Unlike some other trades, masonry work is one of those home improvement skills that few homeowners attempt to master. Drywall, electrical, plumbing, and painting receive most of the do-it-yourself attention, while masonry is often hired out to skilled masons.
Yet do-it-yourself masonry work can be highly satisfying and creative. And aside from the pleasure of seeing a job well done, one of the great things about doing masonry work is that its tools and materials are basic, inexpensive, and easy to understand.
Basic Masonry Tools
As befits a trade that has been in existence since the days of ancient Egypt, masonry work uses common items like crushed stone and limestone from the earth and simple metal shaping tools. If you are interested in do-it-yourself masonry for fireplaces, walls, planters, or just about anything that uses brick or stone, you'll want to invest in a basic set of masonry tools.
A margin trowel is a long, thin trowel with a handle that is used for heaping small amounts of mortar on stone and spreading it.
Margin trowels are used with narrow masonry units such as a manufactured stone veneer in order to avoid spilling excess mortar over the sides of the veneer units.
Margin trowels, while not appropriate for every masonry project, are as close to a universal trowel as you can get.
V- or Square-Notch Trowel
The workhorse of masonry jobs, the v- or square-notch trowel is large and has two sides that are straight and another two sides that are notched.
These notches can either be square or V-shaped, and they serve as a metering system for dispersing the correct amount of mortar across a flat surface such as cement board.
If you were to try to disperse the mortar evenly with the flat edge of a trowel, it would be nearly impossible to regulate the correct amount. That's because it's difficult to hold the trowel above the surface at exactly the right height.
By pressing the trowel's notches flat against the surface, the mortar extrudes from the notches evenly. The trowel should be held at a 30 to 45 degree angle to the surface while spreading mortar.
A cold chisel has a wide, flat head that is perfectly designed for slicing bricks or veneer stone in half with a blow from a hammer.
A cold chisel has many other uses, such as chipping away excess mortar or removing a single brick from a brick wall.
Usually, cold chisels have plastic handles to absorb the shock from the hammer blow. They also have flared guards on top of the handle to protect the hand from missed hammer strikes.
Brick Hammer or Mason's Hammer
A brick hammer has a blunt side for tasks like chopping bricks or stones in half with a quick, decisive blow. The other side is smaller and is used for scoring lines for more precise breaks.
Never use a regular carpenter's hammer for masonry work. Not only might you ruin the carpenter's hammer, it simply doesn't do the job for masonry work. Masonry requires a broader hammer face and greater weight.
Not all masonry tools are devoted to hammering, chopping, and cleaving. A wire brush is indispensable with masonry work for brushing away rock chips or concrete crumbs that accumulate in your work zone.
For example, when you chip open a crack in concrete prior to repairing it, a stiff wire brush and a shop vacuum are just about the only way to remove all of that debris from the crack.
Cleaning is a necessary component of masonry work. Some heavy duty rubber gloves, scrub brushes, buckets, and sponges will be helpful.
This entire collection of masonry materials does not need to be purchased prior to starting your masonry projects. Rather, buy masonry materials on an as-needed basis shortly before starting your project.
Veneer mortar is a specialized type of mortar that is enriched with polymers to help the veneer masonry units stick to vertical surfaces. As this mortar can be quite expensive, use this material only for manufactured veneer stones and be sure to mix it sparingly in small batches.
Portland cement is a mixture of lime, silica, alumina, iron, and gypsum. Portland cement comes in 50 and 100-pound bags.
Cement is not the same thing as concrete. Concrete contains aggregate; cement does not.
Aggregate is a material composed of sand or sometimes gravel that fills out and forms the bulk of concrete.
Mortar is the mixture used to help masonry units to stick together.
Grout is a mixture of Portland cement and some sand. Grout fills the seams between the masonry units.
Ready-mix concrete is a pre-made mixture of Portland cement, sand, and gravel that requires only water to harden and cure.
Ready-mix concrete is valuable when setting fence posts and deck supports.
Reinforcing bars, or rebar, are steel bars that are added and embedded throughout masonry to increase its strength. Rebar is used for larger projects like concrete sidewalks.