Our farm buildings are older than dirt. They have what only can be described as “character.” As the farm’s central command center, the tractor shed was this year’s designated ‘special-needs’ building. This summer, we spent a huge effort repairing and preparing the inside of this building for agricultural use. By the fall, we could focus on the outside.
Good thing we did because we found that one entire corner was about to crumble and a 3-foot wide hole had eroded near the front door. (So that’s how the cats got in.) We needed to fix these problems or risk losing the whole 60x30 foot structure. How was it eroding? Just like the Grand Canyon, all it needed was time and water.
Knowing is half the battle
Fistfuls of sand pulled from inside the wall showed that the century-old mortar keeping this building standing had completely deteriorated. Stones that were once held firmly in place could now be pulled from the wall with the touch of a finger. This explained the large cracks we were witnessing. But it wasn’t until a strong downpour that I saw what was really happening. A sag in the roof gutter funneled most of the rain straight down the wall, where it seeped through the foundation and inside the building. Over the years, this constant water flow had caused entire sections of the foundation to erode.
A man of action
First, I used the tractor to slope the soil away from the building to improve drainage. Next, I re-hung the gutters and added downspouts. I then chiseled off the crumbling mortar and washed all the sand, dirt and debris away with a hose. Many of the stones were missing, so I gathered various sized field stones to use as replacements. One silver lining of doing projects like these on an old farm is that there’s always a pile of old, but potentially useful, equipment lying around. A huge metal bowl and a giant two-foot long spoon were perfect for mixing mortar.
The tricky part was figuring out how to insert new mortar into the walls where it had turned to sand. The holes and cracks were too small to use a traditional trowel, so I invented and built what might be the first ever mortar injector. For the first prototype I converted a plastic two-liter bottle into huge mortar syringe. The idea eventually morphed into a large PVC injector complete with plunger and needle, capable of holding and injecting 10 pounds of wet mortar deep into holes as small as ¾ inch wide.
After injecting over 240 pounds of mortar into the walls, I replaced the stones. Select stone, slop mortar, lodge into place, repeat. Once the wall was more or less seamless, it was time to do point work. With what looked like an oversized cake icing decoration bag, mortar was squeezed around the stones, smoothed with a trowel and cleaned with a rag. A final spray-down with a hose and this long overdue reconstruction project was finally complete.
Welcome Little Pigs
While it might be the preferred hiding place for the three little pigs, this stone building wouldn’t have stopped the big bad wolf or even a mild-mannered one. A huff and a puff would have easily brought the old walls down. On the bright side, this new mortar makeover and functioning rainwater management system should keep our command central standing for years to come.