How to build a brick arch; the beauty, mathematics and history of building arches in architecture

Cologne Cathedral arches

Spread of knowledge from North Africa and Arabia, following a mysterious region- wide cataclysm, brought the how-to of the arch to Europe in early 1200.
Spread of knowledge from North Africa and Arabia, following a mysterious region- wide cataclysm, brought the how-to of the arch to Europe in early 1200.

How to build an archway of books or bricks

Tools needed: calculator, 45 and 60 set squares, scale rule, pen and pencils, compass, A4 lever arch folder and paper, tape measure, and W.G. Nash Brickwork books 2 and 3.
Tools needed: calculator, 45 and 60 set squares, scale rule, pen and pencils, compass, A4 lever arch folder and paper, tape measure, and W.G. Nash Brickwork books 2 and 3.

Quwwatu'I-lslam

 The new idea of the true arch replaced the corbel arch. For example, conquerers began construction of the Quwwatu'I-lslam (Might of Islam) mosque in 1192, after the capture of Delhi by Qutbu'd-Din, 1198 in six years.
The new idea of the true arch replaced the corbel arch. For example, conquerers began construction of the Quwwatu'I-lslam (Might of Islam) mosque in 1192, after the capture of Delhi by Qutbu'd-Din, 1198 in six years.

Quwwatu'I-lslam arches

Great invention of the age: Arches appeared in buildings in Mesopotamia (Iraq) over 4000 years ago. They did not pop-up in Europe for a further 2000 years.
The innovation of the arch: Those who study new ideas call the use of new ideas "diffiusion of innovation". Innovations can transform cultures and economies.
Muslim masonry know-how, expanded into Europe from about 1200. Hundred of huge, amazing churches were built in a 100 year rush of construction; the masonry innovation spread eastward across Europe; a series fantastic cathedrals were built in isolated villages with the use of mysterious funds and highly controlled knowledge. This was the dot com boom of its time, and its code-writer wizards, the Masons Guild.
Arch enters Indian architecture: Equally amazing constructions appeared in India. Arch-know-how also expanded west from the middle east, into India.


Arch enters European architecture

The 1100 period period was one of warmth; and recession of ice and rise in sea levels. English Christians lost control of Jerusalem; and returned to Europe with lots of loot, and new knowledge. Coastal peoples took to the mountains, the passes and the oceans and invaded others. Mountain people were able to march over the mountains and invade other peoples. The period was followed by the little Ice Age which set in about 1250. So the times of the late 1100 and early 1200 recorded wars and innovations amid surges of capital and control.

Alahmbra arches

A true arch (as opposed to corbelled arch) - like these above - uses compressive forces to stay up. A corbel uses piece of masonry jutting out of a wall. The use of corbels began about 12000 year ago in Neolithic times
A true arch (as opposed to corbelled arch) - like these above - uses compressive forces to stay up. A corbel uses piece of masonry jutting out of a wall. The use of corbels began about 12000 year ago in Neolithic times | Source

Arches at the Alahmbra in Spain

Muslim builders used arches, vaults and domes, on columns and pyramidal towers or slender spires, called trabeate. This image above shows arches from the Alahmbra in Spain built at a time of Muslim control of the area.

MUST HAVE book on sacred geometry. The first chapter will amaze you!

Indian architecture before the use of the arch

Mysore, at Sravana Belgola, a village near  Seringapatam This type of construction proves more vulnerable to earthquakes.
Mysore, at Sravana Belgola, a village near Seringapatam This type of construction proves more vulnerable to earthquakes.

Arch of books

How to fix a wobbly arch. Add buttresses

Why high churches and temples have big buttress towers, often with extra decorative weight trimmings on the top of the buttress. Try the great free link  (above left), and collapse a cathedral, yourself.
Why high churches and temples have big buttress towers, often with extra decorative weight trimmings on the top of the buttress. Try the great free link (above left), and collapse a cathedral, yourself.

Voissoirs; angled bricks to make the curve of the arch

Voissoirs are set out using a set of dividers. The voissoirs are spaced evenly from the key brick to the springing line plus one extra joint at the bottom.
Voissoirs are set out using a set of dividers. The voissoirs are spaced evenly from the key brick to the springing line plus one extra joint at the bottom.

