Detail of a cleaned patch of stonework wall prior to repointing it.

It wasn’t that Laurelin was longing back to her student days: the islands of clothes, inhabited by stuffed animals guarding abandoned books. Maybe she did miss the one island guarded by Friemframfrutsel, but I digress from the point I wish to make: she doesn’t long back to living her life in the pig sty—porqueira in Portuguese—that her student room used to be. However, I am speaking here of a figurative porqueira. She very much intends to move into a literal pig sty soon. Well, soon… Things move slowly around the Ponte de Pedra valley. I planted “soon” here in March 2018, when I started writing this article. It’s now November. And Laurelin has yet to move from the bunk bed in our mother’s house to her “soon”-to-be cozy “Porqueira 2.0” mini-home. The next stop after “Porqueira 2.0” cannot be “sooned” by any stretch of the imagination: the 200 m² water mill, that ⓐ she disappointingly still has to figure out how to get a building permit for that, and that ⓑ she then has to turn from a few ruined walls around a big pile of rubble into something … else. So, by that measure, “Porqueira 2.0” will be ready soon.

Previously, I’ve written about another feature of Laurelin’s pig sty: the composting toilet, where Lau collects her healthy humanure, is positioned in a little alcove at your right when you enter the sty. Laurelin constructed that outdent from bricks and cement—a “good exercise for the mill 😨”, in her words. Everything left of that—including the entire back wall—is made up of stacked stones, glued together by a mix of gravity, clay and some morsels of cement spluttered on top.

Everything left of Laurelin’s dry toilet in the making was proper stacked stone. (Yep, that’s the same vantage point as in Laurelin’s humanure.)

Chip the cruft away.

As so often, with an original wall design rooted in poverty, the beautiful stonework was largely hidden behind an ugly, cementy crust, probably as soon as the original builders could afford the cement. When Marilisa and I arrived at Ponte de Pedra in November 2017, Laurelin had already been chipping away at that crust for some time, and pieces of the original wall had been revealed. With Laurelin busy working on her dry toilet, Marilisa and I could give in to the urge to peel that disgusting crust away.

The yield of Tuesday, November 14: many morsels of more-or-less crappy cement and clay that had connected and covered the odd-shaped stones until that morning.
The next day, Wednesday, Marilisa is still hacking away at the clay and cement. We’d been slowly uncovering the rustic wall going from the left to the right.

Chisel your shoulders into a wreck, or hack to the rhythm.

Marilisa—who, in 2017, was around 25 kilogram lighter than me—was less affected by stiffness and soreness while hammering her chisel than me. Granted, my tempo was a bit higher, but if you would extrapolate for strength and size, she would have been the faster, stronger chiseler. This brings me back 7 years, to 2010, when Jorrit and I spent a couple of weeks cleaning up and then repointing the stonework walls of an old farm house in the Dordogne region in France. Back then, my right shoulder had been really sore from handling the pneumatic hammer days on end. (The hand-chisel was a relief compared with the all too familiar static stress of a tool that runs on non-manual power.) The injury that flared up in 2010 wasn’t a new injury then. And, even now, in 2018, it’s not an injury of the past, as I’m only just starting to get a grip on my shoulder stability and flexibility. With my currently evolving softer attitude towards shoulder rehab + prehab, I would have myself learn from Marilisa to hack not from a continuous tension (like I am myself some sort of petrol-powered tool) but from a point of relaxation between movements. Next time, I will see what animal rhythm I can step into rather than using myself like some pent-up machine.

Here I am [at the right], soring my shoulders in 2010, while collecting repointing experience points.

“Let me brosplain that to you, sis’.”

Of course, immediately upon encountering this project, I started telling Laurelin about how amazingly professional our brother Jorrit and I are at cleaning up these old walls and repointing them with proper Portland cement. I went to some length to brosplain the techniques we used when restoring the farm wall of La Maison du Michel in France. (Just so you know: brosplaining is not the same as mansplaining. I was merely trying to be helpful and brag at the same time. If you’re looking for misogamy, look further. Another one of my sisters will be happy to femsplain to you where to look, you sexist porco pequeno.)

Disappointingly, Jorrit and I never got the opportunity to demonstrate our awesome techniques, which we had been fortunate enough to learn from Michel—an intelligent, experienced builder, who had moved from the Netherlands to restore that big, old farmhouse in the Dordogne. We were back in our respective countries—France and the Netherlands—before Laurelin embarked on her own pointing journey. She mentioned that the process was slow and frustrating. When she followed my suggestion to use a flat board to hold the mortar and a pointing trowel to literally throw the mortar into the joints, she ended up with a lot of substance seeping over her stones. The experience of her brothers turned out not to be so relevant after all: her mortar was a much softer, limier substance that what we had worked with. We were used to a tough, cementy substance, soft enough to throw deep into the joints, but hard enough not to drip out of the joints all over the stones. (Still, we went through a lot of steel brushes to brush the half-hardened, freshly pointed joints out to just a bit below flush with the stone face.)

Februari 24. Laurelin’s progressed slowly, but steadily, at about “half a meter per day” using her self-taught technique.

Let the wall breathe.

Whereas Jorrit and I had learned to use your run-of-the mill cement mortar with some nice yellow sand for repointing, the Internet had taught Laurelin something else. The mortar we used was meant to make the outer wall solidly watertight, and also much stronger than it was previously. Plus, It had to look good—much better than before. Laurelin’s mortar had to increase, not decrease the breathing ability of the wall. Plus, it had to look good—much better than before.

It turns out that regular—Portland—cement is not too great when used with stones instead of bricks, so we might have been doing it all wrong. The problem, paraphrasing Laurelin, is that Portland cement is indeed water tight—too watertight. Unlike cement mortar, lime mortar, can breath, so that moisture can travel through the joints and doesn’t have to travel through the stones:

“Kalk ademt en laat vocht door, net als stenen. Cement doet dat niet, en bovendien, omdat dat harder is dan de stenen, wordt het vocht door de stenen heen gedwongen. Dat verzwakt de stenen.”

This is not new, cutting edge knowledge. Builders since antiquity have known about different types of mortars, although in Europe this knowledge has been lost during the Middle Ages.

Type of mortar Since Hardness
Portland cement England +1850 AC Water tight
Lime mortar Ancient Egypt -6000 BC Breathing
On March 3, 2018—two weeks before Marilisa, me and Jorrit would get to see the finished result—Laurelin made this photo. By this time, she had repointed most of wall between her pig sty and the adega, except for the left-most part. And you can see a chunk of wall, right of the corner, where she still had to brush off the excess mortar.