Managing the Projects...Regrouting

Category: Restore & Repair

Well, we kind of "backed into" a project and, last week, I was wondering how we got there. Let's debrief together.

Our chimney and cheek walls were a mess. Someone had "tuckpointed" them with pure lime. We needed a liner for the boiler flue and cap for the chimney to prevent the brick from spalling (we were already seeing efflorescence).

Then we discovered the interior section of the chimney behind the knee wall was in dangerous shape. Lots of missing mortar meant possible carbon monoxide being leaked into that space. Oh yes, and the flue for the chimney which was going to be tough because the concrete cap on top of the WHOLE thing only has one opening.

And chippy blue paint needed to be removed from the brick and concrete steps.

We talked to two contractors who told us that our only hope was to completely rebuild the chimney above the roofline, rebuild the cheek and sidewalls, powerwash the steps and repair the chimney below the roofline. The bricks on the house would be either a) mis-matched (they don't make that size anymore), or b) very expensive to find and buy that quantity of matching vintage brick.

It was too much. We couldn't afford it.

We did find a recommendation through a local home improvement network for another contractor. We called, he visited and even demonstrated how he could carefully grind out the old material and put new mortar in. We could save the old bricks, replace the mortar and spend less money.

This is where my management skills fell apart.

Because of many distractions, I broke my #1 and #2 rules:

1) Get references and see previous work if you can.
2) Get the proposal in writing.

The work was difficult to schedule because it was weather dependent. It was just one craftsperson and his helper. They showed up one morning and started removing the concrete mortar (as best they could without hurting the face of the brick).

Up until that point we only had a verbal agreement on price and the scope of work. Plus Aaron and I had spoken with him separately. My understanding was that the price would cover the grinding out of the porch walls (cheek, columns and side), the chimney above the roofline, the removal of the concrete cap so we could put a two flue cap back on, and the repair of some mortar problems on the chimney below the roofline. We talked about getting a price on liners later.

He showed up to do the grinding, I didn't have a proposal, but he had started work and was a very enthusiastic, dependable sort. He was there when he said he would be. He took great pains to keep the site clean and neat. I went out to talk with him on a break...he went to write up the proposal but there were a lot of distractions that day and his hands were dirty. I reassured him that giving me the proposal before he left was fine.

Unfortunately, our beautiful weather turned to rain and they needed to quickly secure their work from the elements. By the time they were ready to call it a day, they had been there for almost 10 hours. He reached for his clipboard but hesitated. I sensed his fatigue and told him to bring me the proposal copy Monday.

Monday, he was prompt, this time with two helpers to make the work go a bit faster. They were grinding and blasting the paint on the front porch so I couldn't leave the house through the front door. I'd injured my back and hd another person for a different project coming through. Then they set up shop on the second floor and fixed the chimney from the inside. By the time I could get outside via the back door to the front, they'd already mortared the chimney and left for the day. But I never got to choose the mortar and the chimney cap was still there! And no proposal. And they only had one more day.

The next day, the back pain was even worse (was this possible?) and I was exhausted from lack of sleep (pain), not thinking straight, worried about work and a class I was looking forward to teaching. They'd started before I was up and had blown through mortaring the front walls and cleaning up the steps....finished and needed to move on to their next project.

The proposal, now more of a description of what was done, was exactly the agreed upon price. Now it appeared that there was a misunderstanding about what was covered in the original quote which was entirely likely.

I was a bad client. I should have insisted on a detailed proposal in writing before work even began. Luckily, their mortar match was pretty good...I would have liked a little more input there and perhaps have known more about the ratio of Portland Cement to Lime to Sand. But a language barrier made technical questions difficult.

At this point, we got lucky and the work is quite good. It only presents a problem where that blasted concrete chimney cap comes in. I don't think we can chip a hole in this current one. And removing it means removing a few rows of bricks with it. Bricks that have just been freshly mortared. In fact, I was never entirely certain that it could be removed without a complete rebuild above the chimney line...that was our hope. But we never had a written proposal to guarantee it. fireplace chimney flue for now. Still need a liner for the chimney and a raincap.

But the mortar has been repaired.

I wish I would have known about THIS site and Colorbuilder program before work began so that I could have seen my color choices for mortar. I think I would have considered choosing something different but then that would have required more grinding out and tuckpointing and....

Sigh. Oh nevermind. Learn from this. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Luckily, this was a very honest contractor and the only surprises for me were my own fault (through poor communication). It could have been much, much worse with someone who wasn't so trustworthy.

Looking for More?

House in Progress Search for more on 'antique brick tuckpointing' on this site. Search for 'antique brick tuckpointing' on on other houseblogs like this one.
Google Search for 'antique brick tuckpointing' on Google. Search for 'antique brick tuckpointing' on


An informed speaker once said to get every possible detail about a project in writing beforehand, down to to the type of nail to be used (if applicable, etc) to prevent surprises. I totally understand this; we've not been able to come close in real life, though. As a consequence, we've had a few disastrous contractor experiences. Next time, though...

All of your new work sure does look good in the pictures.

Maybe I'm naive, but I don't see such a big thing about removing & replacing the chimney cap. It is just mortared on to the top layer of brick. POPS"30"

Thanks John! We did like the work that was done for us. I was less pleased with MY performance as a project manager :(

Pops! I'm with you. Removing the concrete chimney cap doesn't seem like a VERY big deal. I guess it would depend on how it is removed. With a diamond blade cutter, the cutter would have to get in there as deep as the brick depth because you can't get your hand and the tool into the hole to get at the other side.

If I had the moxie (or maybe the foolishness?), I would get up on that roof with a few very sharp chisels, a hammer and a WHOLE lot of patience and chip the grout out from underneath the cap. Then I would call someone and ask them to take it away and replace it.

Somehow, I visualize this ending up in some incredible disaster, such as:

a) I fall off of the roof in a spectacular way which creates a story of mythic proportions in the neighborhood that lasts for decades.
b) I survive aforementioned fall and become a living warning to every neighborhood kid about the dangers of climbing around on the roof. And/or I become the subject of jokes at block parties and I am trotted out every year to tell my story to "the new neighbors."
c) I cause the chimney or even just the cap to fall through my own roof or onto the neighbor's roof. (Houses are so close here, I could touch my neighbor's dining room window by reaching out of mine.) Thus recreating a scene worthy of an 80's movie directed by Richard Benjamin.

Maimed for life? Public embarrassment? Property insurance tragedy? Why does the second possibility freak me out more than the other two? It's a question for the armchair psychologists out there, I guess. :)

Just a small correction:

I think you mean efflorescence (crystalline white deposits on the surface of masonry) not effervescence (little bubbles). Unless your chimney's fizzy?


MM--You are so right! It IS "efflorescence." And that is what I get, I suppose, for drinking some of this while writing in the weblog.

ack! i swear reading this story is scarily similar to all the contract-hypos in law school. what's offer, acceptance- is it a unilateral contract? what are remedies for breach. yucky yucky. so now when i study i'll replace "Builder" and "Homeowner" with "Chicago guy" and "Jeanne"- perhaps that will make it more interesting.
reading this story though was like reading a scary novel- what would happen next--would their be a breach?? Dr. Gonzo says always to get it in writing, in detail before they start performance.


Email this Entry to a Friend

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

a neighborhood of home improvement blogs

Cabinet Refacing
Cabinet Refacing:
Face Your Kitchen | Your Guide to Kitchen Cabinet Refacing