When it comes to trowels and jointers, masons are creatures of habit. Not surprising in a trade that is thousands of years old, masons appreciate incremental refinement more than radical reinvention of their time-tested tools. Thus, over the years, most of the improvements in trowels and jointers have been subtle -- enhanced blade and handle materials, slight modifications of the shape or angle of small components, the introduction of additional sizes, and so forth.
The standard brick trowel still comes in three basic designs (named after the cities where they originated): the narrow London, wide London, and Philadelphia patterns. Although any of the three types can be used to lay either brick or block, masons typically prefer the narrow London pattern for laying brick because it is easier to use without disturbing the course line. The wide London and Philadelphia patterns are favored for laying block because they hold more mortar, especially the Philadelphia pattern, which has a squarer heel. Depending largely on blade length and handle type, professional-grade trowels average from $25 to $40.
A trowel has six components : the handle, the shank, the ferrule (the metal band where the handle attaches to the shank), the heel, the blade, and the toe, or tip. The blade and handle are of particular importance when selecting a trowel. Used more than any other masonry tool, a brick trowel must be durable; the quality of the blade has a significant impact on the tool's overall durability. A professional mason should use a trowel that is forged from a single piece of high-grade tool steel, not one with rivets from welding. To test durability, a mason should strike the trowel against a hard surface so it rings. The longer the trowel rings, the better the grade of steel.
Flexibility is another critical blade characteristic, which can be checked by holding a trowel by the handle in a vertical position and pushing the tip against a firm surface; the tip should be able to bend about 1 inch. A flexible blade reduces the strain on a mason's wrist, allows the mortar to be spread easily, and prevents the trowel from breaking . The length of the blade is also important. Professional trowels measure 9 to 13 inches long. The most common length is 11 inches, but masons who have small hands or who perform specialty work, such as laying refractory brick or building arches, often prefer a 9-inch or 9-1/2-inch blade. Extremely strong masons may favor 12-inch to 13-inch blades for increased productivity.
The handle is the part of the trowel that has seen the most innovation in recent years. Four types of handles are available: wood, plastic, leather, and soft rubber. Wood, the traditional handle type, has been around the longest and costs the least but requires occasional oiling. Plastic is extremely durable but costs a little more and tends to be affected by weather. Plastic handles can be hot and slippery in summer and cold and hard in winter. When a mason taps a masonry unit into place with a plastic handle, the plastic can spread, or mushroom, over time. Consequently, one manufacturer's plastic-handled trowels feature a hard-resin bumper that prevents the handle from mushrooming. Leather handles are very comfortable but relatively expensive, need to be oiled regularly, and are sensitive to excessive tapping.
Recently, manufacturers have been touting the ergonomic benefits of rubberized handles. In the mid-1990s, Marshalltown Trowel introduced the DuraSoft handle, actually a hard plastic handle with a soft rubbery Santoprene grip, designed to absorb the shock from a scraping blade so the working hand and wrist don't become fatigued. DuraSoft handles also feature a finger guard behind the shank to protect the index finger from calluses. Bon Tool Co. also has developed a rubberized Comfort Grip handle, available on several of its hand tools, including trowels.
Jointers (also known as striking tools) are used to finish or tool masonry mortar joints to make them more water-repellent and attractive. Usually made of high-grade, heat-treated tool steel, jointers are also available in an acrylic material that does not mark or discolor white mortar. A basic set of masonry tools typically contains five jointers: a convex jointer, a V-jointer, a joint raker (or rake-out jointer), a slicker, and a grapevine jointer. Most of these tools retail for $10 or less each.
Normally priced at around $5, the convex jointer (also called a round jointer) creates a rounded groove. The convex jointer is about 9 to 10 inches long and comes in various widths. To form straighter joints without dips, masons can use convex jointers that have long (14-inch or 20-inch) sledrunners, priced from $8 to $10. Kraft Tool's Hubbard jointer, priced at about $15, is a convex jointer that comes with four replaceable blades: one 1/2-inch, one 5/8-inch, one 3/4-inch, and one 7/8 inch blade.
The second most commonly used jointer is the V-jointer, which is made from a V-shaped piece of angled steel. The angled edged of the V-jointer creates a V-shaped groove when passed through mortar. Manufacturers also offer V-jointers with long sledrunners, which are very handy in concrete masonry construction.
A relatively recent innovation, a joint raker (or rake-out jointer) consists of a handle, two skate wheels, and a nail. The wheels ride on the edges of the brick, while the nail rakes out the joint. The nail is set to the desired depth by means of a screw.
Often made of high-carbon steel, a slicker is a flat-edged tool used to smooth and seal flush joints. Available in various widths, slickers are ideal for pointing stone or flat paving joints. They also can be used as pointing tools in tight places or in corners where a neat, clean joint is required.
Used for colonial or rustic brickwork, a grapevine jointer has a raised bead of steel in the center of the blade that creates an irregular indented line in the mortar joint. These jointers typically are priced at around $8 to $10 and are often seen in the Northeastern United States and other regions with 100- to 250-year-old masonry buildings.