Basic Bricklaying and Cement Mixing Guide for Beginners

Updated on September 17, 2018
Fuller_legend profile image

I've been laying bricks for over eight years. It wasn't easy at first, but with mentorship and practice, I soon became an expert bricklayer.

When I first picked up a trowel, I didn't have a clue how to use it. The people who were supposed to be teaching me how to lay bricks were too busy with their own work, so for a few months, I struggled along, trying to get better on my own. That was until one day, I was able to find someone who actually wanted to pass on their knowledge of bricklaying, and I spent an entire afternoon learning the basic techniques. After that day, my confidence soared and I haven't looked back since.

If you're reading this article, then you're probably in the same place I was back then. I will try to pass on what I've learned over the years. I'll make this guide as short and simple as possible because I know from experience that some of the jargon can sound like mumbo jumbo if you're new to it.

In this article, I'll go over good masonry tools for beginners, how to mix cement mortar, how to lay bricks.

Bricklaying Tools Every Beginner Should Have

1. Brick Trowel

The trowel is what you'll use to lay down the mortar for your bricks and to remove any excess mortar. The best brick trowel to buy, in my opinion, is a Marshalltown one. They are long-lasting and normally cost around £25 ($32). If you aren't planning on doing that much brickwork, you can pick up a cheap, used one from builders' yards, flea markets, or DIY retail stores. I think the lowest I've seen is around £6 ($8).

Any brand will work if you aren't looking for longevity. I would go for a plastic handle over a wooden one. I started with an 11-inch trowel that has always served me well, so I would also recommend that particular size.

2. Spirit Level

A spirit level is used to make sure your project is level (obviously) and vertically straight. If you want a trustworthy one, look no further than German manufacturers Stabila. Like Marshalltown, they are pricier than other brands, but that's because you are paying for a quality level.

A 5-ft level could cost you as little as £30 ($40) or as high £80 ($105), depending on how durable you want it to be. If you want something a bit cheaper but still of decent quality, I recommend a Stanley level. Personally, I would never buy a really cheap level under £10 ($13). If you're level is wrong, your work is wrong—it just isn't worth it.

3. Jointing Bar

A jointing bar is used to add the finishing touches to the mortar joints between the bricks. Marshalltown (American) or Footprint (English) is the way to go with this one. Both companies make some excellent tools. You should be looking at between £7–12 ($10–15) for a good jointer. Again, you can get them cheaper, but it depends on whether you want to use them for a long time.

4. Tape Measure

Your tape measure doesn't have to be anything special. You can usually pick one up for a couple of quid/dollars.

5. Lines and Pins

Lines and pins for brickwork are used to line up your bricks and make sure they are straight. A good set can usually be picked up for £7–£10 ($10–13). I have always used Footprint for my line and pins and have never had a problem. Again, you can get them cheaper, but this is another tool that you need to be of excellent quality.

6. Soft-Bristled Brush

The brush will be used to clean up the bricks and mortar joints once you're done. Like the tape measure, you don't have to get the most expensive one out there. However, really cheap ones tend to fray more easily.

Mortar Mixing Basics

What Is the Correct Ratio of Sand to Cement for Masonry?

For general purposes, mix 6 parts sand to 1 part cement. For heavy duty projects, I was taught to mix 4 parts sand to 1 part cement, but recently, I've been mixing 3 parts sand to 1 part cement. The ratio you choose depends on the intended use. For example, load-bearing structures such as foundations require a higher sand to cement ratio than non-load-bearing structures.

Check out the table below for the most common types of mortar mixes, their mixing ratios, and their applications.

It's vital that you use the same mortar mix ratio through to the end of your project. Otherwise, you will risk having different shades of mortar and inconsistencies in strength across the structure.

Mortar Mix Ratios for Various Types of Mortar

Mortar Type
Minimum Compressive Strength
Cement:Sand:Hydrated Lime Ratio
Uses
Type M
2,500 psi
3:12:1
Underground, foundations, retaining walls, driveways
Type S
1,800 psi
2:9:1
Underground, foundations, retaining walls, manholes, sewer walls, brick patios, pavements, and walkways
Type N
750 psi
1:6:1
Above ground, general purpose, interior, exterior, mild load-bearing, chimneys, soft-stone or low-fired brick masonry
Type O
350 psi
1:9:2
Above ground, non-load-bearing, interior
Uses, ratios, and ASTM standards of compressive strength for mortar types M, S, N, and O.

