Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Working With: Dark and Dated Brick

Emily A. Clark is one of the blogs I read on a routine basis, and she's been doing a great series of posts lately: "Working With What You Have."  I think I mentioned something about my being a freakish miser before?  Oh--and that I'm married to an academic scientist?  Yeah... for both of these reasons, and due to the fact that Long Island isn't exactly the cheapest place to live, I find myself "working with what I have" a whole lot of the time... though I'm totally OK with that.  I love a good challenge.

Case in point:  when we bought this house three years ago, this is what we were dealing with in the living room, toile valance and all:

The fireplace was a bit of an eyesore.  It was dark, it was dirty, and it was strangely off center.  It also had a very dated looking set of brass and glass doors.  I know brass is trendy right now, but this was decidedly not good brass.  The whole set-up was just bringing the room down and making the entire space feel dark and gloomy. 

Ideally I would just rip this sucker out entirely and do something completely different (a propane insert would be lovely too, since I have a somewhat irrational fear of wood-burning fireplaces) but of all the things that need to be done around here, the fireplace is just nowhere near the top of the priority list.  That said, there was no way I was going to live with it as-is. 

I knew I wanted to lighten up the brick somehow, and it was while Googling "white washing brick" for DIY advice that I stumbled across the idea of limewashing.  Limewashing has actually been done for thousands of years as a protective finish for exterior masonry.  In contrast with painting, limewashing results in a chemical reaction as the lime absorbs carbon dioxide from the air.*  A limewash doesn't coat brick like paint would, but rather penetrates the actual surface of the brick.  Unlike paint, it's air and moisture permeable, so it won't ever peel or blister.  And as it dries or carbonizes, the limewash produces calcite crystals resulting in a "glow" that simply isn't achievable with paint alone.  SOLD!

The process was really surprisingly easy and substantially less messy and clean-up intensive than working with latex paint.  To make a limewash, you'll need to buy a bag of hydrated lime (aka "slaked" lime), which should be readily available at your nearest home improvement store.  If your surface is dirty and/or sooty, like mine was, you'll also want to pick up a dry sponge while you're at it, as the surface needs to be relatively clean before you begin.  Even just cleaning my brick fireplace facade with the dry sponge made a huge difference in its appearance… but I wasn't about to stop there.
In order for the wash to be effective, your surface needs to be "humidified."  To do this, I simply sprayed all of my brick down with water using a small spray bottle.  Do this once the night before you begin work, and then again immediately before you begin applying the wash.

To make the wash, simply mix your lime powder with water in a small bucket.  You can't really mess up here, although the proportions you use will affect the opacity of the finish.  For completely opaque coverage, a 1:1 ratio of lime to water is recommended; but to achieve more of a subtle "patina," you could increase that to as much as 1:20 parts lime to water.  I didn't measure mine precisely, but I probably ended up with something along the lines of 1:8 or so. 

After you've pre-wet your surface again, simply paint on the limewash as you would any other paint--but go light.  The color won't develop until the wash begins to dry, so be patient and don't go putting on any second coats until your wash has had time to  whiten up. Once things start turning white, but before they've had time to cure, you also have the opportunity to sponge off the wash in places to add some variation in the tone.  If you want more opacity, go ahead with that second coat once your first is dry too and just keep building until you've achieved the look you want.

I didn't think it would take the wash, but I tested it anyway and can definitely confirm that NO, slate cannot be limewashed.  Cry.  The black hearth looked even more hideous after I limewashed the brick, so I went ahead and hit it with some bonding primer, a couple coats of acrylic latex paint, and 3 coats of water-based satin poly.

Is it the fireplace I've always dreamed of?  Um, no.  But you've got to admit it's a big improvement and I'm a huge fan of this technique now, so bonus points for learning something new!

* I am SO not a scientist.  The only chemistry I ever took was in my sophomore year of high school, and I'm pretty sure I retained nothing.  If I've said something dumb here or grossly inaccurate, please feel free to set me straight in the comments!  

Walls: BM Manchester Tan
Hearth: BM Grant Beige


  1. I really like this solution. Looks very fresh :) Thanks for linking up.

  2. Thanks so much! And--I'm no longer a link-up virgin! :)

  3. In fact your creative writing abilities have inspired me to start my own blog now. Really blogging is spreading its wings rapidly. Your write up is a fine example of it.
    Stone fireplaces

  4. Thanks, Steve! Good luck with your new blogging endeavors!

  5. I like the fireplaces a lot and especially these brick design. They look very nice and classy. They remind us of the vintage look and its beauty. I also recently constructed one at my house. It is from nagle fireplaces and it looks amazing. You can have a look at this for further information