Q: There are multiple holes in the bricks on the front of our house. I’ve had no luck finding a professional to fill the holes and match the brick color and finish as closely as possible. How can I do it myself?
A: You’ve hit on one of the facts of life today: Some home repairs are too small for a professional to want to take on, especially when construction is booming. To pay the overhead of running a business, pros need to right-size the jobs they undertake. Simple repairs, especially ones that are probably quicker than the time it would take to travel to and from the job, just don’t make the cut.
For homeowners faced with this problem, one solution is to keep a list of small tasks until they add up to a day’s work, then call a company that focuses on home handyperson-type repairs. Or, as you say you’re ready to do, you can tackle the work yourself and gradually build up your skill set.
To patch holes in bricks, there are two ways to proceed: Use caulk, or plug with a little mortar.
Using caulk might seem like the simplest solution. There’s no mixing, and you just have to snip the tip and squeeze the trigger of the caulk gun.
Caulks made specifically for patching holes in bricks don’t seem to exist, but you could probably use any caulk labeled as a sealant for exterior use or buy caulk made for patching mortar, such as Quikrete Mortar Repair. (The product contains sand, which results in a slightly rough texture, and it’s tinted gray, features that help it blend in with mortar joints.) Because the bricks on your wall have a whitewashed look, which you could only replicate with a light application of paint, make sure whatever caulk you use is paintable. Products that are 100% silicone generally are not. For situations where there is no need for paint, tinted silicone caulk, such as the bronze color made for sealing around windows and doors, might be a better option than white caulk.
There are workarounds for two possible complications: ensuring that the caulk doesn’t shrink and leave gaps, and matching the brick color.
To minimize shrinkage, you need to avoid applying the caulk in openings wider or deeper than the label specifies. Instructions with Quikrete Mortar Repair, for example, say it’s great for filling mortar joints 3/8-inch wide, but warn against using it to fill to a depth of more than 3/8-inch in one application. The reason for this warning: To grip well from side to side in a hole as temperatures fluctuate, the caulk shouldn’t need to stretch too much in depth, or the sides will probably pull loose. Because the holes in your bricks are probably several inches wide, one solution would be to first plug the holes with expanding foam that comes with an application straw, such as Great Stuff Gaps & Cracks. Squirt a dab into each hole, then cut the foam back to the maximum depth listed for the caulk you’re using, and fill that gap with caulk. Try to avoid smearing the caulk over the surrounding bricks.
To match caulk to the red color of brick, turn part of a spare brick to dust before you apply the caulk. Use sandpaper, a rasp or whatever cutting tool you have. Then, when the caulk is still wet, press the bits of brick into the surface.
This makes the patch almost invisible — unless the bricks are whitewashed, as on your house. For that, dip just the tip of a brush in white paint, and very lightly brush over the surface. Practice on paper to gauge how much paint to get onto the bristles and how lightly to brush. An inexpensive chip brush might work best, because the bristles are relatively short and sparse compared with the bristles on a higher-quality brush that’s designed to get a lot of paint onto a surface quickly.
Or you can do what my brother, who is a retired masonry contractor, recommended: Patch the holes with cement-based mortar. But you need to mix the mortar with far less water than usual, creating what masons call a “dry mix” that’s just damp enough to form into a ball. Typically, when people mix concrete or mortar, they add enough water so a slurry of Portland cement and water coats the aggregate (sand and, in some products, gravel). But for patching brick, a dry mix minimizes smears and helps keep the patch from shrinking as it cures. Concrete or mortar shrink as they cure because of the water that evaporates. A dry mix has less water, so there is very little shrinkage.
Make a ball of the dry-mix mortar that’s just big enough to fit into a hole, then tamp it in with something that is skinny and has a flat end. My brother suggested the flat end of a large construction nail. Add another ball of mortar, and another, tamping each one in before you add the next. When the hole is stuffed, neatly trim the surface.
If you opt for a mortar patch, mix some brick dust into the dry ingredients first to tint the mortar a color that will be part way between that of red brick and gray. Liquid colorants for mortar and concrete won’t work for this approach, because they color the water and work only when there is a concrete slurry. With mortar that’s only damp enough to form into a ball, the color of the aggregate prevails. So having brick dust in that mix, along with the sand, will work better. And, just as you would if you were patching with caulk, lightly brush the cured mortar with white paint. A whitewash cures all — and not just in politics.