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Painting Brick: Should You Do It?

painting brick

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As someone who grew up in the 1970s I completely understand that some brick is downright ugly and outdated.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.

spalling brick
Spalling brick

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.

Covering Patches

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 peeling

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.

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16 thoughts on “Painting Brick: Should You Do It?

  1. What about mineral paints meant for masonry??? I’m looking at Romabio products. My house was built in 1941, of a specific soft yellow brick endemic to Dallas in that era. Even gently power washed clean, it is reminiscent of the poop of a newborn babe. I can’t stand it.

  2. I have never understood painting brick, stone, etc. Why would you make work for yourself when you have a material that is virtually maintenance free?!

  3. This is a problem we have. Our house was built in 1889. When we bought it the exterior brick chimney on our house had been painted. The paint has worn off worse than the one in your photo, and the chimney looks in horrible condition to me, a person who knows nada about masonry. The other chimney that comes up from our furnace in the center of the roof looks brand new by comparison. It was never painted. I had wondered why the exterior chimney looked in such bad shape. Now I know, but what can we do about it? I do want to try to remove the paint as much as possible, but what about saving spalling brick?

  4. Scott,
    I don’t know how I received your blog but it’s one of the most informative and interesting that I receive.
    I was a member on a historic preservation board in NJ, many years ago, when very low loans were given, with guidelines for recipients to adhere to historic authenticity. I lived in a historic, Quaker community with a diverse economic population. These were wonderful for people.
    Your passion for older architecture, manner of delivering information, along with structural and aesthetic logistics make this blog one to be shared with historic communities.
    Thank you so much.
    Clarene

  5. I have a 1908 two story home that was constructed with hand-cast blocks that resemble stone. There are 3 different ‘faced’ blocks used. It has been painted over the years and I want to paint it a lighter buff color. I’ve asked locals about sealing some of the blocks that have some efflorescence. I don’t think removing the old paint completely is an option. I’d say 99% of the blocks are in good shape, only some mortar is falling out. Should I use the Portland type mortar to fill in the gaps?
    I think the spalling bricks in the picture are the old soft ones and is due to age.

    1. The blocks are likely not hand cast. Blocks like this were cast in molds using concrete starting in the late 1800s and popular until the 30s. Sears sold press machines in their catalogue as well as the blocks.
      So, concrete, Portland likely appropriate but find and control the source of moisture causing the efflourescence (salts from the mortar and block carried by moisture left behind on the surface when the water evaporates)

      Mortar should always be softer that the unit it is holding – it is the more repairable, maintainable element in the system. Harder mortars redirect water and breaking forces to the brick. A good mason will be able to determine how much if any Portland cement should be in the mix. Typically none or very little if the brick is soft.
      Spalling and efflourescence is caused by moisture moving through the brick as Scott points out above, control the source and path of the moisture.

      1. Blocks being concrete have tolerated and will likely continue to tolerate paint.
        The more layers though the more issues with water being trapped and concentrated, causing problems.

        1. Man, too much reflection on this one – technically you are right. “Hand cast” block using a portable machine (perhaps from Sears?) on site to make the blocks by hand…really quite an interesting step in the development of house construction.
          On site production using local labour and yet with more advanced materials and tools, the variety of surfaces that were readily available in this process versus the limitations imposed by later industrial applications.

  6. I just bought a brick home built in 1916. Sometime in the past 40 years, the owners painted the bricks. The paint is chipped and falling away and the mortar is absent in some places and badly needing repair. How is the best way for me to get this paint off and restore the brick as originally built? Thank you.

  7. I love my 1940 red brick house! I’m so thankful that none of the previous owners painted and I certainly won’t. I never knew about the risks of painted pre-WWII brick. Even more reason not to paint!

  8. In that picture of the spalling bricks, it doesn’t look like that wall is painted. Did it have something else applied to it that trapped the moisture, or is the mortar harder than the bricks and pinched off the exterior faces?

    1. This is speculation. I suspect that the spalling bricks in that picture are from a chimney. Sometimes, if a chimney is used to vent a lower efficiency furnace – say 60% to 85% efficient – the water vapor in the exhaust will penetrate the brick. During the winter the freeze – thaw cycle can cause spalling as the moisture get near the brick surface. That’s what happened to my chimney. The solution was to put in a smaller diameter metal liner. That way the moisture makes it up to the top of the chimney instead of condensing and dripping down.

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