How to Update a Brick Fireplace

Is there anything more relaxing than curling up in front of a fire on a snowy day, watching the flames dance on the hearth? As the heart of the living room, a fireplace plays a critical role in its space (more often than not, it’s actually the room’s architectural focal point). While the atmosphere that a fireplace creates is sublime, the aesthetics of an aged brick fireplace with years of accumulated soot often leave something to be desired.

We’re often asked by clients about how to make a brick fireplace look modern, particularly in antique homes where the fireplace infrastructure may be several decades old. Here, our Director of Interior Design Tricia B. Fortin shares her favorite brick fireplace ideas for revitalizing and modernizing a brick surround. Best of all, there are a variety of options, and many are relatively simple fixes. (For more fireplace refresh ideas, see our article on changing up your mantel decor.)

Begin With a Clean Fireplace

Brick fireplace
Game room from Acampora Interiors’ Brookline Historic Refresh project. Photo by Kindra Clineff.

Before undertaking an update of your brick fireplace, start with cleaning the fireplace brick, which includes a good scrub of the existing brick and mortar. If you’ve recently moved into a new home, it’s impossible to know how diligently the previous homeowners maintained the fireplace. In some cases, there may be years of grime and soot to remove.

When it comes to knowing how to clean fireplace brick, there are no fancy cleaning techniques required. “A thick rag with hot soapy water will do the trick,” Fortin says. “You can also take a toothbrush to the mortar.”

Sometimes, a simple cleaning will change your feelings about its appearance. However, if you’ve cleaned the brick and still wish to update its finish, here are four techniques to explore.

Technique 1: Painted Brick Fireplace

Painted brick fireplace
Light gray painted fireplace (left) in the great room of Acampora Interiors’ Concord Carriage House project. Photo by Jessica Delaney.

Can you paint a brick fireplace to give it new life? Absolutely. Painting your brick fireplace a solid color is one way to give it a clean and modern new look. While many opt to paint fireplaces white or eggshell to match the room’s trim, our clients have also been known to experiment with other accent colors. “A big trend right now is going with a slate gray–almost black–paint color, and then doing a beautiful, simple wood beam mantel,” Fortin says. “It creates a cleaner look.”

Standard latex paint will do for a painted brick fireplace, though you may also purchase paint specifically formulated for the texture of brick. Depending on the original brick and mortar color, you may also wish to use a primer. Consider a stain-blocking primer if the underlying mortar is very dirty, even after cleaning.

Repainting your brick fireplace is also an option when the original brick was previously painted. If the current color is not to your taste, you may paint over the existing color, though we typically caution against removing any old paint, which may contain lead.

If you are feeling industrious, painting a brick fireplace can be an enjoyable weekend project; however, hiring a professional to do the work may save time in the end.

Technique 2: Whitewash Fireplace Brick

Whitewashed brick fireplace
Whitewashed brick fireplace in the family room of Acampora Interiors’ Cape Cod Antique House project.

If you wish to allow some of the original style or color of the brick fireplace to show through, whitewashing may be the technique for you. “Whitewashing is a 50/50 ratio: half paint, half water, and typically in an eggshell finish. You apply it with a specific style brush, one that’s heftier than what you’d use on a wall,” Fortin says.

Fortin compares the application style to that of an impressionist artist on a canvas. Brush the whitewash formula liberally and then wipe it off to suit your taste, allowing more or less of the brick underneath to show through. Like painting, whitewashing is a relatively simple process that can be quite fun and creative, making it an ideal DIY task.

Brick fireplace
Family room fireplace (before) in Acampora Interiors’ Cape Cod Antique House project.

Technique 3: Limewash Brick Fireplace

Limewashing is an alternative to whitewashing. Rather than a paint and water hybrid, limewashing uses limestone, tint and water to brighten your brick fireplace. The limewashing formula comes pre-mixed, which Fortin notes is a draw for some homeowners. It removes a step in the process and eliminates the guesswork in combining the raw materials. Some limewash formulas must be diluted before use, so it’s essential to read the instructions for the brand you select prior to application.

As with whitewashing, you can apply and remove the limewash mix to achieve the look you desire for your brick fireplace. An added benefit of the limewash mix is that it takes several days to cure fully, so you may adjust the application during that time.

Technique 4: German Schmear Brick

If you wish to achieve an aged, patinated look with your brick fireplace, the German schmear technique may be right for you. While whitewashing and limewashing are mixtures with a color diluted by water, German schmear is a mortar wash, which involves the application of wet mortar over your existing brick fireplace. “You’re taking mortar onto your trowel and just smearing it all over your brick. Then, you wipe some off in bits and pieces, here and there, to the point that you feel happy with the exposed brick area,” Fortin says.

Because the technique involves the addition of mortar, it adds texture and depth to the brick fireplace underneath. The look evokes the aged and rustic brick one might find in a centuries-old European cottage.

Updating a Brick Fireplace Mantel

Some homeowners are happy with the existing brick but wish for another way to update the look of their fireplace. Others will employ one of the techniques above and then update their mantel to complement their newly-refinished brick. In either instance, updating your brick fireplace mantel can change the feel of the room, but it’s important to allow your space to dictate your mantel style. “For a lakehouse project in northern New England, for example, we’re going to do a beautiful old beam with some beefy corbels underneath it,” Fortin shares. “It carries a warm, rustic feel that beautifully suits the house.”

If you wish to embrace a more modern or traditional design, you may eschew corbels altogether and select a simple, understated mantel. In traditional design, heavier millwork and detailing with scrolls and floral applications add formality and gravitas to the mantel.

Refacing a Brick Fireplace

Stonework on fireplace
Stonework in progress on an Acampora Interiors’ project.
Stonework in progress on an Acampora Interiors’ project.

If you decide that a brick fireplace is simply not to your taste, it is possible to reface your existing fireplace. Unlike other options, however, refacing a brick fireplace is not a do-it-yourself project, but the benefit to refacing is that it opens you up to dozens of options. “Depending on your home, you might consider a beautiful fieldstone,” Fortin says. “Perhaps you apply millwork instead and have a small hearth with marble, soapstone or granite.”

Work in concert with your contractor to achieve the desired aesthetics. Even if you wish to incorporate something like a rustic river stone, there are manufactured options–similar to a veneer–that allow you to replicate the substantial appearance of stone without the added weight of applying actual river rocks over your existing brick fireplace.

Updating a brick fireplace can be an exciting prospect for a homeowner. Whether you opt to tackle the project on your own or hire a helping hand, the results can completely transform the look and feel of your space.