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Concrete vs. Mortar: Which is Best for Home Projects?

To answer this question right out of the gate: It depends on how you plan to use which material on what project. Concrete and mortar may be similar in composition; however, each serves a very different purpose. Concrete’s job is to provide structural integrity. Mortar plays its part as a bond—a very sturdy, reliable bond—that holds brick, stone, or concrete blocks together. One should never be swapped out for the other, as each performs best only in the role it was meant to play. We learned a lot speaking with a Fremont concrete contractor

Choosing Between Concrete and Mortar

Sugar sweetens coffee; creamer dilutes the bitterness. Shampoo cleans hair; conditioner restores moisture. Concrete forms structures, mortar holds the pieces together. But let’s take a closer look at these latter two substances and find out more about what makes them so suitable for one thing and not the other. A fuller understanding will put you on the right track toward a perfect project.

Concrete

Concrete is composed of sand, cement, water, and various aggregates of rock chippings, which increase its strength and overall durability. It is thinner than mortar—and here is the part that makes it a poor bonding agent. Building with concrete often requires steel support bars, or rebars, to maintain integrity once the soil beneath begins to settle. That being said, concrete is capable of performing many different tasks around the home. Use it for projects such as:

  • Walls
  • Stairs
  • Floors
  • Countertops
  • Support beams

We could probably make a list that goes all the way to the moon. But rather than have you reach for the phone to make an emergency call to Houston, we’ll merely repeat that concrete serves best as a structural agent. When properly installed/poured, it can last for decades. Not only that, but it’s also easy to dress it for success, as decorative ploys like coloring and stamping have become immensely popular over the years. With a little skill, concrete can even be made to mimic more expensive material such as brick or natural stone.

Mortar

Grade school art teachers are constantly reminding parents to buy glue for their children—glue for holding paper and wood together long enough (hopefully) to bring home an A on that semester report card. And while Bob Villa is probably not going to drop by your house to grade your particular project, mortar serves a similar purpose as the aforementioned glue. It holds a structure together. 

Brick and stone are its most common dependents, but it assists concrete, too. Those previously mentioned rebars commonly get bound to concrete with mortar. Like concrete, mortar comprises water, sand, and cement. Lacking further aggregate, however, makes is less durable. And because its water to cement ratio is higher, we are left with a thicker substance that is much more suitable as a bonding agent. Mortar can be counted on to last around twenty-five to thirty years, beyond which replacement will likely become necessary. It’s also great for on the fly repairs. Here a few common places where the mortar is a huge help:

  • Brick tiles
  • Paving stones
  • Brick walls that may include
    • Tuckpointing
    • Concave jointing
    • Flush jointing
  • Stone walls
  • Brick fireplaces

A bigger challenge regarding mortar may not be what is its purpose, but what kind of mortar is the best to use? As mentioned, brick and stone laying mortar are probably the most common, but there are many others, and depending on your project, you may be deserving of further consideration.

Type M Mortar

Type M mortar is the strongest and does a great job with similarly powerful material like stone. Type S is medium strength; it does well with low-set retaining walls of brick, or paver stones laid horizontally. Type O mortar is considered low strength but remains an effective choice for repairs and non-impact projects. Additives and polymers are commonly mixed with mortar to increase its muscle-power or make it waterproof.

When mixing mortar, always remember to wear eye protection and waterproof gloves. After mixing, mortar is good for about ninety minutes. Beyond that, it begins to lose its adhesive properties. Should the mortar begin to dry during application, it’s okay to add more water—just don’t do this after the substance has fully set.

We hope this clears the air around what concrete and mortar actually do, which is best for what purpose, and why. Build with concrete, bond with mortar. Using each material correctly greatly increases the odds of longer life for your home project as well as the safety for those who use it.