Ask A Builder Episode 4: A crash-course in what quality bricklaying and brickwork looks like

In this episode, Northampton builder, Sege Rosella (who is originally a bricklayer by trade), gives a crash-course in brickwork. He talks everything bricks: stretchers, the end face, beds, jointing, handmade bricks, building regulations, and loads more.

00:00 – As a lay person, how do I know if the brickwork on my home extension or new-build is of a high-quality and correct?

05:12 – Bed and perp joints, and why craftsmanship is required when laying handmade (or stock) bricks.

08:34 – Why your fresh brickwork should be clean – along with the state of your bricklayer’s clothes

11:08 – What “laying to gauge” means

13:24 – Pointing up the brickwork – trials and tribulations

17:33 – Should my bricklayer be accredited by any kind of federation, trade body or guild?

21:00 – Is there a shortage of quality bricklayers in the industry?

See the previous episode here.

Audio transcription

Speaker 1: Okay, I’m having some building work done at my house. Say, an extension, or it can be a new build or whatever. As a lay person, how am I able to tell brickwork I’m having done is of any…is quality, is correct?

Sege Rosella: Right. Here comes the crash course. Ta-da. One brick. Okay. That place is called a stretcher. That part, the brick is called the stretcher face. That part of the brick, the end, is called the end face. Okay? That part, the bit that gets laid on, is called the bed. Okay. Now, bottom line is, you’ve seen all over the country, but we were great at our brick work, once upon a time. And we used to have all different kinds of bonds. So you’d have something called English bond, for example. English bond is a load of bricks. If you imagine a wall and you’re looking at the wall, a load of bricks laid like that, side by side to each other. So all these ends are facing on once course. Then on the next course, they would be all stretches. The next course…like that. The next course, stretches, okay?

Sege Rosella: We don’t really use things like that anymore, because we’re now building cavity houses, rather than solid wall houses. So, which means, we only ever need a wall…an external wall of about that thick. So what we’re into now is what’s more commonly known as stretcher bond. But it’s real name is heart bond. So, you know, where…you’ve got in every house you look at, these days, it’s called heart bond. So where you’ve got a brick and they’re all laid end to end to end to end like that. And then the next course, they’re laid halfway through. You know what I mean? Right. Okay. That’s called stretcher bond-

Speaker 1: So on the other one, the first one you spoke about. Was that done for decorative purposes, or what?

Sege Rosella: No, no, no. In the old days, before cavities, they used to do it to strengthen the wall. You see what I mean? So the wall would be thicker, okay? So, this is why you used to have the brick going straight through two… if you imagine two courses of bricks side by side…

Speaker 1: Yeah, it would make like a square, wouldn’t it, right?

Sege Rosella: Stay there.

Sege Rosella: Here’s one I made earlier. Right? So if you imagine a wall is two bricks side by side, okay? Then the next brick, on the next course, would come, like that, to tie them in. Do you see what I mean?

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Sege Rosella: So tied across the wall. And that’s the face of your wall. Okay? You don’t do that anymore, because now you have two skins like that which are cavity. Blockwork and the brickwork. Okay? So your brickwork course now… your brickwork is laid is what we call half bond. You know, like that, like that and so on. Yeah?

Speaker 1: Yeah. So if that was done to make the walls stronger, does that mean walls these days are weaker?

Sege Rosella: No.

Speaker 1: With the cavity?

Sege Rosella: No. Not necessarily. What… now, what happens is, is… arguably, they could be weaker, but they’re not. What happens… in the old days, when walls were built, in solid fashion, without the cavity, all the weight of all the floors and the roof was on that external wall. So, you could imagine, there’s your external wall, so your roof joist would sit on there… I’m sorry, your floor joist would sit on there and come off. Your first floor joist would sit on there and come off. Your roof would come down like that and sit on there. So all the weight would be on this external wall. What happens is now, because you have a cavity, the same thing that happens, but only happens to the inner skin, so all your blockwork. Your outer skin, which is your brickwork is more or less a façade, these days. Even though it’s tied into the blockwork via tie irons. You’ve seen those metal ties that go across cavities.

