bricklaying-twist-1Written by Steven Fechino

Brick columns are typically slow to build when each course is plumbed and leveled as you go.  When you set up jack lines, it is much easier to notice when you get a bit off here and there, but you still need to plumb and level.  A twisted brick column is altogether different.  In a way, it is a little tougher to layout, but once you get to laying the fun begins.

There is one way to layout a twisted brick column and a twisted brick pier, and there is a difference between a column and a pier. A column has to be square with the roof or soffit, but a pier can be twisted as much or as little as one would want, with top of pier forgiveness.

bricklaying-twist-2Know what you are working with, the brick I had were bent and rounded and all different sizes

Here is an example: you want to build a twisted brick pier at a nice pool house. The owner comes out just as you are about to finish the last two courses, and she asks that you do not go any higher in elevation.  You explain that the top of the pier was calculated to square off in the next two courses (square with the first course), the owner can then say, it is okay, I like it as it is.  Then you are all set.

If you are laying column, then the first course and the last course need to be square with each other and the structure in order to look proper. The way to make sure you can end up square is pretty simple; you can calculate how to square the column once you take a few measurements.  First, you need to know how high the span is from the top of the footing or slab to the soffit.  Generally, you could have a span anywhere from 8 to 12 feet tall.

Even numbers work out better than odd numbers: for example, 8-feet in height is 36 courses, 10-feet in height is 45 courses and 12-feet in height is 54 courses.  If you have a distance that perhaps is 8 feet-8 inches, that would figure to be 39 courses, which you will see in a minute that just make things a bit more difficult to figure the degrees of each twist (but not impossible.)

bricklaying-twist-3Measure the materials you are working with

Each twist of the column would equal either 90 degrees, 180 degrees, 270 degrees, or 360 degrees.  For this example, we will use 2 twists, or 180 degrees to build this column; basically the full column will have two twists from bottom to top.  We will also assume a height of 12 feet where we will need to lay 54 courses.  The math is simple, 180 degrees / 54 courses = 3.33-degree twist per course.

Using a speed square or protractor, you can mark 3.33 degrees or 3-1/3-degrees from the center of the pier (3.33 degrees is about the width of a stick rule).  If you use a speed square it is pretty simple: place the pivot of the speed square at the mid-span of the pier (if it is a brick and a half pier, then you will mark at almost 5-13/16-inch). You will turn the speed square on the pivot and use the scale along the hypotenuse (long side of the triangle) and mark at the 3 and an approximate 1/3 area on the scale- that is 3-1/3-degrees and this will turn the pier twice in 12 feet of height. So, it is really simple. Determine the height that you want to build to, the number of courses, and how many twists, and you can figure any twisted column that you could want to build.

bricklaying-twist-4Make two templates the size of the perimeter of the column you are building

When building a larger twisted brick column where you are wrapping a structural column, you can plumb off the steel to the outside of the current course that is being installed.  This is not going to replace stepping back and looking your work over as a bricklayer can see out of plumb a mile away.

It is important to know the limits of what you are laying before you begin. The brick I grabbed for the photos used in this article ranged in size from 1/8 to 3/16 inches, so be sure to go into your project aware that you will have some “forgiveness” in your pier. Different manufacturers core their brick differently and some brick can be matched with solids, so before you start, know the limits your materials will have so that cores or in rare cases frogs will not show in your finished work.

bricklaying-twist-5Using a speed square mark the calculated degree of rotation

To actually begin with the layout for the pier once you have figured the amount of twist, you will then need to make a template of the pier so you can properly twist the courses and have uniform corners.  I made my template out of corrugated plastic because it was easy, lightweight, and waterproof.  Most folks make theirs out of plywood which may be better if you build a lot of columns.

I cut out two pieces of template and found the center by marking the diagonal. Then, I used a pushpin to connect the two together so that I could create a rotation and a binder clamp, meaning once I had it where I wanted it, it would not move.  The steps are easy: using a speed square I marked 3.33 degrees, turned the template, and clamped it, and that is my twist.

bricklaying-twist-6Rotate the template and clamp, and place in the jig you will use during the building of the column, set the angle of the jig and screw the two together

I have a common jig that I made (but did not invent) for laying twisted columns. Over the years I learned a few tricks on how to not get half-way through a project. On the only sunny day that I had to work in weeks, I broke my jig and had to make a replacement.  The jig consisted of two separate right angles of wood that you place the template in and set your angle. Here is how I made mine.

First, I used oak, because when a pine jig gets wet and sits in a hot truck it will tend to become twisted.  Second, I decided to use pocket joints instead of just screwing the corners together, because it tends to stay stronger longer when you drop it, Um…yes, I drop mine quite a bit. Third, since I drop it, I pocket drill both sides so I can put it together from the other end when I need to.

bricklaying-twist-7Set the jig on the column and install the next course

Fourth, you will need to drill holes in the sides of the jig to attach both angle pieces together (this is what creates the twist).  When putting the two pieces together use soap on the screws that you put into your pre-drilled holes and go slow, you do not want to split the wood.

