The Treehouse: Whitewashed Bricks Tutorial

January 13, 2014

How to Whitewash Bricks - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

Images and text by Gabrielle.

I’ve got another Treehouse report for you today, all about our fireplace bricks and how I whitewashed them. Plus, I worked in a little story about the bricks in my childhood home as well (find it when you click through).

How to Whitewash Bricks - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

When I started to consider whitewashing the bricks, I looked up as many tutorials as I could find. This one and this one seemed to have the most clear instructions, and both mentioned using leftover white wall paint they had on hand. They both showed examples of more paint coverage than I was looking for, but I figured I could just dilute the paint more and get less coverage.

As I read further, some commenters recommended using lime, or other natural paint products that would let the brick “breathe”. I didn’t know if I cared whether or not the bricks breathed, and whether or not it was worth looking for alternatives, when I already had spare latex wall paint I could use. But the more I read, the more I thought it was at least worth looking into.

How to Whitewash Bricks - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

In the meantime, I decided I’d better do what I could to clean the bricks first, because the front of the fireplace was covered in soot.

Ready to see what the process was like?

How to Whitewash Bricks - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

This is the fireplace when we started. Not bad looking, but coated in soot.

(By the way, all but the “finished” photos were shot fairly late at night, which is when the work was happening, and why the images have a yellow tint.)

How to Whitewash Bricks - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

I really like the carved wood piece — it’s one we inherited when we bought the house. It was hanging from wires. We took it down while we cleaned and whitewashed, and I can’t decide where I want to hang it next. But that’s for another post. : )

How to Whitewash Bricks - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

Here are a few more shots so you can see the bricks from every side. You may notice there’s one brick that juts out, forming a small shelf. I put a roll of blue tape on it, so you can see it better:

How to Whitewash Bricks - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design MomHow to Whitewash Bricks - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design MomHow to Whitewash Bricks - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

On the sides and the back, where the brick isn’t covered in soot, I think the brick is actually very pretty. It reminds me so much of the brick my parents used in my childhood home.

How to Whitewash Bricks - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

A side story about that childhood brick: We moved from California to St. George, Utah when I was 5, and for about a year, we rented a home while we built another home. During the time period when we were building, the City of St. George decided to tear down the old library building that was constructed by the early residents of the town, Mormon pioneers. And the building was made of beautiful sandstone brick.

Well, the town offered to let residents take that original sandstone brick. You would come to the demolition site, climb the scaffolding, and use tools to chip off each brick one by one. You could take home any bricks that you chipped away.

Chipping those bricks is one of my earliest St. George memories!

And I laugh when I think about it now, because it’s the sort of thing I can’t imagine would be allowed these days — too much potential for lawsuits.

Anyway, my family used those bricks on the bottom section of our house (you can see it in this image), and those bricks were used inside on our living room fireplace as well. They were beautiful, and I loved knowing they had some history.

All that to say, I actually like these bricks! And did consider just cleaning them up and leaving them as is. But ultimately decided they could still stand to be lightened up a bit.

white washed brick09

First step, was removing the carved wood piece, moving all the fireplace accessories, and cleaning the brick. I looked up instructions online and discovered that foaming bathroom cleaner (like Scrubbing Bubbles) was universally recommended.

I’d spray it on, then let it sit for a minute or so until it was turning yellow/brown from absorbing the soot. Then I used a scrub brush and a bowl of water and scrubbed the brick clean.

I put old towels at the bottom to absorb the water that spilled down the front as I scrubbed. and I ended up coating the bricks 2 or 3 times as needed, and using the whole bottle of cleaner!

How to Whitewash Bricks - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

When I was done, Ben and I went to a late movie so the bricks could dry. We shot this photo when we got home. The bricks were about 75% dry by then. Looks much better, right?

But notice the center section of bricks is mostly red, and side sections have a white, chalky texture. The soot and cleaning apparently removed the chalky texture. Some of it did come back as the brick fully dried, but there was still a big difference. By white washing the brick, my hope was to bring that chalky texture back and amp it up.

How to Whitewash Bricks - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

As I scrubbed, I also discovered there were a few bricks that had been painted white. An experiment from decades ago? Who knows?

But having that handful of painted bricks really showed me the difference between a brick that can “breath” and a brick that can’t. The bricks that hadn’t been painted responded to the cleaning and the new paint on an individual basis — some absorbed more than others depending on their composition. But I noticed while I worked that it was easy to see why the word “breathe” is used. The bricks that had been painted didn’t react at all, and felt “dead”.

It was very interesting to experience the differences.

