Masonry work

Just when you thought your bandwidth was safe, here comes another graphics-heavy post.

What did a software guy do with his weekend? Build stuff out of rocks. Working with your hands and any solid matter is a good change from sitting in front of a computer and thinking for a work week. I’ve done a lot more with fiber and wood, and even metalwork, than with stone and concrete. This firepit was my chance.

When we ordered the materials last weekend we asked that the mortar be left on the front porch, under cover. Since we wouldn’t be there for several days, and therefore wouldn’t be able to move it indoors, I was concerned that it stay dry. When we got to Casco on Friday night we were relieved to find nice dry mortar on the porch, along with forty fire bricks (which turns out not to be quite enough — and the mortar we got isn’t going to be enough, either, so we’ll go back to the stone yard. We won’t need to have them deliver one bag of mortar and a half-dozen fire bricks, though.)

The pallet of stone was exactly where I had asked them to leave it. Exactly to within three inches. I had staked out an area with yellow plastic tape. I tried to get it about the size of a pallet. I did better than I had any right to expect without a tape measure — my marked area was just a few inches different from the pallet size.

I asked for the stone to be left at the side of the driveway. They would have left it closer to where we were working, but I really didn’t want them to drive a forklift too close to my baby bartlett pear tree, so we — mostly Matt — hauled stone by wheelbarrow.

I did most of the spreading of mortar and Matt scrubbed dirt and moss off the stones with a wire brush and set most of them, trying to find stones that fit reasonably tightly against each other because after all we were trying to build the firepit out of stone, not just mortar. Matt likes to talk to the stones a lot, “How would you like to be next? No, I don’t think so. Maybe you?” We pretty much worked from lunch until it started getting dark. It’s a matter of one stone at a time, like one stitch at a time.

By the time it was getting dark on Saturday we had three courses of stone in place and it was time for a congratulatory fist bump.

We had put in one course of fire brick on Saturday as well, and filled in the space between it and the stone outer wall with concrete. The fire brick goes on with a special heat-resistant mortar, “heat stop” or refractory cement, that’s the right stuff to use if you’re building a chimney or putting a flue in a chimney. We might not have really needed it for this job, but the kid at the stone yard said we should use it and by golly, let’s do it right. This kind of work isn’t really possible to take apart and start over if it’s not right; once the mortar sets (which, granted, takes a few hours at least) it’s going to stay there for at least decades. Which is another thing that makes it different from knitting. In fact, I think in the overall spectrum of making things out of matter, masonry is diametrically opposite knitting.
This picture is from Sunday morning, when I was washing excess mortar off the fire brick to get a nice clean job. Matt had done the corresponding cleanup on the outside the previous evening.

By the end of Sunday we had two courses of fire brick and a stone wall higher than that. We still need to put in a third course of fire brick, build the wall up to the same height, fill it in with concrete in between, and put our biggest stones on top overlapping the fire brick and hiding the concrete filler.

I found this very satisfying work. My back wasn’t entirely happy with it. After squatting in the middle of the firepit spreading mortar for a couple of hours, it took my knees and back a while to adjust to standing up straight.

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