Is Hydrated Lime Necessary?

You don't have to add hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide) to your mortar mix, but because it can hold more water than cement, it makes a great binder, ensuring that the sand and cement do not separate. Mortar that has lime will last longer, be more pliable (easier to work with), less brittle, and less prone to cracking and shrinking.

However, the more lime you add, the less compression strength the mortar will have. The mortar will also dry more slowly.

How to Mix Mortar

Mortar is basically a mixture of water, sand, cement, and sometimes hydrated lime. However, the key is to use the proper ratio of cement to sand for your specific project. Knowing how to properly mix cement mortar is an extremely important part of the job. You have make sure you don't make it too wet or too dry or the bricks won't set properly.

Ingredients

  • Builders sand (soft sand)
  • Portland cement
  • Water
  • Lime, or mortar additive (plasticiser)—optional

Mixing Mortar in a Cement Mixer

Here's a step-by-step guide on how to mix Type M mortar in a cement mixer:

  1. Add a bucket of water (3–5 L) into the mixer and turn it on.
  2. Add in the appropriate amount of lime or mortar additive for your project (see the table above). I usually use about a quarter of a bottle of Febmix Admix (common in the UK).
  3. Let the water and additive spin for about 30 seconds.
  4. Add your first 4 shovels of sand, and let it mix for a few minutes.
  5. Check for a smooth consistency. Add more water if it isn't quite there yet.
  6. Add in a shovelful of cement, and let it mix for a couple more minutes.
  7. Repeat steps 1-6 until you get the desired amount of mortar.

Mixing Mortar by Hand

Here's a step-by-step guide on how to mix Type M mortar manually.

  1. Find a platform or container to mix the mortar. This can be a wheelbarrow, large plastic tub, or large wooden board (e.g. a sheet of plywood).
  2. Measure out 4 parts sand and 1 part cement, and use a shovel to mix it dry on the platform.
  3. Make a crater in the middle of the mix, and add a bucket of water and the appropriate amount of lime or mortar additive.
  4. Mix thoroughly by shoveling the bottom of the mix to the top and repeating.
  5. Add more water as needed to get a smooth consistency.
  6. Repeat steps 1-5 until you have the desired amount of mortar.

Mortar Mixing Tips

  • When mixing by hand, always add water TO the mix.
  • Do not add too much water at first. Give it a chance to mix. It may seem too thick or crumbly, the water may need several turns to spread around. If it still isn't looking right, add in a little bit of water at a time.
  • To check that the mortar has good consistency, make a dent in the mixture–it should be able to hold its shape. You can double-check this by shoveling up some of the mix—it should readily slip off the shovel.
  • For large-scale projects (requiring several workers), it may be worth renting a cement mixer. Most home improvement stores should be able to rent you one.
  • Similarly, using premixed mortar, like Quikrete, MAPEI, Sika, SAKRETE, TEC, or CEMEX, can save you a lot of time and effort. Just make sure to look for the mix ratio. There are different ratios available, so make sure you get the one that suits your project.
  • Adding lime or plasticiser makes the mortar more pliable and easier to work with. However, it can make it less strong and slow they drying process.
  • There are many dyes available to customize the look of your mortar.
  • For structures that need to withstand the elements, add in a waterproofing agent like Seal-Krete, MAPEI's Aquadefense, or Kryton's Krystol Mortar Admixture.

Bricklaying Tutorial Video

Bricklaying Basics

There are a couple of things that you need to know before you start laying your bricks.

Gauging Your Brickwork

First, you should plan out the dimensions of the finished product, taking into account the dimensions of the bricks you're using and the required thickness of the mortar joints (how thick the mortar needs to be between the bricks). This is called brickwork gauge.

A typical (load-bearing) mortar joint should be 3/4 in (10 mm) thick—for both horizontal and vertical joints). For most other applications, as long as it is between 1/4–1/2 in (7–13 mm), you should be fine.

