Another Busy Summer

Three Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf
The Three Little Piggies and the Big Bad Wolf
a/k/a/ Dobbers checks out new arrivals

Mother's Day, 2006, heralded a summer packed with work when Lori's Mother's Day gift was a Stratolift, which probably takes the prize as the most unusual Mother's Day gift ever given.

The lift has been a godsend. For the last five years or so, we've been puzzling over how to manage scaffolding to reach the high walls, especially, the sheer expanses where bricks have shifted over time or mortar has failed. Now we can get there. It was also invaluable for moving bricks, mortar, tools, and tired workers up and down off the roof as we worked nonstop to prepare for "The Coming of the Roofers."

Lori and Jack rebuilding a chimney

We started back in March, Lori and Jack spending almost all of their free time on the roof rebuilding the eight chimneys on the front wing, in the effort to get everything ready for the roofers. The two big chimneys on the back wing were redone a few years ago, but since we don't use the front wing chimneys for heating, or we didn't until last year when the wood stove went into the living room, we put off repairing and repointing them. But, with the prospect of a new roof to tear holes in, deferring repair of the roof-level brickwork seemed much less attractive.

Therefore, Jack got a new brick hammer and cutting chisel, and we set to work. All through the spring and early summer, between hammer and chisel and a four-inch right angle grinder, we repointed what was pretty solid and dismantled and rebuilt whatever wasn't. Once the chimneys were done, the new lift became essential to replacing three missing courses of brick along the front of the house right under the roofline, bricks that had been removed in the 1960's when the former owners had changed the porch design.

The roofers came in September, after a long set of negotiations during which the people we first contracted kept failing to show up and we at last fired them and hired a guy who came on time and did a wonderful job. With the change in schedule, we added a new objective, to replace the roof on the one-story north porch and, with the luxury of added time and the prospect of failing mortar, we put a scaffold on the roof and Lori repointed the entire wall, since a new roof on that part of the house made July and August the last chance we had to restore that wall without tearing up a brand-new roof.

repointing the wall

What is repointing? It's a two-part process that's used when mortar reaches the end of its natural life, which usually happens between 50 and 75 years after it's first laid. If you look at the far left of the picture, you can see mortar that's failing, that is, losing its ability to shed water and keep the interior wall dry. Between the failing mortar and the cleared-out joints where Lori is working on the scaffold you can see restored mortar. And, yes, Lori was always ready to jump off if the scaffold started to slide.

That wall, on the north side of the house, takes a lot of severe weather, and all the mortar was starting to fail. Much of it was already well on its way. Above the windows, the courses all the way to the roof had already cracked and dropped and, in the inside corner, poison ivy had eaten out the mortar so badly that the bricks lifted out of the wall without any chiseling required.

Now, between a sealed wall and a new roof, so far we've seen no leaks and no moisture problems on the interior walls. We are far from finished on the repointing, but with the new lift, the next few summers will see the remaining weak spots, mostly the ones high off the ground, repointed. As soon as the repointing is all finished, we'll apply a brick tint to even out the colors and erase the patchwork effect that repairs have left on the exterior.

We'll do this instead of painting the house, the way painting was done years ago, because painting historic brick houses is one of those "Really Bad Ideas" you want to avoid. Why? In old houses, especially ones with brick foundations like ours, moisture soaks into the foundation from the surrounding soil. The purpose of mortar is to wick the moisture out of the bricks and bring it up to ground level to let it evaporate. All over the house, water soaks into the bricks; mortar pulls it out and away. Paint seals the exterior surface of the house and leaves the water that leaches in from the unsealed foundation with no place to go but inside. In fact, we've seen evidence of abiding moisture problems from long ago, a condition that we're hoping will be corrected by the new mortar job.


Other than being entirely preoccupied by the new roof and all the attendant preparations, we've been busy all summer. The beehives did well, and Jack spent the summer, not only as a bricklayer's apprentice but as a beekeeper's assistant. Here he's checking a hive with his friend Justine.

He also spent the summer and fall doing marching band, reenacting and playing in the Youth Symphony Orchestra at Eastern Mennonite University. He's a freshman this year, and I think he'll only get busier as time goes on, which means we'll only get busier, too.

Jack in his dead vulture hat
Jack with the Marching Trailblazers of Spotswood High School
at the Parade of Champions Band Competition at JMU, October, 2006

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