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Problems of removal of cement from masonry tools and equipment
Ugh, your masonry trowel is caked with dried mortar. what do you do
You have three options:
Throw it out.
Work with it as it is.
Clean it up.
The first two options are not satisfactory. If you toss your mucky tool, you should go buy a new one. If you continue to work with impure tools, your work will become tedious.
It makes sense to protect your tools and keep them in good working order for the next day’s work.
Caring for tools and cleaning residual mortar and concrete has been essential for ages.
“Old Stone Age” people certainly cleaned their tools especially of blood after a day’s killing. (Sorry to mention the gore, but these were hunting times.) Large stones found along the river banks were chipped to make early tools and they may have been washed into these waters. We can choose to repair rather than throw away tools that people made even 40,000 years ago.
Furthermore, mortar – a flexible substance used to join parts together – has improved construction since 6500 BC. This mud and clay technique was replaced around 500 BC when the Greeks discovered that pozzolana (volcanic ash around Pozuoli, Italy) created a better bond when mixed with lime and water.
Before the 1st century AD, the Romans fortified different types of (fine to coarse) formulas with lime and water. Their results were Roman mortar (with sand) and Roman concrete (with broken stone) which streamlined the construction process.
The construction of the Colosseum is a prime example, although it took 10 years (70-80 CE) to finish. It was restored in 1800 and recently in 2016. Repairing such a large structure meant many masonry tools and equipment were lined up for cleaning.
Portland cement (PC or cement), named for the English Isle of Portland, gained popularity in the 1800s. This powdered limestone bonded more quickly and tightly and soon became common. Ratios of PC and different types of aggregate make up the concrete, grout, mortar, plaster, and stucco that we use today.
It is important to clean concrete and mortar from exterior areas and equipment after working with these materials. Extraneous areas can mean smears or splatters of concrete where they shouldn’t be. While the best way to clean excess from tools is to wipe them while they are still wet, this is not always possible. However, there are ways to get rid of thick concrete and mortar.
Take precautions if you are using any of these methods. Remember your personal protective equipment or PPE. Be sure to wear safety glasses, and if you’re handling acid or dissolving agents, wear gloves. Nitrile is strong and flexible.
First, the physical path. Clumps of accumulated cement work very well for tools. But what about large equipment and vehicles?
While care can be taken to avoid damaging surfaces with a wire brush, this method is best avoided if more concrete is being scrubbed from scratch-prone materials. Glass or paint, for example.
Pressure washing can be unnecessary overkill.
I once read on a forum how a mason rubbed his dirty trowels in the sand all day. One agreed to answer until he noticed that the feral cats were treating his pile as a large litter box. In other words, stay sanitary.
Many household acids can be effective in dissolving concrete and mortar, including hydrochloric (muriatic) acid and vinegar. However, higher concentrations are often required. Be aware that generic muriatic acid often contains metal contaminants and is potent. It should be absolutely thin.
Warning: Slowly add any acid to a bucket of water and not around. You don’t want to do chemical stains. More importantly, you don’t want to focus and hurt yourself or someone else/thing.
Once satisfied, rinse with plenty of water, and prepare to touch up the area. Using such strong homemade mixes often results in patchy results, but it gets the job done. Well, sort of.
Retired masonry-educator-author Dick Kreh describes a proprietary product in his glossary
“A chemical compound protected by patent, copyright, or trademark, used to clean masonry.”
Today many solutions are safer and more effective. Different cleaning agents address specific problems and take different factors into account. Some examples of differences are listed below:
Efflorescence (white salt deposits) on exterior masonry walls
Hardened cement in tools, equipment, vehicles and ancillary areas
Smoke stains on a brick chimney
Identify the problem, then address it by cleaning as gently as possible. It may be wise to apply a tried-and-tested product manufactured rather than settling for a cheap, homemade remedy.
All cleaning is basic.
According to cleaning guru Don Aslett, any cleaning includes these tasks:
“Eliminate, saturate, dissolve, and remove.”
That is, you get rid of loose debris, apply your cleaning product to the dirty area, wait for it to work, and remove what’s left.
Concrete Disintegration (CD)
Basically, here is the above 4 step process using concrete decomposition:
Remove as much loose material as possible. There is no need to protest. Just wait for the solution to do its magic in the third step.
Cover soiled areas with diluted concentrate. Spray on or use a nylon brush (brush and bucket method). Some concrete foams where it dissolves and does not move.
Let the compound sit (sit for a while). Say, 15 to 20 minutes. Allow the chemical sufficient time to penetrate and separate the cement bond. Do not let the mixture dry. Reapply if necessary.
Rinse off pasty residue.
This is the process in a nutshell.
