How to Whitewash a Fireplace the Wrong Way

When we last saw the fireplace it was surrounded by rubble from the fallen brick arches.

With the brick arches gone it was easier to see the large brick fireplace in all its glory.

Normally I’m a fan of interior brick, but the colors of this brick fireplace were a combination of spicy brown mustard and pink salmon–not good. It made me cringe whenever I looked at it.

I had a creative idea that we could whitewash it, and we wouldn’t just whitewash it with paint, we could try a traditional whitewash technique called limewash.

Limewash is a whitewash that  has been used on masonry and plaster for thousands of years. You make it with hydrated lime (find it in the garden section of the home improvement store) dissolved in water in about a 1:4 ratio. It makes a thin, inexpensive milk-like paint that you can layer on the bricks with a brush.

So we painted with it.

I hoped I would like it better than using regular paint because it would give an aged patina instead of a thick coating. I was charmed by the idea of using a traditional technique I don’t see often.

“This will make a good blog post!” I thought to myself encouragingly.

As the whitewash dries it turns from gray to white. It’s normally used for building exteriors because it can wear off, though nowadays they have binding agents that you can mix in to make it longer-lasting. I didn’t feel too concerned about that, however, because I had done a test coat with extra bricks. Those bricks had turned a pretty shade of white, and the white didn’t rub off.

The first coat didn’t look very good, but first coats never do. We added a second coat, then a third.

After the third coat, well, it still didn’t look how I expected. You could still see the spicy brown mustard behind the white, and it didn’t look like a nice aged patina, it looked chalky and…dirty.

Then my two year old climbed up on it, and the whitewash rubbed onto his shirt, and I knew it was through.

It made perfect sense that this is a technique used mainly for exteriors. Whitewash would look lovely on the outside of a cottage, but it was not the look I was going for.

So after a trip to the paint store, two coats of a good masonry primer, and one final coat of white latex paint, we called it done, and I like the result so much better.

The mantle is still in the garage being refinished, and don’t mention that it looks somewhat like an igloo now because if I suggest making any more changes to it, Doug will kill me.

And this is the story about Lesson #4 for Home Improvement:

Don’t get creative about the main features of your home. Your creative idea now will become a “What were they thinking?” later. Creativity is for accessories only.

Am I right?

About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. Even unfinished, it looks WAY better than it did before. Something I have always loved about your blog is your underlying theme that it doesn’t need to be perfect in order to be done. Obsessing over something not being good enough is just another way to overlook more important things like moving on to new projects or scrapping it all and spending time with your family.

    Our homes and projects should really only have one purpose, and that is to facilitate our families. If they just put unneeded strain on our relationships, then they really aren’t doing their job.
    Jennie´s last post…For the Love of Books…

  2. The fireplace looks 10 times better now than it did before, but that stinks that it was such as hassle to whitewash it. We have an ugly brick fireplace too, but our landlord won’t let us paint it. :(

    Um, yeah, your fireplace does kind of look like an igloo. But just think how pretty it will look in a couple months once you put up some holiday decorations.
    Sage´s last post…Sage Advice: Let It Be

  3. I’m sorry for the temporary setback. I just saw something today that may be relevant: It said,

    Yes, I made a mistake.
    No, you don’t need to bring it up all the time.

    This falls into the category of live and learn.

  4. I like the result a lot – it is a timeless look and will wear well. It also reminds me of the whitewashed brick fireplace I had in my home growing up – and of the time my brother decided to use the Christmas tree as kindling and we then had a black fireplace for a while ;-)

    Nice work!

  5. Oh, Rachel. What a fun post, even if your tone is one of… chagrin?

    I love that you got creative and tried something fresh, and pushed through to really test it out before deciding it was the wrong way to go.

    It looks a bit like an igloo now, but I bet that — after the mantle is refinished and back in place, and after your children play games with floor pillows and a blanket or two in front of that fireplace when you have a cozy fire crackling deep in that dark recess on the hearth — “igloo” won’t be what comes to mind at all. And just think of how beautifully that bright, white brick will reflect firelight this winter.

