Scam Pointing and Why it is Bad

When tuckpointing companies cut corners to save time and make more money, the end result is one that will not last! We see examples of what we call “SCAM POINTING” more often than we should, by other contractors.  It’s a bad practice, and it should never be done.

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Scam pointing delamination - modern Portland smeared over deteriorated mortar joint -less than quarter inch depth

Examples of Scam Pointing

You can see many examples of scam pointing in the pictures below. Scam pointing is a thin application of new mortar on top of the existing mortar joint surface, without removal of the existing mortar. It’s simply a thin coat of new mortar smeared on top of the existing old brick joints. Generally this new mortar will be between 1/16th of an inch to 1/4 of an inch thick. That is too thin.

Why, where, and when this happens:  Scam pointing is given that name because this generally happens when contractors are uneducated, untrained, or even worse, in cases when they intentionally misinform  their customers about the nature of the work.   The first upfront cost of scam pointing is less than half  the cost of  proper brick pointing. That’s actually an overly generous estimate, it’s often even way cheaper than that. To summarize, it’s generally done to save money and time, but only upfront, it causes damage and costs way more to fix in the long run.

In other parts of our website, we examine building lifecycle cost in greater detail.   In some cases contractors mislead their customers, but in other rare cases the property owners and real estate agents actually choose to do scam pointing.  It sounds terrible, but in rare cases where they are selling a building, their intent is to make it appear to have been pointed and not make the investment to do it right. They just smear a new coat of mortar on top of the existing mortar.

Deteriorated mortar with paint chips hidden behing cover up with of mortarMost other prospective buyers, and even their inspectors, would not be able to detect that this improper work has been done. Visually, it’s very hard to tell the difference, especially within the first few years after the scam.  (We recommend talking to a historic masonry specialist, such as our company, if you are looking for more information about the condition of your building’s brickwork.)



Understanding Real Tuck Pointing

Real tuck pointing requires the removal of the mortar, called joint raking, at the outside face of the wall, to a depth of at least 3/4 of an inch. Normally the depth of removal only goes into the wall up to 1.25″.   There’s several important reasons why mortar must be removed at the outside face of the wall before new mortar is tucked into the brick joints.

  1. A large historic masonry wall damaged by scam pointingThe remaining old mortar at the outside face of the wall, although in many cases is partially deteriorated and missing, is not fully gone.   This means that some of the mortar that remains at the outside face is still in place, yet largely deteriorated and that deteriorated but remaining mortar must be removed.
  2.  The new mortar installed during tuck pointing requires embedmentLime mortar has a relatively low tensile strength. In the case of historic masonry, it also has low compressive strength which is actually a good thing overall. (We discuss this characteristic, related considerations, and impacts of compressive strength in much greater detail on our website.) However, low tensile strength is a natural occurrence in cements, mortars and even concrete.  It is not a desired characteristic, just a reality of working with mortars.   One of the implications of mortar having a low tensile strength, is that it can shear away from a cleavage point, such as the face of a masonry wall. In this case, when pointing in mortar joints, it’s beneficial for there to be an embedment that goes deeper into the mortar joint than the height of the joint width.
  3. The depth and removal of the old mortar allows the new mortar to have a greater adhesion surface area to stick to the existing brick wall.   You can see in many of the photos below that the scam pointing mortar has delaminated from the surface of the remaining brick joints, as it lacks proper adhesion.  Delamination occurs when mortar is applied to an unsound substrate.
  4. The new coat of mortar has a binder which creates a surface to protect from ingress of moisture.  When applied excessively thin, the mortar’s ability to resist permeability is reduced significantly.

Not A Deep Enough Embedment


Scam Pointing Does Not Fix The Underlying Problems At All!

This subject bleeds into many other related topics about quality contractors, legally licensed businesses, and simple good business ethics.   The issue is not cut-and-dry and it’s a complicated subject. Overall though, scam pointing is extremely unethical, as it is related to custody of care for a client. It’s simply done to make a deteriorated brick facade appear to be better without actually fixing or improving the actual conditions. Additionally, it’s not a perfectly direct corollary, but in most cases, scam pointers also use the wrong type of mortar (mortar with too much cement). This strong pattern of present-biased bad decision making occurs with unprofessional contractors, not just because of random coincidence but because the vast majority of knowledgeable historic restoration specialists take their work more seriously, and would not do this.   In most cases, when we find scam pointing has happened, we assume it’s been done by a fly-by-night type of contractor, and not one of our knowledgeable and trained counterparts, but it’s hard to say for sure.

moss-brick-mortarWe find only a relatively small portion of DC buildings have been scam pointed, maybe just 1 in 20. However, that percentage or proportion of roughly 5% is still extremely high considering the detrimental consequences of scam pointing.

