How to Paint a Brick Surround
Mauro Henrique takes a reader through the process of painting brick
I would like to paint the brick around my working, wood-burning fireplace. Is there a particular paint I should use? I’m concerned that it might bubble or peel when the fire is going.
—Paulette Holland, Cartersville, GA
Before I undertake any project that involves painting brick, I always ask the homeowners if they are absolutely sure they want to do that. Once brick is painted, it’s next to impossible to get it back to its original appearance.
If your mind is made up to paint, the next question is: What look do you want? If you prefer some of the brick color to show through, then a one-coat “whitewash” of thinned, flat acrylic-latex paint, like what I’m applying above, is the easy way to go. If you want to hide the bricks’ color completely and see only their texture, it will take more time and materials because you’ll be applying at least two coats.
Either way, the first step is to clean the brick with a cleaner/degreaser such as Dawn dishwashing liquid. Protect the hearth and other surfaces next to the fireplace with plastic sheeting, then scrub the brick with the cleaner and a stiff bristle brush. Rinse thoroughly with water, remove the plastic, and wait at least 24 hours for the brick to dry. Then cover the surface with a clear, alkali-resistant primer such as Loxon Acrylic Conditioner. It locks down any residual grit and provides a protection against the mortar’s high pH, which can “burn” acrylic paint, turning it brown.
When whitewashing, mask the area as before; thinned paint is likely to spatter. Make a 50:50 mix of water and paint and apply it with a square-end 4-inch wall brush. If the consistency is right, about like milk, the brick will soak up the paint. Cover only a course or two of the brick at a time; then, before the paint dries, dab it with a rag to make it more transparent and to obscure the brushstrokes. Done right, the dabbing will have no discernible pattern.
Paint and dab in this way, a few courses at a time, making sure to stand back occasionally and check the overall appearance. If the coating is too thin in places, just brush on more paint and dab until it looks right. And if dark-colored mortar is showing through, apply straight, unthinned paint to the joint, then wipe it with a rag. Continue this process until the entire fireplace is covered.
If you’d rather have a uniform color, don’t thin the paint. Just brush two coats of 100 percent acrylic-latex paint over the alkali-resistant primer. A semigloss will be easier to clean than a flat sheen.
The ends of the bricks facing the firebox opening need a different treatment. Because that location can get as hot as 1,200 degrees F—and acrylic-latex paints only tolerate temperatures up to 250 degrees—mask off and coat the ends with a solvent-based, high-heat spray paint. Then wait at least 14 days before lighting a fire. Paint shouldn’t be subjected to intense heat until it has had a chance to fully cure.
Painting contractor Mauro Henrique has worked on more than a dozen This Old House TV projects.
Shown: Mauro Henrique brushes a thinned coat of acrylic-latex paint onto a brick fireplace. That’s the first step in the process of mimicking the whitewashed look.