At that point I was fully convinced I wanted to try a paint product that would let the bricks continue to “breathe”. So I started my internet research and found something called milk paint which looked very promising. And when I posted about whitewashing the bricks on Instagram, I received some emails/comments from readers who had used milk paint, so that was extra encouragement. (By the way, the comments on that Instagram are fun to read. Lots of strong opinions on whitewash!).

white washed brick13

So I picked up some milk paint that I found at an eco paint store in Berkeley. (It’s sold all over the country, you can find store listings on their site). It was about $15 for this little bag of powder (and I didn’t even use half a bag for this job).

Two nights later, when I knew the brick was fully dry, I started the white washing. It was basically an experiment. I would pour some powder in a little bowl that had a lid (the kind you use for leftovers) — like maybe 1 to 2 tablespoons of powder at a time. Then I would add water and stir it until it was like milk.

How to Whitewash Bricks - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

Then, I would paint it on brick by brick…

Whitewashed Bricks Tutorial - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

…and immediately wipe some off with a wet sponge until I achieved the coverage I was after.

Here’s the first section I did:

Whitewashed Bricks Tutorial - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

About an hour after taking the photo, I decided the coverage was too thick, and used the sponge to wipe off even more. And the next batch of paint I mixed up, I made even thinner.

If you are using milk paint, I would recommend starting with very thin paint and going from there. You can always add another layer!

Whitewashed Bricks Tutorial - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

Here’s the finished brick shot that same night, a few days before Christmas.

Whitewashed Bricks Tutorial - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

And here’s the finished brick, shot yesterday. That one dark brick? It’s actually not dark, it’s just the shadow from the little shelf.

Whitewashed Bricks Tutorial - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design MomWhitewashed Bricks Tutorial - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design MomWhitewashed Bricks Tutorial - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

Fun Fact: I still haven’t finished the job! I did 3 sides in time for the holidays, but I still haven’t done the back section. Conveniently, that means I can share this photo that shows the back and the side at the same time so you can see the difference really clearly:

Whitewashed Bricks Tutorial - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

I really like the end result. The bricks are certainly lighter, but you still see lots of texture and color coming through.

One interesting thing about using milk paint: it doesn’t seem to adhere to the bricks in a fiercely permanent way. Meaning, if I wanted to scrub it off, I don’t think I could get to back to the original brick, but I could get fairly close. And if I need to clean it in the future, I can already guess I’ll need to follow up the cleaning with another light coat of milk paint.

Also, some reviews I read said the milk paint would have a slight dairy odor until it dried, but I found it to be odorless.

Whitewashed Bricks Tutorial - using natural paint that let's the bricks "breathe"  |  Design Mom

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you like how it turned out? Or maybe you prefer the original brick (it won’t hurt my feelings, I promise.)? And have you ever tried something like lime or milk paint? This was my first experience with it.

P.S. — Here’s the before and after right next to each other for easy reference:

Whitewashed Bricks Before & After  |  Design Mom

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The Treehouse: Whitewashed Bricks Tutorial | Jerbelle Lau
January 13, 2014 at 12:56 pm
Blogs by Moms Add Much Enjoyment to Our Lives | Emotional Sobriety: Friends & Lovers
February 13, 2014 at 6:57 pm

{ 64 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jill January 13, 2014 at 1:01 pm

I love it… It has a natural look but so clean and fresh! I can see this in a country home or a more modern style home.

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2 Design Mom January 13, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Thanks, Jill! I feel like it’s fresh too. Because our home is surrounded by trees, the living room can remain quite shady on most days, so my goal was to keep the space light.

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3 Catherine January 13, 2014 at 1:03 pm

Great job! Where is that adorable doll cart from?

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4 Design Mom January 13, 2014 at 1:15 pm

Isn’t it cute? I bought it at Pottery Barn Kids. It’s supposed to be a grocery cart, but we use it as a doll stroller.

Here’s the link.

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5 Lindsay January 13, 2014 at 1:12 pm

Beautiful job! I’ve always wanted to try milk paint for a project and now I can see that I’d be happy with the results. And that looked easy! I look forward to seeing what else you do in the Tree House!

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6 Design Mom January 13, 2014 at 1:19 pm

I was happy with my milk paint experience too. Though I don’t think I would love it on regular walls. I really like to be able to scrub my walls!

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7 Janet January 13, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Wow — I love it! Looks fabulous. I’ve heard of milk paint and that looks great! Hmmmm — Makes me think about changing my fireplace brick work!

