Lime is a traditional and environmentally-friendly building material
that was largely replaced by cement during the 20th Century, but
is now coming back into fashion.
Various types of lime are used in building as mortars, renders,
plasters, slurries and washes. All are made from limestone, which
is a sedimentary rock made from the dead bodies of sea creatures
that produce calcium carbonate (coral, shellfish, some planktons).
Most limestone was laid down in the Cretaceous period (60-150 million
Chalk is limestone made from very small white particles.
Non-hydraulic lime or quicklime is the purest form, made from rocks
containing at least 95% calcium carbonate: limestone is burnt and
CO2 is driven off to produce calcium oxide
(CaCO3 minus CO2 leaves
Hydrated lime or ‘bag lime’ from builders’ merchants
is calcium oxide slaked with a precise amount of water, which is
driven off by the heat of the reaction, leaving a powder.
Hydraulic lime is produced from limestone containing clay, and has
the added benefit of being able to set underwater.
From the Romans to the mid-18th century, cement was lime plus volcanic
ash or other additives. Modern Portland cements date from around
what are the benefits?
Carbon neutral: lime, like cement, gives off CO2 (the main greenhouse gas) during its manufacture. However, it re-absorbs
CO2 when it sets, and cement does not.
Lime is recyclable and biodegradable.
Limestone is burnt at around 900°C compared to around 1300°C
for cement. This saves on fuel consumption and emissions of pollution
and greenhouse gases.
CO2 emissions in the manufacture of lime are
20% less than for cement.
Lime is less dense than cement, which saves on transport fuel.
Lime mortars allow bricks to be recycled as you can get the mortar
off, unlike cement.
Cements contain heavy metals which are put into the air on burning:
Lime is an important part of any ‘natural house’ –
involving timber, straw-bales, lime and earth, all of which are
natural, healthy and biodegradable.
Lime is breathable, so any water that enters a structure through
a crack, can escape. This isn’t the case with cement.
Lime is soft and flexible, so if a building moves slightly it won’t
crack like cement, and let water in.
With cement mortars, the only way moisture can escape is through
the brick, which can begin to erode away.
can I do?
It is interesting to go through whole process, and to slake your
own quicklime. It can be dangerous though, as a lot of heat is given
off in the reaction.
After slaking your quicklime, and allowing it to cool, you are left
with lime putty, which is the basic constituent of lime mortar,
render, plaster and limewash.
Quicklime is around £8 plus VAT per 25kg bag, which represents
a price of around £2.50 for 25kg of lime putty if you slake
it yourself - or cheaper than cement.
mortar: 1 bucket of lime putty to 4 of sharp sand.
The older the mortar the better – it can be kept in airtight
bags, and ‘knocked up’ when needed.
exterior render: 1 part lime putty to 3 parts sharp
sand. Ideally, spray the wall with a weak limewash the day before
to provide a key. 2 coats are applied with a trowel or by hand (wearing
interior plaster: first coat 1 part lime putty,
3 parts sharp sand, plus horse-hair, to bind the plaster. 2nd. coat
1 part lime putty, 3 parts silver sand (washed and finer), with
horse-hair again, cut into 20mm lengths.
slurry: 1 part lime putty, 1 part sharp sand. Paint
on with a thick paintbrush. Cheap, wonderful texture, will cover
1 part lime putty, 2 parts water. Can add pigments. Can apply up
to 6 coats (one a day) – coats of limewash can be applied
All lime products need to be applied to a moist surface.
For more detailed information, see our step-by-step guide.
- information, books, links, courses, online
of this factsheet (pdf)
is different from ordinary ‘bag lime’ that you buy from
a builder’s merchants. It is calcium carbonate (limestone
or chalk) which is burnt, driving off CO2 to leave calcium oxide
a straw-bale children's play house
being slaked in an old bath: the lime must be added to the water
and not the other way round, as it could cause an explosion. The
ratio of water:lime is 3:1. To ensure that all the lime is slaked,
the mixture is raked continuously for 10 minutes. There is a violent
reaction, and heat and steam is given off. When it is cool, the
‘lime putty’ can be stored in plastic buckets indefinitely
as long as there is a layer of water on top
lime putty can be purchased in 25kg tubs like this one, or in tonne bags