Speaker 1: Yeah. When they and they connect across the cavity like that.

Sege Rosella: They connect across the cavity. But they’re basically laid like that, so the blockwork walls take all the weight. The external brick wall is more or less a façade, these days. Obviously, it does more than that because it protects from weather, it insulates the house and all the rest of it. But in terms of, in terms of-

Speaker 1: Structural. Yeah.

Sege Rosella: Structural. It’s not really… most people perceive the word structural being associated with weights and that sort of stuff. You know what I mean?

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Sege Rosella: Being able to take a certain amount of weight and strength. But it’s not anymore. It’s not very strong at all. All the weight is on the inside, all the strength… most of the strength, these days is on the inside. Okay? So if you imagine, for example, if you have a window and you see a lintel, on the window. And we call them a boot lintel. They’re usually shaped like that, come up, like that, down, and back again. The bulk of the… the beefiness of it, is on the blockwork, isn’t it? You know, if you see a house being built, you see this big, sort of beefy black thing going through it, across the windows, don’t you? When you see the inside.

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Sege Rosella: On the outside, it’s just like a little tin lip that holds the brickwork, okay? So the bulk of it is on the inside, because that’s where the weight is. Okay? So, going back to your brickwork. Okay? So making sure you’ve got good brickwork. Now, you have joints in your brickwork, okay? You have the joint that you see going lengthwise and that’s called a bed joint. Now this is very simple, so I’m trying not to get too technical. This is… I’m going to explain this so any layman could understand, because it is so simple.

Sege Rosella: So you’ve got your bed joint and you’ve got your, what’s called a perp. So it’s short for perpendicular joints, okay, called perps. Okay? Now, good brickwork, providing the bricks are always the same length, which nine times out of ten, they are, but I’ll go into that in a minute. Each joint… each perp should be the same thickness as the bed joint. So if you have a ten millimetre thick bed joint, then so should the perp be ten millimetres.

Speaker 1: So you’re talking about literally the gap between the bricks that the cement occupies.

Sege Rosella: Like that.

Speaker 1: Yeah. Okay.

Sege Rosella: It should be ten millimetre. Okay? And the same there. Ten millimetre under the brick.

Speaker 1: Is that a building regs thing, or that’s just like a-

Sege Rosella: No. No. That’s…that is quality craftsmanship.

Sege Rosella: Now, quite often, you get lots of different cuts and types of brick. Best of putting this is families of bricks. Okay? So you get an engineering brick. You get a wire cut. You get waterstruck. And you get stock. And you get handmade. Right.

Sege Rosella: Now, you’re normal standard house bricks, that you see a lot of are usually like a wire cut or a standard brick. And the wire cut and standard brick ones are usually, nearly always the same length. So consequently, your brickwork will always look symmetrical. In other words, every one of the perpendiculars, these joints here, all the way up, the whole house, and all the way down. So if you stood right up against your brickwork, against one perpendicular, it should line up, all the way up. You see them go jaggedy like that, they shouldn’t. They should line up nicely, all the way up.

Sege Rosella: Now, this where the craftsmanship comes in, because if you were using a stock brick… what’s called a stock brick, or a handmade brick, for example, or sometimes a water cut brick. Those bricks are more… they vary more in length, okay? And sometimes can in height, as well. Especially, the handmade ones, because of course they’re handmade and they’re not… they don’t go into sort of standard conveyor belt process. They can be… now that is where the skin of the brick height comes in, because what a lot of them seem to do is they end up with wider perpendiculars, wider perps, okay? To accommodate the shorter length. Then the joints start veering off from each other, like that and it starts to look shoddy, okay?

Sege Rosella: So the thing to look for is good, straight, flat beds and good, straight, perps. Always on top of each other. If the bricks are different lengths, then the bricklayers have got to accommodate for this. Usually, it’s usually best to work from the middle and mark your perps out, working outwards. Sometime, depending on what apertures are in that wall, you can work from the outside in. Marking your perps, before you lay the bricks, so that you’re always got your perps on top of each other. Okay? That is one thing to look for. If you’re not getting that then you really should be putting out your bricklayers.