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8 Jenny January 13, 2014 at 1:24 pm

When we bought our house, a little over a year ago, it had a big, clunky stone fireplace (it was really very Rocky Mountains, not right for our part of Florida at all) and wood paneling in the living room. We ripped all of that out and rebuilt it to suit our minimalist tendencies and trust me when I say we got a LOT of criticism from the pro-stone friends and family members! I was surprised at how many people told us they liked it better before! (There are photos of the before and after here on this post on my blog, but not right next to each other: https://jenny-bailey.squarespace.com/blog/2013/11/22/house-a-versary). But I think you have done a great job with this update, without compromising the integrity of the design. And I’m sure even the brick purists will agree!

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9 Anna January 13, 2014 at 8:17 pm

Wow! I never click through in comments, but I couldn’t resist. The transformation is gorgeous! And, the touch of concrete is really perfect.

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10 Jenny January 14, 2014 at 5:45 am

Thanks, Anna! I totally get why someone might prefer the style of the room before but I’m really, really happy with how it turned out for us!

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11 Summer January 14, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Very pretty! I am a stone lover, but I think the redo is BEAUTIFUL and perfect for FL. :)

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12 Jenny January 16, 2014 at 1:47 pm

This is STUNNING! What a beautiful job you did!

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13 Robin January 13, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Beautiful job! Loved the tutorial.

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14 Krista January 13, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Beautiful! Is there a draft from the fireplace without doors or a screen? The wood pieces add wonderful warmth and interest that I would like to replicate but I fear a colder house during the winter months.

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15 Design Mom January 13, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Good question, Krista! We haven’t experienced a draft without the screen.

Then again, we live in California and temperatures in Oakland are fairly mild on most days. : )

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16 Nicole January 13, 2014 at 1:48 pm

I love it. It looks fantastic.

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17 Traci January 13, 2014 at 1:49 pm

I like the after look much better. It’s softer and more natural. Have fun finishing it up!

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18 Design Mom January 13, 2014 at 4:27 pm

That’s how I feel. Now that I have a clean, fresh, blank canvas to work with, I can get started on the fun stuff!

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19 Celeste January 13, 2014 at 1:57 pm

So beautiful and calming! I wouldn’t have thought of whitewashing (on the floors or brick) but I love how, as you said, it allows the natural texture of the materials to come through while still lightening the space.

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20 Kristy January 13, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Yup, I love it. I can’t wait to see how you style your furniture and accessories around the gorgeous, soothing palette created by the floor and fireplace.

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21 Design Mom January 14, 2014 at 11:19 am

I’m excited to get working on the furniture! I’m trying really hard not to be in a hurry about it and make careful decisions. But mostly, I just want the room to be completely put together!

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22 sara January 13, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Yep. It looks fantastic. What a gorgeous difference. I can’t wait to see all of the things you do to the Treehouse!

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23 Jandee Jones January 13, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Turned out so beautifully! And I love the wood stacked inside, but just curious does this mean that you aren’t planning to use it as a functional fireplace?

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24 Design Mom January 13, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Another good question. We actually do want to use it as a functional fireplace, and we know (based on the soot) that it has definitely been used in the past. But before we try a fire, we want to have the chimney examined by a professional so we know it’s clean and ready for safe fires.

Since we were finishing up the work right before Christmas, we didn’t have time to get the chimney examined before the big day. So we filled it with logs as a placeholder, so that it would look good until we have time to make a chimney appointment. (I realized we’re weeks past Christmas, but I still haven’t even thought about making an appointment. Hah!)

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25 Laura January 13, 2014 at 2:59 pm

Great job! Your style is always spot on and so down to earth and beautiful. I love a clean look!

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26 Tamsin January 13, 2014 at 3:15 pm

I love how it turned out!
Using a bathroom cleaner to clean brick kind of made me laugh, because that is exactly what I did to the sooty fireplace in one of our rental apartments when we were first married, much to my husband’s horror when he walked in and saw me scrubbing the bricks with Softscrub bleach! I think he thought my cleaning tactics would cost us our deposit. :) They cleaned up great, though, and, I suspect, looked better than they had in decades.

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27 Design Mom January 13, 2014 at 4:34 pm

I couldn’t believe how well the bathroom cleaner worked! We had huge soot stains on our fireplace in France and I never dared try to clean it, for fear of hurting the plaster beneath the soot — but I wonder if bathroom cleaner would have done the trick!

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28 Matilda January 13, 2014 at 4:12 pm

When I first started reading this post, I didn’t really like the idea of whitewashed brick at all, but you definitely sold me. It looks so lovely in the daylight, and you’re right that it still allows a nice texture and color. Your eye for design is amazing

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29 lisa thomson January 13, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Nice work! It looks beautiful. I love that some of the texture and color is coming through. I’m not a fan of pure white bricks, so this is really nice. Thanks for sharing.

