Ode To The Son Of A Bricklayer

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You, like everyone else, entered this world naked and exposed. You had nothing more than basic instincts, your very essence still tethered to your mother.

From that moment, however, upon that very solid foundation, a life was built. It blossomed into a life beyond compare, beyond the dreams of your parents, perhaps even beyond what you could imagine once you were able to imagine.

And it was all because you were the son of a bricklayer.

A man erecting the foundation for a new building recently said, “There aren’t many masons, anymore. And those that there are, are old and gray like me.”

It wasn’t always that way. Once we were a nation teeming with stone workers, bricklayers, and accomplished masons. Like your father before you, they came from the old country. They learned the craft word-of-mouth, lessons passed down through the generations. It was a humble job, but the work was noble in nature.

And when you were a young boy, your father fulfilled this tradition. He explained that, though they all looked alike from afar, upon closer examination no two bricks are exactly alike. They therefore cannot be laid into the wall randomly. You must carefully select them with an eye to how they will blend in with and complement those that will surround them. This is the art of bricklaying.

He then handed you his bricklayers hammer and an imperfect brick, and told you to chip away at its edges. He showed you how to square its ends. The piece of molded clay may have started out with flaws, but through diligence, concentration, and a little bit of sweat, you learned how to refashion it so it could precisely fit into that one hole in the wall it was destined to fill. This is the science of bricklaying.

In a way, we are all bricks. We’re all different. We all emerge from the kiln with our own unique flaws. We spend a lifetime honing selected skills to overcome those deficiencies. We seek to seamlessly fill a niche within our community so we best match those around us.

In a similar way, then, a community is nothing more than a brick wall. Bound together by some common mortar, it can act as a solid barrier of protection. Although we sometimes mistakenly think it’s a bad thing, there is a value to keeping out those things that seek – whether intentionally or not – to harm the greater good.

A community so bonded can prevent invaders, diseases, or toxic ideas from infecting its members. And, like any brick in the wall, once it erodes away, the integrity of the entire wall is compromised, so, too, with a community. Once one member succumbs, the community as a whole becomes vulnerable.

Your father knew this. He wanted you to not only understand it, but embrace it. So he taught you over and over what you need to do to prevent this, or at least mitigate it.

The secret lies in how you lay the brick. Here, you must mesh the art with the science to build the strongest wall possible. A wall least likely to topple over. A wall designed to stand the test of time and not crumble into dust. A wall with the strength to withstand the elements of nature, including man.

It starts with weeding out the bad bricks. Remember, your father taught you not all bricks are created equal. Each is different. Unfortunately, some have very apparent structural defects. These will deteriorate over time. No amount of patching can salvage them. They must be set aside. They may have other uses, but they aren’t qualified to be in the wall. For the wall, you must begin only with the good bricks. They may not be (and usually aren’t) perfect, but you can make them better.

You may recall the job your father first assigned you. It was to dig the trench for the footer. But it wasn’t just digging, it was measuring, squaring, and leveling. He told you this was rough work. He didn’t mean it was hard (despite what you thought about shoveling), but that it didn’t require the exactness of finished work.

Still, you wanted the rough work to be as close as possible to the finished work so the finished work didn’t have to correct too much. So you learned how to dig a square trench at square angles. You then fashioned wooded forms in which the concrete would be poured. Learning the importance of a plumb line, you made sure the tops were level, because no one wants a tilted wall! It was all science and math.

Next came the first phase of the art of bricklaying. It may have sounded like science, but you quickly learned there was more art to it than meets the eye. He showed you have to mix the concrete that would fill the footer.

In the process, he explained the difference between cement, concrete, and mortar. Cement was the whitish-grey powder substance made mostly of limestone. It’s the basic ingredient in concrete and mortar recipes. And those recipes are different.

The recipe for concrete contains fine and coarse aggregates like sand and gravel. It is strong and ideal for footers, foundation, slabs, and all other large projects.

The recipe for mortar includes very fine sand and lime. Its strength is in its ability to adhere rather than its ability to sustain large weights. It can’t be used for footers. It’s more of a glue that binds the brick or concrete block by seeping into the pores and locking onto these prefabricated pieces.

While the recipe seems rigid, you discover the mixing becomes more art than science. Your father shows you how you don’t mix it all at once, but slowly, pouring water in ever so gently to ensure the consistency is just right. Once the concrete is ready, you pour it from the large mixer (yeah, it makes life so much easier) and into the wheel barrow. If you thought the shoveling was tough work, try moving the wheel barrow from the mixer to the footer without having it tip over!

You repeat this until all the footers are carefully filled so the vertical rebar (or wire meshing if you were out of rebar) remained in the middle. Now it’s a race to make sure the tops of the footers are level. This is where the science of the forms pays its dividends. If the tops are level and true, all you need is to push a scrap two-by-four along the top of the form to smooth the top of the footer.

