Last week we told the story of how our back gate was transformed from a horrible and rotting Greek inspired door...

...To an attractive and custom arched top gate with antique cast iron grated window.

The project only took a few days but truly changed our backyard from a Port-o-Let eyesore to an area just a tad closer to Wendy's dream of a secret garden. But there's one aspect of the project that we completed and loved but left out of the description because it's no longer with us. (Sniffle.) Let me explain.

One of the things Wendy had hoped to include in our project was a brick archway over top of our new door. She had talked about this feature for years, planned for it, and even sketched out what she wanted it to look like so I could build the gate of her dreams.

Using doors and brick arches found on other homes and properties in Old Town as inspiration, we had hoped to put our complete lack of masonry skills to use and create a self supported brick archway. Yes, you read that right. Neither of us had any experience in laying brick, we had never laid a block to a line, constructed even the smallest wall, or so much as placed a single brick in wet mortar (except for possibly doing it on a grade school field trip as part of a "learning experience"). So we decided to go ahead and give it our best shot to build one of the more difficult things you can do in masonry as our "first try." Yep, sounds like a great plan, no?

We started the project in the middle of the door build. If you noticed a wood form behind the door and bag of cement on the ground in one of the photos from last week you may have picked up on this effort.

We knew we'd need a form to lay the brick in place so we built two arches, one for the interior of the door, and one for the exterior.

After leaning them in place, I kerf cut a piece of plywood, screwed some blocking to the back of the plywood, and curved the wood over the arch and screwed into the blocking to secure it.

Before we started laying any brick, we picked out all of the bricks we wanted for the arch, laid them all out on the ground in the order we wanted them to go up, then mixed some Portland cement for the project.

Then it was just a matter of putting the bricks in place, one after another, left, right, left, right, until we reached the final brick in the middle. We also put some plastic over the newly painted door to protect it from the cement. In retrospect, this was a good move as working with masonry is filthy.

After a nerve wracking cure time, we carefully removed the form from under our delicate DIY arch.

To say we were proud of our accomplishment was an understatement. At first, I couldn't believe it didn't fall right away. Later, I couldn't believe it didn't fall the first night. How we had successfully constructed a self supported arch was beyond us, but we thought it looked great.

The squirrels even cast their vote of approval and used it as the perfect spot for obtaining a sun tan.

All was wonderful. We began training the ivy over our beautiful (but fragile) arch. After it made it through a year my confidence that it was going to make it for the long haul grew. We had built a (fragile) arch! The arch was officially checked off of our to do list in May 2005.

Over the next few years the ivy grew in nicely over the top of the arch. It was a slow go, but it really made it look complete. Our little backyard was becoming Wendy's secret garden, even in the winter months.

But then tragedy struck. On December 31, 2008, a rather massive and unexpected wintertime wind storm swept through the DC metro area. It seemed to be a metaphor for blowing away the worries and troubles of 2008 and making way for the promise of 2009. Unfortunately, in all its blowing, it also turned the ivy that was attached to our (fragile) arch into a bit of a sail. At some point during the day, the wind became severe enough to blow the little arch right over. When I returned home from work, I found the arch in multiple pieces in our parking area and still attached to parts of the ivy, as if the Big Bad Wolf himself had paid our home a visit. Here's the last known photo of the arch as it was a beautiful backdrop to my metal cutting efforts while working on our DIY Server Rack.

The carnage occurred before we owned iPhones and before we launched our blog, so we have no photos of the unfortunate aftermath. I can tell you though there is a small planter with a little tree that really took the brunt of the impact. This little tree has since bounced back.

In a project where we learned a lot about both how to make our back gate look better, and also how to build a better gate the next time around, this minor destruction was our final point of education. If we were doing this aspect of the project over again we would do one of two things a little different.

First, we might change the configuration of the arch to lay the bricks on their side. This would make the whole structure more sturdy and would ultimately help the arch stand up to high winds.

The second change would be to possibly reinforce the whole structure with rebar. By using bricks with holes in the center and bending the rebar to the curve, we could use the cement to reinforce the whole thing, and the rebar would essentially create a solid and single structure that would be less susceptible to the wind and elements.

We've yet to rebuild our failed arch, but we're quite happy with how it turned out for the short time we had it. We may end up putting up a simple metal frame arch that we can train the ivy to grow on, but who knows? One thing's for sure, we're just glad no one was near or under the arch when it came tumbling down, and that our car was parked elsewhere. 