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30 Laura January 13, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Love it love it! Really complements the floor now, which is also beautiful! Now,one little question about the fireplace itself: Do you plan to have fires in it?

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31 Design Mom January 13, 2014 at 4:36 pm

We do. Jandee asked the same question above (feel free to read my reply to her for a longer answer). The short story: before me make a fire, we want to have the fireplace professionally checked out.

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32 Sarah J January 13, 2014 at 6:12 pm

Really like this! I have painted exposed brick in our basement but the exposed brick in the kitchen I have never been sure what to do with. It’s sort of a dirty yellow colour but I didn’t want to paint it all. I see a whitewashing experiment in my near future.

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33 Barbara C. January 13, 2014 at 6:28 pm

I’m so glad you did this post! I was admiring your bricks in the photo of your Christmas stockings and just assumed that you had landed a house with naturally awesome brick. :) I’ve been planning to do something with my fireplace, but was also torn about wanting the bricks to breathe. This sounds perfect.

One question: did you also whitewash the cement between the bricks, or did you really just try to keep the milk paint on the bricks only? I’m sure some of it ran into the cement lines, but just curious if you tried to avoid that and stick to the bricks only.

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34 Design Mom January 14, 2014 at 11:27 am

Good question, Barbara! On the side walls of the fireplace, the cement between the bricks is already white, so I didn’t need to white wash it.

On the front, I wasn’t systematic. The cement is darkened from soot, and in some spots I allowed the whitewash to cover it, and other areas, I didn’t. I’m considering going back and purposefully whitewashing the cement so the front will look more like the sides. But I haven’t decided yet.

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35 chania January 13, 2014 at 7:00 pm

I think it looks much fresher. I would like to see it even whiter. Maybe another coat with some small areas rubbed off to expose more of the brick.

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36 Heather January 13, 2014 at 7:15 pm

It looks Great! It looks like you did a lot of work in a short amount of time! BTW, I think this is the first time I’ve seen you call your husband “Ben,” and not “Ben Blair.” I love that you call him by his first and last name. Plus, it just sounds like it goes together that way. :)

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37 Lina @ Keeping Creativity Alive January 13, 2014 at 7:59 pm

I think the after looks great! Can’t wait to see what you do with the room. I can certainly see that you have a vision that is coming together! I admire your just try and see what happens approach! If you don’t try it you’ll never know!

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38 Anita January 13, 2014 at 9:14 pm

Since I began reading your design blog I never imagined seeing it turn into a home DIY blog, but you wear it beautifully! I loved this tutorial and the bricks look great!

Also, I think painting random bricks with white paint must have been a trend sometime. It was done to the brick front of our house. My husband and I laughed at it when we first saw it.

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39 Jo January 13, 2014 at 9:14 pm

Wow! This looks so great! I’m curious, will you do a mantle or just leave it as is? I’m completely sure it will look amazing whatever you decide.

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40 Design Mom January 14, 2014 at 11:22 am

Good question, Jo. At Christmas, this is how we decorated without a mantle.

I like how it turned out! Makes me think about skipping the mantle and using wire to hang some artwork from the ceiling instead.

But not sure yet!

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41 Amy T January 13, 2014 at 9:52 pm

Those white painted bricks may have once been part of a sign painted on the side of a building! We have a brick fireplace in our 1965 ranch, and a number if bricks are painted white, reddish brown, and a vintage-y green/blue. If you sit back and look at them as a whole, you can see the hint of what must be curves in large letters. It’s neat! I considered whitewash, but after furnishing the rooms I’ve grown to love the way the original colors play off my grandmother’s mid century furniture. You can glimpse them here (post about our ongoing living room transformation – with IJEA-hack for “built-in” wall-to-wall bookshelves!) http://thisbendablelife.com/2013/12/31/step-into-my-parlor/

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42 Willa January 14, 2014 at 11:08 am

This is so cool! You really can see the bricks former life. I love handpainted signs and reused bricks but I have never seen anything like this. I’m so glad whoever built it back in ’65 didn’t strip off all that history!

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43 Jane Andrew January 14, 2014 at 1:50 am

I really love it. It looks amazing. In Australia we have lots of really red brick houses. They are quite unattractive. People have started painting the bricks, but I think this looks like a really cool way to make a big difference to ugly bricks.

And I love the way you have shown us what you have done.

You are so great. Love your website.

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44 Design Mom January 14, 2014 at 11:21 am

Thank you for the kind words, Jane!

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45 STEL STYLE January 14, 2014 at 2:15 am

Really interesting process, I will do the same with the fireplace in my house

http://www.stelstyle.com

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46 nick cee January 14, 2014 at 5:51 am

I actually prefer the brick cleaned but not whitewashed , but am fascinated to read about the process. Thanks for sharing it.