In the UK, a brick is typically 65 mm in height X 215 mm long X 102.5 mm deep (sometimes, they do vary though). With typical mortar joints, that makes the average brick coordinating size 75 mm in height X 225 mm long X 102.5 mm deep. Obviously, two courses (stacks) of bricks would be 150 mm high, and four courses would be 300 mm high.

You should only make these measurements after you have your first course in place. (You will measure from the top of your first course.)

Checking the Weather Forecast

Second, check what the weather will be like for the next few days. Don't lay bricks in the rain or cold/freezing temperatures. Any rain that gets into the mortar before it sets will make it run down and stain your brickwork, or worse, destroying the structure you just built.

Cold weather will also delay the setting process. Any frost will also get into your mortar and cause it to crack (especially if you didn't use any additives). On the building sites I've worked at, it has to be 36 ºF (2 ºC) and rising for bricklayers to be allowed to start.

How to Lay Bricks

The steps I'm about to show you are applicable for almost all bricklaying projects. I'm going to use my very first project I built in college as an example: building a simple brick pyramid (10 total bricks).

  • The bottom course is 4 bricks long.
  • The second course is 3 bricks long.
  • The third course is 2 bricks long.
  • The final course is just 1 brick.

This project should take between 30–60 mins, depending on the weather conditions and how absorbent the bricks are.

1. Spread the Mortar

Spreading mortar is quite difficult at first and will take some practice.

  • Only pick up as much on your trowel or as you are comfortable with. The more you practice, the more you'll be able to pick up at one time.
  • Spread a generous layer of mortar along the area you intend to lay your bricks.
  • Trim off any excess mortar from the sides of your spread (you want it to be only slightly wider than the depth of your bricks), and use that excess to extend your spread further down.

2. Create a Trench in the Mortar

  • Angle your brick trowel so that the tip is pointing downwards at a 45-degree angle, and make a trench or "bed" in the mortar by pressing the trowel into the mortar as you move down the spread. This makes sure the mortar will contact the entire surface of the bricks.
  • Again, trim off any excess mortar on the sides.

3. Lay Down the First Course of Bricks

  • Pick up your brick. Make sure you have a comfortable grip
  • Lay the first brick onto one end of the spread.
  • Push it down evenly until you get the desired joint width.
  • Add mortar to the end of the brick to create a vertical joint.
  • Position the next brick so that you have a uniform mortar joint.

4. Check That the First Course Is Level and Straight

  • After you have laid four bricks, pop your level on top. You want the bubble to be perfectly central.
  • Gently tap the bricks that are not level until you have a level first course.
  • Also check that the bricks are lined up with each other. Use your line and pins to make a line that's flush with one of the bricks at either end.
  • Gently reposition any bricks that aren't flush with the line. Be careful not to tap down as you've already levelled them.

5. Lay Down the Next Courses of Bricks

  • Continue laying down the second, third, and final courses of bricks using the same techniques above.
  • Make sure to stagger the bricks. The vertical joints should line up with the middle of the bricks above it. This is called a half bond.
  • Level your brick on top just like you did before.

6. Check That the Brickwork Is Plumb

  • To make sure your structure is level vertically, place the level along the face of the pyramid and make sure the bubble is in the middle.
  • Plumb the two end bricks and place your level across vertically across the 3 so that you can 'range them in'. There should be no gaps between the brick and the level.

Repeat all of these step until you have your finished structure.

Adding the Finishing Touches

Jointing Your Pyramid

Once everything is straight, level, and plumb, you just need to add the finishing touches. You will need your brick trowel, jointing bar, and soft brush for this.

  1. Pick up a small amount of mortar on your trowel.
  2. Use your jointer to apply mortar to any vertical joint that needs it.
  3. Do the same for all the horizontal joints.
  4. Use your jointer to "top and tail" your joints (i.e. tidy up the joints by going over the top and bottom of the vertical joints one more time).
  5. Use your soft brush to clean off any stains on the bricks and to smooth out the joints.

Congratulations, You've just completed your first bricklaying project. Feels good doesn't it?

