DOCTOR ON THE HOUSE

The art of bricklaying is not what it was. Jeff Howell explains some tricks of the trade
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The Independent Online
There is more to this bricklaying business than meets the eye. Before starting on the walls of a house, the brickie positions the frame for the door. A good bricklayer will get to the top of the frame with an exact number of brick courses. This is achieved by changing the thickness of the bedding mortar, to alter the depth of each course of brickwork - known in the trade as gauging.

Modern bricks are 65mm deep, and laid on a 10mm mortar bed, giving a nominal gauge of 75 (I won't bother with the "mm" bit from now on; if you don't know why then you haven't been paying attention.) Now, suppose your door frame measures 2,150 to the top of the head of the frame. If you divide that by 75, the depth of one course of brickwork, you get 28-and-a-half-and-a-bit courses, which will not do. The brickwork will finish higher than the door frame. So, a half-decent bricklayer will adjust the gauge, either thickening the bed joints, giving 22 courses of 77 and six courses of 76, which makes 28 courses in total, or tightening them up to give 25 courses of 74 and four courses of 75, which makes a total of 29 courses.

Got that? Good, I'll be asking questions later.

The point is, working out the gauge requires numeracy. It is no joke to say that to be any good at the job, a brickie needs to know his 75- times table. It was even harder with the old imperial measurements as bricks used to be two-and-five-eighths inches deep, laid on three-eighths inch bed joints, a gauge of three inches. So, mental-arithmetic gymnasts, how would you gauge your brick courses to get to the top of a 6ft 10in frame?

That is why bricklayers used to be held in such high esteem, not just on building sites, but in working-class society in general. The old brickies had to be numerate, literate and articulate. Only the most intelligent working- class boys would be given the chance of a bricklaying apprenticeship. Look back at the 1914 City and Guilds exam papers for Advanced Craft bricklaying and you will see questions that would baffle many of today's civil engineering undergraduates.

And now? Now bricklaying is looked down upon, as a job fit only for no- hopers. People who cannot do anything else are sent to institutions and made to pick up a trowel. Do you wonder why your new home has been constructed so badly? It was built as part of someone's punishment.

Anyway, when you're working on a prestigious brickwork job, such as some of the architectural award-winning piles thrown up in Docklands in the 1980s, you've got perhaps 30 bricklayers doing different bits of the building. One day you're on the south-west corner and the next day you're on the north-east corner. Well, what can happen is that the gauge on the different corners gets out of "sync" and you end up with, say, 215 courses on one corner and 216 on another. The only way to connect them and leave the brickwork level at the top is to cut a sloping course of bricks with hammer and chisel, from 75 at one end, down to 0 at the other. This is known as a course of pig, and some very famous architects would be amazed if they knew how often this has happens on their prize-winning buildings. For further information, postal orders to the usual address please.

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