It has been a few weeks now since I tackled the brick mailbox project, but I thought I would mention it when I had an opportunity. When I moved into our house two and a half years ago, I discovered a stack of bricks in the garage. The bricks looked very much like the bricks used on the house, so I thought that they were probably left over from the construction some ten years earlier. Eventually I moved the bricks outside and thought I might try to build something with them, if I had the time and could discover the energy. I think it may have been a year ago or so that it dawned on me—it actually may have been a dawning on my wife Karen and she reproduced the dawn’s light on me—that the bricks had been there because the previous owners of the house had planned to build a brick mailbox. Actually, it should have been obvious to me long ago. Probably a third of the homes in our neighborhood have brick mailboxes that match the bricks of the houses.
The idea of having a brick mailbox was an appealing one—they look cool. They are especially cool-looking when they are built by actual masons. Our neighbors down the street have a cool-looking brick mailbox built by the lady's mason father. However, masons like to be paid for their skilled work and after asking what the lady thought her dad would charge to build a brick mailbox for us, with the materials supplied by us, we determined that we would need to resort to "Free Masonry", or Do-ityourself-masonry. But, the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea of having to build it.
Now, I am a relatively handy guy. I have worked in the construction industry my whole life. I even had my own roofing and home improvement business for many years. But, though I am a skilled roofer, a good carpenter, a fair drywall finisher and finish carpenter, and passable plumber, I stink on ice when it comes to masonry, for some reason. I also choose not to do electrical if I can help it—it seems like magic to me. As I say, I am pretty good with my hands, but the fine art of masonry has eluded me through the years.
I think part of my problem has been that literally all of my attempts at laying brick have come in the shape of repairs to crumbling brick walls. Early in our marriage I backed a moving van—at night, if that some how makes me look less unintelligent—into the corner of my in-laws’ home in La Mesa, California. This afforded me my first opportunity of making masonry repairs. The result was Okay, if you did not look directly at the spot too closely. My father-in-law was very magnanimous. He said it looked fine.
The next chance I had to improve my masonry skills came many years later at our home in Nashville, Tennessee. We had a short brick wall that contained a flower bed that ran along the length of our 32-foot in-ground swimming pool. The last ten feet of the wall had come apart. The property had sat empty for a couple of years or so and I had had to make major repairs to make the house itself livable. After we moved in, I tackled the yard, pool, fences, gazebo and, finally the little brick wall. I had pretty good success and satisfaction with everything but the brick wall. Again, if you did not look directly at it, it was fine. It also helped if you had vegetation hanging down over the edge a bit.
I think the next attempt was at our home in Topeka, Kansas. Again, we had a brick wall—this time, about four feet high that was falling apart. It was at the end of our house and was actually a big planter attached to the brick veneer that covered the lower half of the front of the house. The inside of the planter was made of cinder block and the outside was made of long narrow specialized brick that, of course, I could not find anywhere. Big sections were breaking loose where the bricks were broken in half. I either had to tear it out, or try to piece it back together. As I said, I could not find that type of brick anywhere, so I felt, to my great displeasure, that I had to try and piece it back together. It was a bear, as they say. Somehow, I was able to get the little and big (and very heavy) sections back in a semblance of a masonry wall. Of course, it had a slight—I am being gracious to myself here—bulge, and there were few—actually quite a few—places where the joints between bricks were in line with joints between broken bricks. The original color of the bricks were a pink, salmon, color, which we thought was pretty ugly, so we had decided to paint the upper wood siding of the house a light blue and all of the brick a dark blue. This made the house look much nicer and helped hide the flaws in the brick work. Again, if you did not look directly at the planter wall, or too closely at it, it looked fine.
So, having had little success, in my mind, with masonry, I was not eager to do it again. But, Karen would bring up the idea of the “brick mailbox” every now and then and she would find plans on the internet. I would groan. Finally, I conceded, warning Karen that I was not a mason and the outcome would likely not be pretty. The mailbox would be by itself with nothing else around it to take your eye off of it. You had to look at it directly to put mail in it or take mail out of it. I did not relish the thought of the mail deliverer snickering or feeling sorry for us six times a week. But I picked a Saturday to get started, but then changed to a day earlier, because rain was expected that day. With Karen by my side, we started laying brick the night before and got a few courses laid. The next day we got everything done (with almost no bickering or dissention in the ranks) except the cap. The cap had to be ordered and would not be available for a couple more days. There had been some debate about using the old mailbox or getting a new, bigger, one. After the mail lady, who came by while we were working on the project voiced her opinion that we should definitely get a bigger one—it would make her life more bearable—we opted for a new box.
I was actually pretty surprised at how good the thing looked. I told my son, Dylan, to come out and see his parent’s handiwork. He came out, admired it, said, “Cool!”, and then proceeded to grasp the top brick and tugged at it to see how sturdy it was. Of course, the mortar had not really set yet, so the few bricks pulled away. We were both astonished and speechless. At least I was for about a second. I said, “What were you thinking?” Dylan was mortified, or perhaps “mortarfied”, and I was thinking, “No, no, no! I don’t want to have to do masonry repairs again this soon!” But, I made the repairs and covered the project with a tarp to keep the rain off of it while it dried and hoped that it would be strong enough when we eventually put the cap on.
When the cap was ready, I went to pick it up and discovered that a 24” by 24” cap is extremely heavy. Since, the structure was close to five feet high, it was going to be awkward, at best, to lift the cap in place and get it centered, with about an inch to grasp it on the four sides. I was not able to lift it alone and felt like I needed several people lifting it together to get in place without having to move it around after the fact. A couple of days later, Dylan made up for tearing the top course of bricks off by bringing two of his friends over and helping me lift the cap out of the back of my track and laying it in place on the top of our new brick mailbox.
The result was really pretty good. Our new brick mailbox looks great, except on the back lower corner where the half-bricks are laid on top of each other (for the soldier row at that level) and do not quite come out far enough to be flush with horizontal courses above and below. But, if you do not look directly at the spot and stand back…
Just like the sprinkler system we installed earlier in the summer and the section of vinyl fence we installed the summer before, I could do it even better now, if I had to, but I hope