• By Tony Harriman •
In the past ten years or so I've developed a liking for working with bricks and mortar. Just small jobs, mind you, nothing too grand. I prefer the decorative projects rather than buildings, and since I get involved with most of these projects in my spare time, I really need to have the flexibility to walk away from the project for a while, if necessary.
After I had mixed by hand more cement and mortar than I care to remember, I bought a small mixer, one that will handle about 240lbs at a time. What a difference this made to my recovery time. Anyone who's ever had to mix a ton of cement with a shovel will know what I mean, especially if you're a weekend warrior like I am.
There are lots of recipes for making concrete. Some recipes are very simple: three shovelfuls of gravel, two of sand, one of cement, and water to mix. This is about as basic as cement-mixing gets. When it comes to mortar (the compound that goes between the bricks), there are many different levels to choose from depending upon how much weight is expected to be carried by the base bricks. There are mortars that can support many, many tons of bricks.
Getting the foundation right can be critical, especially if you're putting up a building. It's helpful if the foundation is level, square and sufficient.
Once you start laying brick, there is a certain amount of flexibility regarding filling and shaping the mortar, and if you need to fudge things into being a little more square, early on is the time to do it.
Several hours into the project there comes a time when you have to "strike" the mortar. Striking can take on various forms, and really doesn't do much more than make the wall look pretty or robust. There comes a time in the process of fashioning bricks and mortar when no adjustment can be made at all — no smoothing, no shaping, no striking. Once the mortar has set and cured, the only way to change anything is to tear the project up and begin again. "Set in concrete" is an expression that really lives up to its name.
Unless you happen to be one of those highly-skilled masons who have an eye and a hand for getting the job done quickly, bricklaying is something which shouldn't be rushed. Once the bricks are in place, you are going to have to look at them for a long time, so the job is really worth doing well, or at least as well as you are able.
Cement, of course, is a man-made invention. And as simple as cement may look, the process of making cement powder requires some serious mathematical skills and, nowadays, a good eye for what's going on under the microscope.
The closest thing in the natural world to cement is clay. Let's talk about clay for a moment or two.
Clay, with various compositions, comes out of the ground. Clay has been around for a long time. Bible writers draw some clever illustrations from clay regarding how a man has been fashioned like clay from the dust of the earth by the hand of God. Clay can be fashioned, but it doesn't set up all by itself, it needs an outside force — heat … lots of heat.
Occasionally, though, a pupil produced a "lump" that gained the admiration of our teacher, the master potter. This finely crafted ware was deemed worthy of preserving, and was set aside to be put in the kiln. The kiln is a high-powered oven producing temperatures as high as 2,000 or 3,000 degrees F. This is the heat necessary to "fire" the clay so that it can be preserved in the shape it has been given, in most instances in our class: a vase or a jug.
For many hours this worthy vessel sat in this intense heat undergoing a chemical and structural adjustment that would change it forever. Never more could the clay be returned to the bath to be re-used.
Once the heat went off, the work, now called pottery, cooled slowly. The student approached and announced to his eye-rolling classmates in his best Shakespearean voice, "My jug is finished!" "Not so fast," came the response from the teacher, "There's more to be done." The entire class grew silent as we were introduced to the concept of the rest of the process.
Again the heat went off, the jug was removed and cooled, and its maker again announced that it was finished. But again the response from the teacher was, "Not yet. Now we give it a design and make it unique." The pupil was given a paintbrush and what looked to me like ordinary paint. After all these years the details are a little hazy, so I'm thinking it was probably more than just paint. A pattern was painted on the jug and another coat of glaze was applied. The jug was then returned to the oven.
At last the pupil made the final announcement, "My jug is finished!" With a crafty look and carrying a container of water and a glass, the teacher approached the pupil admiring his jug. The teacher poured some of the water into the jug and handed the jug to the pupil. The teacher then stretched out his arm holding the glass, and the pupil filled the glass from his jug. "Now," said the teacher, "Your jug is finished." The lesson, of course, was simple, only when the jug fulfilled the "purpose" for which it had been created could it actually be said that it was "complete."
So what lessons do I get from these observations?
But what about the clay?
We could go a lot further with the analogy, but it may be that you don't share my enthusiasm for bricks, mortar and pottery, so here would be a good spot to settle and dry. But I do hope I've caused you to look differently upon your mortal frame.
And that's just my take on it. …