There’s something satisfying about paint. It’s a near immediate transformation that turns the old and dingy into something clean and fresh. But you might want to pause and reconsider before painting your brick or stone.
When we paint these surfaces we are taking something that is fundamentally low maintenance and making it high maintenance. The Brick Industry Association estimates that painted brick will need to be repainted every three to five years, even with the very best paint and primer. They also note: “Previously painted surfaces normally require extensive preparation prior to repainting.” So, maintaining this new surface is not easy.
Consider also that every coat of paint further obscures the texture of the brick and stone until eventually it looks like an unrecognizable blob. We’ve all seen surfaces with too many coats of paint and how unattractive that is. And while many home renovation trend-setters are cracking open gallons of masonry paint, with a stunning before and after, what about three years after the after when it needs repainting? Those flippers are long gone.
What’s on trend now is sure to be out tomorrow. And the more popular the trend, the more unpopular it is 10 years later. Already we are seeing pushback against the whiteout interior trend (it always reminded me of apartments that I rented in the 90’s because landlords would paint everything white including light switches, doorknobs, everything). When my partner and I were house hunting, painted masonry was a dealbreaker.
Very old (pre-1870’s), hand made brick was often meant to be painted but with whitewash/limewhash or milk paint, both of which are breathable unlike modern paints. Brick manufactured after the 1870’s (what we mostly have here in Lake Oswego) is high fired with a natural glazed surface making it stronger and able to weather the elements. It was never meant to be painted.
Painting modern manufactured brick and masonry sets up buildings for long term damage. These materials absorb moisture when the air is humid or when they are exposed to the wet. It’s tempting to believe that by painting brick with modern paint you are waterproofing it, but in reality you are encapsulating the outside in latex preventing the material from breathing. The trapped moisture expands and contracts with the changing temperatures causing damage (spalling and/or crumbling) to the material and the mortar. This is also why paint on brick, even with the best primer available, doesn’t last (yes, even if you carefully follow all the steps on one of the myriad decorating/home improvement/paint co. instructionals that will tell you it’s okay – c’mon, the Brick Industry Association says it’s a bad idea).
Painting is not easy to reverse if you change your mind. It’s extremely difficult to remove paint from brick without damaging the brick’s glazed surface. Sand and soda blasting damage the glaze destroying the look and integrity of the bricks. Chemical strippers must be used and even then it’s often impossible to get all the paint off. In Portland, when the Architectural Heritage Center restored the West’s Block building, instead of stripping the paint off the brick they turned every brick around so that the clean side faced out.
Dirty or dingy Brick and stone can be cleaned rather than covered up. It is best to start with the gentlest possible method. Dish soap and salt (for the grit) is a good place to start. Be careful using acidic cleaners like vinegar and cream of tartar. It’s good to do a test spot to see if it affects the surface beyond cleaning.
Another way to spruce up your masonry is to have it either repointed or tuckpointed. Repointing is when the old mortar, which may be crumbling, cracking and much dirtier than the brick or stone, is chipped away and fresh mortar is applied. Tuckpointing is when the old mortar is chipped away and new mortar the color of the brick or stone is applied with a thin line of putty in the center thereby creating the illusion of a thin clean mortar joint. Tuckpointing is most often used when the brick or stone is damaged.
If you really must change the color of your masonry, a better and much more sophisticated approach is staining. Brick stains absorb into the brick without damaging its natural properties and leave it looking like brick, but a different color. Learn more about the process in this post from the Batchelder and Collins masonry blog Staining vs. Painting vs. Whitewashing Brick.
But the most sophisticated approach is to let the material be what it is instead of trying to make it into something else. Focus on painting walls and ceilings. Bring in lighter colors in the furnishings. Instead of painting your brick exterior, focus on the trim and other details. Let your masonry do what it’s meant to, add texture, dimension and warmth to your home.