News center
Extensive sales and production expertise

Old machinery replicates antique

Sep 16, 2023

Justin Grow thought he was starting a quick summer project when he took on creating old-fashioned concrete blocks for his front-yard wall.

Justin Grow is quick to haul out the old chestnut that Rome wasn't built in a day -- and neither was the concrete wall in front of his home.

The wall wasn't even built in a summer -- as he initially hoped it would be -- or two summers. But now, more than a year and a half after he started using turn-of-the-century machinery to make 170 antique-style concrete blocks, the 35-foot-long by 3-foot-high wall is finally complete.

"I could have bought similar blocks through a company in the Midwest, but they were $8 plus shipping and each one weighs about 45 pounds," recalls Grow, 40. "That's about $16 per block."

Envisioning a fun summer project that he could do after work and on weekends, he estimated that if he made the blocks himself he could get the cost down to about $3.50 per block. A year and a half in, however, Grow conceded that "$8 plus shipping was a reasonable price."

In a town where people refurbish old sash windows without electric tools in order to remain true to the craft, and spend hours digging through bins in search of crystal doorknobs perfectly matched to their Craftsman-style closets, making your own antique-style blocks using the original machinery and mold is not such an outlandish idea.

Not to Grow, anyway, who works as a salvage buyer for Rejuvenation. His love of old houses is a long-term one. Growing up in New Jersey he spent a lot of time visiting antiques shops with his parents and later studied historic preservation at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island before moving to Portland.

Aside from thinking the project sounded like fun, Grow says his main concern was that his retaining wall mesh with the concrete block foundation of his 1910 home in Southeast Portland's Richmond neighborhood. The residence was designed by Alfred Faber, an architect known for using rustic-looking split-face blocks in his buildings.

Often called rock-face blocks, the bricks are found on many U.S. homes built during the late 19th and early 20th century. Rock-face concrete block was considered an economical alternative to natural stone foundations, walls and porches. The blocks were usually made at the building site using a small machine, like the one Grow acquired, with interchangeable molds that formed different patterns on the block face.

The newly completed wall perfectly matches the bricks on the home's original foundation.

Grow says the project gave him a deep respect for turn-of-the-century masons.

"Last summer, when I had made about 30 of the bricks I realized it was going to be lot more work than I thought. I got a little daunted because the days started getting shorter and I realized this was not going to be a summer project," he recalls. "But once I realized it was possible for me to do this I wouldn't have been satisfied with anything else. I'm a perfectionist and I'm really interested in the way things were done in the past.

The process involved mixing four parts sand and one part dry Portland cement in a small cement mixer and then adding just under a liter of water until the concrete reached the right consistency. He mixed 95 pounds of concrete per batch, which is enough for two blocks.

He hand-tamped the first 20 blocks, with each block requiring an hour of tamping. Exhausted and worried he would never finish, he modified an air chisel so that it could be used to compact the concrete.

"It works very well, but it's loud -- like a jackhammer -- so I try not to work too late or too long," says Grow, who made the bricks in his driveway rather than his garage to avoid getting concrete dust all over his stored tools. "I have some very patient neighbors."

Once he added the air chisel to the process, he was able to make as many as four blocks in one session. Working full time at Rejuvenation while finishing up a degree in liberal arts at Portland State University, however, made it difficult for him to work on the bricks as much as he would have liked.

"I'm proud of him. He saw something he wanted to do and he did it to his specifications," says Grow's wife, Carin Moonin, a writer who would often escape what she calls the "ungodly" sound of the air chisel by going to nearby cafes to work during the weekend block-making sessions.

A few years ago, as he was mulling what kind of retaining wall he would build, Grow discovered that the Bosco-Milligan Foundation's Architectural Heritage Center had one of the original 1905 concrete-block-making machines and original molds in its collection. He arranged to borrow the machinery and mold with the understanding that he would pay for any repairs needed to get it in working order.

The equipment had already gotten a good workout in the not-so-distant past.

The machinery and mold had been donated to the center by a past board member of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation, Francene Grewe, who had purchased the equipment during a renovation of her own historically significant Faber home in Northeast Portland, the Jennie Bramhall residence.

Grewe said she found the old mold and machinery at the shop of a lawn-ornament maker in Sequim, Wash. It was a rare find because almost all similar machinery was sold as scrap metal in the wartime era.

She describes making the bricks for her home as a labor of love. When she bought the home, she says, "there were 200 balustrades that were broken or missing. I got a call from the DIY Network that they were interested in finding people who were working on projects like mine. That kind of elevated the cause."

Grewe, whose project was featured on the DIY Network show "Restoration Realities," created hundreds of the old-style blocks using the antique machinery. She used the original mold plus a few others she created herself, after learning the craft in a friend's shop.

The two-year project required the help of family and friends who also worked on the blocks.

"I learned how to do a wet pour and I'm guessing we made as many as 500 blocks. We only had two different molds for the balustrades, and each brick would have to cure for a day," Grewe recalls.

The hand-made blocks went into the balustrade, other architectural elements on the old house and an enclosure for a new parking pad.

"She did an amazing renovation on her house," said Val Ballestrem, education manager for the Architectural Heritage Center.

Block-making "is a lost art. And my guess is it's not an easy thing to do," he said. "It's a little bit more work than the average person would want to do, but certainly someone intrepid enough could take it on. Justin and Francene proved it can be done."

Split-face concrete blocks are a class of architectural block that has a rough, stone-like texture created by splitting a block. They were popular from the mid-1880s through the years after the First World War.

They were used on foundations and exteriors in many early-20th-century homes in Portland, Ballestrem said.

Faber, a Pennsylvania native who practiced architecture in Portland from 1906 to 1917, incorporated stone and cast stone into his many local projects and helped shape the architectural character of the Ladd's Addition, Piedmont and Richmond neighborhoods, according to Ballestrem.

The type of rock-face blocks used in Faber's homes have a rustic, uneven look that is a familiar sight to anyone who has spent time walking or driving around eastside neighborhoods.

Grow, who at first thought he would build the wall himself at the end of the block-making process, eventually made the decision to hire contractor Glenn Nardelli from Pistils Nursery in North Portland to do the work.

Despite the long hours, Grow says he does not regret one minute of the project.

"It's been two intense summers of work, but I'm not planning on moving out of this house -- ever. And I know that every day that I pull up to that wall I'm going to smile."


If you purchase a product or register for an account through one of the links on our site, we may receive compensation.