Remember those children’s books, “If you Give a Mouse a Cookie”? My life feels like it has been ripped straight from the pages of those comical (and slightly stressful – could you imagine cleaning up all of that mess?!) bedtime stories. Except I’m the mouse and my house is the cookie. Cause-and-effect is alive and well in Macs’ Manor right now, friend. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t loving every.single.minute of it, though! When my hubby and I found out last spring we’d be moving, I got most excited about decorating a new house. When we found a 1960s ranch chock-full of character (and potential) my creative juices were spilling out EVERYWHERE. I literally had TEN Pinterest boards devoted to ideas of how to breathe life back into this gem, and it was all going to start with the fireplace.
I’m a “spring-boarder” (that’s totally a technical term). You know, one idea (or project) propels me into the next. That one great inspiration sparks the design of the entire house. It happened in our old house with a mercury glass vase, and in this house it all springs from the fireplace. My literal pride and joy. I spend my days staring at it, photographing it in various lights, and dreaming of how to decorate it for every season. When we move from this house one day I seriously think I will cry over leaving it. Why am I (basically) cheating on my saint of a hubs with a brick structure? Well, just look at her…
All the heart eyes, am I right? But all of that cottage beauty was no where to be found when we were buying the house. I spent weeks dreaming up ways to bring her up to date. To take her from dull, dark, and dominating to warm, white, and welcoming. Enter every DIY’ers BFF: Pinterest (I think J hears “dun dun dun” every time that word is mentioned). A quick search of “brick fireplace” turned up more suggestions than I could shake a stick at. From veneers to paint, wood frames and shiplap to limewashes, the choices were endless, but they all left me thinking “that’s not quiiiiiite it.” I am not a painted brick fan, so choosing a color and going to town was totally out. I really wanted the original brick to show through whatever finish I used, so whitewashing and limewashing left a lot to be desired. They’re both beautiful, but from what I could tell, they lock you into this one-dimensional, grayish result. I wanted to see those bricks, baby! Those gorgeous rusty slices of craftsmanship, but I just wanted to tame down all that rustiness a little…no big deal, right? Just when I was starting to wonder if anyone else on earth had ever truly seen my vision I stumbled across THIS picture and the heavens opened with the songs of home decor angels.
THAT was exactly what I wanted. Now, to figure out what it was and how to do it. After lots of research and pin-hopping I learned a technique called “German Smear” was applied to the brick. The technique got it’s name because it’s a finish used on old buildings in Germany and it has made quite the comeback lately on both exterior and interior brick (thanks, Chip & Jo). I had to have it! I set out to learn just HOW to German Smear my dated 1960s fireplace and, quite frankly, came up pretty short. There weren’t a ton of tutorials out there, but there was a great article from Bob Vila (you know, the OG DIY’er). I read it and a few others and watched a few videos and set out to buy my materials. A quick trip to my local Orange (and a bribe of free meals for my college-student sister), and I was off to the races. Want to know what I learned and what I’d tell anyone who is looking to smear some brick? Keep reading!
TIP #1 – Be A Visionary
Research. Research. Research. Oh, and then research some more. Find a picture that you love (not like, but actually LOVE. I was showing that pic with the wreath to EVERYONE who’d listen to me talk about my next great DIY adventure). Read a blog (or 100) about how to German Smear. Watch some videos of people actually doing it. Remember my inspo above? Well I didn’t just see that picture and go to the hardware store. I saw that picture and set out on a Pinterest treasure hunt for the technique used, advice from those who’d gone before me, and tools of the trade. I spent days looking at information on German Smear before I actually got in the car and went to the hardware store. Mostly I learned what I DIDN’T want, but that was actually perfect because it helped to clarify my vision. Here are links to the other articles and videos I found while doing recon:
Learn to Do A German Smear (article)
How to German Smear Brick Home (video)
TIP #2 – Find your Groove (literally)
Total time for this project was about 8 hours, and it did take us a little bit to find our groove. I definitely recommend starting in a less conspicuous area so you can get your technique down. We started on the side and found that loading our trowels with mortar, pushing it into the grout at a corner of a brick, and scraping across the adjacent bricks (in no particular pattern) was best. We tried wet sponges (like several tutorials suggested), but they worked the mortar into the faces of the brick, and I was looking for more of that smear – a thick layer of mortar covering the surface of the bricks, but still leaving some of the original brick color showing through. The sponges were giving me more of a white-washed look (shown at the top of the side of our fireplace pictured below), so we tossed them pretty quickly into the project. We didn’t apply mortar into every seam, we’d just stuff it in one and scrape it around until we got the coverage that we wanted (or needed a reload!). Then we’d move over a bit and repeat, allowing the sections to connect. I don’t really have great pictures of this, BUT I found this ah-mazing video that I wish I’d seen before we started! His technique is perfection! The biggest thing is to focus on scraping the mortar across (hence the name “smear”) the bricks’ surfaces. They’re uneven, so you’ll naturally end up with covered and uncovered sections without having to create them yourself. After we’d finish a section, we’d scrape our trowels across it in large “X” patterns. I learned this in one of the videos I watched and it really does help to keep the finished product from looking too uniform.
