Lime Mortars

Lime and Earth mortars were replaced by cement in the 20c; this one material has caused so much damage to our old buildings in so many ways. Anybody using cement  in an old building doesn’t know what that are doing to it.

We all too often hear people say “ just use lime” as if that’s a good enough instruction for a mortar mix. This lack of understanding  is misguiding and in a lot of cases the wrong type of lime in a mortar mix can be just as damaging as cement.

Lime is a simple material  to use, with a little understanding.

About Lime

 Lime can  generally be categorised into two types:

  • Non Hydraulic Limes (putty and quicklime)
  • Natural Hydraulic Lime (NHL and Natural Cements)

The main differences between the two types are;

  • Non Hydraulic Limes are pure lime and were made locally (Isle of Thanet) by burning chalk. They set by carbonating and sometimes have additives (silica) mixed in with the mortar mix to help provide hydraulic and stronger final sets, theses additives are known as Pozzolans; Pozzolan additives in mortars were developed by the Romans. Examples of the durability of these mortars can be seen at Richborough Roman fort;

  • Natural Hydraulic Limes set by adding water to them and have certain percentages of clay in the lime, which gives them their final set strength, they also set with carbonation but not as much as pure limes.

 During the hundred years between 1750 and 1850 major discoveries were found about mortar properties. The relationship between limestone and clay impurities  were not understood before John Smeaton’s work in the 1750’s that confirmed the link between the clay (silica) content in lime and hydraulicity.  Ramsgate Harbour is one of Smeatons  ‘ notable works’ ;

Both types of lime have their place in traditional mortar mixes but careful consideration must be given to which type is used.


Extensive research was carried out by English Heritage under the guidance of Professor John Ashurst as there seemed to be inconstancies with the classification of NHL’s by the different manufacturers. It was found that the clay content in the NHL’s varied by significant amounts; some NHL2’s were  found to be equivalent to NHL 3.5 and some NHL 3.5 were equivalent to NHL 5.  This was leading to the wrong mortar specifications and historic masonry was being damaged as a result.

The French lime manufacturer – St Astier worked with John Ashurst and English Heritage and St Astier produced relevant technical information on the amount of clay in their lime and have produced tables setting out their mortars final sets.

The designations (2 – 3.5 -5 ) for NHL’s is  modern cement test and is measured at 28 days as this is how long it takes  cement to  set after mixing , whereas lime takes 24 months to reach final set. 

Note; some  ( St Astier) NHL 2 mortars can have a final set that is equivalent  to NHL 3 and NHL 4.25.

See link;

Only St Astier NHL’s can be used/ recommended in historic/ pre-1919 construction  as they are they only manufacturer that provides technical data on the final set strengths and therefore the only reliable source of lime.

 St Astier NHL 2 has a final set strength that would be equivalent historic ‘moderately hydraulic’ lime (defined by Smeaton) and should be considered the maximum strength for most mortar mixes for most traditional masonry units.

The use of traditionally slaked lump lime / hot mixed quick lime mortars have seen a renaissance in recent years and extensive  study has been carried out Nigel Copsey, the Building Limes Forum, staff at Historic England and Historic Environment Scotland.

See Link to Nigel Copsey’s  book below for the most up to date information on the subject.

The ideal time to complete external lime work works is between April and September this is to prevent frost damage. A temperature of over 6 degrees ºc is required to ensure set in hydraulic mortars. Lime work should be damped down regularly after application, this is particularly important during the summer and windy conditions.

For  information on  lime work , see these websites for guidance;

And these publications:

  • Hot Mixed Lime and Traditional Mortars: A Practical Guide to Their Use in Conservation and Repair. By Nigel Copsey

Practical Conservation Series by English Heritage/ Historic England, Volumes:

  • Mortars, Renders & Plasters
  • Earth Brick and Terracotta
  • Stone
  • Roofing

  • Period Property Manual by Haynes – an excellent book for the home owner and professional alike

Are you interested in lime and other traditional building materials ?

If you are are a craftsman/woman and you would like know more about how to use traditional building materials, please feel fro to contact us, we would be delighted to help you – and we might even have some work for you ! Interested ?

If so email us via our contact page;