Sege Rosella: The other thing is is your brickwork should be clean. Shouldn’t have cement… too many bricklayers, these days, think that getting cement all over their jeans, all over their clothes, means they’ve done a great days work and they must be a fantastic bricklayer. They’re not. The bricklayers to spot are the ones that are immaculate at the end of the day. The ones that turn up and their tool kit is clean. And it’s immaculate. Their van is clean. Because you know, for a start, if their tools are clean, their trowel is going to be even clean. Their levels are clean, they’re clean, their van’s clean. You know they’re going to have a lot of pride in their work and their work’s going to be clean. So that is a big tip. If they’re clean, your work will be clean.

Speaker 1: Yeah

Sege Rosella: It’s very important, with brickwork, that it is flat, as well. So that your wall, if you touch it, is flat. Too many… they do that sort of thing, they come in and out. Bricks are usually sitting, as they’re being laid, you know they twist them, they drop them below a line, because when we lay brickwork, you lay… you probably seen it, a string line and now always lay up to the line. But what happens is… so that little [inaudible 00:09:44] of the brick there, that little point of the brick there, has to be dead in line with the line. Okay? Normally, with the string line, okay? Now, sometimes they lay them like that. They lay them like that and they look terrible when you come to point them up. So you always want to pick thing like that out. Make sure all your bricks lay… and if your bricklayers are trying to go too fast, slow them down. Say, “Slow down. I want this work done really nice. I want it done accurately and beautifully.”

Sege Rosella: Now, sometimes, if you want to use an old reclaimed bricks and stuff like that, then yeah, you want the rough and rugged look, but it’s rare. Quality brickwork always looks best no matter what brick you’re using. If you’re using handmades, wire cut, stocks. No matter what brick you’re using, quality brickwork always looks quality, so it should be laid properly. It shouldn’t tip. Sometimes you have handmade bricks that have got curves in them. Okay? So, they actually have a little curve in them. Well, the top of the curve is the bit that hits the line. The other bits drop below the line, yeah, but then the next one will do the same, and then sort of pointed up neatly and nicely. You see what I mean? [crosstalk 00:10:56]

Speaker 1: Yeah. So then do you adjust the bed for that, as well, then?

Sege Rosella: No, no. The beds are always the same, because bricks lay out-

Speaker 1: So, the highest part of the brick, you go ten mil from the highest part to the next brick above?

Sege Rosella: That’s right.

Speaker 1: That bit’s ten mil?

Sege Rosella: That’s how you work. Right, but here’s the thing you need to know, brickwork should always be laid, we call it laid to gauge. Okay? Now, let me tell you this. Every three courses of brick, okay, is one course of blockwork on the inside. Now…so when you’re building up, by the time you’ve built three courses of brick, should be one course of block and they should be dead level. Next course of brick, next three, next course of block. Dead level. Okay? What you get a lot of the cases, is that happening, that happening. Bad, bad craftsmanship. Shouldn’t happen. Okay? So that’s another thing to watch out for. To make sure that your brickwork is in line with your blockwork.

Sege Rosella: Now, that’s because I’m going back to what I said about gauge. Brickwork is always laid to gauge. Okay? Now, let me explain gauge. These days, most bricks are 65 millimetre in height. Okay? Plus the ten mil bed. Okay? You know the mortar bed that they sit on is 75 millimetre. That is your gauge. So every course is 75 millimetres. 75, 75, 75 millimetre. And one course of block is two two five millimetres. So you can see. Three 75s and the two two five. Okay, so it should work in unison. But, what you get a lot of the times is you get them laying high to the line, or low to the line, or not measuring their gauge properly at the corners, where they’re supposed to be… where it starts off on, for you to pull your lines in from. Do you see what I mean? I’ll try to keep this simple. So they have to be 75 milli, 75 milli, 75 mil, seven… and you have perfect brick lines going through all the time. No matter what brick you’re using, bent, warped, whatever.

