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A Masonry Guide For Homeowners

This page is intended to be a resource for any residential masonry project.  Whether you are doing a project yourself or hiring an outside contractor, please review this page before coming to our shop so we can most effectively assist you.


If you are unsure whether to hire a professional or attempt the project yourself, please consult the section titled When To Call In A Professional. Additionally, if you are unfamiliar with the realm of masonry and its terminology, the Additional Resources section may provide you with some useful background information.


If you have additional questions, please visit the Homeowner FAQs page for more information.


This resource follows a step-by-step format that identifies the most effective and efficient way to address your project from beginning to end.

Step 1 will help you determine the scope of your project and identify what you hope to achieve through your masonry work.

Step 2 will provide detailed “how-to” information on your project procedure and provide you with a shopping list of materials you will need to complete your project. Feel free to print this out and bring it to the shop. It includes specific product names and customer information that will allow you to place your order and get what you need as efficiently as possible.


While we are happy to answer your questions and help you with your selections as time permits we do ask that homeowners who need special assistance please plan to come to the shop between 11am and 1 pm. This time period is between our contractor rush hours so we will be able to more fully meet the needs of all our customers. Thank you for your understanding.

When to Call A Professional

If you have minimal to no experience with the procedures required to complete your project, you should consider hiring an outside contractor. Some work is simple and requires time, patience, and practice and is well within the capacity of most homeowners. Keim coating application and spot repointing are the most common projects that are suitable for homeowners, as is simple cleaning that doesn’t involve professional grade cleaning chemicals. Work that requires a permit, involves structural repairs, and most plastering projects are situations that call for a professional. Check with your local building department to find out if a permit is required for your project, and keep in mind that if you’re in a local landmark district special approval may be required before you begin your project even if permits aren’t required for non-landmarked residences.

Additionally, if there is any sort of water damage or intrusion present you should call a contractor. These issues require double the effort to both repair and stop the source of the water. It may also be helpful to read through the section on Water Repellents found below.

If you plan on using Cathedral Stone’s JAHN repair mortars you must have a certificate from Cathedral Stone to install these products. HFS offers classes once a year in order to complete this certification. These workshops are open to all including contractors, masons, and homeowners.


If you intend on doing a chimney repair we highly recommend hiring a professional contractor. For more information please visit the Chimney Repair portion of this page.



Can HFS Refer Me to A Contractor?


Unfortunately, we do not post contractor referrals or contact information on our website. However, Chicago Bungalow Association is a useful resource in finding Trusted Referrals.


When choosing your contractor there are several factors to consider:


1) Can they provide addresses for jobs they performed 10+ years ago?

2) Can they provide addresses for jobs they performed in the past year? How many were landmarked properties?

3) Can they provide you with a copy of their insurance certificate showing workmen’s compensation coverage?

4) Are they willing to create sample mock-ups on your building (grinding, cleaning, pointing)?

5) Ask what specific materials (mortars, coatings, cleaning chemicals, etc) they plan to use on your project and to provide you with product datasheets.

6) Ask how they plan to prepare your masonry for cleaning, pointing, etc.

7) Ask for proof of licensing and inquire about the training and certifications they have completed. Keep in mind that there is no official certification process to be a “restoration” mason, and experience alone doesn’t mean that a conractor will use the right materials and techniques on your building.


And always check with your local building department to see if you need to apply for any permits before work begins.

Step 1: What is the scope of my project?

The first step in any project is a condition assessment. Please take a look at your masonry, identify any damage present, and determine if you are doing repairs, conducting maintenance, or making cosmetic changes. A masonry consultant or restoration architect may need to perform this survey.


If your masonry is in disrepair, you must first identify what causing the issue so that you can fix the source of the problem before repairing the damage. Each of the drop-down tabs below describes a different type of masonry damage. These definitions may assist you in identifying your issue and its cause.

The presence of water in masonry causes salt deposits to migrate to the stones surface as moisture evaporates. The result is a white powdery solid coating portions of the building.

The deposit of salt just beneath the masonry surface due to moisture intrusion. Although this substance is not readily seen it can damage masonry units by building up within the unit and damaging the surface. Damaged, exposed surfaces become vulnerable to water penetration and deterioration.

