How To Use Mortar for Brick Paths and Steps

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Throughout May and June we have been scraping back the evenings and weekends to get to grips with the new paths in the potager. A big part of that has been the steps leading up through the six beds of the potager to the chicken run, the greenhouse nestled beyond. The biggest part of this has been the steps which I showed you how to make last time we looked at the paths. Next time we look at this area I will concentrate on the beds and show you what has been planted and what is left to be planted. Today it's all about getting the dry mortar mix in to the gaps between the steps to set them firm. 

Brick steps, life on pig row

I am using a number of tools today including a water spray to wet the bricks before brushing in the mortar. I have discovered over the years if you add a little liquid soap it stops the mortar from drying out too quick and allows it to bond more strongly to the bricks. I have also used PVA in the past but this can create an impermeable mortar that doesn't allow any water to filter through.

Water sprayer

I will be using an old trusted hand brush for brushing in the dry mortar mix into the gaps and generally spreading it down the steps to collect up any excess.

Hand brush

The mortar mix I am using is 3.5 parts cement to 9 parts sand. Normally it would 3:9 or 1:3 but I have discovered over the years that sometimes a little more of cement in a dry mix allows it to set hard because there is no non-bonded sand in the mix. That is something I look out for, so I only mix 3.5 parts cement to 9 parts sand when I am doing a section of brickwork. I can always mix more and it stops me discovering hidden pockets of sand in larger mixes. I mix most of my concrete and mortar by hand, and these hidden pockets of sand can be a problem in manual mixes compared to using a concrete mixer. My Dad always told me to mix less by hand to prevent this, better to keep the ratios right in the long run than to have to lift the whole thing as parts of it crumble due to these sand pockets. Also, frankly I couldn't life anymore nowadays.


Then the Heath Robinson in me calls to the wild and I use a large plant label as a way to pack the mortar mix tightly into the gaps between the bricks. Anything long and thin will do the job, let the Heath inside you find something magical and strange to use as a hand tool.

Plant label

First I will use a hand brush to clean away any dirt from the bricks and spray with water making sure it trickles down between the bricks. These bricks have been cleaned when they were set in steps but time has passed, rain has fallen, weeds have started to grow from the divots in the bricks - the dry mortar will also put pay to that in the future as these gaps will be filled - but this act of brushing and spraying moves away any grease or dirt.

Brushing down

I then generously dump mortar onto the bricks and use the brush to gently sweep it into the gaps between the bricks. I don't sweep as I would a dirty yard, this is more like caressing a gorilla that you don't want to notice you. Soft and gentle wins the ape. Soft and gentle fills the gaps. 


You can't shake the mortar in to fill the air gaps, so in comes that Heath Robinson tool, the large plant label and I use it to pack the mortar down. I then brush in more dry mix and repeat. I then brush it again gently to remove any excess.



It doesn't matter if the excess tumbles down to the next set of steps as I am working backwards and the mortar will be used. 

Brick steps

It's then a case of repeat across the width of the steps and down making sure that all the gaps are filled. You will discover that some of the mortar towards the edge of the brickwork won't take. I could have placed a piece of wood here to give the mortar something to rest against as it set. This would have given me a square finish flush with the bricks but frankly I like the aesthetic of this looking like it has been here sometime, as if rain has worn the mortar away as it trickled between the bricks. I'd rather do this than the harsh mortar finish against old bricks. That would be jarring and not what this garden is about. This garden is about reflecting, about my Dad

brick steps

I then use the spray again to dampen down all the brickwork. Even on overcast days I find on steps that mortar can crumble without doing this and come morning you find little patches of hardened mortar on the steps and not in the gaps. It's overcast but warm today, the sun keeps coming through and it is hard and hot, a breathlessness to the warmth that requires me to add a little moisture to the steps to stop this from happening.

Brick steps, potager

The final result though is lovely and shows what can be done with bricks destined for the skip. We have a few more brick edges to do, a gate to build to keep the hens out (hidden behind the shading which keeps them cool and stops them eating the nasturtiums in the tyres) and then gravel, lots of gravel to make the paths, to help me if I fall, to let the water through and to make a satisfying sound as I walk across it. 


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