Basic bricklaying skills

With DIY on the increase, more and more homeowners are looking to acquire basic skills for quick and easy DIY projects, advanced projects such as making furniture, home repair and maintenance, and home improvement projects. One skill set that saves you thousands of rands is learning a few basic bricklaying skills.


Bricklaying is one of those home improvement projects that many put off because of lack of knowledge. But acquiring a few basic bricklaying skills will allow you to take on a small project in and around the home and, with that done, you will find that you are ready to move on to the next project.

Whether you do the work yourself or hire someone to do it for you, knowing the basics of bricklaying will ensure that any bricklaying job you tackle is a job well done.


Pointed trowel
Steel float
Spirit level
Brick pointer
Builder's line
Wheelbarrow or sheet or cement fibre board
Cement, sand (and stone for foundations)
Hose pipe or bucket (for mixing mortar)
Bolster chisel and club hammer
Angle steel or pine lumber straightedge

You will find all your building tools, equipment and supplies at your local Builders Warehouse.

Tips, Tricks and Techniques
The DIY Divas present bricklaying and plastering workshops during the winter months, and anyone who has attended the workshop will confirm that it's not as difficult as it appears. Understand a few basic principles, equip yourself with the right tools and get ready to start your first small bricklaying project.

The first step in any bricklaying or building project is to have a strong foundation. If you are building on an existing slab or concrete floor you can use this as the foundation. But a new structure will require footings or foundations. The size of any foundation is determined by the size of the structure being built. Dig out a trench to the width and depth required. A small, free-standing garden wall or braai will only require a foundation 30cm wide x 30cm deep, whereas a retaining wall or larger construction will need a foundation of 60cm x 60cm.

For 1 cubic metre of concrete you will need: 5,8 bags cement + 0,65 cubic metres sand + 0,65 cubic metres gravel. Since the foundation provides a secure base for any building - it needs to be strong and it needs to be level, so be sure to have a 1 metre long spirit level and straightedge handy as you work.

A simple and effective method for ensuring a level foundation is to drive wood stakes into the dug out trench. Place the stakes at a distance apart that will allow you to rest a spirit level across the tops to check the level.

Using the stakes as a guide, pour concrete into the trench up to the top of the stakes. Smooth (float) the surface of the concrete with a metal float . Allow the footings to dry for a couple of days before building the wall

To ensure a straight wall, insert profile boards or a straightedge, at both ends and attach building line to this.

For a tall wall a couple of long pieces of pine lumber or lengths of steel angle hammered deep into the ground will allow you to move a line up as the height of the wall increases.

To lay 1 000 bricks you will need: 4 bags cement + 0,55 cubic metres sand. Use a trowel to lay a bed of mortar over the foundation - about 2cm deep and enough for a first course of 3 bricks. Wiggle the trowel along the length of the mortar to make a hollow down the middle of the mortar.

When mixing mortar by hand, lay down a cement fibre board, or use a wheelbarrow. Place a layer of sand about 10cm on the board and use a spade to spread cement uniformly over the sand. Dry mix the sand and cement together until uniform in colour. Add water in small quantities using a bucket or garden hose, mixing after each addition until the mix is soft and firm - not sloppy. The mixture should be firm and not too sloppy, similar to whipped cream.

Only mix enough mortar than can be used in an hour. After that, mortar starts to set and should not be used. Small batches mixed as required are far better than mixing a large batch.

DO NOT try to extend the working life of mixed mortar that has already started to harden by adding water. This will only weaken the bonding properties of the mix.

The strength of a brick wall is attained from a firm foundation, proper bedding in the mortar, and overlapping rows of bricks. A running bond, shown left, is the most common method for laying bricks. Row one starts with a complete brick - row two starts with half a brick.

Use a bolster chisel and club hammer to break bricks in half.

For proper bedding of bricks, apply a 1 to 1.5cm-thick bed of mortar on top of the previous row and 'butter' the end of each brick before bedding against the preceeding brick.

Use the butt end of the trowel to tap bricks into the mortar bed to align with the builder's line.

As you work, use the trowel to scrape off any mortar that has oozes out from
between the bricks.

Continuously check with a spirit level to ensure the top and face of the bricks are straight and vertical.

Before the mortar has time to set hard, use a brick jointer to keep the mortar joints neat and lightly brush down the bricks to remove any excess mortar on the exterior brickwork. Wet the brush or use a stiffer brush for mortar that has already started to set hard.

On a hot day spray CLAY bricks lightly with a hose pipe, so that the bricks do not soak up moisture from the mortar mix. This is not necessary when using cement bricks.

Cover mortar mix with a sheet of plastic to prevent it from drying out too quickly.

When building a retaining wall, or where you want to prevent moisture rising up into the brickwork, a dampproof layer (DPC) is laid on top of a row of bricks. This plastic sheet acts as a barrier against moisture and must be used at all times when building any structure that requires protection against rising damp.