The flaking, cracking, or crumbling of masonry due to water intrusion, temperature fluctuations or other environmental factors.

The sloughing off of stone in layers due to bedding plane failure. This usually occurs in sedimentary stone, especially sandstone, that has been installed incorrectly so that bedding planes are perpendicular to the orientation of the stone. This allows for accelerated weathering and water penetration.

The general deterioration of the masonry due to time and conditions. This can lead to water penetration, cracking, spalling, or delamination of the masonry as well as fading of color and exposure of aggregate.

 The appearance of moss, mold or fungi on the building, usually due to water presence.

The general accumulation of dirt and dust on the surface of a building that obscures the original appearance of the masonry.

Depending on your project or repair it may be required to undertake repointing/tuckpointing, patching, masonry unit replacement, cleaning, or painting/staining. A brief description of each procedure be found below.

Repointing is commonly mislabeled as tuckpointing. Tuckpointing is the ornamental application of new mortar over existing mortar for cosmetic reasons. Repointing describes the removal of old or damaged mortar and its replacement with new mortar. This work can either be done in small spot treatments or across the entire building.

The use of a matching mortar or concrete to fill areas of loss. Historically masons did “dutchman” patches which were tightly fitted stone patches. Today we generally use cementitious repair products are specifically designed to be compatible with the existing masonry.

The removal of dirt, biological growth, efflorescence, and environmental staining from masonry using water pressure, a detergent, steam, or other method. The gentlest method should ALWAYS be used.

Changing or matching the color of preexisting masonry using a mineral coating, stain or limewash.

Refinishing the surface of brick or terracotta masonry using a specialized coating. This sometimes requires patching the terracotta itself when loss is present.

Step 2: How do I do this? What will I need?

Once you have pinpointed your project, the second step is figuring out how to do the work. If you are hiring a professional, they will take care of this part for you. However, if you are doing it yourself there are a few steps you will need to follow, before, during and after you start your project.


Additionally, you will need to figure out what materials are required to complete your project.  Accompanying each how-to there is a “shopping list” that includes the basic materials you will need for your project. Print this out and bring it into the shop at HFS. They will help you get the tools you need and order any materials.


If you need assistance deciding which type of repair mortar is best for your project please visit our Selecting Proper Repointing Mortar page.


If you would like to gain more experience with the technical side of masonry repair, please sign up for one of our educational workshops. These are a great way to gain hands on experience and learn important tips and tricks from experts.


Color Matching and Custom Materials

Before you begin any work, you need plan how to match existing masonry for visible repairs as this is the only way to achieve visually compatible repairs. Please download the PDFs below to learn more about our custom matching services. This process can have a lead time of 1 day to three weeks, so be sure to account for this when planning out your repairs.


How Custom Matching Works

How To Use Color Packs

How-To Instructions


Shopping List – Most patching projects require the use of Cathedral Stone’s Jahn Repair Mortars. Only Certified Installers may purchase Jahn Repair Mortar. We offer certification to enable contractors, architects, and other professionals to obtain the required product certification. Our classes are two-day sessions and are discounted to $450.00 per person. Check the current schedule for upcoming classes.


If you need to replace bricks, common brick can be purchased from our yard (Note: Availability can be limited.)

Paint and Stain Options


How to Instructions – Procedures vary for different coating product lines. Please visit KEIM’S website and follow the instructions listed on the data sheet for your specific product(s). (Note: KEIM often sometimes recommends multiple products for one system)

Always apply coatings to clean, dry substrates.


Shopping List – All of our paints and stains are custom order. Please contact HFS directly if you would like to order KEIM or Cathedral Stone coating products.

How-To Instructions


Shopping list – Glazes must be special ordered, please contact HFS directly if interested. Please see the patching section for info regarding materials for this portion of your project.


If you need to purchase individual common brick, you can do so in our yard (Note: Availability can be limited).

Chimney Repairs

Although HFS supplies all of the appropriate materials required to rebuild or repair your chimney, we do not do actual contracting work.


