The material that was used for many centuries before the advent of
Portland cement as the matrix (binding agent) for mortar was lime. Lime, which mixes freely with water and sand, produces a material that is smooth, buttery and easily spread as mortar, into which the largely misshapen bricks in use at the time could be bedded.
The particular advantage of lime is that it is a cheap, readily available material that produces a plastic material ideal for bedding bricks. Its disadvantages are that it is a messy, laborious material to mix and as it is to an extent soluble in water it will lose its adhesive property in persistently damp situations. Protected from damp, a lime mortar will serve as an effective mortar for the life of most buildings.
Portland cement, which was first manufactured on a large scale in the latter part of the nineteenth century, as a matrix for mortar, produces a hard dense material that has more than adequate strength for use as mortar and is largely unaffected by damp conditions. A mixture of cement, sharp sand and water produces a coarse material that is not plastic and is difficult to spread. In use, cement has commonly been used with ‘builders’ sand’ which is a natural mix of sand and clay. The clay content combines with water to make a reasonably plastic mortar at the expense of loss of strength and considerable drying shrinkage as the clay dries.