If you can remember, our landscaping quote from Wisdom Landscapes was, well, outrageous. We’ve decided to do as much of it as we can ourselves and use individual suppliers to get things like fencing done.
Wisdom Landscape quoted us $900 for a masonry letterbox to be installed and painted in the white moroka paint. Presumably this meant we had to paint it with an exterior colour paint ourselves.
Thinking there is a lot of other things we’d like to do with $900, we decided to give it a go ourselves. The fact that neither one of us has ever laid a brick in our lives before did not deter us. How hard can it be?
Well, as long as you don’t need it to be absolutely perfect, it’s worth giving it a try. It cost us about $300 and a day’s worth of work (not including paint drying time).
Here’s how we did it:
Please note, we are absolutely NOT brick laying experts!
Materials we used:
- Some bits of timber (straight bits, not wonky bits) for the formwork. We rummaged through our neighbour’s scrap heaps- no point buying new if you can help it.
- Pegs to secure the formwork. You can use smaller bits of timber for this or even some scrap metal. We found some metal off-cuts in our neighbours scrap heap that worked perfectly.
- Timber screws. You might need some of these to secure the corners of the formwork together. You might get away with it if you use lots of pegs.
- About 2 bags of ready-mix concrete. The builder had left us some leftovers from the build.
- About a bucket of gravel. Again, there was lots of blue metal gavel in our back yard from the build so we raked that up.
- Steel reinforcement mesh. You probably don’t need this but we found some laying around.
- About 110 bricks. We used leftovers from the build. Otherwise, drive around some new estates to see if there are any freebees on offer.
- About 8 20 kg bags of sand and cement. Available from most hardware stores.
- Letterbox face plate, extension sleeve and rear plate, or a kit.
- Newspaper holder face plate (if you want one of those). Usually, you will need a 300 mm long piece of PVC pipe (ours was 100 mm diameter but it will depend on what sized face plate you have- check the back of the packet for instructions).
- Moroka or render paint and a primer. We used Dulux Textures Primer and Medium Cover to go with our moroka look on the parapets. You could use the Full Cover to look more like render. Don’t forget to get it tinted in the colour you want. They can be tinted in a wide range of colours, including Colorbond colours. The 4 L bucket should be enough for a letterbox.
- Wheelbarrow or something to mix the cement in
- Shovel for mixing cement
- Bricklaying trowel
- Rubber mallet
- Measuring tape
- Medium sized spirit level
- Drill (if you’re using screws in your formwork)
- Silicone gun
- screwdriver for assembling your letterbox (unless yours comes pre-assembled! Lucky you…)
- Paint brush and roller (we just used a brush- can get away with that for the primer).
- Lambswool mitt. Note, if you choose the full cover you need to apply with a roller- see back of packet for instructions.
Seems like a lot of tools, but we had a lot of it from other DIY jobs. See what you can borrow from a friend.
Laying the slab
1. Clear the area and roughly level the ground. If you’ve got grass already you’ll need to dig that out and cut into the soil a bit so the letterbox doesn’t move around.
2. Set up your formwork. We had one straight side already (the front path) and so we just extended out from that. Make sure it’s the right size and use your spirit level to make sure it’s straight and level. You need to get this right or you’ll have a Leaning Tower Of Letterbox.
It’s worth noting that an alternative to formwork is actually digging a letterbox shaped hole in the ground and then filling that with the concrete (using the ground as your formwork). You may need to do this if your land is already landscaped (ie, the top of the path is level with the grass).
How to use a spirit level
James setting out the formwork.
James setting out the formwork.
3. Fill the base of the formwork with the gravel and level. Try and compact it by stamping it with a bit of timber.
4. If you did manage to find a bit of scrap reinforcement metal, here is where you would add it on top. Prop it up off the surface of the gravel with a couple of rocks. We used a bit of smashed brick (plenty of that lying around!). This is so that it adds strength to the concrete slab. The concrete needs to get under and around it.
Scrap rienforcement metal
5. Time to add the concrete. Empty the bag in to the wheelbarrow and mix it according to it’s directions, or have a look here. Pour the concrete in and jiggle it around to remove air pockets and make sure it goes under the metal reinforcement and grabs hold of the gravel on the base. James just used a bit of steel to jiggle it (I’m sure there is a technical term but I’m sticking with jiggle.)
Removing air pockets.
6. Level and smooth the surface using a piece of timber with a straight edge. Slide backwards and forwards as you move along- this is called screeding.
Leveling and smoothing.
7. Wait for the concrete to set and dry. We waited a week (which is the convenient length of time between weekends) but a drier mix tends to set faster.
8. Get your bricks ready. You don’t want to be searching for bricks while the mortar is setting so pile them up close to where you’re working.
9. Mix your mortar. We only mixed one bag at a time because we’re bricklaying novices. It sets fast and if you’re slow at laying the bricks you’ll run out of time. Follow the directions on the bag to mix your mortar. It should stick to an upturned trowel when mixed properly.
10. Start laying the bricks. There are lots of videos online about how to do this. All of them make it look really easy. You’ll feel like a goof at the start but once you get going you’ll stop worrying about it so much. My advice is to check each course (layer) with the spirit level. If you get one layer wonky the rest will follow on! We didn’t check it nearly enough (too lazy!) and ours is a little wonky but we’re covering it with the texture paint anyway. We didn’t use a string guide but you might find that easier. The last brick in on the corners is much harder to squeeze in. Your rubber mallet will fix that! Make sure you clean off any lumps of mortar (scrape it off or a wet sponge works well) as you go.
The Art of Brick Laying
This picture makes it look solid but actually we just went around the edge of the slab and the inside is hollow. We just filled the hollow bit with broken bricks when were close to finishing.
Brick by brick.
11. When your brickwork gets high enough you’ll need to put your letterbox sleeve in. Unfortunately I forgot to take photos of this bit! You’ll need to assemble your letterbox according to it’s instructions and then set the sleeve bit in the brick. It should go in on a bed of mortar, just like the bricks. You can brick around it. Most of the letterbox sleeves we saw were “2 bricks wide” so we didn’t have to cut many bricks.
Letterbox bits: face and rear plate, universal sleeve, newspaper holder, PVC pipe. You’ll need to assemble according to the packet.
12. When you get to the top you’ll want to fill in the void with some more bricks and finish with a layer of mortar. Make sure you measure your brickwork to make sure it’s the right height! We didn’t – here it is “finished” but one course too short! We had to go back and add another layer.
13. Let the brickwork set and dry. Again we waited a week but it probably doesn’t need that long.
Applying the texture
14. Give the brickwork a hose and a scrub to remove any dirt and dust. If you have dropped some mortar where it shouldn’t be you can remove it, carefully!, with some vinegar and a brush. Just dab some vinegar on with a sponge and scrub. Make sure you wash it thoroughly with water to rinse any vinegar off.
15. Apply the textures primer according to the directions. We just used a brush and made sure to cover all the brickwork and mortar. It needs to be applied more thickly than paint and you’ll only need one coat so make it count! Tape around any bits you don’t want to paint. Let it dry for at least 4 hours before adding the textured paint.
Letterbox with white primer paint.
16. Using the lambswool mitt you can scoop the textured paint out of the bucket and apply it to the letterbox. Follow the directions for more information. Lay it on thick! You’ll need two coats of this one.
Despite the look on my face, it’s actually really fun!
17. After everything is dry you can go ahead and fix on the letterbox face plates. All done!
Finished letterbox- only a little bit wonky! Note, this photo was taken a while after we finished it and, as you can see, it’s very dirty around the bottom from the clay.