Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Our new old yellow brick interior wall

Our house is an 1889 yellow brick Victorian.  Outside, the brick is painted (we posted about that here), but we've long entertained the idea of exposing some of the brick walls inside.  This idea seemed especially plausible in the kitchen, where a large part of the space was once a back porch and two of the walls were formerly exterior walls albeit clad over in the 1940's with wire and plaster.  However, when we started gutting the kitchen prior to the renovation, we discovered that the brick was not in the greatest shape under its mask of plaster.  In one place, the column of brick holding up the laminated beam that supports the second story of the house was in dire need of repair (read about that epic saga here).  We were concerned that pulling the wire mesh and plaster from the other wall could weaken the mortar and damage its structural integrity.

So, not wanting to give up on the rich texture a brick wall can give, but not wanting to harm the house, we looked for alternatives.   At first, we had thought we might cover up our original brick column (now reinforced with concrete), but ultimately we decided we loved it--it had history, and instead of disguising it behind soulless drywall, we would use it as reference and try to match it.
Call me crazy, but I think the patina on our original brick wall is beautiful
The brick has a gorgeous patina of age typical of yellow brick houses, and is now more gray than yellow.  In fact, the brick and concrete column has shifted its role from something to be disguised to becoming the basis for our whole kitchen colour palette.  Now, every new material entering the kitchen has to get vetted up against the brick wall before it gets the okay. 
There are many options for cladding your walls on the market:  brick or stone veneers sliced from the real thing, flexible panels cast in foam or vinyl from real stone (the outside of Centro Restaurant on Yonge St. North of Eglinton in Toronto is clad in this product, and it did turn our heads at first, but it didn't really suit our house), or gypsum products, also typically cast from the real thing.
stone veneer on Centro Restaurant exterior
  We wanted a product that we could easily install on our own, and one that we could customize after the fact to match our existing brick.  In the end, we settled on a product from a local Toronto company called Soho Brick.  They have taken casts of century old brick walls, which they use to mold thin "brick" veneers from gypsum and pigment, and then mount them onto a flexible mesh backing.  The bricks are lightweight and very easy to cut (or break for that matter).

A panel of the brick veneer on mesh backing from Soho Brick
One of the veneers -- front, back,
and side

At first we were put off by the bright clear colouring that seemed to scream fake, but the Soho brick people showed us how readily the bricks absorbed any patina you can concoct, and we, or at least I, was sold.  I am a visual artist, and I knew I could make these bricks look the way we wanted.  N remained slightly skeptical but agreed to put his faith in me.

Once we got our brick home, we promptly stacked it up in what will be the future dining room and let it sit there collecting dust and forming an awkward immovable obstacle for a good year.  Fellow renovators, please let this be a cautionary tale.  Do not purchase a product until you plan to use it.  This is a lesson we have yet to learn.  Our house is full of supplies for upcoming projects.  But we did get started on the brick wall this past summer, and finished up, well, just a couple of days before hosting Christmas celebrations.  I know.

Here is a much abridged description of our brick veneer installation:
Individual bricks

Since we were trying to approximate the look of our existing brick wall, we made a couple of changes to the installation process. First, the spacing of the bricks on their mesh panels wasn't quite tight enough, so we decided to remove the bricks from the mesh backing and apply them individually.  This made the job a little more labour intensive, but gave us much more control over the final result.

