Basic bricklaying

Although there is no need to collect a full set of bricklayer’s tools just to build a simple project, a few are essential and will stand you in good stead later on.

Bricklaying trowel: absolutely vital for spreading the mortar, these are available in both right- and left-handed forms.

Spirit level: another essential tool, make sure that you buy the lm bricklayer’s level.

Ball of twine: for setting out your project.

Shovel: for handling and mixing the mortar.

Bucket: for carrying materials.

Brick hammer and bolster: for cutting bricks.

Measuring tape: for checking, as the work proceeds.


For simple projects, there is no need to go into the relative advantages and disadvantages of different types of bricks. Simply choose a brick which matches the colour and texture of your surrounding brickwork from the local builders merchant.

Always buy a few more bricks than you need: some may get damaged in transit and others are certain to be spoilt when cutting them.

As well as bricks, you need the materials which go to make up mortar – fine sand and cement – plus a square of blockboard or similar material, to carry the finished mix.

Setting out

It is essential to make sure that the main wall in any project runs in a straight line and remains level throughout – you can do this by constructing a marker line, to indicate the edge of the proposed wall. First, tie a length of twine, at least lm longer than your proposed wall, a-round a brick. Place the brick on-site at one end of the line of the wall: put two others on top to weight it, then stretch the twine out in the direction of the wall. Finally, tie the twine to another brick, weight it and pull the line taut.

When you come to mark your first course – each layer of bricks is called a ‘course’ – your marker bricks will be laid to one side of the line, as close to it as possible without actually touching.

Cutting bricks

In order to achieve a proper bonding pattern, you will inevitably be faced with the task of cutting bricks. Start by setting the brick on edge, on a piece of harboard and mark a cutting line in pencil. Use the edge of the bolster to convert this into a groove 1mm deep then position the bolster in the groove. Finally, keeping the bolster as near upright as possible strike it hard with the lump hammer. If the brick doesn’t split at the first attempt, do not worry – it will eventually.

To speed up the measuring and marking process, bricklayers use a marking plate – three pieces of wood, stuck together to give rebates of quarter, half and three-quarter brick sizes.

If you have a lot of bricks to cut, it is well worth making up a plate and cutting all the bricks before you begin laying.

On a small project, there will be no need to set out the walls which run at right angles to the main wall: you should be able to judge the angles closely enough using the spirit level as a straight edge. On larger projects, where it is important to get corners absolutely square, more accurate techniques must be employed.

Mixing the mortar

You can mix the mortar on any clean, hard surface near the site. Start by f thoroughly mixing four shovelfuls of | sand with a shovelful of cement. Turn the mixture over with the shovel until it is thoroughly mixed.

Next, mix up some clean, soapy water, using washing-up liquid. The soap acts as a plasticizer, binding the mortar and keeping it malleable when you come to trowel it. Form a crater in the mortar mix, then add a little of the water. Turn the mix over carefully, adding more water as you go, until you reach a creamy consistency – wet, but firm. Finally, transfer the fresh mortar to your spotboard and place it next to the baseline.

Simple bonding

In order to create a rigid structure and to spread the load on any one point, bricks are laid so that they overlap one another or are bonded. The simplest and most common bonding style is the half-bond or stretcher bond. With this arrangement, the bricks in any one course overlap those above and below by half a brick’s length.

Always work to a pre-drawn bonding pattern: if you try to work the pattern out as you go along, you are certain to become confused.


How successful a brick structure is depends a great deal on the continuity of its size or gauge. This not only applies to the bricks themselves, but also to the mortar joints between them. The ideal width of a joint is 10mm. Although you may not be able to achieve this on your first course, great care should be taken on subsequent courses to get as close to this as possible.

On the first, bedding, course you will have to vary the thickness of the mortar slightly to take up variations in the level of your foundations.

Using the trowel

If possible, practise the knack of handling the trowel for at least 15 minutes before you start laying any bricks – it will save a lot of mess later on and greatly speed up the bricklaying process.

Arrange the mortar into a neat pile on one side of the spotboard. If you are right-handed, the left hand edge of your trowel as seen from above will be a straight edge. Use this to cut a section of mortar from the pile , keeping the blade of the trowel angled slightly towards you.

Roll the mortar down the spotboard towards you, smoothing it to form a sausage shape with tapering ends. This section of mortar is known as a pear. To pick it up, slide the straight edge of the trowel under it and then up again in a sweeping movement. Practise doing this until you can pick up the whole of the pear in one sweep.

Marking your first course

Start by arranging the bricks which go to make up your main wall ‘dry’ – without mortar – along the setting-out line. Adjust them until there is a gap of about 10mm between each one.

Take up the brick at one end and in its place, lay down a pear of mortar. Flick it off the side of the trowel to start with , then flatten it out to the area of a brick. Before you lay the brick on top, trowel a depression in the middle of the mortar to help it spread flat.

Use the spirit level to check the brick for level, making small adjustments to the brick with gentle taps of the trowel handle. Stretch the level out along the dry run of bricks so that one end remains on the brick you have just laid. Lay the brick at the other end of the level in the same way as the first and check for level as before. Then stretch your spirit level back to the first laid brick and check to make sure that the two bricks are level with each other.

Follow this by checking them both second brick remains there.

Continue laying marker bricks until you reach the end of the dry run. You should end up with a series of laid, squared, level, marker bricks at intervals along the first course. They should be separated by a distance, centre to centre, approximately equal to the length of the spirit level. On a small project you will only need three marker bricks to span the first course. Make a final check to ensure that they are all level and in line with one another, then remove the intervening bricks.

Laying the first course

Start by stretching your setting-out line tautly along the edge of the marker bricks. Use the line as a guide for the positions of the intervening bricks. The procedure for laying them is as follows: lay down a pear of mortar flatten and indent it take up your brick draw off another piece of mortar, about the size of a cocktail sausage scrape it hard against one heel edge of the brick do the same for the other heel edge lay the brick in position, against the adjoining one check it with the spirit level for level and line scrape off the excess mortar and return it to the spotboard.

Turning a corner

On large projects, bricklayers use a builder’s square to help them judge corners correctly. For small projects a spirit level will suffice. Having laid your corner brick, butt the level up against the heel of the end brick and then tap the corner brick into line.

Alternatively, you can use the ‘three-four-five’ method. Measure four units along your main wall and mark, then three of the same units along your corner brick, and mark. If the corner is square, then the diagonal measurement between the two marks must be five units.

Laying subsequent courses

Subsequent courses of brickwork are laid in much the same way as the first. But if you are using bricks with indents or frogs, allow a bit more mortar for each pear to fill these up. As you lay down a pear, make sure you cover the cross joint between the bricks below. If a bit of mortar slips down, simply replace it with more.

As you work on the second course, take particular care to ensure that the gauge is correct – if you lay your mortar to a depth of 12mm, this should flatten out to the required 10mm when a brick is laid on top. Be systematic with your checking: as work progresses, you will need to check constantly for level, line and plumb (with the spirit level on end) and also that the joints are of the ideal 10mm width.

Finishing the joints

Finishing the joints, half an hour after they are set, will improve the overall appearance of the project and protect the mortar from erosion.

For small projects, a round tooled finish is the most suitable. Bricklayers do this by scraping a special tool along the half-dz-y joints and then brushing away the excess mortar. But you can achieve almost as good a finish by rubbing over the joints with a piece of 12mm diameter rubber hose. Do the vertical joints first then the horizontal ones, giving priority to the latter.

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