    Lissa´s last post…On Street Festivals and Satchels

  6. Oh, you are giving me ideas and saving me from making the same mistakes. :) thanks!

    Fireplaces must be the theme for today since I blogged about a squirrel falling down our chimney.

  7. I can’t wait to see the final result, I’m loving this series on the renovations, but the suspense is killing me! Also brings back memories of when we bought our house. No major renovations but we ended up painting just about every room (we weren’t so keen on the “rainbow sherbet” color scheme the former owners seemed to like)… one thing I learned: trust the guys at the paint store. They really do know how things turn out, when lighter vs darker shades will be better, and what works together well.

  8. I’ve never thought about it, but I think your rule is quite apt!

    Sorry it ended up being so much extra work!
    Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm´s last post…Best Books of 2010 (and my 2011 challenge)

  9. I love the end result, it will look smashing with the rest of your things int he room, maybe a fireplace screen, maybe an antique charger over the mantlepiece. It’s a blank canvas now to paint your picture on and it’s wonderful!
    Bex´s last post…Chair Cheers

  10. I agree with your rule. I’ve been watching with much interest to see how you’re handling some of the things in your house since it’s very similar to the one we bought ~ in it’s original 1976 condition. We have a stone fireplace made out of some turquoise-ish stone. When we first moved in I thought it was awful. We talked about all the different things we could do to it but fear of “What was I thinking” has kept us from acting at this point. Plus as we do the rest of the room I find that it’s looking better and better. Here’s a link so you can see what we’re dealing with. Side note – this stone is also on the bottom half of the front of our raised ranch home.

  11. I can’t get into white walls yet … but I agree that keeping it simple for stuff you don’t want to change too often is *good*.
    Amanda@EasyPeasyOrganic´s last post…Beautiful Ugly

  12. It is coming along nicely. I too can’t wait to see the finished room.
    Donna´s last post…Not Finished But Just Have To Show You!!

  13. I think the white is a huge improvement. I bet it will look a amazing with the mantle and some accesories. Good job!!

  14. That’s great decorating advice…creativity is for accessories! Your fireplace looks great, and I’m sure you’ll love it when it’s finished. And now you know what not to do!
    Emily Joyce´s last post…Women of Faith Conference: Fun, Worship, and Overcoming Emotions

  15. I couldn’t agree more with your lesson #4 – we’ve just about finished a 6 year renovation of our home, and several of our first small reno items were very trendy (red walls, anyone?). But, as we lived in our space more and did more renovations, we realized that the spaces that we loved most and didn’t get tired of were the ones that were done simply and in line with the historic nature of our home. Now we do the creative stuff with fabrics and accessories.

  16. Ever see the show trading spaces? This reminded me of it very much.

    They killed many fireplaces by painting them. :)

  17. I think your advice sounds pretty good. We’re doing our master bedroom next and it has an old brick fireplace that was painted with an oil paint. I don’t think it’s going to come up though the paint is peeling in a few places.

    I’ll keep watching your project in the meantime!

  18. Anything is better than the great grey fireplace… Give the igloo time, by the time you have your stuff around it you could feel a whole lot better about it. I have no fear that with inspiration and your creative touch and it is going to be great!!! Sometimes a project just needs you to look away for a time and come back with refreshed enthusiasm later…
    se7en´s last post…Saturday Spot: Lazy Weekends…

  19. This reminds me of when my mom wanted to take the brick fireplace out of our living room. My dad said it was too involved. So, when he wasn’t home, she painted it lime green. It was out that weekend!

    Jenna@CallHerHappy´s last post…Etiquette Question

  20. Do you think there might have been some kind of finish on the bricks that kept the whitewash from being absorbed properly?

    In any case, it is beautifully clean looking and when the mantle goes back on, it will look different again.

  21. I don’t mean to be a know it all, but you actually can use white wash internally. The wall has to be primed with a special coat or have a previous white wash coat on it. Anything else and the lime base will not stick. It has to do with the chemical reaction on the wall.