It's been years since our arch came tumbling down, and therefore all current photos where our gate appears is shockingly sans arch. That makes me a sad panda.

Do you have any projects you were very happy with but lost due to an unexpected situation? Do you like the gate better with or without the brick archway? Maybe you have an idea for us to try if we rebuild the arch someday. We'd love to hear your input.

Comments 18


5/30/2012 at 10:37 AM
I have no masonry experience either, but I have lived in an old home and when I have seen arches like the one you built, which was quite beautiful, they have a curved piece of metal, iron or steel I am guessing, to lay the brick on. We are in the heating & ac business and I am wondering if some heavy gauge sheet metal (like what we build trunk duct out of) would work.....
just a thought. Love your blog! Thanks!
Annie from
Good thinking, thanks for the suggestions Annie. Maybe once we finish our bathroom we'll think about rebuilding the arch. I do really miss it. :-)
threadbndr (Karla)
5/30/2012 at 12:34 PM
You totally need to rebuild that!

But I agree, some reinforcing is needed.

Reminds me of the ice storm that took down the neighbor's tree that took down the back fence LOL.
Those darn storms! Wreaking havoc on our hard work!
5/30/2012 at 1:52 PM
What about a wooden or wrought iron trellis? YOu could go to Lucketts and see what they have there, and then trim it to fit over your secret garden door.
Oooh. I love Lucketts. This might be the perfect excuse to make the drive out there. :-)
5/30/2012 at 2:57 PM
The arch looked wonderful while it existed! Luckily south Texas doesn't get too windy besides when there's a tornado. You backyard still looks great without it though :)
Well, thank you! We're sort of used to how it looks now without it, but I really loved it while it was still standing. Maybe we'll give it another try one of these days...when the bathroom is done!
5/30/2012 at 2:58 PM
I smiled at the thought that your first attempt at masonry was a free-standing arch. I have a friend who torments me for attempting similar projects. She tells people that I like to start at the back of the 'book', like it's a bad thing. Beginner projects LOOK like beginner projects, and no one wants to live with them.
Hahaha. That's funny. Where's the challenge at starting at the beginning?? :-)
5/30/2012 at 6:41 PM
Is it against your ethos to be job creators and just hire a mason? I loved the brick arch! Though maybe a wrought iron one would look lovely too.
Yep, we only hire out work we're too scared or totally unqualified to do. (Like when the back of our house was falling down and we needed a structural beam.) We're true DIYers at heart! :-)
5/31/2012 at 8:30 AM
Love the picture of the squirrel resting on the arch, not only was it a perfect walkway but a nice height to survey its domain.
He looked pretty happy up there. I think he was sizing up which plants he was about to devour. :-)
6/7/2012 at 7:09 AM
Ballsy. I like that. Rebar is for tension. It won't do anything to resist the lateral windshear that blew over the arch other than maybe keeping the debris together in a single massive piece.

To resist the lateral forces, build the arch with more wythes. Laying some header bricks to link the wythes good too. Basically make it thicker. And if you square off the corners you add weight. Thicker and heavier will resist the wind.

It would help to buy arch brick from a supplier rather than scrounge. Arch bricks are true rectangles, but a bit wedgey so they're narrow at the intrados and thicker at the entrados. (Hah, got ya, look those up). Arch brick will result in even and neater mortar joints and a stronger arch. If you still want to scrounge bricks, hand gauge the bricks by rubbing them together to shape them so they fit tighter.
Awesome detail in this comment! Thanks for the additional info. I'm going to look into what you've outlined since you obviously know what you're talking about :-)

If only we had our blog back when we were doing that project...
6/7/2012 at 2:17 PM
I may know a little bit, but it was before my coffee. Arch bricks AREN'T true rectangles. And it's extrados, not entrados.

You should pick up the Audel's Masons and Builders guide off of eBay. It's always for sale, 4 volumes for $30-50. It was published in the 1920s as kind of a mail-order, teach yourself how to be a builder sort of method. That's what you are, and the Audel guide's comes with hundreds of sketches and photos of how to do old fashioned construction. You'd like it. They have other series for other trades: carpentry, plumbing, electrical, etc.
Dave Zachau
8/26/2012 at 10:47 AM
Hi Al,

I vote for you re-building the arch using Brendan's suggestions!! It was really nice!
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