|A rough stone base links this 1913 bungalow to its rocky upland site
As I settled into my new home, I began noticing among other things that its sturdy stone base in fact sported several breaches. It turns out that seventy-five years of exposure to weather with minimal maintenance will do that to a foundation held together by mortar. The materials comprising it were ordinary, mostly collected on site, and randomly set without conscious patterning or coursing. A lot of different shapes and sizes of stone had gone into that foundation, with a crazy-quilt of seams as a result. Here and there enlarging cracks offered openings to the shallow crawl space behind them. Earth shifting, courtesy of forces like tree root expansion or earthquake tremors, plus the effects of freeze-thaw cycles, can crack and degrade even sturdy walls over time. In some spots the base of the wall was actually coming unstuck and starting to dilapidate.
|As roots grow and expand, they raise the soil and easily crack rock walls
|A section of wall broken by expanding roots, needing attention
I also began noticing signs of slapdash fix-ups, careless work that had simply smeared mortar across the face of the stone. These sloppy repairs (what the English call 'bodges') leapt to the eye like carbuncles. So of course my first thought as a naieve homeowner was to involve someone more skilled (‘call the plumber!’) to address the problem.
|Mortar smeared across the seams obscures the look of a stone wall
|A section of rubble stone foundation wall whose base has been rebuilt
|Rocky outcrops define a landscape with oaks, firs and arbutus groves
|Regional character: rock outcrops, Garry Oaks, boundary walls
If sourcing mortar is essential, it’s also necessary to have tools suited to the work of mixing it up and placing it without undue mess. There things stayed murky a while longer. To repair an existing wall, you need a way of transferring small quantities of mortar to niches of varying size. This is quite picky work. And moist mortar is prone to sliding on metal, a bit unpredictably. And you need to place it with enough precision, in awkward spaces and at odd angles, to avoid marring the face of your stones. Otherwise, you risk the look of entombment, which is pointless and inartistic.
|Successive bodges mar this stone wall, which even drains aren't saving
|Stone retreating behind mortar, now imprisoned in concrete
As I began preparing the breach for repair, I anxiously watched the opening enlarge beyond the apparent problem and the scale of the job increase in tandem. I'd improvised a partial solution to the transfer problem by selecting a compact drywall knife in preference to a trowel. Initially I chose it just to mix up the mortar in a pail – its continuing utility evolved naturally from there. A compact blade offers a horizontal platform from which small quantities of mortar can be eased into seams. I am still using Quebec-made Richard knives to this day, both for repair and for new construction.
Intrigued, I borrowed an older knife from my own kitchen, a strong but thin steel blade with a bit of ‘give’ to it. The combination of firmness and give enables a surface tension that’s useful in working mortar into crevices. It mimics the design of a mason’s pointing tool, which has a similar spring or tension to it. I soon realized I would need to get mortar into spaces too tight for the width of the knife's blade, so I also acquired several of the pointing tools used by masons (I'm still mystified why the mason I originally hired opted not to use pointing tools to push mortar into the seams!).
|Many years later the repair doesn't stand out unduly
|Replacement stone is broadly compatible with the original rocks
Looking back on it, this was a very big leap for a newbie. The implications were potentially large, because I was about to modify an original design that was substantially intact. Indeed, aesthetically and from a distance, it wasn't at all evident that anything needed to be done. But looked at closely and carefully, it was obvious that it did or else risk the integrity of the original column down the road. And I knew I wasn't capable of rebuilding that pier to its current standard. So I decided I would proceed by laying out the design for a base completely before placing any stone permanently – and only go ahead when I was satisfied it would be aesthetically compatible. This was a brave step along the problem-finding/problem-solving continuum.
who, among many important things, inadvertently turned me on to bagged mortar. Dennis respected and cultivated craft in all his doings and equality in all his dealings with people. He was a fine person who is sorely missed.