Before attempting to repair your adobe home, it is critical that you first determine exactly what kind of adobe you have. This is not as easy as it sounds, because there are many different kinds of adobe homes. In general, when people think of “adobe,” they visualize the kind of adobe often romanticized in old movies and in pictures of settlers moving out west: mud adobe.
Mud adobe is your typical adobe, or what comes to mind when someone thinks of the word “adobe.” It is a massive mud brick that was made from digging moistened soil out of the ground, placing this mud mixture in wooden forms, and then left out in the sun to dry for a specific time to harden. The wooden forms were removed and the bricks were again left to cure in the sun.
These earth bricks were then laid up into walls, using the same mud mixture as mortar. Often, regular cement mortar was substituted for the traditional mud mortar.
But this is not to suggest that all adobe homes were constructed from this kind of adobe. Here in Tucson where I live, 98% of all the adobe homes that I repair are not made out of this traditional mud adobe, but rather out of “burnt adobe.” There are at least two varieties of burnt adobe here in Tucson: Sasabe and Querobabi adobe. This kind of adobe, though similar to mud adobe, is sufficiently different in nature as to require an entirely different method of repair and restoration.
Besides burnt adobe, there is “asphalt stabilized mud adobe.” Then there is “cement stabilized mud adobe.” There is also “San Luis adobe” which, in appearance, is much different than any other kind of adobe.
In this brief introduction to “adobe repair,” you can quickly understand why it is important that you correctly asses what kind of adobe you have before embarking on a repair/restoration strategy. If you fail to determine exactly what kind of adobe you have, you will probably embark on a repair method or strategy that could do more harm than good.
One suggestion I give to my customers who may not know what kind of adobe they have is to take a picture of their adobe and text or email it to me. If you have a smart phone and know how to use it, this is a simple procedure and texting me a couple of pictures is the easiest way to do this. I understand, though, that many of my customers are unfamiliar with, or do not have, smart phones and this might not be an easy option.
Why I Abandoned the “crushed adobe” repair method
The following edited article comes out of one of the chapters in my book, “Repairing and Preserving Your Adobe Home“:
(Please note: The following information is used for burnt or fired adobe only. It is not used for any other type of adobe. This point is critical, for repairing structures that are registered as “historical structures” require an entirely different restoration mindset and process than burnt adobe. If you have a “mud adobe” home (meaning your adobe was made from mud/dirt/clay dug from the ground, straw added to the mix, then poured into wooden forms, allowed to “set-up” or harden and then stacked in the sun to dry), the following article is not for you. )
When I first started in the adobe repair business in the eighties, I had no knowledge in repairing deteriorated adobes. Pulling out the yellow pages, I started thumbing through the listings until I came across “Adobe Materials and Contractors.” Back in the early eighties there was not an overabundance of contractors or companies listed in this section; now, in the year 2013, there are even less.
I called several companies that were listed and discovered some only sold adobes; they did not repair or apply any type of water repellents to them. I did speak with three different contractors that specialized in repairing adobe, but only one would give me any information. The other two were tight lipped about their repair process and told me they were not interested in giving out any “trade secrets.”
One contractor was willing to talk and had no qualms about sharing information with me. He explained that he collected broken adobes and pulverized them into powder, adding a binder to this powdered adobe and using this as his patching material.
This sounded fairly simple and straightforward, so after politely ending our conversation and thanking him for the information, I decided that adobe repair didn’t seem so difficult anymore. Little did I realize at this point how difficult and frustrating it would prove to be.
I picked up some old broken adobes at a local builder’s supply, (they gave them to me for free), took them home, put the pieces onto a drop cloth, and broke these pieces into smaller pieces with a hammer into hundreds of even smaller pieces. I sifted these pieces onto a one-quarter inch screen, took this and screened it again with window screen, and collected the leftover dust into a five-gallon bucket. This resulting dust was extremely fine…. almost like baby powder.
The immediate problem with this system was the time and physical effort involved in getting the necessary powder from the larger pieces of broken adobe. Certainly doing this by hand was fatiguing and time-consuming, yet I believed that this was the price I had to pay in order to correctly repair the adobes. After hours of brutal labor, I was able to fill up a five gallon bucket most of the way and used this “adobe dust” as my patching material.