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • profile image

        30 years a bricky 

        11 days ago

        Mortar mixes are very area dependant and if you go to the nhbc section about mortar you will see a map with all the different exposures. Recommended mortar for severe, (costal, high elevation etc) below DPC and chimney stacks :lime: sand 1:1/2:4 1/2 , cement with air entraining plasticiser 1 cement 3 1/2 sand, masonry cement would be 3:1. Other categories,sheltered and less sever 1:1:51/2 air entrained 1:51/2, masonry cement 1:41/2. Internal work and thermalite blocks 1:5. Here in Brighton I see all to often brickwork with joints falling out. There's a house at the end of my road that was on grand designs a few years ago that if you run your finger along the joints it all falls out the render is also cracking badly due to no doubt week mortar.Some flats in Brighton marina another example had to be repointed. I despair when you read the back of a cement bag and it says 1:5 or you look at mastercrete video 1:6 !!! FFS it wouldn't last a year down here.

      • profile image

        Gary 

        3 weeks ago

        Your mix is way too strong.

      • profile image

        ACKSON 

        3 months ago

        Exellent Tips

      • profile image

        Terry 

        5 months ago

        The mortar ratio you speak of is determined by the strength of the brick that you are laying for example soft thermalite type blocks would require a very weak mix or a class A engineering brick would be 3:1 sand cement ratio

        You wouldn't need a strong mix for a weak brick imagine using an epoxy resin to stick paper !

        the FEB that you mention is a brand name for a popular mortar plasticiser which basically is just an industrial soap with all the good Stuff removed it lubricates the sand & cement particles so they flow over each other which is why you can 'spread' the mortar, whitout it it's well nigh impossible to work it you would have to use a sand lime mix instead which should be mixed in a mortar mill a 'mixer with a central column & two opposing heavy iron wheels' not to be confused with the modern 'concrete ' mixer which just has internal paddles

        From a bricklayer who taught apprentices 44 years & still going strong.

      • profile image

        Stephano 

        5 months ago

        Great thing i will try it.

      • profile image

        R . Day 

        18 months ago

        Excellent.

      • profile image

        Ant 

        24 months ago

        I have just read up on your page and as I haven't done brickwork since well 8 years ago now I'm getting back into it and remembered so much just from reading your comments

        Thank man

      • profile image

        Rookie Mason 

        2 years ago

        I've used them. The mortar joint spacer's really help.

      • profile image

        bill 

        2 years ago

        A GREAT help for the DIY'er is using Masonry Mortar Joint Spacer's. www.BlockandBrickSpacer.com

      • profile image

        Les P 

        3 years ago

        Excellent tips. Done a bit of DIY but this is really useful.

      • profile image

        Gatsy 

        3 years ago

        Always rehifserng to hear a rational answer.

      • profile image

        cacious chitaika 

        3 years ago

        This is rely good. I want to do bricklaying and looking at you inspiration i feel i can do it.Thanks man.

      • erorantes profile image

        Ana Maria Orantes 

        4 years ago from Miami Florida

        Thank you for sharing your hub. I like it. I am going to use the instructions about the cement. I want to make a circle around my fruit's threes in my garden. All I need it to know . It was how to mix the cement. You are fantastic mister fullerlegend.

      • profile image

        daniel 

        4 years ago

        Hello ive just started a level one in bricklaying and would like a bit of advice because i want to do well in this trade and might start my own business

      • sharingknowledge profile image

        SHAR NOR 

        5 years ago from Miami, FL

        This is a great Hub I must admit. I thought that such things can not be done without having to go through a technical school or college but through this, I am sure that I can be able to do it. Will give it a try. Thanks.

      • profile image

        Rick 

        6 years ago

        I found it very helpful and straightforward . A good simple lesson. How do I get hold of lesson 2?

      • profile image

        mark 

        7 years ago

        I am going to try to lay a brick B-B-Q pit, I hope your insight comes in handy- I have done a lot of other jobs like framing, drywall, roofingand so on but never brick laying- might you have any suggestions for4 me on this job??? I will also let you know when done and how your instructions helped out too!!

