Penciling isn’t about pencils


Ever heard of “penciling”? Not commonly practiced nowadays, it was once regularly used by brickmasons here in Virginia and elsewhere.  Penciling refers to the technique of applying painted lines on the mortar joints of brick walls.

Bricks were once locally produced, using clay dug out of stream banks. The clay was minimally refined in pug mills, then tamped into wooden molds, then air dried, and finally baked in wood-fired kilns that had uneven temperatures.  The resulting bricks were often quite irregular in size, shape, and color.  With irregular bricks,  even courses (rows) could only be achieved by setting the bricks into mortar joints of varying widths.  In a conservative region and time period that valued regularity in masonry surfaces, brickmasons couldn’t leave those irregular bricks with their uneven mortar joints alone!

So, they pulled out their white paint, straightedges, and levels, and applied very thin stripes to every mortar joint.  From a distance, especially in bright light, the stripes emulate finely struck mortar, and disguise the irregularity so typical of handcrafted brickwork.

Almost every older (pre-Civil War-era) brick building I’ve ever documented in the eastern U.S. uses penciling.  Penciled joints have another virtue:  alongside exterior doorways they often host signatures left by prior owners, family members, and guests.  Architectural graffiti, if you will.  But that’s a story for another post.

This Old Stone House

Vineyard Hill (ca. 1774), on Forge Road in Rockbridge County, Virginia

Early settlement period buildings in Virginia were typically built using locally sourced materials.  And by locally sourced, I really mean locally sourced: old-growth trees harvested during land clearing, stones removed from fields being prepared for planting or from mountainside outcrops, and bricks that were shaped from hand-dug clay, then burned in homemade kilns using wood cut from local forests. Here in Rockbridge County, a limestone-rich area in Virginia’s southern Shenandoah Valley, we are lucky to have a few spectacular stone buildings built with locally quarried limestone.  Vineyard Hill, on the Virginia Landmarks Register, is one of those special places.

Begun about 1774, the home is built into an embankment with a lower-level kitchen that has a massive “walk in” fireplace with old wrought iron fittings. Above the basement, the home was originally one-and-a-half stories, with winding boxed-in staircases between levels and interior partition walls constructed with beaded tongue-and-groove boards that range in width from 10 to 20 inches.  Old photos of the home revealed evidence that the house was expanded to accommodate a second story, with an attic above that, in the early 19th century.

Located on one of the old roads traversing the Shenandoah Valley, the home is about a mile south of Buffalo Creek, a major tributary of the James River.  It was originally the seat of a much larger farm owned by Alexander Beggs, and later owned by the Weaver and Brady families (associated with Buffalo Forge, a major player in the regionally significant iron industry during the 19th century).

Other stone buildings on the Vineyard Hill property survive in restored or adapted form, including a fulling mill,  and a springhouse with a lined spring. There is evidence the old fulling mill, initially built to process flax fibers into linen thread, was later used as a blacksmith shop or for some other iron-related activity.

This property is currently listed for sale with James River Realty.  Please contact me if you’d like to know more about it or other historic properties in Virginia.