Here are several more reasons why I no longer use this method to repair my adobes:
1. Crushed adobe repairs do not last nearly as long as other type of repairs that I now use and have perfected. One reason for this is that the crushed adobe is quite porous. When I previously made repairs using the crushed adobe, I was surprised at how much SILOX (our proprietary water repellent formulated specifically for the unique characteristics of adobe) they would soak up. I would have to make pass after pass to get these patches to the point where they stopped absorbing the water repellent.
One of my competitors tells his customers that he must return to their home every certain number of years to reseal their home so that his crushed adobe repairs will not fall apart. His system relies on the water repellent to maintain their ability to withstand moisture. He knows that the crushed adobe is extremely porous; once the water repellent begins to wear away his repairs actually begin to attract water because of their porosity. How often does he recommend to his customers that they reseal their homes? Every two to five years.
I explain to my customers that my repairs never need to be sealed. My repair methods are such that they are truly a “stand alone” system, never needing any type of water repellent to make them weather and water resistant. On small jobs, where the customer only needs, or wants, a handful of adobes repaired and not their entire house sealed, I will come out and do the repairs, assuring them that I don’t need to apply any type of water repellent to the repairs. Below is a case in point:
Recently I was called by a gentleman to come out to his home and give an estimate on doing some adobe repair and then treating it with a water repellent. His name was not familiar to me, but the address he gave was. When I arrived at the home for the appointment I immediately recognized it as one that I had done some repair work on about six or seven year’s prior. What made this more interesting was that I had taken several pictures of the repairs in my picture portfolio that I show customers when I bid work for them.
The repairs looked as if I had just done them the previous day. They were unchanged and were holding up perfectly with no deterioration visible. The previous owners (it had changed hands twice before the current owner bought it) did not want me to apply the SILOX to their home, but just to make the necessary repairs. Years later was proof of the quality of my work, and after showing the customer these pictures and explaining my repair process, he contracted with Adobe Masters to do additional repair work and treat both his house and surrounding walls with the SILOX.
I contrast this story with actual interactions with other customers who call me up and are furious with my competitors, who charge them huge sums of money to repair hundreds of adobes on their homes, and after only a couple of years they are falling apart. The common denominator? They are all repaired using the crushed adobe method.
Here is a link to a page on a website that gives one person’s experience with their adobe home.
(Note: as of 1-2013, this link is no longer available) The fascinating part of this particular page is how the homeowner decided on the particular contractor to use to restore his home. Note that he mentioned the name of my business, Adobe Masters, as one of the “adobe orientated professionals listed in the yellow pages” (see paragraph seven). Unfortunately, this individual never called me out for an estimate, but did call two of my competitor’s.
As you read this page, the owner speaks glowingly of the contractor who did the work, even including some nice photos and commentary of the ongoing project. Yet at the bottom of this article, in paragraph 12, this man writes:
“Editor’s Note: All is not well in my world of burnt adobe. Signs of weathering are back – individual brick surfaces have once again begun to raise and peel. Some of the repairs made with new adobe brick have started to crumble and all the brick could use another coat of sealer to repel moisture.”
As you read this article, you will notice that one of the photos speaks of a “secret sauce”. (See the second photo) This “secret sauce” is none other than the crushed adobe I have been speaking about, which is prone to failure, and this is one example of one person’s experience with it.
Note also, in the same article, the following (found in the first paragraph after the photos):
“The repaired (resurfaced) adobe looked different from the original, now weathered, adobe on my house, but I could live with the new hard surface protecting the bricks. (If your adobe house has a white wash, then you’d never notice the repaired bricks.)”
I address this particular issue below (see #2). I will disagree with the statement that a white-wash over the “secret sauce” repairs will cause these to not be noticed, because it won’t. They will still be very noticeable and be glaringly evident. I would encourage my readers to contact the owner of this website to see what he would personally say of this work that he had done.