Ready-made voussoirs

To make an arch the builder needs tapered bricks called voussoirs.
Order your voussoirs: Tapered voussoirs can be cut at the job site or ordered from the brick manufacturer.
Brick manufacturers produce tapered arch brick for the more common arch types. In modern construction arch support is sometimes provided by a steel angle or arch. Some say this use of a steel arch leads to careless masonry.

Make it waterproof: In the modern arch, flashing makes it leak-proof; installed below the arch and above the window framing or steel angle lintel , turned up to form end dams; termed tray flashing.,

The method of constructing an arch is similar for all types of arches

Secrets the Masons knew.
Secrets the Masons knew.

How to build an arch

  1. First, draw your arch: The central key brick has an equal number of bricks on either side. Arch shapes are usually drawn full size either on a sheet of plywood or hardboard. Once the span and the depth of the arch are known the arch is drawn with trammels and a lath.

    Two curves representing the intrados and extrados of the arch are drawn from a centre point along the springing line. These are cut out and framed with timber and used to support the arch as it is built-up known as an arch centre.

  2. A true arch pushes outward at the base; so it needs buttresses or abutements so the forces don't push the base apart.
  3. The arch frame - usually of of wood shapes underside of the arch before the addition of the final cornerstone. This is known as a centre or centring or the arch centre. In older times these drawings for temple and churche planning were scribed full size on a floor covered with a layer of plaster, with giant compasses.
  4. Voussoirs - bricks made or cut into a wedge shape - are laid on the centre until the arch hold its self up. The angle of the voussoir brick for each arch project differs depending on curve of the arch. For the semicircular arch you can do it yourself and cut standard (215x102x65) bricks into voussoirs to the angle found in the drawing for the curve you want.
    The simpler way - just order Voussoirs, by angle from the brick works. These are voussoirs, (vuswaars). They come in standard angles, or you can order special ones.
  5. The interior curve edge of an arch is known as the intrados and the interior surface the soffit.
  6. Extrados mean the outer curve.
  7. The clear space means the width of the span and widest point.

Brick arch with wooden centre still in place

See also the "compass" made here with a stick  to keep the curve  accurate. Centering should remain in place for at least seven days after construction of the arch and longer in cold weather - Brick Institute of America.
See also the "compass" made here with a stick to keep the curve accurate. Centering should remain in place for at least seven days after construction of the arch and longer in cold weather - Brick Institute of America.

If DIY Voussoirs - Nominal face dimensions of arch brick, in (height by width)

Minimum Permissible Radius of Arch to Intrados, ft
Min Permissible Arch Brick, in. Radius of Arch (height by width) to Intrados, ft
4 x 22⁄3
3.3
8 x 22⁄3
6.7
12 x 22⁄3
10.0
16 x 22⁄3
13.3
4 x 31⁄5
4.0
8 x 31⁄5
8.0
12 x 31⁄5
12.0
16 x 31⁄5
16.0
4 x 4
5.2
8 x 4
10.3
12 x 4
15.5
16 x 4 20.7
20.7
Based on 1⁄4 in. (6 mm) mortar joint width at the intrados and 1⁄2 in. (13 mm) mortar joint width at the extrados. If the mortar joint thickness at the extrados is 3⁄4 in. (19 mm), divide minimum radius value by 2. 1 in. = 25.4 mm; 1 ft = 0.3 m

Arch Literacy Test

The underside of an arch is called the

  • undercurve
  • siboleth
  • soffit
  • dogget
See results without voting

Arch Dictionary

Camber: The relatively small rise of a jack arch.

Centering: Temporary shoring used to support an arch until the arch becomes self-supporting.

Crown: The apex of the arch’s extrados. In symmetrical arches, the crown is at the midspan.

Depth: The dimension of the arch at the skewback which is perpendicular to the arch axis, except that the depth of a jack arch is taken to be the vertical dimension of the arch at the springing.

Extrados: The curve which bounds the upper edge of the arch.

Intrados: The curve which bounds the lower edge of the arch. The distinction between soffit and intrados is that the intrados is a line, while the soffit is a surface.

Keystone: The voussoir located at the crown of the arch. Also called the key.

