Sandblasting Historic Buildings FAQ Friday

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Q: Someone wants to sandblast my house. Should I let him sandblast?

A: Invasive cleaning methods such as sandblasting or high-pressure washing should be a questionable intervention upon historic fabric of any kind and should be considered carefully. Quartzite sand should never be the medium used on historic brick whose frail “fired skin” will be destroyed and thus expose a porous “salmon” center. Never sandblast sand upon any stone with intricate carvings or upon a terra cotta unit whose glazing would be irreversibly removed.

Other media is available such as ground up walnut shells, baking soda, diatomaceous clays, glass beads. Which media to be used is to be judged on their effectiveness using the most non-invasive method first. The non-invasive method is the one that works upon the historic substrate to lift only the undesirable contaminant. One could employ quartzite sand, (in varying gradation and at various p.s.i. pressure), when there is a sacrificial element allowance and need for aggressive cutting is desired such as in the case of removing tenaciously adhered Portland cement staining from a poor repointing job or from a cementicious whitewash when the substrate is common fieldstone that has no intricate carving.

Modern brick will lack the porous “salmon” center known to be the remaining condition of an historic brick fired in a down-draft kiln. Modern bricks are thoroughly fired in a tunnel kiln which results in more uniform densification throughout. But even modern brick will become “pitted” by the sharp sand action of a sandblaster. If any case where all the drawbacks and limitations are realized and anticipated beforehand still warrant the use of sand as the medium, this method is at your disposal if a test sample proves it is effective. However, be sure of this fact.

The surface area of masonry which is exposed to the elements is increased once sandblasted and micro-cracks may be introduced by any violently aggressive sandblasting especially by inexperienced operators. A final draw back in the use of this already unpopular method is that silica dust will be produced. At least a water mist used as a knockdown to dust must be engineered into the application. Water greatly reduces the dust when the sand comes out of the orifice and is pulverized into dust upon impact. A vacuum sandblaster is used when one must collect all of the contaminant such as paint along with the sand. Some municipalities do not allow sandblasting of any kind because of the negligence and misuse of the tool and because of the irreversible damage caused to historic structures. Not allowing sandblasting is generally a good idea since more damage is done than good over all. Should you let him sandblast? Most probably not.