A simple question

Usually, the conversation starts like this, “I want to do my house just like you did, so how do you…?”, and on they go from there asking what appears to be a reasonable question, but not knowing the real cost to the answer.

Over 30 years of acquired knowledge in restoring Harmonist structures should be worth something, but what’s the use of hoarding knowledge?  Yes, it would be nice to be paid for the consulting once in a while, but with knowledge comes responsibility.

I believe their motivation to the inquiry is that after answering they can look it up on the internet and somehow do it cheaper.  I imagine folks thinking we took too long, spent way too much on our project, or they can do it better, but cheaper should never be a motivation.

So I usually ask a few questions in return to see what they really want to know.  Often they’re just curious.  But after a while you get to know the folks doing real work in the neighborhood – it’s not that big of a district.  Sometimes I think I give out too much info overwhelming them as the happy smile turns to a frown.  I’m not too sure why they ask me, but as my friend, Jason would say, ‘you make it look easy’.

Time was when you wanted to build a house you looked not only at the suitability of the land for crops, but whether you were in Indian country. Then you looked at transportation, available raw materials, and distance to markets.  Before 1784 (before Old Economy) this side of the Ohio was the lands of Native Americans.  They then became Depreciation Lands that the Harmonists bought in 1824.

It’s amazing to me that when you look at the beautiful brick Harmonist houses built while Jefferson and Adams were still alive, no building materials were available, save an occasional keelboat of lumber going down river.  Wood was far easier to work, making it into planks or logs squared for timber frames or log houses than was stone or brick.  The Harmonists were building for the thousand-year reign of Christ, so they favored brick.

Like other settlers, they had to locate clay, cut trees into dimensional timber, make wood molds, crush the clay, add aggregate, make it into a slurry, throw the wet clay into the wooden molds that were coated in either sand or just wetted, (thus the term sand struck or water struck brick), and the damp bricks stacked to dry (green brick).  Then you had to cut firewood, stack it into a tight mound, stack the green brick in a pile around the wood, cover it over with brick or just damp materials to contain the fire in the kiln, light the fire, then as the fire burned, control it, or tend it, so it smoldered, rather than burned – never leaving it till the burn was complete.  This allowed the brick to slowly bake.  After, the fire burned out the hot brick mound was dismantled.  The bricks closest to the fire were the hardest with some so hard they melted creating clinkers.  Others on the inside had a shine to them where the sand vitrified creating a glaze.  Today you can see the glazing on the bricks glistening throughout on the outside of an unpainted Harmonist brick house (another reason not to paint a historic house).  The further away from the fire, the softer the brick was.  The bricks just beyond the clinkers were good for coursework (in laying courses of brick), but the bricks to the outside of the kiln were the orange bricks – soft and crumbly.  You did not expose these to weather but used them on the inside course of the walls.  They made a great substrate to receive lime plaster.  Being less dense, thus porous, they also acted as insulation.

As for mortar to build the brick walls you need sand and lime.  But what if lime is limited in the area?  You could mine it, but in the early days, there were lime outcroppings.  Look at old maps and you’ll see mention of lime cliffs, lime shoals in the rivers, or lime deposits etc.  You could also gather limestone gravel from the river that was already naturally washed.  Before the day of navigation dams, limestone was exposed along the shoreline.  Lime mortar and plaster are all made from limestone.  You can make it yourself from crushed limestone from your driveway.  In a similar manner as brick kilns, you layered fuel and limestone.  Charcoal (from your charcoal kilns silly) and gravel were layered over and over till the kiln was full.  The kiln was fired and tended to control the burn.  In the morning or so there was found fired hot gravel.  The hot rocks were raked out of the ashes and put in a pit (a lime pit).  Water was poured on the hot rocks and they’d pop like popcorn, white and hot and powdery.  What happened is the fire drove out the hydrogen and oxygen (water) and the carbon (dioxide) leaving pure calcium (quicklime).  This would soak in the water to form a putty – the longer the better.  It was kept in water not only to be readily available for mortar but dry it was dangerous -explosively so – in that water splashed on it would cause it to erupt as the previously expelled hydrogen from the water tried to bond to the calcium.

When the mason was ready to build, he dug a footer 1 foot deep, laid in fieldstone – the stone dressed on the outside for looks and uniformity – and built it up one foot above the ground forming a level bed for the brick.  Then on this two-foot high foundation came the brick.  Pressed for time, the Harmonists laid the inside courses with clay and sand mortar saving the lime/sand mortar for the outside course.  This allowed the soon-to-be-hard lime mortar to act as a supporting moisture barrier protecting the soluble clay mortar from the weather.  As the lime set it absorbed carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere combining with the hydrogen from the water in the putty, slowly turning back to limestone.  So the mortar joints to the outside of the Harmonist houses are limestone with clay mortar to the inside.

But we have the luxury of buying most building materials read-made.  Sometimes it’s worth the cost, but imagine all the fun you’ll miss.