TIP #3 – Avoid Mortar Mania
There are lots of opinions on what kind of mortar to use. Buying the bags of stuff you mix yourself will save you money and that’s what many of the tutorials I read did, but I did NOT want to fool with having to get my consistency “right.” I mean what was “right”? I’d never used mortar before and worrying about whether it looked like ‘peanut butter/honey/etc.” was not getting added to my already anxious plate! So, I bought the pre-mixed stuff: thin-set WHITE mortar from the tile aisle (shown below). Don’t go to the masonry section, because that stuff is grey and sandy – you’ll end up with a dingy fireplace and there’s no removing it once it’s done! Go ahead and buy the big bucket. I thought I could get by with 2 gallons and ended up using 3.5, which meant TWO additional hardware store trips for my saint of a hubs (love you, J!).
Be prepared to get MESSY. I’m not talking spring cleaning in your rags or even a major yard overhaul with dirt in places that you need to scrub twice. I’m talking a mess of epic proportions. We did this before our hardwood floors got refinished, and boy am I glad about that! There was sandy mortar in our socks, all over our clothes, on every neighboring inch of the floor, down the walls, you name it and it had mortar on it. If you don’t have the luxury of timing your project with a visit from the local flooring expert, you’ll want to take major precautions to protect yours! My suggestion would be a layered approach. We tried just a layer of painter’s plastic and may as well have covered the floor in a layer of mortar. So, if I had to do it over again, and really needed to protect my floors, I’d scoop up some cardboard boxes, cut them open and cover the floors a good 5 feet out from the fireplace. Then, I’d lay down old towels on top of the boxes and maybe even some painter’s plastic on top of that. The biggest thing is to have as many barriers in place as possible, and to start with something that the mortar can’t soak through (hence the boxes suggestion). Secondly, you’re going to want a 5 gallon bucket of water and a gopher. You know, someone who can run back and forth to the yard spigot and rinse and refill it for you (enter: my saint of a hubs…are you starting to see how he came to get that nickname?!). J probably rinsed and refilled that bucket 30 times for us over the course of this project. Why so much dirty water? Well, as you scrape your trowel across the bricks you’re going to scratch off some of the brick grit (another official term) and that’s going to take your pretty white mortar from snow white to little red riding hood faster than the evil queen can hand out poisonous apples. So, rinsing your trowels and changing out your water is an absolute must to keep your mortar clean and your finish nice and white.
TIP #5 – Believe in YOURSELF
Listen, like everything else in life if you spend too much time “thinking” about it, you’ll never actually DO it! I’ve learned the longer I think about things the more doubt creeps in, so you’ve just gotta silence the fears and GO FOR IT! You 100% can do this, but you actually have to put mortar to brick. I was so incredibly nervous before starting this project, which is honestly why I enlisted the help of my sister. She has that right-brained, artsy “eye” and I’m much more of a left-brained/symmetrical/analytical type. So looping her in was two-fold: 1 she put my nerves to ease because she’s young and has no fear and 2 she’d tackle the project with a slightly different approach than me, giving it this dimension that doesn’t come from just one person’s style. So if you’re just totally paralyzed by the jump, enlist the help of a friend or family member. This project is a MARATHON, so having a partner in crime definitely makes it more fun!
Go Get Those Materials, Girl!
Now that you’ve researched and formed your perfect vision of what you want, it’s time to go shopping! I wish I could be right there with you at the hardware store whispering cheers of “atta girl” in your ear, but, alas, distance wins again. Hopefully this comprehensive shopping list (coupled with all of the shouts of encouragement throughout this post) can be the next best thing to you + me on a date of boozy brunch and a shopping trip to your local Orange 😉
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- pre-mixed thin-set WHITE mortar (triple check that color tag!)
- 6″ putty knife
- painter’s plastic
- 5 gallon bucket
- tile sponge (to make cleaning off that putty knife a breeze!)
- cardboard boxes
- old towels
There ya go! All the tips and tricks I’ve been passing on to everyone who’s asked, right here in one easy to reference place! Have you tried German Smear (or another brick technique) before? Any tips you’d add to the list? Are you excited to take this on? Like running out to your local Blue or Orange now to grab materials?! Sound off in the comments below! Let’s chat dos and don’ts, tips and tricks, and questions and answers! AND, most importantly, let’s see those brag posts, people! If you try this (or have done it in the past) show off your final product so we can all “ooh” and “ahh” over it and sing your DIY praises!
And remember, if you give a girl a cozy cottage fireplace, she’ll want moulding and trim to go with it…