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The Truth about Bricks and Mortar

wastrom2 openEditor's Note: This is the second of a two-part interview with masonry consultant John Wastrom.

"There are not many of us," John Wastrom sighs.  "We're rarer than hen's teeth. And when we're gone, there aren't any more of us coming." 

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Wastrom is talking about masons. Not the fraternal charitable organization of freemasons with their ritualistic ceremonies. Wastrom is referring to the disappearance of skilled men, for they are almost always men, who work with stone and brick.

It's ironic, he notes, that in Portsmouth, a city obsessed with brick buildings, that so few people understand how bricks and mortar work together. Even many conservators and preservationists are unaware that modern methods are killing old buildings.

Apprenticed as a mason's laborer and educated as an archaeologist, John Wastrom returned to school two decades later for a master's degree in Preservation Studies from Boston University. At 62, with over 40 years restoring walls, chimneys, tombs, and foundations, Wastrom is increasingly called upon as a consultant in an ancient and endangered trade.

New Hampshire's local brickyards are all closed. Traditional mortars made of limestone have given way to sturdier, less porous "Portland cement." And despite Portsmouth's obsession with red brick, modern buildings are now made of steel and wood. The ubiquitous brick "look" is little more than a decorative skin. 

Young John Wastrom 1980s

Old school apprenticeship

"It's a matter of learning your materials," Wastrom says. "I spent my career researching this stuff, breaking down the components and learning how to match mortars."

"I was lucky," he explains. "When I was younger, there were still Old World masons left. I was trained by Sicilians. They were either kissing and hugging you, or kicking and yelling at you. They'd bully you all day, but that's how you learned."

In medieval times, masons were considered the elite of all artisans. They built the great cathedrals of Europe and were in constant demand by kings. That sense of entitlement continued well into the 20th century.

"If you dropped your trowel or hammer, "Wastrom recalls from his early days, "you didn't pick it up. You waited for an assistant to do that."

But the age of skyscrapers changed everything. So did the widespread use of "Portland cement" in America. Developed in the last half of the 19th century in Britain, it sets quickly, bonds solidly, and can be used underwater for bridges. Used in concrete, mortars, and plasters, Portland cement is cheap and widely used in modern construction. But it is also caustic and subject to a variety of safety and environmental concerns.

And if you are restoring anything built from brick in America before the early 20th century, John Wastrom warns, Portland cement is likely the wrong material to use. In the long run, a cheaper quicker repair will shorten the life of the structure it is intended to save.   

CONTINUE Bricks & Mortar article 

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