Painting brick, whether it’s the whole exterior of a house or just a fireplace is a big decision and in many cases a permanent one. Painting brick is one of the most controversial topics in home repair, and painted brick is notoriously difficult and often times impossible to completely strip of paint.
My goal with this post is to help you think through all the things before you grab that paint brush or roller and go to town transforming your brick. It’s not the same as painting the walls of your house a color and then changing your mind a couple years later. A painted brick is forever a painted brick so let’s talk about it first.
Should You Paint Brick?
Painting brick is a lot like getting a tattoo. You better feel entirely confident that you want painted brick, and you want it forever because there is usually no going back once you have painted brick. The porousness of brick means that it pulls paints and other coatings deep inside the brick making it extremely difficult to remove. Rather than the paint sitting on top of the material like metal the paint seeps deep into the clay brick and no amount of scraping or even chemicals can effectively remove all the remnants of the paint.
If you’re thinking you’ll just sandblast the paint off when you want to go back to bare brick think again. Sandblasting is possibly the quickest way to completely destroy a brick building. Learn how detrimental sandblasting is to brick here.
The type of bricks used in constructing your house were often chosen with a purpose. Their color and texture were selected to provide the appearance desired by the builder or architect. Before you paint brick think about what that style is and if you really want to cover it forever.
As someone who grew up in the 1970s I completely understand that some brick is downright ugly and outdated. If you’re renovating a 1980s tract home then you may have me on your side about painting some of the brickwork, but if you’re talking about a historic 1860s townhome you and I will certainly have a strongly worded disagreement.
Painting Historic Brick
Let me make this simple. Don’t! If you are considering painting bricks on a building built before the 1940s please don’t do it, and I’m not just talking about design aesthetics. Historic bricks are softer than their modern counterparts and the lime mortar commonly used before the 1920s is extremely soft.
These softer masonry materials were design to breathe and if they can’t breathe you are setting yourself up for a world of hurt. When you use a sealer or paint brick of this age you often trap moisture inside which can lead to efflorescence and eventually spalling which is when the face of the brick is pushed right off the body and the brick quickly disintegrates into powder.
You may think I’m trying to scare you and you’d be right. I have restored many brick buildings where large chunks of the brick are spalling and the structure is falling apart from applying incompatible paints and coatings to the brick. Everything from masonry sealers to layers of latex or oil paints trapped moisture and the bricks slowly ate themselves up from the inside.
When It’s OK to Paint Brick
I’ll give you my guidance on the topic, and since this is only a blog and I’m not a benevolent dictator I’ll leave it to you to heed or ignore my advice. I do think there are times when painting brick is just fine to do.
If you’ve had changes to the exterior like a door or window was moved and new bricks were infilled that don’t quite match then I completely understand the urge to repaint. Painting bricks that don’t match is an excellent way to blend things together better and one that I won’t argue with you on.
Modern Brick Only
First, they need to be modern brick. By that definition I would say any brick made after the 1940s. That’s not an arbitrary date I promise. After WWII most bricks (especially in more urban areas) were being made in furnaces hot enough to create an extremely strong and resilient brick that was much harder than the historic bricks we talked about earlier.
Combined with the advent of portland cement mortar which was almost exclusively used by the 1940s across America and I feel that the dangers of self-destructing and spalling bricks has largely been remedied.
Forever is a Long Time
If you are comfortable painting your brick and having painted brick until death do you part then go for it. If there is a small part of you that is uncertain I would say wait and think on it more before you make such a permanent decision.
Don’t just think about your preferences either. Keep in mind that you may not be the only person to own this house over the next 20, 30, 50 years or more. You are making a decision for all the owners that will come after you and you need to be comfortable with that. Too often we don’t think about those that come after us in society today, but I think this is something that we need more of personally. Think about it long and hard.
What About Maintenance?
You’ve answered yes to the first three conditions so now comes the last one that most people don’t think about. Are you prepared to maintain that painted brick? What what do you mean by that? Let me ‘splain.
Unpainted brick is a virtually maintenance free product. Every 60 years or so you may need to repoint lime mortar here and there, but other than a cleaning every now and then to keep it looking good it requires no additional work.
Painted brick is a whole other story. That paint job will only last you 10-15 years before it needs repainting and that means a lot of prep. Sanding, scraping, and cleaning takes hours of labor and costs a lot of money to do. For a decent exterior paint job (one that will last at least a decade) you’re looking at around $8,000 to $20,000 depending on the size of your house. Are you willing to pay that costs every 10 years? If not you may want to rethink your painting plans.
Check out my guide to renovation costs here to get a good sense of repair costs on an old house.
If you’ve made it this far and you ended up deciding to go the route of painting brick then I feel confident that you understand what’s involved with painting brick more than most homeowners so go forth and paint or don’t paint that brick knowing you’ve made the right decision either way.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.