The Myth of the Thin Brick Installation system for interior walls
For coming up on twenty years now, I have been involved in the manufacturing and marketing of thin brick tile. Thin brick has come a long way in that time, I once had to explain what exactly a thin brick was. And we were constantly fighting against the preconceived notion that our thin brick veneer was a fake looking vinyl tile in the shape of brick, like the ones that people remember from the 1970’s. But perhaps the most frustrating idea that we are still trying to combat, is the notion that you need some type of a “system” to successfully install thin brick for interior use. Companies have marketed aluminum grids, or systems with tabs or holders, for thin brick for decades. Indeed a google search for “thin brick” will bring up these systems on the first page, and for people that might have the occasion to install thin brick only one time in their lives, the confusion that this is a necessity to a thin brick veneer installation is something that the manufacturers and sellers of these systems are counting on.
I want to set the record straight.
You do not need a system to install thin brick that is different than any other tile installation. Brick is a ceramic. When it is cut thin, the product you have is an unglazed ceramic tile. Period, end of story. The fear mongers have done a great job of perpetuating the myth that thin brick is something different. Because it has the word “brick” in the name, they put forth the idea that it must be heavy and need some added support compared to other ceramic tile. This is far from the truth. Most thin brick weighs under 5 lbs. per sq. ft. Compare this to a marble wall tile, which is more likely in the 6 lb. per square foot category. And yet, you will not find similar tabs or grid systems for use on marble tiles. You would think you would, based on the rhetoric of the system manufacturers, the system makes the install easier, it prevents slippage, etc., yet these systems do not exist.
The truth is, with modern modified thin set mortars your tiles, or thin brick tiles, will not slip. With the right mortar and notch trowel, once you set a tile, it is not going to move unless you decide to move it. So why would anyone go through the added step of installing a grid on a wall? The grid will not mechanically affix the tile to the wall, the mortar or adhesive does that. All you really need to do is snap chalk lines (we like every third row) so you can align your thin brick properly, spread the mortar with a notch trowel, and set your tiles. Then grout them once they are dry, with either sanded grout or mason’s mortar.
On top of this, thin brick systems have an additional drawback; they are made to a fixed height in each row. I am sure there are walls where the height of the brick works out perfectly with uncut rows at the top or bottom of the installation, but the chances of this being the case are very slim. With a fixed height system, you will almost always have an unnatural horizontal cut in either the top or bottom row of bricks. If you are installing thin brick as you would any other ceramic tile, you have the option to slightly fudge your grout lines wider or narrower, so avoid any awkward cuts at the top or bottom of the installation.
So, if you are looking to install a thin brick, skip over the systems. Use a good thin set mortar or mastic and treat the brick as what it is- an unglazed ceramic tile.
Copyright 2019 Vintage Brick Salvage LLC
An 1800's era Wisconsin farmhouse built with "cream city brick"
It was February of 2016 when I first received the request for samples from the design team at Populous, the famed architectural firm known for their work building sports arenas. They were interested in using our model V-03 reclaimed “Cream City” thin brick veneer in the food service areas of the planned new Milwaukee NBA arena. We send out samples all the time, to architects, designers, business owners and homeowners. Of course, our product is not used in the final design every time- we just send the samples out right away and hope for the best.
Flash forward to the summer of 2017. I received an email saying that my product was specified for several beverage center areas of the new arena. They would use a couple of thousand feet, along with corner units. This was great news! We like all orders, but it is cool to be used in such a prominent public building, millions of people will go through this facility during its lifespan. There was only one issue- we were down to our last couple hundred feet of cream city brick. We didn’t know exactly where our material was coming from.
Fortunately, I have made many contacts throughout the state of Wisconsin over the years. I sent a message out to all my demolition contacts to let them know I was looking for Cream City brick. I was relieved when my guy Matt, who does architectural salvage in southern Wisconsin called me the next week. He was working on a farmhouse from the 1860’s, and he said it was built of cream city brick and it was coming down next week.
Cream city brick is unique. Due to a lack of iron in the clay deposits, the brick that was made in the towns along the southeast shores of Lake Michigan fired to a light cream color.It was made from the time of the first European settlers in the 1800’s up until around 1920’s when the clay reserves were being used up. The brick made earlier in this span produced harder, lighter colored brick. Towards the ending years of production, the clays deeper in the ground were producing brick that was more of a darker yellow color, with the product not as hard or with cleaner sharp edges. For making a thin brick veneer, we have always preferred the earlier brick, which is becoming harder and harder to come by.
