Basic Bricklaying and Cement Mixing Guide for Beginners
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
Minimum Compressive Strength
Cement:Sand:Hydrated Lime Ratio
Underground, foundations, retaining walls, driveways
Underground, foundations, retaining walls, manholes, sewer walls, brick patios, pavements, and walkways
Above ground, general purpose, interior, exterior, mild load-bearing, chimneys, soft-stone or low-fired brick masonry
Above ground, non-load-bearing, interior
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.
- Builders sand (soft sand)
- Portland cement
- 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:
- Add a bucket of water (3–5 L) into the mixer and turn it on.
- 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).
- Let the water and additive spin for about 30 seconds.
- Add your first 4 shovels of sand, and let it mix for a few minutes.
- Check for a smooth consistency. Add more water if it isn't quite there yet.
- Add in a shovelful of cement, and let it mix for a couple more minutes.
- 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.
- 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).
- Measure out 4 parts sand and 1 part cement, and use a shovel to mix it dry on the platform.
- Make a crater in the middle of the mix, and add a bucket of water and the appropriate amount of lime or mortar additive.
- Mix thoroughly by shoveling the bottom of the mix to the top and repeating.
- Add more water as needed to get a smooth consistency.
- 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
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.
- Pick up a small amount of mortar on your trowel.
- Use your jointer to apply mortar to any vertical joint that needs it.
- Do the same for all the horizontal joints.
- 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).
- 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?