Update Your Fireplace with Whitewash

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Have you read the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? It’s a popular favorite written as a “circular tale” by Laura Numeroff. She tells about a little mouse who wants a cookie…then he needs some milk to go with it…then he needs a straw…then he needs a mirror to check his milk mustache…and on and on. Sometimes home improvement is like that. You paint your walls, then your flooring looks blah. So you put in new flooring, then your furniture looks outdated. Et cetera.

But you’re usually stuck with a brick or stone fireplace – one area that people are often afraid to tackle. Even if you give your walls a fresh coat of paint, the brick’s still there. Sure, you can rip it all out and redo it in a more modern look. Or you could reface it with drywall. But those are big jobs that may require more skills than the average homeowner has.

An easy, budget-friendly fix is to whitewash the brick. Whitewashing is a very easy technique that can mute red tones in brick or change the color, while preserving the natural variations of the brick or stone. This look can work equally as well in just about any style home: coastal, farmhouse, contemporary, industrial, or French country, to name a few.

A MODERN MAKEOVER

Before – the homeowner felt the knotty pine bookcases and dated tan fireplace were not her style.

I recently had the opportunity to update a friend’s built-in bookcases and fireplace. We discussed her preferences with her newly painted “light gray with a tinge of blue” walls. She ultimately decided on General Finishes Perfect Gray Milk Paint for the bookcases and a “whitewashed” look on the fireplace with GF Seagull Gray, a very soft gray. You could use any shade of white, ivory, taupe or gray, or whatever best suits your taste. I have even seen it done in a charcoal color.

The color palette below, left to right: Seagull Gray, Perfect Gray and the homeowner’s new wall color.

Painting the built-ins alone really modernized the homeowner’s living room. But the tan sandstone fireplace still screamed the ’50s to the owner, and so we continued with the next phase of improvement: the fireplace.

FIREPLACE

There are several methods out there to get the wash onto the bricks, but it’s pretty straightforward. However, there are some tips that will make it go a little smoother. This tutorial will share how I achieved my results, as well as several other ways to do it.

SUPPLIES YOU WILL NEED:

     Water-based paint

     Water

     Mixing container

     Large scruffy brush

     Small brush

     Water misting bottle

     Rags

     Staining pad

     Drop cloths

     Gloves

PREP:

1.    Clean the brick. It’s important to get dust, ash and debris off the surface for best results. If the fireplace is a true working fireplace, it may require more cleaning than a gas or open fireplace. Since this homeowner’s fireplace had faux logs in it, the stone was pretty clean. I used a wet rag and wiped across the surface.

Other ways: Vacuum cleaner attachment, stiff brush or broom, dishwashing liquid and water, TSP/Krud Kutter.

You will also want to remove, if possible, any decorative gas logs or moveable parts inside the fireplace, so you can paint that area as well. This may not be necessary if it has built-in doors or a dark insert.

2.    Protect other surfaces. This paint method is messy and drippy. Make sure you cover any surfaces that you do not want to get paint on. At the very least, put down large towels or drop cloths on the mantel, hearth and surrounding floor. Watch for splatters on the ceiling and neighboring walls and wipe them off quickly.

3.    Prepare your wash. The basic formula is 50% water/50% water-based paint. It will be VERY soupy and that’s what you want. Measure if you like or just eyeball it like I did. I used regular tap water with a mix that was more like a 2:1 water to paint ratio. You could also use a mixing container with measurements on the side. It also needs to be wide enough to accommodate your large brush.

TECHNIQUE:

Start whitewashing your brick. Once you have your wash mixed in the proportions you like, you’re ready to roll. That first brick is the toughest because “yikes, what if I don’t like it?” I’m going to confidently say you will LOVE it! And it’s so easy.

1.    Start in an inconspicuous spot and give it a test. Go lightly and see what you think. Adjust your mix as needed (see Tips section below). One thing to keep in mind is that the brick or stone will absorb the water and become a little more transparent as it dries.
2.    Work in small sections of just a few bricks at a time, starting at the top of the fireplace and working your way down. You will avoid dripping paint onto your completed areas this way.
3.    Lightly mist the section where you will be applying paint to help the wash bond a little better to the bricks and soften the edges of your brushstrokes.
4.    Dip your large brush into the stirred wash mixture, only about 1/3 of the way up the bristles. Remove the excess “drippage” on the side of your container. This will alleviate some drips and runs and also gives you better control of how much paint you are applying.

5.    Work the wash into the grout or mortar lines first, holding your brush tilted downwards as best you can. You don’t want the wash dripping back towards the end of the brush and onto your hands or elsewhere. 
6.    Next begin applying your mix to the brick faces in the same manner. I used a kind of stippling/swirling technique to work the paint into the uneven surfaces.
7.    Use your smaller brush to fill in hard-to-reach areas and edges up against the ceiling or wall.
8.    Continue in a similar fashion in small sections until you have completed the entire fireplace, including the mantel and hearth. The mantle and hearth could also be offset in a contrasting color. I used the same wash for this mantle and hearth, brushing it on in long, even strokes. Since this fireplace did not have doors or an insert, I also painted as much of the inside as I could, which really added a nice finishing touch and made the fireplace look clean and fresh.
9.    Check back on your results the following day to see if you need to enhance the color on any of the stones after the paint has fully soaked in.

TIPS FOR BEST RESULTS:

  • If you feel like the wash is too heavy on your brick, simply dilute your mix with more water.
  • If you want your paint to be less transparent, try a higher paint-to-water ratio. You could also do two coats if you would rather achieve your results more gradually.
  • If you have time, it’s a good idea to let your test area soak into the porous surface and dry before you continue in order to see the final effect.
  • A staining pad works great for catching drips and evening out the color as you are applying your thinned paint. A rag can also do the trick. Dab or blot the area vs. wiping for a more natural texture when soaking up any excess.
  • If you find that you have applied too much color in an area, mist that spot thoroughly and blot up the excess with your rag or staining pad.
  • Step back and assess your work occasionally as you go to make sure the color wash is consistent. You can add another coat where it seems too transparent.
  • Stir the water in your bucket as you go. The paint may settle on the bottom.
  • If you find that your water or brush is getting dirty, it’s time to wash your brush out and make a fresh mix of thinned paint.
  • If you want to work with a partner on this job to make it go faster, I would suggest having one person do all of the painting so the technique will stay the same overall. The other person could follow behind to catch drips and do the “dabbing.”

A FEW DIFFERENT LOOKS:

You can achieve slightly different results using any of these methods.

  • Use more coats of thinned paint on some bricks, but not all. This creates a bit of a weathered look.
  • Apply a slightly different color of paint wash to some of the individual bricks for a more variegated appearance.
  • Lightly dab paint onto a dampened brick surface with a wadded up rag, staining pad or car sponge instead of a brush.
  • For a marbled kind of look, lightly stipple a second color like a soft gray over the whitewashed bricks, highlighting the raised areas.
  • To allow more of the underlying brick to show, use a dry-brushing technique over the surface.
  • Lightly sand some of the bricks after whitewashing to allow the original color to show through.

THE BIG REVEAL

The homeowner is absolutely thrilled with her updated built-ins and fireplace. No longer does her living room appear old and dated, and the texture and character of the stone remain intact. The whole wall is lightened and brightened with a fresh, modern color palette that changes the entire room.  

Whitewashing, graywashing or whatever-color-you-choose-washing can truly transform the appearance of your fireplace and the room it’s in. This popular, super-simple look is very easy to achieve for next to nothing.  

Find paint and supplies at your local Woodcraft store, or shop online at woodcraft.com.

We hope you’ll be inspired! 

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