The day after Matt called I pulled up to a tired and worn farmhouse on the outskirts of Janesville WI. Two stories high, with blue green painted window trim. The windows were gone, the property was overgrown. I found him upstairs, carefully salvaging window casings next to a wall that showed the history of the interior in layers. The wall was partially torn out in a spot, and you could see the plaster from the opposite wall leaking through the lathe, then topped by a wall that had 2 layers of 1800’s period wallpaper. They don’t make them like they used to. It is a history lesson in building methods and interior design to be in one of these structures as it is being dismantled.But what I cared about was the color and condition of the brick, and it was exactly what I was hoping for. It was the older, lighter colored, beautiful cream city brick that I needed to fulfill the order for the Bucks stadium. I made Matt a deal to buy the brick on the spot. The building came down, the brick was cleaned of mortar and palletized, and they arrived at our cutting shop the following week.
A walk through a 19th century demolition in progress is history lesson in building methods and design
We cut these into ½” thick veneer tiles, along with single piece L shape corners to match.They were shipped up to Milwaukee the following spring.
Last month, I found some time to go up and visit the new Fiserv forum, which along with serving the Milwaukee Bucks, hosts concerts and other events, and is the home to the Marquette University Golden Eagles basketball team. I attended a Marquette vs the Providence Friars game. I am a Big Ten basketball fan, so I honestly didn’t care who won this Big East game. I just wanted to see what had become of that beat-up old farmhouse I had taken a death bed tour of just a year and a half earlier.The stadium was the most modern looking arena I had ever been in, with concourses that were open to the seating bowl and playing floor.Patrons could get a beer and a sandwich and never be away from the roar of the crowd or if they went to the edge of the concourse, a view of the action.This was a great departure from any indoor stadium I had ever visited, I was accustomed to walking through a tunnel to a separate hallway ringing the actual arena, where you might as well be in a different building.The Fiserv is different, except to use the restrooms, you are always right there in the action, amongst the cheering crowd, even if you are in line at the beer stand.And speaking of the beer stand- there it was in all its original glory, my cream city farmhouse. It stood there, framing the Miller beer stand, and completely reborn.A tour of the stadium brought me to the other beverage centers in the arena that were clad in this same veneer, the Door County Distillery stand, a Jack Daniels stand and the Leinenkugel’s beer stand (this one was PAINTED but I will forgive them, the original cream didn’t go with the white/red theme of the Leinie’s Logo). It was a beautiful to see antique material worked into the design of what is otherwise an ultra-modern structure.
It was a pleasure to play a small part in the birth of this new stadium, a great to see a piece of Milwaukee history was repurposed for use in a 21st century arena.
Skintled brick was a style of brick work developed in Chicago in the 1920's that gave an extra dimension to normally flat brick walls. The acclaim for the Chicago based style of skintled brickwork was noted as a coast-to-coast trend in architecture, as reported by the Chicago Tribune in an article dated Dec 30, 1928. This brickwork style was first described by William Carver, an architect, writing for the premiere issue of Brickwork – Working Details, a periodical for The Common Brick Manufacturers’ Association of America in Cleveland, Ohio. He defined skintled brickwork as, “setting the [Chicago Common Bricks] roughly at different angles, projecting and recessing them beyond the wall line and even permitting the squeezed out mortar to remain in place; with strong and striking effect.” By publishing date, it was noted that the new style had been used by Chicago Architecture on “over fifteen hundred large homes on the North Shore of Chicago.” It additionally was described as, “the one new development in bricklaying in the last 500 years,” in the Chicago Tribune. In that particular article, the post-WWI Style of bricklaying was announced to be newly spread to New England, making the style an architecture trend that traveled outwards to Chicago, eventually hitting both coasts. The “tapestry”-like effect is said to increase the contrast of the range of dark to light buff tones of gold, yellow and pink.
The skintled 3-D effect can be replicated using thin brick by either custom cutting some the tiles to a greater thickness, or by adhering normal thin brick tile to a substrate, such as a tile backer board cut to the size of the brick, to allow it to protrude from the wall.
- Elizabeth Brickman for Vintage Brick Salvage LLC