How to Mix Concrete or Mortar by Hand

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Knowing how to mix concrete or mortar is a useful skill to have when you do a lot of outside DIY jobs. A few examples include building a brick barbecue, repointing brick walls and building walls from scratch (how to lay bricks – a guide for beginners).

The methods for mixing mortar and cement by hand are basically the same.

Tools and equipment needed to mix concrete or mortar by hand

You don’t need a lot of tools or equipment to make mortar or cement.

Materials needed for making concrete

  • Cement
  • Sand
  • Aggregate
  • Water

Materials needed for making mortar

  • Sand
  • Cement
  • Water

For the mixing, you’ll need:

  • A surface or container to do the mixing – you can use a 3 ft square wooden board such as plywood, a wheelbarrow or a plastic tub
  • A tarpaulin sheet large enough to house the wooden board, wheelbarrow or tub and catch spills and mess created while mixing
  • Bucket(s)
  • Spade

For your safety, always wear a mask to prevent you from swallowing dust, safety goggles to protect your eyes from bits of flying debris and thick gloves to protect your skin.

How to mix concrete or mortar by hand

Start by measuring your materials to the required amounts. You might want to use a bucket for each one so you can see what you’re working with before you start.

A standard mortar mix is usually between 3 to 5 parts building sand to 1 part cement. The most common ratio tends to be 4:1. Your mix needs to be workable and not too dry or too wet.

For mixing concrete, the ratio varies a lot depending on the job in hand. Something like 1 part cement to 3 parts sand to 2 parts aggregate is a good starting point. For added strength, you’d need to increase the amount of aggregate.

Step-by-step instructions for making concrete or mortar:

  1. Mixing concrete and mortar can get messy, so if you need to protect the area you’re working in from ugly splashes, lay down the tarpaulin and place your wooden board or mixing container on it.
  2. If you’ve used your spade to fill your buckets with sand and cement, pour each of them onto your mixing surface or container. If you’re taking a more relaxed approach and shovelling them out of the bag, use the required ratio of ‘shovels’.
  3. You don’t your mix to go off, so don’t make too much in one batch.
  4. Once the sand and cement are completely mixed together, use your spade to make a crater in the middle. The side of the crater needs to be fairly steep as you’ll be pouring water into it in the next step.
  5. Slowly pour a little water into the crater and start mixing in the sand and cement. Work from the outside inwards. Don’t put too much water in at a time because you can’t take it out! Keep doing this until you have a nice consistency that’s easy to manipulate. Remember, the mix shouldn’t be so wet that it’s runny and it shouldn’t be powdery-dry either. It needs to be somewhere in the middle of the two.
  6. If you’re making concrete, add the aggregate to the mix and work all of the ingredients together until you have a decent consistency.

That’s it. There you have the basic instructions for mixing concrete or mortar by hand.

Questions and answers

What is concrete?

Concrete is a very strong complete building material typically used for building walls and creating foundations. It’s made from a combination of cement, sand and aggregate. You can buy ready-mixed concrete from most DIY shops – all you have to do is add water.

What is mortar?

Mortar isn’t as strong as concrete and is typically used as the binding material for structures made from bricks, block and stone. It’s made from sand and cement. You can buy ready-mixed mortar from most DIY shops – all you have to do is add water.

What is cement?

Cement is a fine binding powder that’s never used on its own and is a major component of concrete and mortar.

What is aggregate?

In the building trade, aggregate is a catch-all word used to describe fine to medium grain materials added to concrete and asphalt to bulk them out and to provide additional strength and durability. They include gravel, stone and slag.

Top tip: Buy materials in bulk for larger projects

As mentioned above, you can buy small bags of ready-mixed concrete and mortar from most DIY shops. And while these are fine for smaller jobs, you’ll find it cheaper to mix your own when you’re tackling a larger project.

If you are working on a larger project that requires concrete, you’ll also want to hire a concrete mixer instead of mixing by hand. It’ll save you a whole load of time and prevent your mix from setting before you’ve used it.