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Soluble Salts in Masonry This article is reproduced from


The Building Conservation
Directory, 2000

Catherine Woolfitt Author


CATHERINE WOOLFITT BA
MA MArt Conservation is an
Soluble salts are a principal agent of decay in porous building materials and a source of great archaeologist, conservator and
frustration to those involved in the conservation of historic buildings. The behaviour of salts a director of Ingram
may seem unpredictable since they can remain dormant for long periods and then suddenly Consultancy, a specialist
become active causing damage and disfiguring historic fabric. In other cases the action of consultancy practice in the
salts is progressive, weakening surfaces on a microscopic level over decades and centuries, repair and conservation of
causing natural erosion of the kind that would occur to stone in a quarry face. In 1932 historic buildings and
Schaffer described the problem in his authoritative work The Weathering of Natural Building archaeological sites. [In 2008,
Stones and his description remains the most comprehensive source on the subject, outlining Catherine Woolfitt established
all the essential facts, the salts typically found and the mechanisms of crystallisation and Catherine Woolfitt Associates
decay. Ltd]

The damaging effects of soluble salts are intimately linked with wetting and drying cycles at
the masonry face. Almost all historic building materials are porous to some degree. The Further information
network of pores in stone and brick contain water in which varying quantities and types of RELATED ARTICLES
salts may be dissolved. As drying/evaporation occurs at the masonry face salts crystallise out The face of this sculpture, carved in
of solution producing the white crystals known as efflorescence. While these fluffy white the 1830s, exhibits decay typical of Cleaning
magnesian limestone by salt
crystals can appear dramatic when projecting 10-20mm from surfaces, they may be relatively crystallisation in a polluted urban
environment.
Masonry
harmless compared to hidden salt crystallisation (cryptoflorescence) occurring within the
pores below the masonry surface. Fine pores cannot accommodate the increasing accumulations of salts and are Stone
eventually broken apart by the expansive forces of the crystal growth, causing the surface to decay.
RELATED PRODUCTS AND
The mechanism of soluble salt crystallisation is graphically illustrated by simulating and SERVICES
speeding up the process which occurs in masonry. If a stone sample is placed in a shallow tray
of saturated salt solution, the salt travels in solution through the sample and crystallises on the Poulticing
top of the sample with evaporation of moisture. If this sample is then dried and the process of
wetting and drying repeated, the stone will break down. This is a variation of the Building Masonry cleaning, general
Research Establishment standard durability test for building limestone. The BRE test subjects
Masonry cleaning products and
samples to immersion in sodium sulphate solution and oven drying, repeating this process
Demonstration of the effect of through 15 cycles. Weight loss is measured and the durability of the limestone is assessed by equipment
soluble salt movements through the percentage of weight lost.
various mortar and stone
samples. Sodium sulphate SUSCEPTIBILITY
solution rises through the
Generally, limestone is considered the most susceptible of building stones to salt decay but all
samples by capillary action and
historic masonry is potentially at risk depending on the degree of salt contamination and on all
salt crystals form as drying the other factors that work in combination with salts to cause weathering and decay.
occurs at the sample face. Limestones are inherently susceptible because they contain calcium carbonate. In the external
Repeating the cycles of wetting environment acidic compounds break down small quantities of carbonates converting them to
and oven drying quickly causes sulphates, the most common salts found in masonry. Lime mortars and plasters, calcareous
sandstones and other materials containing calcium carbonate are equally susceptible. Site Map
surface breakdown.

In addition to being harder, less porous and less permeable than stone, Portland cement is © Cathedral Communications
another potential source of sulphates. Sulphates contribute significantly to the decay of Limited 2010
stonework and sculpture where cement has been used in past repairs, particularly for grouting.

Other sources of salt are external, such as sea salt, which can cause dramatic decay
depending on the masonry substrate. Fertilisers, road salt, and acid gases from various
atmospheric pollutants are all sources of potentially damaging soluble salts. Salts in the soil
and ground water may cause problems by migrating through the masonry with rising damp,
typically visible as a 'tide mark' of staining above ground level.

Laboratory analysis of salt contaminated masonry samples typically yields a somewhat


bewildering array of ions: sulphates, nitrates, chlorides, sodium, potassium, magnesium and
calcium in varying concentrations. These ions which dissociate harmlessly in solution
crystallise to form salts such as sodium sulphate and sodium chloride (table salt).

Chemicals in proprietary cleaning compounds are a potential source of soluble salts if not
'Tide line' of soluble salts in masonry
at the Roman Baths, Bath caused by
rising damp (Professor John thoroughly rinsed from building facades. In particular care must be taken in using alkaline
Ashurst) cleaners and paint strippers based on sodium hydroxide. Unusually high levels of salt may
result from the building's function or from a single event in the building's history and in this case may cause problems in a
specific area. For example storage of gunpowder salts above the south porch at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire
contributed to the decay of the Romanesque sculpture on the south portal.

