Techniques > Briefs > Repointing Mortar Joints >


• Tom Russack method
• efflorescence, subfloresence


Properties of Mortar

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 ofthe 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.