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How to build a brick wall

Date posted: 6 August 2015

Bricklaying is widely regarded as one of the more straightforward building skills, and as a result many DIY home owners and self-builders decide to have a go themselves rather than hire a professional.

If you are building important, structural walls, however, it may be a good idea to hire an experienced bricklayer who will be achieve to professional results quickly. If you try to do it yourself and make mistakes, you could end up wasting a considerable amount of time and money putting those issues right again. If you are simply building a small garden wall, however, or are working on any other simple, none-structural project, you might want to try to do it yourself.

Basic bricklaying terms & concepts

If you have never built a wall before it is a good idea to build a small sample wall first. Try a four brick course (row), three bricks high just to get the hang of the process – you can always clean off the bricks and re-use them later.

To give brickwork strength and support, always lay bricks so the vertical joints are staggered. Bricks are laid in courses, on top of a bed of mortar, with a taut string line as a guide to line and level. The horizontal joint is called the "bed joint", while the vertical joints are called "perpends".

If you use bricks without holes through them, but instead with an indentation (known as a 'frog'), lay the bricks with the frog at the top. The final course or row of bricks can be laid with the frog at the bottom so that visually the brickwork has a smooth finish on the top surface.

Before you begin:

  • Set out the footprint (work area)
  • Gather together the relevant tools and materials (buying or hiring as required)
  • Mix the mortar
  • Set up the string line

Safety tips

Wear protective gloves whilst mixing and using cement because it can irritate and burn the skin. Also, wear gloves and safety goggles when cutting bricks.

How to build a brick wall:

You need to build the ends of the walls first, repeatedly checking the level and verticality of the bricks.

Put in place the string line: Lay one brick at each end of your planned wall, wherever the pillars will start, with a string line stretched between them along the top edge. This offers you a guide as you lay each course of bricks.

Mix up your mortar: On an old board mix your mortar using four parts sand to one of cement (4:1). Turn the shovel repeatedly until you achieve a consistent colour throughout your mix. Dig a hollow in the centre and pour in water then mix again. Keep adding and mixing until you have a smooth, creamy consistency that is wet without being too loose.  Avoid making the mortar too ‘wet’ or the weight of the bricks might push it out of the seam. Add a plasticiser to the mix to make the mortar easier to trowel and help it adheres better to the bricks. Mix enough mortar to work for an hour (less if the weather is hot) or you risk it drying out before you get chance to use it. If it does dry out, don't add water to loosen it – throw it away and mix up a fresh batch.

Lay the mortar bed along the string line: Next, lay out the bed mortar and shape it ready to accept the bricks.  You will need it to be 1-2cm deep and laid along the string line.

Build the pillars: Where you need your pillars to start, place a brick side-on to the end of the wall. Tap it slightly to help it bed in. Ensure you 'butter up' one end of the next brick with mortar and shove it against the preceding brick, squeezing the mortar to a width of 10mm. Tap down the brick to level with the heel of the trowel, and scrape off surplus mortar using the trowel. Repeat the process with the next brick, following the string line to keep straight. When you complete each course, move the guide line up to the next course. Remember that each consecutive course of pillar bricks must be laid in the opposite direction.

Cutting and laying half bricks: When you are building pillars there will be times when you have to lay half bricks rather than whole ones. In order to make a clean cut first time and avoid wasting materials, lay the brick on its side, place the bolster at the split point, and strike the head with a club hammer.

Stretcher bond brickwork: It is important to build at least one course higher on your end pillars. Shift the string line up as you build, bedding it into the mortar on your pillars. For a stretcher bond, the end of each brick needs to be over the centre of the brick beneath.

Mortar joints: Vertical mortar joints need to be 10mm thick. When using standard bricks, there should be 75mm from the top of one brick to the top of the brick underneath. If your notice that your bricks soak up moisture quickly you may want to ‘joint up’ (see 10, below) as you work.

Finish with a coping stone: Consider adding a coping stone to finish off the top of your pillars or, for a cheaper solution, you could bed bricks into the mortar on their sides at the top of each.

Consider adding a ‘soldier course’: This visual feature sits at the top of your garden wall, and involves simply turning the bricks and laying them vertically, lengthways – laying them along the entire length. Put a second, higher string line in place to make sure you achieve a neat finish.

Jointing up: Use the rounded edge of a brick jointer to scrape mortar into the joints to finish them. Begin with the horizontal lines and follow with the vertical to make it easier to get rid of any excess mortar.

Brush down your finished brick work: Give your completed wall a gentle brush over and clean up any mortar that has dropped onto the ground before it dries. Water will help to wash any cement off the ground but keep it well away from your newly-finished wall.

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