      • JON EWALL profile image

        JON EWALL 

        7 years ago from usa

        Fuller_legend

        Brings back memories many many moons ago when I laid my first brick. Thanks for the memories.

      • Fuller_legend profile imageAUTHOR

        Fuller_legend 

        7 years ago from Stoke-On-Trent, England

        You're right Jon it is, but this hub is aimed at the absolute beginners. I want people to know how to lay a brick before i get into anything like setting out work as setting out your project is pointless if you can't lay a brick. Also the project at the end is just a simple single brick pyramid that has no corners so it's just a case of getting the brickwork level, plumb and to gauge, nothing else at this point.

        There are many types of bonding techniques like you say but i've used the easiest and most common in this hub to give the readers an easier understanding. It's basically just a hub about the most basic techniques of laying bricks, hopefully i will get into more detailed stuff in future ones. Thanks for reading and for commenting.

      • JON EWALL profile image

        JON EWALL 

        7 years ago from usa

        Fuller_legend

        One of the most important steps before laying the brick, block or any other unit is first to layout the pattern being used.Always start from the outside corner and work back to an endwall or intersection of another wall or obstcle.There are many types of bonding techniques,each will give a wall a different look when completed.The vertical coursing needs to be calculated as to the size of the horizontal mortor joint.A masons rule will help determine the coursing heights and joints.

        Window, door and othe openings and projections must be considered when doing the layout plan. Thanks for allowing me to expand your hub.

      • Deborah Demander profile image

        Deborah Demander 

        7 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

        Congratulations on your hubnugget nomination.

        In my previous life, I hand mixed a lot of cement. It is a tedious project. But your hub makes it seem clear, concise, and almost easy.

        Namaste.

      • Fuller_legend profile imageAUTHOR

        Fuller_legend 

        7 years ago from Stoke-On-Trent, England

        Thanks alternative prime, Glad you enjoyed it. I will be writing the next installment hopefully in the next week or so.

      • Alternative Prime profile image

        Alternative Prime 

        7 years ago from > California

        Congratulations on your nomination Fuller_Legend

        Brick laying is certainly not an easy task but your step by step guide is a tremendous asset for the "Do it Yourself'ers ". Great job in "Laying" out an easy instruction manual to follow.

        Alternative Prime

      • Fuller_legend profile imageAUTHOR

        Fuller_legend 

        7 years ago from Stoke-On-Trent, England

        Thankyou for the kind comments Koffeeklatch Gals. I feel like i'm up for an oscar or something ha.

        I'm sure you could lay bricks if you really wanted to. It's all about putting the little techniques together and being determined to succeed. Thanks for reading

      • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

        Susan Hazelton 

        7 years ago from Sunny Florida

        Wonderful hub. After reading it I feel even I could lay bricks and I'm all thumbs.

        Congratulations on your nomination and good luck.

      • Fuller_legend profile imageAUTHOR

        Fuller_legend 

        7 years ago from Stoke-On-Trent, England

        Thankyou ripplemaker that's excellent news. I've loved every minute of hubpages so far and to have one of my hubs recognised like this is more than i ever expected. Looks like lesson number 2 might have to be a little sooner than anticipated.

      • ripplemaker profile image

        Michelle Simtoco 

        7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

        This is a challenging thing to do and yet you make it sound so easy.

        Let's join hands in thanksgiving as I announce your Hubnuggets nomination! Woohooo...you will receive an email too. Do check! Read all about it right here: http://bit.ly/9KP8R0

      • Fuller_legend profile imageAUTHOR

        Fuller_legend 

        7 years ago from Stoke-On-Trent, England

        No problem wilderness. It's just a case of taking your time and sticking with it really. If you do that and follow the techniques above i'm certain you can lay bricks to a good standard. I hope you give it another go and let me know how you go on. Good luck if you do and thanks for the comment.

        Oh and congratulations on your first earnings (just been reading the forum) I'm hoping for a similar result in the future myself.

      • wilderness profile image

        Dan Harmon 

        7 years ago from Boise, Idaho

        While I have laid brick in the past it was never very much and did not go real well. This is useful - thanks!

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