.

Back to the top

Other Components

Oyster shells are visible in this tabby wall from an 18th century Florida cabin. Tabby is a mixture of equal parts lime, water, sand and oyster shells. The tabby mixture was poured into wood frame molds, hardened and used for exterior walls.
Photo: The Old House Web

Historic components
In addition to the color of the sand, the texture of the mortar is of critical importance in duplicating historic mortar. Most mortars dating from the mid-19th century on--with some exceptions--have a fairly homogeneous texture and color. Some earlier mortars are not as uniformly textured and may contain lumps of partially burned lime or "dirty lime", shell (which often provided a source of lime, particularly in coastal areas), natural cements, pieces of clay, lampblack or other pigments, or even animal hair. The visual characteristics of these mortars can be duplicated through the use of similar materials in the repointing mortar.

Replicating such unique or individual mortars will require writing new specifications for each project. If possible, suggested sources for special materials should be included. For example, crushed oyster shells can be obtained in a variety of sizes from poultry supply dealers.

Some historic mortars, particularly in the late 19th century, were tinted to match or contrast with the brick or stone. Red pigments, sometimes in the form of brick dust, as well as brown, and black pigments were commonly used. Modern pigments are available which can be added to the mortar at the job site, but they should not exceed 10 per cent by weight of the Portland cement in the mix, and carbon black should be limited to 2 per cent. Only synthetic mineral oxides, which are alkali-proof and sun-fast, should be used to prevent bleaching and fading.

Modern components. Admixtures are used to create specific characteristics in mortar, and whether they should be used will depend upon the individual project. Air entraining agents, for example, help the mortar to resist freeze-thaw damage in northern climates. Accelerators are used to reduce mortar freezing prior to setting while retarders help to extend the mortar life in hot climates. Selection of admixtures should be made by the architect or architectural conservator as part of the specifications, not something routinely added by the masons.

Generally, modern chemical additives are unnecessary and may, in fact, have detrimental effects in historic masonry projects. The use of antifreeze compounds is not recommended. They are not very effective with high lime mortars and may introduce salts, which may cause efflorescence later. A better practice is to warm the sand and water, and to protect the completed work from freezing. No definitive study has determined whether air-entraining additives should be used to resist frost action and enhance plasticity, but in areas of extreme exposure requiring high-strength mortars with lower permeability, air-entrainment of 10-16 percent may be desirable (see formula for "severe weather exposure" in Mortar Type and Mix). Bonding agents are not a substitute for proper joint preparation, and they should generally be avoided. If the joint is properly prepared, there will be a good bond between the new mortar and the adjacent surfaces. In addition, a bonding agent is difficult to remove if smeared on a masonry surface.

Back to the top

Mortar type and mix

Unless specified otherwise, measurements or proportions for mortar mixes are always given in the following order: cement-lime-sand.

Thus, a Type K mix, for example, would be referred to as 1-3-10, or 1 part cement to 3 parts lime to 10 parts sand.

Other requirements to create the desired visual qualities should be included in the specifications.

Mortars for repointing projects, especially those involving historic buildings, typically are custom mixed in order to ensure the proper physical and visual qualities. These materials can be combined in varying proportions to create a mortar with the desired performance and durability. The actual specification of a particular mortar type should take into consideration all of the factors affecting the life of the building including: current site conditions, present condition of the masonry, function of the new mortar, degree of weather exposure, and skill of the mason.

Thus, no two repointing projects are exactly the same. Modern materials specified for use in repointing mortar should conform to specifications of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or comparable federal specifications, and the resulting mortar should conform to ASTM C 270, Mortar for Unit Masonry.

Specifying the proportions for the repointing mortar for a specific job is not as difficult as it might seem. Five mortar types, each with a corresponding recommended mix, have been established by ASTM to distinguish high strength mortar from soft flexible mortars. The ASTM designated them in decreasing order of approximate general strength as Type M (2,500 psi), Type S (1,800 psi), Type N (750 psi), Type O (350 psi) and Type K (75 psi). (The letters identifying the types are from the words MASON WORK using every other letter.) Type K has the highest lime content of the mixes that contain Portland cement, although it is seldom used today, except for some historic preservation projects. The designation "L" in the accompanying chart identifies a straight lime and sand mix. Specifying the appropriate ASTM mortar by proportion of ingredients, will ensure the desired physical properties.

The strength of a mortar can vary. If mixed with higher amounts of Portland cement, a harder mortar is obtained. The more lime that is added, the softer and more plastic the mortar becomes, increasing its workability. A mortar strong in compressive strength might be desirable for a hard stone (such as granite) pier holding up a bridge deck, whereas a softer, more permeable lime mortar would be preferable for a historic wall of soft brick. Masonry deterioration caused by salt deposition results when the mortar is less permeable than the masonry unit. A strong mortar is still more permeable than hard, dense stone. However, in a wall constructed of soft bricks where the masonry unit itself has a relatively high permeability or vapor transmission rate, a soft, high lime mortar is necessary to retain sufficient permeability.

To Part II, Preservation Brief # 2: Scheduling, hiring contractors, additional reading

About the Author
The Old House Web

Search Improvement Project