The Pros and Cons of Painting Brick Surfaces

A cool retro living room with painted brick walls and a painted brick fireplace surround. Photo: army.arch/Flickr Creative CommonsIt's all over design blogs like Young House Love, but is painting your brick surfaces really a good move? On the surface, it's enticing: That ugly fireplace surround could become a high-style, bright white fireplace surround if you just slap some paint on it! Not so fast. Painting interior and exterior brick surfaces is not a simple task. Here are the pros and cons to weigh before painting a brick surface.

Painting Exterior Brick Surfaces

PROS: Your home will have a fresh new look, if you put in the effort to prepare, paint, and seal properly. A high quality paint job will help to protect exterior brick from the elements.

CONS: Painting exterior brick is a challenging project, which requires a tremendous amount of preparation and physical labor. Before you start, research the proper selection of products to clean and coat the brick surface, which will be appropriate for your climate and the kind of bricks you have. Not all bricks are created equal! There are several different types, each needing a chemically compatible approach for prep and finish phases.  

Efflorescence, the white powder that forms from salts migrating to the surface, must be removed with a wire brush. Clean off dirt, mold, and mildew with a power washer, using a high quality cleaning solution. If that doesn't do the trick, it may be necessary to sandblast to achieve an absolutely clean surface. Any residual mold will continue to grow.

Brick must be allowed to dry thoroughly for several days, even if it appears dry on the surface. If it's not completely dry, water will be trapped inside the brick. It will cause bubbling and peeling of the painted surface as efflorescence emerges.

Fix cracks and make sure mortar is in good repair. If not, repointing is necessary. In some cases, a brick conditioner should also be applied and allowed to dry for several days.

Painting Interior Brick Surfaces

PROS: An exceptionally talented painter can make an old brick wall or fireplace look more modern and in some interior spaces, painting dark bricks will brighten things up. In contrast to exterior brick, the process is easier, with less risk of damage.  

Preparing interior brick for painting is also less labor-intensive, requiring milder cleaning solutions to remove surface dirt, or soot around fireplaces. Cracks and defects in mortar can be filled with paintable silicone caulking or other latex fillers. Overall, painting an interior brick surface is less costly than an exterior brick surface.

CONS: "Once painted you can NEVER go back to natural brick look again," says Woodbridge Environmental about painting brick fireplace surrounds. The porous quality of brick means it will soak up paint like a sponge. Removing paint later is typically unsuccessful, as residual paint remains in nooks and crannies.

Although less physically demanding than covering exterior brick, painting an interior brick wall or fireplace is still time consuming. You can roll paint onto the surface of the brick, but you'll need a paintbrush to paint mortar and to catch drips and areas where paint leaks out of pores. Attention to detail is critical -- this is not the kind of paint job for a beginner or someone who prefers to make small improvements. Experienced contractor Kevin Stevens recommends spraying as the best method for painting brick.

Expect to buy at least twice the amount of paint you'd need for a non-brick wall of the same size, including the appropriate cleaning solutions, primers, and heavy-duty paint brushes and rollers. High quality products are the only way to guarantee this type of improvement will look great for a long time.  

Painted brick is as difficult to clean as regular brick. If you paint brick in a light color, it will require regular cleaning to keep it looking good. White or light-colored brick shows dirt more than traditional colors and many people are not prepared for the required upkeep to keep it looking fresh.

BEST ADVICE: When in doubt, consult a professional painter who can help you decide if this is something you want to tackle yourself. Painting brick looks easy, but it's actually a pretty complex project.

Updated December 11, 2017.

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