    I have personally done whitewash in our country home. With great results. Still, it is really tricky to paint ceilings with it as it is a chemically reactive agent for hours after it is mixed. It can burn your skin and you have got to protect your eyes for sure. Also when mixing, it is an endothermic reaction (creates heat) – so watch for that as well.

    Enough of the chemistry lesson. Can’t wait for more home improvement tips!!

  22. We had brick colored bricks and I painted them white latex –
    instant shabby chic. Antique accessories and some black and white photos are the mantel piece and you are set!

  23. Yeah! I believe that anything is better than the great grey fireplace. I have no fear too that with inspiration and your creative touch and it is going to be great!!! Sometimes a project just needs you to look away for a time and come back with refreshed enthusiasm later. To tell you honestly this reminds me of my father who wanted to take the brick fireplace out of our living room.
    Lizbeth´s last post…How Kidney and Nephron Work

  24. Much better! It will look great once you have the mantle back on and have added your accessories. Thanks for sharing your house projects. It’s fun to see the transformations.
    Bethany´s last post…Homemade Pizza

  25. Ah yes… the Ideas that Seem Good At The Time. When I renovated my last house, I was full of them. I accidently smeared blue paint onto what was supposed to be a chocolate brown brick feature fireplace surround. It ended up being a blue feature fireplace surround (which fortunately looked a lot better than what we originally planned).

    And I decided to rag my bedroom walls. Having successfully ragged a modernish pine chest of drawers, I thought it would be simple. It sort of was. Reasonably simple… although it takes a LOT of time to rag an entire room that is 4m square with 3m high walls; and once you start, you can’t actually stop. You also can’t have someone help you, as your ragging techniques will be completely different. And when the walls are made of horsehair plaster and are slightly more porous than you expect and you run out of the ragging mix 3/4 of the way round and have to attempt to mix the same colour but only with enough to do the last wall…

    It was worth it in the end, and I learned a lot from BOTH instances!

    As was your efforts – learned something about whitewash AND it looks much better painted!

  26. Wow. I appreciate your honest tone in this post. I had actually been wondering what lime wash would look like on an interior; now I know about the potential pitfalls. What a total drag that the project turned into such a fiasco!

    And ‘igloo’?! My word, you said it, not me! =) Still, they say that necessity is the mother of invention, right? This means you will come up with something. Thankfully fall and winter holidays provide plenty of opportunities!
    Juliette´s last post…Of Ships, Shopping and World Hunger

  27. I just bought a 100 year old house. It has five fireplaces, most of which have some sort of brick in each of them. You have given me some good ideas. I intend on painting the one in the living room in white also. I think it will look great with some wonderful accessories.
    Thanks for the ideas…btw I love your blog!

  28. It looks great..Once you get the mantel in place and some of your own stuff, it will be perfect –
    Thanks for sharing your journey…I’m anxious to see what’s next!!

  29. I just do not believe in painting brick. It annoys me when they paint it on home improvement shows ESPECIALLY when the owners do not want it painted.
    Instead, I believe in working with the existing and bringing out colors that will compliment the feature. In your case (and in the case of the ugly colors of brick on the front of my home) I would have gone with a nice turquoise/aqua paint or colored items on the mantel, hung on the wall, etc. because it would have been a nice complimentary color to the salmon.
    However, as much as I hate painted brick, the white totally works… and I hope it works for you. And, I’m sorry it didn’t turn out how you planned. ):

  30. The end result looks great and once the mantle is ready it will be fun to accessorize the neutral white with some color. I’ll bet, in the end, you’ll love it!
    Natalie @ Maple Leaf Circle´s last post…A Homeschool Life Down Under

  31. I love the last photo! Nicely done, even if it took a little experimenting :-) Very exciting!
    Eliz. K´s last post…[photo album]

  32. Hello!
    Well, I agree with your rule…
    And love your blog!

    I just wonder if you can paint a fireplace you still want to use as fireplace… does anyone know?