When scam pointing is done with a modern mortar it’s even worse than when done with a historic mortar. Modern mortar will trap moisture behind the face of the scam pointing skim application. In the freeze fall cycles which are ever present in the winter months of Washington DC, this leads to freezing water pressures behind the scam pointing application.   Increased hydration at that location leads to increased hydration and permeation of moisture into the brick units.  Historic bricks are somewhat impermeable but they are not completely vitreous. They have been fired at a relatively low temperature. Even high temperature fired bricks have some permeability, but low temperature fired bricks have a significantly higher level of permeability at the surface, and in turn, the scam point application will moisture to permeate into the brick and cause accelerated deterioration.

Most of the scam pointing mortar has añready fallen out at corner of walljpg

Periods Of This Type Of Masonry Work

In many cases we can tell, just from visual observation, that scam pointing occurred more in the decades of the 1960s through 1980s.   Those decades are coincident with some of the hardest economic times in Washington DC. Today it’s common to find many DC building owners covet and really care for their building as if it is a valuable investment. However, about 40 years ago these houses were generally not comparatively as valuable, and upkeep/maintenance was an even greater burden to an economically depressed city.   This is also a complicated and multifaceted aspect of the issues of property maintenance and care, but the changing economics of the city over the decades is part of the reality of historic DC properties.   And even though the prices of DC homes have increased significantly, this shady practice still occurs today.

Scam pointing may save money in the beginning, but cost the property significantly in the long term. This type of scam work is not only bad from a perspective of longevity, but actually cause harm to the building and hides the real conditions of brick masonry.

Most building owners and realtors making a quick sale, and the contractors charging the full pointing price, get away with scam pointing, due to how long it takes before the defects become apparent. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society reported on the questionable practice, back in 2019.  CHRS is an overall terrific organization and offers great resource for readers who value their historic DC properties.  A link to their newsletter here.

It’s also good, in this explanation, to highlight that there are other applications which seem similar to tuck pointing and even scam pointing but are actually different.  Color capping of mortar joints for example, looks just like scam pointing. However, color capping is different. Color capping was done historically to give mortar a unique color. In this process the mortar beds would be raked or left recessed to a depth of up to 1/2 of an inch. Then after the mortar had been installed, a follow up application of color mortar was applied to the surface of those joints. This was a practical way to give mortar a unique color, even at a time when mortar colorants were very expensive.  This is different to scam pointing, though, for a few key reasons.

  1. Other than the color pigment itself, the mortar was actually very similar to the original mortar. By having a similar binder and constituent material composition,  the new mortar had a better level of cohesion.
  2.  The capping application was applied almost directly after the the bricks were set. Because the original mortar had not cured for a long time, it was still possible for the new and old mortar to have a chemical bond.

Thin scam pointbapplication is falling out of wall

In the photo above, you can see work done by some unprofessional contractor in DC, just as bad as scam pointing,  they smeared caulk into gaps in the mortar joints instead of actually pointing the wall.  Hire a professional contractor who specializes in, understands and appreciates historic construction elements and buildings.

OVERVIEW of Color Capping exampleIn this article we talked about the following terminology and  concepts. Follow the links below for more related information from the IDS website:

  • Scam pointing
  • Proper brick pointing
  • Building lifecycle costs
  • Material delamination
  • Mortar binder
  • Permeability
  • Business ethics
  • Custody of care
  • Present-biased bad decision making
  • Joint raking
  • Embedment
  • Tensile strength
  • Compressive Strength
  • Cleavage point
  • Adhesion surface area
  • Delamination
  • Color capping
  • Mortar beds
  • Color pigment and mortar colorants
  • Cohesion
  • Chemical bond

These concepts are part of the fundamentals of historic masonry restoration, tuckpointing, and brick repair.

The links in the list above will take you to other articles with more information on defects, failures, preservation, and repair of historic masonry.  You can learn more on our blog page.  Feel free to check it out.  If you have questions about the historic masonry of your building in Washington DC, fill out the webform below and drop us a line.  We will be in touch if we can help.