Case Study: Carving a brick wall by hand

By David Agrell

Many architects, designers, and contractors don’t know it’s possible to hand-carve a brick wall. But one of my first professional projects as a floppy-haired 15-year-old, was helping my dad, Ian Agrell, create a 12-foot-high low-relief carving of an eagle in brick for the courthouse in Eagle County, Colorado.

That was back in 1991, and we’ve done a few brick sculptures since. Here’s what I remember from that first project.

Laying out a brick wall for carving

Agrell Architectural Carving GM David Agrell as a 15-year-old, laying out a brick wall to be carved.

We carved the eagle at a nearby brick manufacturing plant. Dad had drawn a 1:12 sketch that we enlarged to full-size using a plotter (remember those?). After transferring the design to a temporary plywood support wall, we laid the bricks as they would be at the courthouse. Having the sketch meant that as we assembled the wall, we knew which bricks to pull out a few inches to give us the thickness required to produce the relief. We marked each brick so the bricklayers at the courthouse would know where everything was supposed to go. That was the plan. More on that later.

The bricks weren’t yet fired, so they were damp and heavy with the texture of rubber. Dad used a knife to sketch out a rough outline of the design, and we got carving. We approached the job as if we were carving a chunk of wood. We roughed out the background using large woodcarving gouges and then added details with v-parting tools. Of course, there was no directional grain texture to worry about. However, the bricks had a grittiness to them that I’m sure our tools didn’t appreciate.

Ian Agrell supervises the installation of a brick wall sculpture in Eagle County, Colorado.

Ian Agrell supervises the installation of a brick wall sculpture in Eagle County, Colorado.

The bricks had been coated with a gray glaze, which allowed us to see our work clearly as we cut away the surface. Because it was during a typically hot and dry Colorado summer, we kept the bricks moist by spritzing them with water and covering them with plastic sheeting whenever we stepped away for a few minutes. The entire process took three days.

One design wrinkle we had to keep in mind was that the finished wall would have a layer of mortar between each brick, essentially enlarging the sculpture. Luckily, the mortar was a consistent thickness both horizontally and vertically, so the wall would grow with constrained proportions. Plus, the bricks would shrink a little as they were fired. Though all that didn’t really affect this design, we’d need to consider it when we carved a human form on a later project.

My dad worried that the bricks would explode as they were fired and so he’d have to recreate them. Luckily that didn’t happen. However, we did notice that when the wall was installed, a mason mistakenly flipped one of the bricks. It’s not obvious, and I don’t know if it was ever fixed. But if you ever find yourself in Eagle County, be sure to check the mural. And do let us know if you notice that misplaced brick.