Label Course: A ring of projecting brickwork that forms the extrados of the arch.

Rise: The maximum height of the arch soffit above the level of its spring line.

Skewback: The surface on which the arch joins the

supporting abutment.

Skewback Angle: The angle made by the skewback from horizontal.

Soffit: The surface of an arch or vault at the intrados. The soffit is the interior surface

Span: The horizontal clear dimension between abutments.

Spandrel: The masonry contained between a horizontal line drawn through the crown and a vertical line drawn through the uppermost point of the skewback.

Springing: The point where the skewback intersects the intrados.

Springer: The first voussoir from a skewback.

Spring Line: A horizontal line which intersects the springing.

Voussoir: One masonry unit of an arch.

This book a good read. About a cathedral that collapses and many other enthralling things

Brickwork. , Volume 1. Front Cover · William George Nash

Brickwork. , Volume 2. Front Cover · William George Nash 1938
Brickwork. , Volume 2. Front Cover · William George Nash 1938

Get Nash's classic manual for archway construction; Volume 2 available in reprint

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Comments 11 comments

Sparrowlet profile image

Sparrowlet 4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

How fascinating! I am reading the book The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, which is about the building of a cathedral in the 12th century. This article kind of dovetails with the book. Good work!


Tracy Lynn Conway profile image

Tracy Lynn Conway 4 years ago from Virginia, USA

This really is fascinating! There is a children's museum in Long Island, NY that has blocks that children (and sometimes their Moms) can use to create some of these arches, I have since been fascinated by these arches. Thank you for explaining them so well. ~Voted beautiful & interesting!~

Tracy


claudiafox profile image

claudiafox 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Yes, Pillars of the Earth a really great read. His best I think. His "Keys to Rebecca" enthralling, but Pillars - a book to learn something from, as well as escape ones own life, for a while...!


claudiafox profile image

claudiafox 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Hi Tracy, thanks ! I tried the widget (I linked to this hub) and collapsed a few cathedrals before I got it right. When I next build a cathedral I will add on a buttress. Even if Gaudi did think it a wimpy way to build an arch.


DeanCash profile image

DeanCash 4 years ago

Hi claudiafox, I'm looking for a way to bore holes in arches without sacrificing aesthetic and strength. I specialize in alarm and surveillance system - got lots of clients with this things. I felt my work like a vandalism than useful. Is their a way to bore holes safely in this arches?


karthikkash profile image

karthikkash 4 years ago from India

wonderful hub. Definitely eye opening. Voted up :)


claudiafox profile image

claudiafox 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Hello Dean Cash ...very nice to know you feel a real sensibility for beauty, on the job!

Like you, I can feel a little sad when I see new-age bits added with careless attention; or with no concern at all for symmetry.

On the question of boring holes in stone or masonry arches while it's a basic safety rule not to bore holes in columns - and an arch makes a form of a weight-bearing column - I observe Heritage testers and structural safety testers bore holes in arches to test for safety!

Also some arch-rescues involve boring holes and putting in new-material grouts. So it seems it's structurally OK to bore a few holes

- fill them with a matching colour grout;

- use the smallest practical diameter bit; but,

I guess - one would not want to bore holes in the keystone - and work in general only with buttressed arches, for your own safety.

Also I guess drill on the intrado - the soffit - not the outside of the curve. Just in case.

Also you may find clients may not care a fig about about Heritage. If the building is Heritage listed - both you and client have a legal obligation to follow Heritage rules, usually administered by the local Council. They would have a Heritage Officer, usually. They can advise. So that could form a protection for you, if get asked to do catastrophically ugly mods to ancient beautiful arches. Keep up the good work!


claudiafox profile image

claudiafox 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Hi Dean

I have replied below. Good question!


DeanCash profile image

DeanCash 4 years ago

Thank you claudiafox for the answer. I still don't like the idea of boring holes in arches but clients wish is my command.


claudiafox profile image

claudiafox 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Hi DeanCash - the clients wish is your command - yes! we all have to make a dollar! - but the client's wish must not break the rules and the law about protection of Heritage buildings....whatever they are, wherever you get asked to drill....


claudiafox profile image

claudiafox 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Yes, great book!

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