Sege Rosella: The worse thing that can happen is use a stock brick, say, that’s a little bit bent and warped. Okay? So all the bricks are a little bit bent and warped and the gauge changes all the time. So sometimes they’re an 18 mil gauge. Then other one, there’d be a 16 mil gauge and they’re squeezing down. So you get tight bed joints. You get tall bed joints. Of course the consequence of that is, if your perps are always going to be ten millimetres, but your bed joints keep changing, you won’t have that lovely matching perp to bed. Do you see what I mean?

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Sege Rosella: And that can show you bad brickwork.

Sege Rosella: Another thing to look out for is most of the time, now, the point them up by something called a bucket handle, or half-round jointer. Okay? Now, quite often you can buy now lots of different sized of half-round jointers. So if you went to your local tools shop, you’ll be able to buy different sized joints. Now, what I always like to do is make sure my half-round jointer is wider than the bed joints, so I’m usually probably going to use a 20 mil. Because…but what a lot bricklayers tend to try and do is they try and use like a ten or a twelve mil half-round. But all that does is digs into the joint. You don’t want that. Every joint has to be almost surface, so the curve of that joint… that bed joint only wants to be quite shallow. Doesn’t want to look like it’s a big half-moon digging into your brickwork. It wants to be quite shallow. That way, your perps and bed will always look nice and flat as a… or flattish. And all the same sort of thickness as you go though your jointing process. Okay?

Sege Rosella: So that’s something to look forward to… to look towards. Making sure you get… there are so many aspects of construction, so much I’d like… I’m sorry, brickwork. So much I’d like to go on about and tell you. What’s good and what’s bad brickwork. What’s good and what’s bad pointing, there’s so many different types of pointing. We’d be here all day.

Sege Rosella: But basically, you’re looking for quality jointing. You’re looking for quality gauging, so that every course is 75 mil. You can check it yourself. Just run tape up it. It goes in multiples, 75, one fifty… 150 millimetre, two two five millimetre, 300 millimetre and so on. Okay? Or you can do it individually. Good bricklayers will use what’s called a gauge rod. So they’ll have like a thin line prop and they’ll put saw cuts up at every 75 mil. And every time they a new course of bricks at the corners, where you start, you will put their gauge rod up make sure they tap down to that saw cut. So every one is accurate.

Sege Rosella: What a lot of bricklayers do is… worst mistake they can make, is they lay a couple courses, then when they come to like their next course, they get a tape measure and they measure down 75 mil onto the next brick. Bad move. Because if they’re a millimetre out, each time, it’ll… the gauge will gain. They keep doing that every course the gauge will gain. When they run their gauge, they should always put their tape measure right up to the first brick… the first course and run the whole tape right the way up the wall. And make sure they mark it off, if they can count. Mark it off. So every gauge is the same. Because doing it that way, you have the danger of being, instead of it being 75, it’s 76 millimetres, but you haven’t noticed because the wind’s blowing, it’s too cold, it’s a little bit… And it’s 76 and the next time, you’re doing 75 again, you’ve gone 76 again, but it’s actually 78 [crosstalk 00:16:28].

Speaker 1: Yeah. And then the error just compounds all the way up there.

Sege Rosella: It keeps compounding and that’s when you end up with things going wrong. So it’s simple like this to watch out for. So always run your tape down the corner and make sure your other bricklayers have gone home if you’ve not got the confidence to do it while they’re there. Run it down the corner make sure that it is in increments of 75 millimetre. Accurate increments of 75 millimetre. Make sure you then stand alongside the wall and wall’s nice and flat. Make sure that both… you know, if you do one corner, checking that, you check the other corner, as well. Otherwise, you’ll have brickwork going like that or like that, of course, don’t you, you see. Which you don’t want. And then that sort of thing doesn’t show so much… just that little bit of tilt doesn’t show so much in your straight wall. But the minute you’ve got a door or window in the way, it will show. Especially, when you get to lintels and things like that when you have a bigger joint, you know, and the lintel more on one side then you have the other.

Sege Rosella: So, it’s just simple things like that, simple nice jointing, clean brickwork, clean bricklayers. You’ll always get a decent job.