Fifth, I have two ways that I use to square up my work, I can either mark the long end of the jig or attach a short piece to the long leg- they both work, it becomes your preference. Last but not least, I keep the pocket joints on the outside so they can stay cleaner longer if and when I need to unscrew them to put in my bag.



bricklaying-twist-8You can mark the end of the jig to help you line up the outside brick

We have been talking about building columns, but many of the principals we have discussed can apply to chimneys.  I would like to take a moment and share with you some of the most outstanding craftsmanship anyone in our industry has ever seen.  The chimneys were constructed 21 years ago by a young man who, as a master mason, was getting ready to change directions in his career and move from the field to the teacher, mentor, code presenter, and consultant role, working for a division of the Brick Industry Association.

This mason, who has mentored me as well as hundreds of others, is respected in the collegiate, architectural, engineering, and contractor circles like no other.  He was a subject matter expert for the National Center for Construction Education and Research, which means, he edited all three of the textbooks that the trades are using today.

bricklaying-twist-9You can also place a small block on the end of the jig to help you line up the outside brick

His name is Brian Light, one of the finest gentlemen our industry has seen, but he does tell one fib: he says that he did not cut brick with his trowel. Instead, he always said, “ that is what a saw is for.” Okay, I guess I might buy that.  Brian is ready to retire to spend time with his lovely wife and family and has made a difference to this industry and many of the industry professionals.  Jerry Painter said today that “Brian is one of the finest men he has ever met.” I will agree with that….but still wondering about the whole cutting a brick thing.


bricklaying-twist-10View at an angle that shows the beginning of the twisted brick column







bricklaying-twist-11Pocket joint example

totalflash-panel-flashing systemYou can create a better buildings through the implementation of compatible materials.

The walls of today’s masonry buildings are becoming more complex than ever as designs are modified to meet new energy code requirements. These modifications require more components in walls than in the past, and these components can come from different manufacturers.

A basic masonry cavity wall is simply two wythes of masonry separated by a space or cavity of varying dimensions. Masonry is among the most ancient of building materials, but until fairly recently, masonry walls were solid masonry with no cavity between the inner and outer wythes. Also called “barrier walls,” solid masonry walls were the only types that could be built at one point, due to limitations of materials manufacturing and building technology. Barrier walls relied on sheer mass to provide structural strength, resistance to heat transfer and water infiltration protection.

Now, designers must choose from a wide variety of materials to specify a sustainable wall that meets today’s exacting energy codes. All of the materials must perform together, although they are made by a differing manufacturers who may not test their products for compatibility with other companies’ products.

Let’s shed some light on which of the most commonly used materials are compatible from both a materials composition and functionality standpoint, as well as which should never be used together.

Bricks and mortar

The bricks and mortar of the outer wythe must be matched to provide a look that coincides with the designer’s vision, plus a combined compressive strength that supports the weight of the wall and any other materials attached to it. Bricks are locally manufactured, so brick appearance and strength will vary depending on the raw materials used and each manufacturer’s individual processes. Standard clay bricks and lightweight bricks using materials such as fly ash are available. Please consult your local brick manufacturer to determine the right type of brick to specify for each job.

Brick ties and stone anchors

A variety of ties are available for cavity walls to link the outer wythe to the structural wall. The most effective are three-part systems that consist of a barrel that has been engineered specifically for the cavity width, with a screw designed to penetrate the specified structural backup wall. Examples of this include concrete masonry units (CMUs), or steel or wood studs with sheathing; a plastic clip that acts as both a thermal break and a dissimilar metals break; and the wire tie, which can be hot-dip galvanized or stainless steel.

Stone anchors must be custom manufactured and typically are made from stainless steel to avoid galvanic responses between the ties and minerals in the natural stone. Cast stone, which is actually concrete, does not require stainless steel. However, given the small cost difference relative to the cost of anchor failure, stainless is the better choice, since it eliminates compatibility problems.

Wire reinforcement

Ladder-type or truss-type horizontal joint reinforcement is used in CMU structural walls to provide lateral stability. Truss-type reinforcement may be incompatible with CMU walls with full or partially grouted cells, not because of a materials issue, but because the cross wires can interfere with vertical rebar placement and grout flow. Minimum wire thickness is 9 gage or .1483 inches, and mortar bed thickness must be at least twice the thickness of the embedded wire.

Assure you specify stainless steel, hot-dip galvanized after fabrication or epoxy-coated wire to avoid in-wall corrosion. Ladder-type wire reinforcement may be formed in a way that spans the cavity, either with solid wire or with eyes designed for use with separate pintles, so it acts as both CMU reinforcement and a brick tie. It is highly recommended that ladder-type wire reinforcement that does not extend past the exterior of the CMU backup wall be used in combination with the separate brick anchors described above. This allows greater movement in the wall and provides an effective thermal break.

Airtight and watertight washers

For maximum energy efficiency, use 2-inch diameter plastic washers with the brick tie barrel anchors when they are penetrating RI in the cavity. This helps to seal out air and moisture while permanently attaching the insulation. One manufacturer’s washers also have pre-spotting prongs that embed into the insulation for easy on-the-wall veneer anchor assembly and attachment through the RI and into the substrate. Two manufacturers of washers, ties and fasteners have tested their products to be compatible and are also components in a complete wall system. This means that all components, including WRB, mortar dropping collector, wall flashing, pre-formed corners and end dams, and weep vents are proven compatible and have passed NFPA 285.

With all the components available to the designer and builder in modern masonry cavity walls, it can be time consuming to process. But it is important to verify that all selected components are compatible for material performance and functionality, as well as with the environment in which they’re installed. Fortunately, manufacturers are offering tested wall systems in which multiple components have been proven compatible, making the designer’s job faster and less risky.