It's a start!
We used a laser level to mark guidelines at appropriate intervals around the room. Then I began the slow process of applying the veneers.  Because the existing wall was quite irregular, I coated both the brick and the wall with mastic adhesive using a toothed trowel.
Corner pieces for corners
One of our walls (the same wall that once was an exterior brick wall, but is now a brick wall covered in wire mesh and plaster, and recovered in fake brick)  included an outside corner which required special corner pieces.
The faux (fake is such an ugly word, don't you think?) brick wall, pre-mortar
If you've ever pulled down the interior walls of a double brick house, you'll have noticed that the inside layer of brick will have a piece of wood replacing a course of bricks every so often. This wood would act as a nailing strip for supports for the lathe and plaster walls.  I thought we could incorporate this feature into our brick wall to act as a nailing strip for hanging art.  We happened to have a couple of the original roughsawn
The added nailing strip, cut from an original stud, complete with Thanksgiving turkey
With the bricks adhered with mastic to the wall, our next step was mortar.  We wanted to try to match the original mortar joints as closely as possible.
The original lime mortar, pale and soft, note inscribed convex 'u' detail
We set about educating ourselves about the differences between mortar historically, and mortar today.  Mortar plays a crucial structural role in the life of masonry buildings,  but today, most masonry is decorative, not structural, and the traditional art of the mason is almost lost.  Old lime based mortar, although soft, had an ability to absorb water and mend tiny fissures to maintain its structure.  Modern mortar, with portland cement as a main component is brittle and dark and can actually damage soft clay bricks because of its inflexibility.  This is why repointing a brick house, if not done correctly and by someone knowledgeable about traditional mortars, can actually damage the structure. Nonetheless, despite the fascinating information we were gleaning about mortar types and properties, what we were really after was a way of duplicating the look of our original mortar joints.    After much searching for an appropriate pointing tool to duplicate that line in our original mortar, we found the website of  Dr. Gerard Lynch, a master bricklayer, historic brickwork consultant, and lecturer in the UK.  He also makes traditional and custom jointing tools. A few emails, photos, and a money order later, we had purchased our very own custom jointing tool.

Our custom jointing tool inscribed with its maker's initials, GL
Dr. Lynch, who goes by the moniker of Red Mason (I believe he was a redhead in his youth) had informed us that our mortar joints had been ruled and tooled after the fact with that detail in order to give our irregular clay bricks a more even appearance.  The tool he sent us does not produce the convex bead, but a concave groove--he did warn us that a clay impression of the wall would be better than photos at conveying the tool needed, but the ruled detail looks very similar the original from any distance.

more of our mortaring arsenal, minus the mortar bag

Mortaring was a messy business.  We used a mortar bag, which is like a giant cake icing bag, and N tried several different ratios of cement, sand, lime, and water before striking on the perfect consistency and colour (lime lightens the mortar considerably). 
the perfect mortar consistency for good flow is quite stiff as shown here
Achieving the right consistency for the mortar to flow freely from the bag is tricky and counterintuitive.  You'd think, as we did at first, that mortar should be wetter to flow better, but the opposite was actually true.
wet mortar above, dry mortar, already tooled and ruled, below
Despite the labour and mess, the project was becoming more and more satisfying.  But there was still the pressing issue of colour.

The original brick right, orangey fake on the left
Could I ever make that orange brick veneer match our original wall?
A trial patina concocted from leftover house paint very diluted with water

Here are two details of the wall as it is today under two different lighting conditions, and with some of our original house trim, stripped, restained, and tacked up. I think I'll go a little farther with the grey patina in places. I stopped just before Christmas because of time, not a sense of completion, and haven't resumed my efforts, yet.

warm light...
cool light, but neither quite accurate

Another view, more confusing lighting, facing the French doors
And here's the facing wall, the once exterior wall, looking a little as it might've if we'd torn off all the plaster, I've already toned down the orange tone, but haven't applied any grey patina of age just yet:

We liked it so much (and had so much brick leftover from our original purchase) that we repeated the brick wall detail in the new half bath downstairs.  Final pictures of that room next post, promise.  I'll post final brick wall photos when the entire kitchen is finished. We can hardly believe it, but it appears that we're on the final stretch.  Our cabinetmaker tells us that installation of our cabinets should begin in mid-February.  Yesterday I tagged a slab of marble for the island counter (I'll post about that, too).  I'm about to order our sinks and prep sink faucet.  It's all beginning to come together. We are excited.


Roncy Vic said...

WOW! That looks incredible. Can't wait to see the half bath and completed kitchen.

S and N said...

Thanks, Roncy Vic!
More pictures very soon.

Jennifer Selina said...

Wow, the brick wall turned out amazing. I live in Toronto and was considering using Soho Brick for a wall in my condo. Would you recommend the product? Also, what colour was your patina? It matches really well with the pre-existing brick.

S and N said...

Thank you, Jennifer.
Yes, I would wholeheartedly recommend the product. We removed the bricks from their backing to change the spacing somewhat. I made the patina myself from house paint, primer, and a little bit of acrylic diluted with water. You can experiment to get exactly the look you're after. It is a very forgiving product.