Real life examples
Concrete disintegration will destroy any portland cement product. Here are two examples from our experience:
Power tools: wet saws
We rent wet saws with diamond blades and tables to customers for cutting tiles.
When it comes back, the saw and the body are covered in dried plaster dust. Splatters are on everything.
We spray the entire unit with concrete dissolver (already diluted) and let it sit as long as possible without letting the solution dry. The foaming action appears to increase dwell time before it dries.
After the hardened material turns to liquid and mush, we rinse it with water sprayed from a garden hose nozzle. We make sure all the residue is gone.
Next, we spray WD-40 on a rag and wipe down the contraption for a final clean. We check all moving parts such as bolts and fittings and lubricate as necessary with 321 oil using a grease gun.
Finally, we put the wet saw kit safely away so it’s stored and ready for next time.
Note: We prefer to grab our already thin-cd easy-spray-cap bottle for this job. Always practice safety precautions. In this case, wear PPE and never clean power tools while they are connected to electricity.
Hand tools: Masonry trowel
Expect messes when working with hand tools around masonry.
We try to clean as we go, but aren’t always able to stop the buildup. At the end of the day we use hand tools to make mortar or concrete pieces that we can.
Next, we submerge our crusty tools in a plastic tub in a bath of diluted concrete dissolver. After 30 minutes or so, we take them out and rinse the residual slope if there is any.
Finally, we wipe them clean with WD40 metal cleaner to help resist rust.
Note: For this job we prefer to keep a large container of CD on hand and dilute it ourselves. We fill plastic tubs with a dilution ratio of 4:1. That’s four parts water and then we add one part CD to it.
Concrete Dissolution Characteristics
Biodegradable (molecular structure derived from sugarcane)
Liquid (color varies by manufacturer)
Less corrosive (to metals such as aluminum, copper, stainless steel)
Void with water (its effectiveness is reduced)
Safe on accessory areas (except concrete because it breaks down cementing agents) Note: OK for paint, plastic, wood surfaces and more. If unsure, ask an expert.
VOC compliant (meets regulations for volatile organic compounds)
Options: Pre-diluted solution, spray cap, various sizes (from 22 fl. oz. to 55 gallon drums and custom requests), foam solution (non-flowing)
I’m using the example of washing your car to illustrate aspects about concrete decomposition (CD). The abbreviation CE stands for car example. Materials, tools and cleaners may differ between CE and CD, but the mentality is the same.
Read the instructions – on CD container and MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet). Note the precautions. This means being PPE-prepared by wearing protective equipment. Have first aid handy.
Adjust the work area – Where do you set up a (cleaning) shop? CE: Before you wash your car, you know where you work and the materials nearby.
See climate control – Pay attention to hot and cold temperatures. CE: You wait for a mild day to wash your car. Too hot and the solution may bake. Too cold and the solution may freeze. The same goes for exterior masonry work.
Dilute concentration – Some CDs come already thin. If not, follow the product instructions on how to proportion.
Do not rinse first – Concrete dissolution does not work in water. Let it sit and then rinse, not the other way around.
Trial run – Test an obscure area first.
Straighten and store – Give others the value of your life and work. Clean your cleaning area and supplies. Store the CD cap and container away from pets and children. CE: You always clean your car after washing it. You put your car wash ingredients away, clean and stored safely until you need to use them again.
Seek advice – Talk to your local building supplier or equipment distributor about how to keep your masonry tools and equipment in good condition. Ask them about the CD, how to use it, and any questions or concerns you may have.
In a simple sense – Always use it.
Cleanliness is a building best practice.
Prepare for cleaning before the actual masonry work begins. Emphasize its importance in phases of your project when:
Plan (cleanliness as a factor to take into account)
building up (Continued cleaning as much as possible while working)
Cleaning up (Daily, weekly, cleaning after project completion)
Whether you’re a DIYer or a contractor on the job, masonry is a messy job and cleaning should be a variable in your thought process. In fact, cleanliness is an aspect of vocational training. Trainees are taught to clean their sites – including the tools and equipment they use.
The non-profit World Skills Organization offers tips on concrete construction
“The individual will need to know and understand the purpose, use, care, maintenance and storage of tools, equipment and materials” and “the individual will be able to plan the work area to maximize efficiency and maintain regular cleaning discipline.”
Masonry textbooks organize tasks strategically:
purpose (what results the student should achieve)
Materials (What tools, equipment and supplies will be used)
processes (What steps will students take to finish the assignment)
Instructors also share their experiences and offer guidance. And students are graded on their work.
Tackle while maintaining your equipment evenly: Try for “A”.
Summarize the essence
The knowledge and technological improvements of previous years influence us every day. Why not take out the trouble of cleaning masonry, if there is a better way?
Concrete disintegration melts hardened mortar and clogs your tools and equipment. It’s easy and simple.
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