    • Yes, you can use a painted fireplace. The painted outside of the fireplace (as in Rachel’s) will have no impact on the fireplace itself or on the ability to have a real fire in it.
      The crucial thing is the health of your chimney so get your chimney professionally looked at if you’ve never kit a fire there or if it’s been some time since you last lit a fire.
      Scribhneoir´s last post…What the frack is going on?

  33. Just curious… how did you dispose of the bricks from the arches?

  34. Ha! That sounds exactly, EXACTLY, like something I would do. Sometimes the old-fashioned ways are old-fashioned for a reason.
    Megan@declutterdaily´s last post…Days 226-229 – What I Did This Weekend

  35. Where would we be without good ol’ paint! The go to design tool — next to soap and water, that is :)

  36. We have owned our own home for 3 years now, and I’m still having a really hard time with making big decisions about it, not second guessing myself over those decisions, etc. I had a trench dug and nice stone put in around our new back porch yesterday, and while I like it, I worry that maybe I should’ve tried plantings there instead to deal with the drainage issues. Sigh. My husband puts the responsibility of home maintenance decisions on me, and I wish he didn’t, though I understand why he does, with his work schedule. Sometimes I fantasize about selling this house to a friend and then renting it back from them. I enjoy this house less than just about any other place I’ve lived…. because I am responsible for it. Is that feeling ever going to go away?
    Ellen´s last post…better…

  37. It does look like an igloo. You could try painting the trim brick around the opening and the top of the hearth a slightly darker color, just enough to add shape and differentiate between the parts of the fireplace. Up to you though.

    You could also embrace the igloo and put a stuffed penguin on the fireplace.
    Myss Dexter´s last post…Craft: Gift Card Earbud Holder

  38. Very nice! Definitely agree with having some contrasting colors around it. It looks nice now but I bet it’ll looks so much nicer when it’s all done.

  39. I had to laugh when you mentioned whitewashing the fireplace. I live in Ireland and we are no strangers to whitewash here. My parents were both brought up in homes which were whitewashed and my husband has memories of helping to whitewash his granny’s house.
    Even though you can use it indoors it would not occur to me to do it because I know how it can rub off and wear off and how often it needs to be replaced although all of that would probably be different indoors as the weather would not be a factor.
    I know how hard it can be on the skin and the eyes – as you probably now know you need to be really careful when handling the lime.
    Painting the fireplace white was a good idea, much more in line with your simple living vision.
    I haven’t read any blogs for ages and thought I would pop around to see how things were going so I am really happy for you guys – Congrats on the house!
    May you and your lovely family have much health and happiness in your new home!
    Scribhneoir´s last post…What the frack is going on?

  40. I think you did a great job – you were able to fix what you didn’t like without big bucks or calling in a contractor. I think that was a wise risk to take, actually. Shucks about the whitewash – I was rooting for it!
    Margo´s last post…End of Sunday Dinner, Saveur Style

  41. I’m loving your series about home renovations and can hardly wait to see what comes next (I bet you can’t either!) :) I think your white fireplace is gorgeous–painted brick is one of my favorite textured looks.

  42. I have to agree with you on the creativity thing. After recently selling a house I was thankful that most of our original renovations done to the inside of the house were pretty classic and standard. They stood up to the test of time and still looked pretty modern a few years later. You are brave-nothing wrong with that : )

  43. Those arches!!!
    OMG – what were they thinking.

    Now, I say that realizing that in the late 60’s through 80’s there were many women – my mom in included – who would have LOVED those.

    I think what you’ve done to your room is a vast improvement.
    Can’t wait for more!
    Dana @ Cooking at Cafe D´s last post…31 Days To a More Organized Life: Day 3 – "Waxing Poetic"

  44. Ah yes, white wash. My parents are dairy farmers and have to white wash the walls in their barn every 6 months or so. It chips off over time, and does rub off when you brush against it, and it doesn’t wipe off if you get dirt on it. Ya should have said something- I could have warned you! :-)

  45. I enjoy which you got creative and tried something fresh, and pushed through to really check it out out before deciding it was the wrong way to look.
    Dayna´s last post…Understanding Men in Relationships