Almost ten months ago, back in November, I put up concrete backer board in the mudroom to go behind my wood cookstove. (Projects here take a long time.) I planned to cover the backer board with brick veneer, and slowly over the months had bought the necessary boxes of Old Mill “brickweb,” bricks sliced in half and glued to sheets of webbing. Reviews said the brick was super easy to install. The very heavy boxes had been delivered and were stacked in a corner of the mudroom.
I am always nervous when faced with a project that requires skills I don’t have. However, I couldn’t put this one off any longer. My builder had emailed that he was going to return, and one of the things on his list was connecting my cookstove. I had to put up the brick and move the cookstove into the house.
I began by putting up temporary trim on each side of the backer board to guide my edges. The right side was easy, just a straight 2×4. For the left I had to get creative in the narrow space. Finally I used the cut-off tongue of a piece of my wall paneling.
To cut the bricks, I bought on sale a grinder with a diamond blade (and also bought eye protection and a mask). Putting the blade on the grinder was tricky. Though I’m accustomed to reading directions, I could not find anything in the directions that looked like the tool in my hand. Finally I drove it back to the hardware store and threw myself on the mercy of the boys behind the counter, who have known me for years. They laughed. Apparently this is a common problem with Makita directions. To have a tool that looks like the drawings, the tool must first be disassembled. Five minutes later I was in business and heading home.
Now I had to mix my thin-set mortar. I had inquired of the company what product I should use if the bricks were not simply decorative but subject to heat behind a cookstove. Their tech person replied, “Modified thin-set.” I bought a bag and mixed it carefully in a five-gallon pail according to directions on the package. While the mortar set up, I rewatched the installation video on the Old Mill Brick website. Start at the top, and work your way down the wall so the bricks stay clean. The process seemed almost as easy as press-on lettering. This would be a snap!
It was only after I watched my first section of bricks slide down my wall that I realized all the videos show installation with mastic adhesive, not mortar.
Sweating in the humid heat, covered with sloppy mortar, and near tears (what expensive disaster have I created now?) I forced myself to stop and think. OK, I’ll start from the bottom. Since I had to have an air gap, I found a piece of wood to use as a shim under the bottom row. I found my drill, a fistful of screws, and my four-foot level. And I started over.
With my spatula trowel I threw mortar on the hawk, and with the smooth side of the tiling trowel I smeared mortar onto the wall. I raked it with the notched side. Then I pressed the brick into the mud. I put screws into each sheet to hold it level while it dried. As the sheets still had a distressing tendency to sag, eventually I cut a 3/8″ shim and used screws and shim together to hold things in place.
In an effort to keep the bricks below clean, I taped paper over the completed rows.
Clean was an elusive goal. I had mortar on my hands and arms, on my face, in my hair. My shirt and jeans were smeared. Thankfully I’d covered the mudroom floor with drop cloths — wet mortar regularly slid off the hawk and trowels in ugly grey blobs and then I stepped in it and tracked it. Meanwhile the porch was gritty with red brick dust and it was so hot that whenever I put on the protective glasses to cut more brick, the glasses fogged over immediately.
I had been predisposed to think I would enjoy working with brick. My early readings of the memoir Cheaper By the Dozen, which described Frank Gilbreth getting his start laying bricks in the 1880s, had made me believe that laying brick was something any reasonable person could do — even if I didn’t conduct time and motion studies or reduce my motions from 18 to 4. What I didn’t count on was the ticking clock of the setting mortar and how this pressure would unhinge my brain as I rushed back and forth outside to cut bricks.
At one point in my feverish hurry, I decided I would track less mess if I took off my shoes. (My brain was unhinged.) I promptly stepped on a tool. I registered the pain but was in too much of a rush to pay attention. I only realized that I had cut my foot when I was puzzled by bright red blotches all over the drop cloths and porch deck and finally noticed that my sock was soaked with blood.
After four hours, I had only put up a third of the small wall. The videos had suggested this much could be done in ten minutes. However I needed to stop, clean all my mortar-encrusted tools (including the drill and level), do barn chores, and fix dinner.
As work on the wall had to be fitted around many other chores, it turned out that I always worked in four-hour chunks of time.
The second day was much easier. I had no expectations that it would be a snap. I had everything ready — shims, drill, screws, paper towels for my hands — so there was no panic. I also had a tarp to keep the brick clean.
The wall slowly grew.
By the third day everything was going smoothly until I realized belatedly that I had not covered a 10-inch section of 2×4 at the top of the opening for the stove pipe. [See first photo, above.] Of course, I had thrown away all my scraps of concrete backer board back in November. I called the local lumberyard. I called the school. No one had a scrap of backer board lying around. Would I really have to buy a five-foot sheet for a 10″ x 2″ sliver? While I dithered, my bucket of mortar was hardening inexorably.
I called Damon.
“Sure, I got some in my garage behind the stove you can cut a piece off. When you comin’?”
Well, he was on the road — but I was welcome to stop by his garage.
What a great friend. I threw my grinder, a square, and an extension cord in the truck, rocketed across town, let myself into his garage, and in the gloom marked and cut off a piece. I rushed home.
Of course, I had also thrown away the half-dozen extra metal spacers Larry had made for me. (“When will I ever use those?”) Now I had to think fast and improvise. I needed something non-flammable and one inch thick — what? what? I rummaged in the garage frantically. The answered turned out to be four washers and two big nuts on each screw.
Whew! I got the piece in place and the bricks mortared just in time.
The wall was finished, except for grouting and trim. I wasn’t worried about trim…
… and grouting, how hard could that be? I had bought a grout bag and an 80-lb bag of Type N mortar, as recommended in an email from the tech at Old Mill Brick.
The idea was to fill the grout bag and squirt grout in all the crevices. “Just like cake decorating!”
Again I watched the relevant Old Mill Brick instructional video. In the first moments, the demonstrator intoned, “You do not want to use Type N mortar, it is too difficult. Always use Type S.” What?
My experience with instructions for DIY projects is that they are often vague and sometimes, as in this case, contradictory. I’ve been told directly that men never read directions, so writing directions is not a high priority. Back in 2006, when I complained about the lack of clarity in the directions for building my barn, the company countered, “Have you ever built anything bigger than a breadbox?” In other words, I should already know. I thought crossly that the words “easy” and “for beginners” should be eliminated from all DIY advertising.
I drove back to the lumberyard and bought a bag of Type S mortar. I mixed it and grouted the brick. I suppose it was like cake decorating, if your cake was being decorated with mud by a crazed three-year-old.
My forearms ached from hours of twisting the bag and I would wake up the next day thinking I’d developed rheumatoid arthritis in my right hand, but the wall was done. The grouting and tooling was very far from perfect but I had no more energy.
Two days later, the wall is dry.
Now I just have to move the 400-lb. cookstove in from the garage! I’m sure it will be a snap.