This may still be rough (as opposed to finish), so your father goes to his tools and pulls out a finishing trowel to get the top of the footer as smooth as possible, the perfect bed upon which to begin laying the bricks. But be careful, you’re warned, just as you don’t want it too rough, neither do you wanted it to finished. If it’s too smooth then the mortar won’t be able to firmly bite into the footer.

Incidentally, don’t let the word “trowel” fool you. A finishing trowel is a flat rectangle with a handle on top. It isn’t the triangular trowel you’re probably thinking of. More on that one in a moment.

Your father tells you to be patient. You need to wait a few days for the concrete footer to cure. Once that happens, you get out the concrete block to build the foundation. Unlike the brick, which is meant to be seen, the concrete block remains hidden from view. It is here where you again use the same plumb line. This will guide you as you build each course of block.

Again, you go to the recipe book and mix your mortar. Like concrete, you learn to concentrate as you mix to make sure it’s done quite right. Once the mix is ready, now it’s time to pull out your trusty trowel. Your father had his favorite trowel. Soon, you will have one of your own. It will follow you not only in your masonry work, but in your yardwork and gardening too. You discover you have no need for a small spade for planting when you have your trowel.

It fascinates you to discover how your father digs into the mortar with the trowel, slaps it down, then takes the pointed edge and pokes and drags a channel through it. This is where the sides of the block are placed. On and on you go, course by course, checking diligently with the plumb line and the level. Finally, the foundation reaches the desired height.

Now comes the most important part.

This is the part everyone will see. This is the part where the strength matters most. This is the part where the art becomes the science and the science becomes the art.

With your foundation complete and fully cured, you begin the final stage, and the objective from the very beginning. Your father looks at you and says, “Are you ready to build your first brick wall?”

Nodding with excitement, you step towards the stack of good bricks.

“Not so fast,” says your father.

Once again, out comes the square and the level. This time both a vertical and a horizontal plumb line is constructed. The flat line you understand. You hesitate, however, when your father asks you to help with the vertical line. “We don’t want the wall to lean, do we?” he not so much as asks as he orders.

The site now fully set up, once more you head towards the stack of good bricks filled with anticipation.

“Not so fast,” again says your father.

He points instead to another pile of concrete block. Unlike the foundation block, this block is only half the width.

“The bricks will need a strong support wall behind them,” instructs your father.

You begin building this wall of half-block on top of the full block. There’s a difference, though. This time, every so often, in the mortar between the block, you place a short metal ribbon (called a “tie”) so half of it is in the mortar and half of it sticks out.

Seeing your consternation, your father answers your unasked question. “We want to make the wall as strong as possible. Remember how the rebar ties the concrete in the footer together to make it stronger? Much in the same way this metal will tie the concrete block wall into the brick wall we’re about to build in front of it. The two walls become a stronger single wall. This makes it harder for the wind to blow it down and make the wall last longer.”

Now, you can begin the task of laying bricks. This is a much slower process because the bricks are as tall as the blocks. You find the process to closely resemble that of laying block. You slap the mortar on and dapple it with the point of the trowel. You then use the butt end of the trowel or a bricklayer’s hammer to gently tap the brick so it aligns with the bricks next to it. Not only do you want the top to be level, but you also want the front to be even. Some variation is OK (that’s the art of the science), but there are limits (that’s the science of the art).

One more thing you find. Unlike the block, where you’re told to be more judicious in your use of mortar (just enough to cover the surface edge), your father encourages you to put on more than enough mortar so it oozes out of all the joints.

The joint is the space between the bricks. Some “artisan” style finishes leave the joints untreated. Most professional finishes “strike” the joints to remove the excess mortar and leave a smoother consistent finish across the entire wall. Your father pulls out a jointer tool and the lesson begins.

First, he shows you how to test the mortar to see if it’s hard enough. He takes his thumb and presses it into the joint. If it retains the indentation, it’s ready. He then takes the tool and strikes the joint to leave a concave profile. He finishes the job by using a masonry brush to whisk away any loose mortar.

The size of the joint varies to taste. It turns out you and your father have different tastes on this issue. Being the good son, you abide by his tastes when he takes you on jobs. But when it comes to your house, you’ll surprise him with a mind of your own on this issue. You won’t let it come between you, however. You tell him you’ll do the brickwork in the front wall the way you want, and he could do the brickwork in the back wall the way he wants.

The dream of every father is to work with his son, and your father always stood with pride when he added “and Son” to the side of his truck. And you stood with equal pride beside him, knowing he had taught you invaluable lessons that would carry you forever.

Life happened, and a growing family demanded a different career. So off you went.

But you never lost the knowledge. Although now bound by an office desk, family projects allowed you to continue practicing the craft. And when it came time, you repeated the role of your father. You showed your own sons what it meant to be the son of a bricklayer.

We are all bricklayers of one kind or another. We all have a craft to learn, to excel in. And when all our crafts come together as bricks in a wall, it creates both a wonderfully beautiful mosaic and strong community.

May all the fathers enjoy the fruits of their labors this Father’s Day.

And, most especially, Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

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