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47 Gia January 14, 2014 at 6:30 am

Amazing! 100% on board with the white wash.

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48 Shannon { A Mom's Year } January 14, 2014 at 7:44 am

Oh, I love house projects! I really do like the new look of the bricks, especially combined with the white-washed floors. Definitely creates a feeling of warmth and calmness. I’m so curious to see what you’ll do with the little shelf!

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49 Design Mom January 14, 2014 at 11:25 am

That little shelf! At Christmas, we displayed a wreath there.

But I haven’t decided what I want to put there next…

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50 jill January 14, 2014 at 8:27 am

so much better!

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51 Tamara January 14, 2014 at 8:54 am

My first thought when I saw your post title was NOOOOO! I love the look of natural brick.
After seeing the before and after photo’s, I have completely changed my mind. The white washing is beautiful. It cleans up the look and helps tie all the bricks together. I’m excited to see how the milk paint “ages”. How will it look after it’s been on the brick for several months and how will it look after you’ve used the fire place?

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52 Design Mom January 14, 2014 at 11:20 am

I’m interested in how it will age, too! I’m glad I have these photos so I’ll be able to easily compare.

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53 Amy3 January 14, 2014 at 9:29 am

I like it! The whitewash ended up lighter than I originally thought it might, which is good (imo). I like the lighter, fresher look but I also appreciate that you can still see the original color some. Very nice!

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54 CarrieB January 14, 2014 at 1:26 pm

I’m not a painted brick fan, but I like this–it lightens but lets the character of the brick come through. And for some reason, I really love the little “shelf”!

Although, I didn’t recognize you AT ALL, from behind with long, straight hair. I thought at first it was a daughter, and couldn’t figure out where you’d gotten a 17-year-old.

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55 Summer January 14, 2014 at 1:47 pm

I would have NEVER thought to do that (I have a fear of painting over natural-ish things, even though I’d totally buy painted furniture. It’s hard being me, i tell ya), but it looks AMAZING! Love that the color still shows through also; it’s like having the best of both worlds.

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56 Chantal Marr January 15, 2014 at 7:15 am

I thought I am a hard-core fan of red bricks, I think this is the first time I stumbled upon a white treatment. And I must say I love it! Great job there and a nice article too, thank you very much for inspiration!

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57 Carol G January 15, 2014 at 11:28 am

I have just got to stop reading fireplace re-do posts. I have hideous 60′s brick floor to ceiling. First thought I’d paint. Then decided to tile it with wood grained floor tile. Now I’m thinking I’ll try the whitewash first – this looks just fabulous and I can always tile later. I love brick, too, but not all brick is beautiful, just like not all wood is beautiful. Yeah, I’d love me a beautiful reclaimed brick fireplace, but what I’ve got is builder grade red/orange that sucks all the light out of the room.

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58 sarah January 15, 2014 at 12:11 pm

just beautiful. i’m loving neutrals lately, so this just sings to me.

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59 victoria @ themaypop.com January 15, 2014 at 8:23 pm

It’s just beautiful. I love the airiness (sp?) of the brick and the floors in the treehouse.

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60 Erin January 16, 2014 at 8:15 am

I loved the original but the way it turned out is FABULOUS! The bricks look like chunky cobblestones now and its much more universal! Great job!

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61 Jenny January 16, 2014 at 1:44 pm

This is awesome…and I may be scrubbing the INSIDE of my (tiny, non-functional Victorian) brick-lined fireplaces with Scrubbing Bubbles this weekend. Since we don’t ever intend to use them, I might try the milk paint whitewash as well!

I wanted to ask where you got your logs, and whether or not you cut them yourselves?

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62 Stephanie Sheehan February 4, 2014 at 11:23 am

Not only is that creative, but I bet it’s more risky than most moms would like a home project to be. Congrats on taking the challenge and having it come out so well!

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63 JoAnn March 3, 2014 at 11:37 am

Looks so much better! I do like the brick before too, love the variations in brick colors. Excellent job. I did my fireplace too, though our brick was mostly all the same color, and liked it so much, I whitewashed our whole brick house.

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64 gail April 14, 2014 at 10:12 am

HA! This article and photos were first on google when I posted my question. I have stalled for 8 mos on going ahead with whitewashing fireplace because of fear….no mantle for Thanksgiving or Christmas I might add, as had taken them down in prep and then got cold feet. EUREKA! LOVED your article (especially not caring at first if bricks can breath~! ha! ) and LOVED the finish product. I WILL order that powder and gegin….sooooo excited. Will send you my before and afters! Many thanks!

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