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Tuesday, November 10, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Home and garden

Ask the builder: Whitewashing brick fireplace is a DIY success

A mom and daughter team whitewashed this dated interior red-brick fireplace. (Tim Carter)
A mom and daughter team whitewashed this dated interior red-brick fireplace. (Tim Carter)
By Tim Carter Tribune Content Agency

I’m departing from my usual question-and-answer format this week because I was blessed to have an interesting email exchange with one of my newsletter subscribers. I want to share it with you as an inspiration to tackle a job at your own home.

I’ve been publishing a weekly newsletter for over 20 years, and along the way I’ve made quite a few virtual friends. One happens to be Maggie S., who lives in Raleigh, N.C. I looked back through my email files and I see emails from Maggie that stretch back 10 years.

When I travel on business, I always try to set aside time to do face-to-face meet-ups with my readers, but I’ve not yet had the pleasure to meet Maggie. After you read this story, I think you’d like to meet her and her daughter too!

Maggie reached out to me recently with a simple email. Just a few months before, I had shared with my newsletter list that I was in the process of revising all my past columns on my website. Three of the columns I had recently revised were about whitewashing. Maggie must have read them and decided it was time to transform her dated living room fireplace

My past columns describe how I used the age-old process of whitewashing on one of my jobs. Not only did I share the process of applying it in the columns on my website, but I also have the exact recipe I used. It’s caveman simple to mix and apply true whitewash.

Evidently there’s been a trend of cable TV hosts and photo-sharing websites that have been abusing the whitewash process. These people are using paint they thin down with water to create the look one might achieve by applying real whitewash.

Maggie knew it was far better than applying thinned paint. True whitewash is just a mixture of hydrated lime, salt and water. When done right, it produces a brilliant white finish that bonds tenaciously to any masonry or coarse wood surface. You can add dry pigments to the whitewash to create unlimited color possibilities.

She wrote: “I am planning to whitewash (true whitewash, not paint) my fireplace brick. To clean it first, can I use Stain Solver? If so, what is the process?”

I answered Maggie’s question about Stain Solver. It’s a brand of powdered oxygen bleach I make and market, one of many you can purchase at grocery stores or online to deep clean just about anything. Maggie knew she’d get the best bond if the brick was clean. She told me the brick had never been cleaned in all the time she’d lived in the house.

The email exchange happened after she and her daughter finished the project. Maggie was so pleased with the job she shared a series of before, during and after photos.

I asked her how she adapted my whitewashing instructions to make it work at her home. She said she wished she had worn rubber gloves while doing the job because her skin got abraded wringing out the old, coarse rag she used to dab the whitewash. Hydrated lime is very alkaline and can cause significant irritation.

Maggie and her daughter used two brushes to apply the whitewash and give it a mottled look: an angled one for the critical areas where the brick touched up against the drywall walls and moldings, and a wider masonry brush for the large, open areas of brick.

I had advised her to spritz the brick with clear water so the whitewash wouldn’t dry too quickly and set up. She discovered that she could only do a few rows of brick at a time and then had to start to pat off the excess material to produce the transparent look she desired.

Maggie and her daughter used common sense and started at the top and worked down. They knew they would be dabbing and patting the fresh whitewash, and they didn’t want to drip any water or whitewash on completed sections of brick.

You can make the patting process easier by controlling the thickness of the whitewash you apply. The thicker you make it, the more you need to pat and dab! When it dries, whitewash tends look more opaque than when it’s wet. I had shared in my columns that it’s always best to whitewash a few scrap bricks and let them dry to see what the coating will look like a day or two later.

Maggie reported that the job took two days. She spent the first day cleaning the brick fireplace; it took several rinse attempts to get it squeaky clean. The actual process of whitewashing only took Maggie and her daughter about seven hours to complete.

Maggie had received a bid from a professional to do the job for $800. She doesn’t regret her decision to take on the job herself. “As my daughter and I were working on the job yesterday, we came to the conclusion, aside from that ridiculous expense, that it’s much better that we did it ourselves,” she wrote. “It’s not likely that someone else can achieve the exact look you’re aiming for without your being there to totally supervise the job. And I suspect they would have used paint anyway!”

If you want my whitewash recipe and other detailed instructions on how to get great results with traditional hydrated lime and salt, just go to and type “whitewash” into my search engine.

I’m sure you’ll have great success, as Maggie did.

Need an answer? All of Tim’s past columns are archived for free at You can also watch hundreds of videos, download Quick Start Guides and more, all for free.

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