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The susceptibility of masonry substrates to salt crystallisation damage varies depending to a considerable extent on the
size and distribution of pores. This is true in particular for limestone and lime mortar or plaster. It is difficult to generalise
but micro-porous limestones, such as chalk which has many pores of relatively small size, are often of inferior durability.
Open textured limestones with larger pores, such as Ketton, are generally more durable. Magnesian limestones are
prone to salts particularly in polluted environments. Sandstones with a calcium carbonate binder (calcareous sandstones)
tend to be more susceptible than other sandstones. More dense and less porous sandstones, such as York stone, are
much less susceptible to salt related damage. High fired vitrified ceramic materials are more resistant than low fired
porous ceramics.

CONTROLLING DECAY
Although lime plasters and stucco will break down much more
readily than cement based plasters and renders when subject to
wetting and drying cycles and salt contamination, the relatively
high density and impermeability of cement binders makes them
unsuitable for repairs to historic masonry, particularly in cases of
salt contamination (see illustration). Cement based lasters
encourage the failure of weak substrates.

In general it is better to encourage soluble salts to migrate out of


the contaminated masonry substrate rather than to try to contain
salts behind an impermeable plaster or render based on cement
or other impervious material. Salts find the path of least
resistance through softer, more permeable and weaker materials,
bypassing the dense impermeable materials. Inevitably the salts
Dense cement based repair to sandstone at Trinity College, Toronto. De- will find routes through the masonry to a drying face/zone, either
icing salts and moisture have risen beyond the impermeable band of at a gap in the impervious layer or behind it, where they will
cement to create a new zone of decay just above it. (Professor John continue causing damage undetected. In such a situation lime
Ashurst)
based plaster or render is always preferable. Although the lime
plaster may eventually fail locally with salt efflorescence and need to be renewed, it will protect the underlying masonry,
behaving sacrificially to the masonry in the same way that soft lime based mortar repairs applied to sculpture behave
sacrificially to the limestone surface.

Good pointing mortar in historic masonry buildings is typically more permeable and porous than the masonry units it bonds
together and consequently often functions sacrificially to the masonry. Mortar joints exhibiting salt related decay should not
necessarily be considered to have failed but may be protecting the masonry by absorbing salts and breaking down
preferentially to the masonry.

Soluble salt crystallisation causes characteristic pitting and powdering of surfaces. This is
unsightly and destructive in any situation but is particularly problematic for decorated masonry
surfaces and for sculpture on buildings. Painted plaster surfaces are at risk in a salt
contaminated environment. In the past it was common practice internationally to remove
valuable wall paintings from archaeological sites where salt damage was evident. The method
originated with Italian wall painting conservators and is known as the strappo technique. The
first century BC wall paintings at the site of Masada in Israel are an example of this practice.
Pitting in the painted surfaces began to appear subsequent to the Masada excavations in the
1970s. The environmental change resulting from uncovering the paintings greatly accelerated
decay; salt concentrations are inevitably high on Masada due to its proximity to the Dead Sea
and relative humidity changes occur even in this desert environment. All wall paintings on the
Terracotta pilaster dating to 1872 site have been detached from the masonry backing and the thin surface layer of paint given a
suffering from salt and moisture new synthetic backing mounted on metal frames. This sort of drastic intervention is no longer
penetration exacerbated by the recommended. Not only is the process completely irreversible but the new backing systems
application of paint. White salt and frames have proved to be incompatible with painted lime surfaces in a hot climate where
efflorescence is visible on the thermal movements of metal are inevitable.
decayed terracotta surface which
is pitted and friable. An alternative approach to detachment of Masada's wall paintings would have been local
desalination, to poultice out the salts, drawing them in solution through the masonry face into
another absorbent drying zone applied to the painting surface, composed, for example, of paper fibres, cotton fibres or
clay. Salt crystals can form harmlessly in the poultice and be removed. This sort of treatment for important surfaces, such
as wall paintings or sculpture, should be viewed as a maintenance treatment used as necessary to extract salts, rather
than as a single treatment, never to be repeated.

Masonry may be stable for a long period and then suddenly exhibit salt related decay, typically due to a change in
environment. A typical situation is for saturated masonry in a humid environment such as a basement to remain stable as
long as the dampness in the walls is accompanied by dampness in the air. If this equilibrium is altered by heating of the
internal environment drying at the masonry face can induce salt crystallisation. Conversely masonry surfaces may suffer
a short but intense period of salt efflorescence and then stabilise once the immediate supply of salts has been exhausted.

If masonry is known to suffer salt contamination any remedial work must be designed to accommodate these salts. For
example the pre-wetting required for grouting may mobilise salts and cause them to migrate to the masonry face. Repair
and pointing mortars can be designed to perform sacrificially to the masonry substrate. Correct mortar specification and
an open textured mortar face to increase evaporation will assist salt movement through repairs and repointing. It is
normally impractical to extract salts from masonry, even in limited areas. It is easier to use traditional masonry repair
techniques including, if appropriate, plasters to protect masonry surfaces and to plan for ongoing maintenance of locally
salt contaminated areas.

Recommended Reading
• Building Research Establishment, The Selection of Natural Building Stone, BRE Digest 269, Garston, Watford, 1983
• E Leary, The Building Limestones of the British Isles, Building Research Establishment, Garston, Watford, 1983

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• RJ Schaffer, The Weathering of Natural Building Stones, Special Report No18, (1932), Building Research
Establishment, Garston, Watford, 1972
• G Torraca, Porous Building Materials, ICCROM, Rome, 1982

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http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/salts/salts.htm 26/02/2011