I give this information in detail because it is public information, freely available on the Internet to anyone who wishes to read it. My intention is not to “slam” my competitors or accuse them of wrongdoing; rather, this is using the free market system of ideas to compare and contrast different methods and allow you, the reader, to make up your own mind based on the available facts.
Like you, I want to be an informed “buyer” of contractor services, whether it be wanting a bid on a new air conditioner, landscaping services, a new roof, etc. I have found that the vast majority of people seeking to contract out their adobe needs have very little knowledge of the proper–and improper–restoration methods that are available. This website will help “level the playing field” and empower the average adobe homeowner to make better, informed decisions on what can be a very costly endeavor: restoring your adobe home.
2. Crushed adobe repairs usually “stick out” from the walls and appear artificial, looking like a patch job was done to the house instead of the repairs blending seamlessly into the surrounding bricks. This is caused when you trowel over a repair that previously needed to be filled in with the Portland cement and sand mix because the damage to the particular adobe was so great. This final pass, that of the crushed adobe, “rides” on top of these other passes. This results in a patch that is at a slightly higher level, or thickness, than the original adobe or the surrounding undamaged adobes, which results in them “sticking out” from the others. When the light is just right the height difference is quite noticeable and, in my opinion, unsightly.
My method of repair results in no such height difference. I trowel on only enough material to match the height of the other bricks and then I apply the colorant. If the color is close, the end result is a repair that looks practically identical to the original adobe and is difficult to notice.
These three photos above are examples of the “crushed adobe repair (also known as ‘the secret sauce’)” method, taken in Tucson, AZ at the NW corner of Oracle Rd. and Ina Rd.
Notice the color difference between these “patched” adobes using the crushed adobe with the original wall. They don’t match, do they? (If your monitor’s screen color settings are not calibrated correctly, you may not notice the problems with these photographs. I was looking at these photos on a friend’s website and his color settings were so far off that you could not see the problems. I adjusted his color settings and then the we were able to clearly discern the problems.) This is one of the severe drawbacks with using crushed adobe as a repair method. Since this is a highly visible commercial building, I believe these repairs have detracted from the look of this business.
3. Crushed adobe can be difficult, even impossible, to remove when it comes in contact with places where it must not remain, i.e. the mortar joints. I make it a point to clean out the surrounding mortar joints after I finish my repairs so that no residue is left that would stain them. Getting the repair material in these joints is simply standard procedure and happens frequently. Yet the crushed adobe actually stains the surrounding mortar joints. This can be impossible to clean out, leaving the mortar joints a dull, reddish color that draws even greater attention to the repair area.
When using my proprietary repair material, if I get some on the joints it is usually never a problem; the patching material is the same basic color as the original joints. When everything dries it is not easy to see the difference in color. Sometimes the original joints, because of age, weathering, and someone using the wrong water repellent on the walls, is a dirty, gray color, and this always presents a bit of a challenge to try and them match the new repair material with the old. Still, the color difference is never as noticeable as when the crushed adobe becomes embedded in the joints.
In all fairness, I must list one of the benefits of using crushed adobe as a repair method: color retention. Crushed adobe, as far as I can determine, keeps its color longer than topical colorants which are commonly used in adobe repair. Several years ago on a large repair project on a home in Tubac, AZ, the crushed adobe repair method was used to repair quite a number of adobes over fifteen years ago. Though the repairs themselves are quite ugly, the color of these repairs has remained basically the same.
It appears that the correct ratio of glue to adobe dust was also used, as the repairs have lasted for an amazing amount of time. My customers, who do not believe in applying a water repellent to their adobe (and their home has suffered because of their decision), have never had a water repellent applied to the home. Some of the crushed adobe repairs on the home are falling apart and flaking, but many of them are still holding onto the walls quite nicely.
Again, I used the crushed adobe repair method for years without experiencing too many problems. If used correctly, this is not a bad method, though quite labor intensive in obtaining the needed amount of adobe dust to actually make the repairs. For my needs, though, all the drawbacks of this method that have been previously discussed has made it an option that is not feasible for my company’s needs. If you have questions, feel free to email me at “firstname.lastname@example.org”, or call me at (520) 331-4004.