Warren visited the home of A.G. Zalal in Raleigh, N.C., to demonstrate how a classic brick barbecue is built. Zalal had two other grills on his property, neither one getting much use.
One is the home's original, which dates back to the 1930s. Its replacement, a stainless steel grill, also demonstrated all the characteristics of a neglected outdoor cooking space. Zalal was looking forward to seeing a new one. And, with a little assistance, Warren would have Zalal's new brick barbecue ready in no time at all.
Built on a Solid Foundation
The first step in constructing a barbecue of brick is to provide an adequate foundation. To ensure our foundation was a good one, Warren says a crew came out a few days ahead of time and poured a six-inch deep concrete slab that measured four feet by four feet. The size of the slab was determined from the plans provided by the brick industry. Whether the concrete foundation is poured by yourself or a professional, Warren says keep the following tips in mind:
- First, you want to get it thick enough. The foundation should be between four and six inches thick.
- Second, you want to put a bit of steel within the slab to protect it from heaving in winter. To do this, lay some rebar or metal fencing into the concrete base before it dries.
- Finally, be sure the slab is pitched on an angle away from where the fire pit will be located. An eighth of an inch pitch per foot should be enough to keep the water from dampening your barbecue.
The bricks for the barbecue were selected to match the style of Zalal's home. They are called "tumbled" bricks and have a look of a rather old brick despite the fact that they are brand new. To get the aged look, the bricks are "tumbled" against a solid surface before they are dried. Warren says the finished product leaves a brick like no other. You can find tumbled bricks and a host of others at your local brick showroom or studio.
Mixing the Mortar
The last step before laying bricks is to find a designated mixing area. A wheelbarrow and hoe are the tried and true choices of the pros and do-it-yourselfers everywhere. Besides, they're probably sitting in your shed or garage with not much else to do. To create the perfect blend of mortar, mix in three parts sand (not beach sand, but sand available at your local home improvement store or brick retailer) and one part masonry cement. Using the hoe, dry mix the ingredients before adding water.
Warren says that getting the right consistency of the mortar is very critical. "If you get it too loose, it compromises the structural integrity of it. If you get it too hard, it's really difficult to work with," he says. "It should be of a creamy consistency that will slowly slide off the knife." Think Dairy Queen soft-serve.
Once you've gotten the right consistency, transfer a small amount of mortar to a board you can use as a palette. Working with a smaller amount of material with help give you better control of the mortar. Once you've transferred the mortar to a board, move it close to the area where you are working. Using a trowel, roll a small amount of mortar (about the size of a large cigar), scoop it up and lay a cylinder-like run of mortar on the concrete slab. The amount of mortar on the slab should be more than enough to provide a bed for one brick. Once the mortar is in place, run the tip of your trowel down the center to create a "V" in the mortar. This will ensure good coverage along the bottom of your bricks.
Buttering the Bricks
Once you've installed the perfect bed of mortar, you'll want to do something that's called buttering the bricks. You'll only need to butter the brick on the sides that will be adhering to another surface (the end bricks will only be buttered on one side).
To butter a brick, put the mortar on the inside of your trowel and slide the material on each of the brick end's four sides (Note: You do not need to mortar the bottom of the bricks because they will lay in the bed of mortar). The mortar should not be able to slide off the brick. It should stick like gum to a chair. If it doesn't, you'll want to check your mixing ratio. Once the brick is buttered, take the brick over to where you want and, using your trowel handle, tap it down leaving a 3/8 to 1/2 inch space from the slab. Clean up the excess mortar with your trowel blade as you go. If you move quickly enough, you can move the excess mortar over to your next bed area.
Once you've laid the first brick, it's just a matter of following the design plans as to where they will go. Make sure you keep the area between the bricks and beds (or joints) consistent. You'll also want to check each brick for level as you go. When you reach the second course (or row) of bricks, be sure to stagger them. Bricks must not be stacked in columns, otherwise your wall will lack strength and fall.
Smoothing out the mortar between the bricks is called "jointing." Doing it is relatively simple. Using a concave jointing tool, you'll apply a minimum amount of pressure while dragging it along the bed (horizontal) and head (vertical) joints. Warren says to be sure to do this lightly. You are not trying to force the mortar out of it space. You're just smoothing it out to ensure a good seal so your barbecue will resist any penetration of rain. Brush away any excess material with a fine nylon bristle brush.
Installing the Grill Supports
Our barbecue plans call for two levels of grill grates, which will be placed on the 10th and 13th courses of brick. A support should reveal enough from the face of bricks to hold a grill grate with enough strength to support whatever it is you plan on cooking. For our grill, we are using 3/8 inch bolts that have been spray painted black with a high heat paint in order to match our grates. A bolt or piece of rebar any larger in diameter would make your bed joints inconsistent.
To install the bolts, just lay them across the tops of the bricks spaced according to the design plan. Then mortar your next bed and brick your next course. It's that simple, says Warren. Just be sure to keep your bolts aligned with one another as you're working. Our bottom course can serve as an extra grilling space or hold a pan to accommodate a bed of charcoal.
After a day's work, Warren led A.G. Zalal to the finished product to get his opinion. "I think the bricks look good. They are pretty hardy," Zalal said before adding that he hoped to use this barbecue more often than he did the previous ones on his property.
Warren assured Zalal that the bricks come with a 100-year guarantee, which should make for plenty of opportunities, but advised Zalal to wait a week before lighting his first fire. That's how long the brick and mortar will need to form a strong enough bond to ensure generations of backyard barbecues.