Fireplace Makeover – Phase One

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When my husband and I moved into our house we painted over our dark fireplace mantel  and uncovered the existing brick that had been tiled over.  For a few years now I have been thinking of how to adjust the look– I never loved the look of the solid red brick with the existing floor tile.  I wanted to try a white wash over the red brick, but felt hindered by the possibility of messing up on such a focal point in our living room.  I wanted to be confident I would like whatever change we made because I would have to look at it every day.

This past weekend my husband and I had a rare, free day and I had the itch to do a project. We decided it was time to tackle the fireplace and do a little updating. I had read so many “How To” blogs on  white washing brick using either paint, primer, lime, or mortar. We decided to go with the white cement mortar option since it would eliminate the chance of leaving the brick underneath looking pink or lavender (which can be the result with some white washes). I purchased a bag of white cement mortar from Ace Hardware for about $20. I know it is cheaper elsewhere, but I live a few blocks from the store and this was the only size bag they offered. With only a few hours left in the day, I didn’t want to wait any longer to get started!

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In a large bucket, pour about 3 cups of mortar mix and then add water. Mix until it resembles a paste-like consistency, similar to toothpaste. I believe I added about 3 cups, but I more went for consistency, so wasn’t totally focused on exact amounts. If you are wanting to do more of a wash that exposes the red in the brick, and isn’t so solid white, you may want to add a touch more water to the mix. Not too much though, otherwise the cement won’t adhere to the brick.

Here is my fireplace before treatment

Here is my fireplace before treatment

The next step was to apply the mixture. I was afraid the minute I applied the mortar I would be stuck with it and there would be no going back, but thankfully this was not the case. The mixture easily wiped off while I was applying it so if it got on the surrounding tile or mantel it was easily cleaned up.

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Here is the mix before water was added to it. Pour water in gradually and stir until you get the desired consistency.

I used a wide paint scraper and thick sponge to apply the mortar.

I used a wide paint scraper and thick sponge to apply the mortar.

At this point I have to admit I was freaking out. I wasn’t sure if it was going to turn out the way I pictured in my head, but my husband and kids sweetly assured me they liked what they saw so far, so I kept going.

I was careful to apply enough mortar to cover the old dark mortar and most of the red brick.  It’s important to not apply the mixture too thick, since that creates more work when it is time to wipe off the areas where the brick will be exposed. Another tip I learned during this DIY moment is that you do have to wait for the mortar to set slightly before wiping the desired amount off.  But be aware, once this stuff dries completely it takes more intense sanding to remove. There is a sweet spot where the mortar has set, but isn’t solid and that is when I would recommend wiping away the area you want exposed brick.

After a few hours of drying I used my paint scraper to clear some of the mortar from my bricks. I never fully covered a few spots with mortar because I knew I would want them exposed in the end.

After a few hours of drying I used my paint scraper and a wet sponge to clear some of the mortar from my bricks. I never fully covered a few spots with mortar because I knew I would want them exposed in the end.

Here you can see the mortar is set, but still wet in several places, especially where it was applied more thickly.

I was uneasy about the lines created from my paint scraper when removing the excess mortar, but they blended in when I applied sand paper and a wet sponge once the mortar had dried completely.

I was uneasy about the lines created from my paint scraper when removing the excess mortar, but they blended in when I applied sand paper and a wet sponge once the mortar had dried completely.

Here is an overall shot of what the fireplace looks like after the mortar wash was applied and sanded to reveal some of the brick. I am letting these results sit with me for a while before I decide whether to go back and sand to expose more of the brick. I have to say I am thrilled with how much this project lightened my living room. I was surprised by just how much impact a small project could have.

The whole brick surround given a white cement mortar wash.

The whole brick surround given a white cement mortar wash. From this picture you can see the rough mortar on the hearth which I smoothed with rough sand paper.

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I am researching if I should apply clear wax to the finish for durability since it is level with the tile in my living room.   Inevitably my kids will walk on it with their dirty shoes and bare feet so I am not sure how long anything “white” will survive.  I also wonder if wax and an occasionally heated fireplace go together??? Can wax handle that? I will keep you in the loop when I figure that important last step out.

For now, this was phase one of our fireplace makeover. Step two will follow in another post. We are taking on board and batten above the mantle. Can’t wait!

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