It is not uncommon for chimneys to fall into disrepair.  Chimneys are considered “cold walls” because they are subject to the harsh elements of heat, cold, frost and moisture on all sides.  Do not be surprised if the contractor suggests removing and rebuilding your chimney.  Often chimneys need to be taken down to just below the roof rafters and rebuilt if the mortar between the bricks has rotted away and/or the clay flue liners within have deteriorated.  The extent of the damage can only be determined upon a close up inspection.  Have your contractor take many pictures to show you the issue so you can make an educated decision as to the extent of the repair. If you are uncertain than a masonry consultant may need to assist you.


Proper re-pointing mortars for chimneys are a type “O” cement/lime mortar or a PHL (pozzolain hydraulic lime) mortar.  If rebuilding the chimney is necessary then we recommend re-building with a type “O” cement/lime mortar.  Our historic materials lab can assist you in preparing a custom matching mortar so that your repairs blend in with the rest of the existing masonry.


When you are making your repairs, pay close attention to how the top of the chimney is detailed, as this is the point where water, snow and ice buildup.  If allowed to enter the chimney system it will cause damage again.  We recommend pouring new concrete chimney caps in place.  Have your contractor reinforce the newly poured concrete cap with stainless steel threaded rods.  The concrete cap should have a slight pitch so that water washes away from the flue liner.  The concrete cap should have an overhang on all sides of about 1”.  Ideally, a small ¼” wide channel should be formed into the underside of the overhang about ½” away from the edge of the cap to provide for a drip break.  Your clay flue liner should extend beyond the finished surface of your poured concrete cap by at least 8” and a metal chimney hood should be installed overtop.  All of the items mentioned herein are in stock at our yard.

A Note on Water Repellents

HFS does not recommend applying any type of waterproof “coating” to the interior or exterior of your masonry wall.  This is especially true for masonry walls that are below grade.  Masonry is like a sponge that will absorb moisture readily.  There is nothing you can or should do about this absorption process; however, you want to pay attention to how the moisture evacuates the wall after it is absorbed.  If moisture becomes entrapped in the wall system it will cause deterioration from the inside, out by pulling through to whichever side of the wall is drier and warmer.  In the case of basements, moisture is absorbed from the ground and, through capillary action, migrates through wall to the inside of your basement.


If you apply a waterproof coating to an interior surface it will trap the moisture within the wall and not allow it to dry out.  As a result, the wall will begin to saturate and the mineral salts within the brick and mortar will begin to break down. When the moisture eventually dries out, the water soluble salts will re-crystalize in the form of efflorescence (the white powdery stuff) deposited on the surface of masonry walls.  Because the coating now inhibits that surface drying process, the efflorescence crystals will form just beneath the surface (sub florescence).  When these little microscopic crystals form within the pours or fissures of your mortar and brick they exert outward pressure causing your brick and mortar to spall away from the wall.


If you have already coated the interior of your masonry foundation, it is not quite a hopeless case.  The two sides of a foundation wall are referred to as a positive side and negative side.  The positive side of a wall is where moisture typically enters the wall system.  The negative side of the wall is where the moisture typically evacuates the wall assembly.  In this case, the positive side of the foundation is the exterior side and the interior side that was coated is the negative side.  There are two things you can do to correct this problem.


Option #1

Strip the coating from the interior walls. However, this is a messy process and will not stop the moisture form entering the wall from the positive side.


Option #2

Dig out the foundation and apply a waterproof membrane and drainage mat along the exterior side of your foundation walls.  At the base of the footing dig a trench, fill it with ¾’ stone and install a perforated PVC seepage pipe running to your closest catch basin.  When you backfill against the foundation, the drainage mat will act as a primary waterproof membrane that will also direct water down your wall. The seepage pipe which will then take the water away from your foundation. The waterproof membrane applied directly to the foundation wall will act as a secondary barrier to “waterproofing” your foundation so no moisture can ever penetrate your wall assembly again.  If you follow this option, you should be able to leave the interior foundation coating in place because there will be significantly less moisture passing through your wall now.  This exterior waterproofing method will also cure most of your rising damp issues which are occurring above grade.

Supplemental Information

Homeowner FAQ’s

To explore questions commonly asked by homeowners, please click here.

Additional Resources

To browse resources that might offer additional help with home repairs and projects, please click here.

Cheat Sheets