Speaker 1: Yeah. And what about… so you get these trade bodies, don’t you, guild of whatever, guild of this, guild of that. If they belong to any of these kind of associations or trade bodies, does that count for anything, these days? Does it mean that just by them having some kind of accreditation, does that mean they’re going to be quality bricklayers?

Sege Rosella: Well, it should do, but the way… this is difficult one, because the way the trades work, these days, is like, if I go to a job, if I go to build somebody’s house, for example, and they say to me, “Can we have any references? We want to know about your work.” I always say, “Yes, no problem.” I always offer them references, but I know it’s a waste of time, because we’re full of subcontract labour these days.

Sege Rosella: It’s not like it used to be, in the old days, where people… men were on the books. They worked for you all the time no matter what job you went on. Everybody rushes for the pound now. Everybody rushes for the best money. So, you might not… you might have had six months ago you did a job. You might have had a gang of bricklayers on there, a gang of carpenters, plasters, that were brilliant. But you can’t… because they’re already booked. You can’t have them for the next job, so you got to use different bricklayers.

Sege Rosella: So their work probably not going to be… so it’s down to my skill of management, to make sure that I get more or less the same sort of quality of craftsmanship each time. But, this is why, even with the guilds, these guilds, these accreditation bodies, all the rest of it. They find it hard to police, as well, simply because men are shifting throughout companies all the time.

Sege Rosella: So, you know, if I… simple ways to look at it, if I was a bricklayer, working for you, and I worked for you for ten years, you could more or less go to your client and guarantee, “This guy is who does our brickwork. He’s brilliant.” And they can feel comfort in that because they know… but, you know, I don’t know, all the time, who the next gang of bricklayers are going to be. Because I don’t know who’s busy and who isn’t, who’s booked and who isn’t. So sometimes giving out references is a bit of a pain, because you can’t always… they’re nonsense, in other words.

Sege Rosella: And the same with some of these accreditations. The accreditation bodies themselves are good, and they serve and set out to do good things, but they are, sort of, stifled in what they can offer, because, you know, they’re given a company the accreditation of being the guild of master bricklayers, or the guild of master builders, whatever it is. But, when they gave them that accreditation, they had certain men working for them. By the time they come and do your job, those guys are left and there’s somebody else.

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Sege Rosella: Though, you know… although it has to be said, lots of these accreditations go to the company. So, you know, it’s the company’s responsibility to guarantee the work.

Speaker 1: Yeah. A better way of doing that then, just thinking, to actually just accredit… Accredit? Is that the right word… individuals.

Sege Rosella: Yeah, you can do that, but not many individuals sign up to… I mean this game is still running word of mouth. It always makes me laugh, because it’s the same thing with apprenticeships. How do you know you got a good quality time served carpenter, bricklaying? Nobody even asks for qualifications, indentures. It’s all word of mouth.

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Sege Rosella: It’s all word of mouth.

Speaker 1: Right. Well…and is there still a massive shortage of bricklayers? Like good bricklayers?

Sege Rosella: There’s always been a massive shortage of good bricklayers. Quality men are very, very few and far between.

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Sege Rosella: People are not taught, men are not taught, bricklayers are not taught, carpenters are not taught in the way they were, as craftsmen. Now they’re taught just enough, to enable them to get out, onto hours on the site and lay bricks in a line. Believe you me, there are a lot of them and very few quality craftsmen. I would say this. If you want quality craftsmen… I know a lot people out there who’d think, “Yes, you would say this.” But I am telling you. You’ve heard it a thousand times. You get what you pay for. Believe you me, if you want quality craftsmen, you’ve got to pay the money. There is nothing worse than going round to see a client, they’re going to build this half a million pound house and really want it done nice, but they want to scrimp on the labour. Because the minute they do that, their half a million pound house is not going to look the half a million pound house they expect it to be. Because they’re not going to want to pay the money. And therein lies the problem.

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Sege Rosella: Most of the top bricklayers are getting the top money, but they are turning out the top work.

Speaker 1: Yeah. Alright, cool. That’s it, I think.