The Fireplace that Could

When we first walked into this 100-year-old house, complete with leaky roof and sagging floors, we saw lots of work that needed to be done. But when we stepped into the big living room and saw this towering ancient brick fireplace, we swooned. It wasn’t perfect. Maybe that’s what caught my eye. I saw character.


I saw beauty in the uneven bricks and age-old mortar.
I’ve always been a sucker for antiques, and old places restored and revived.

Here is the listing photo of our living room, before we applied any elbow grease at all, before the clutter disappeared and we ripped out the crooked shelves
(and before we stripped and stained the floors, whitewashed the walls, painted trim, etc.):


But once we moved in, we discovered that the mortar was INDEED ancient,
and the slightest brushing up against it caused a fine shower of dust to settle to the floor. With four active children bouncing through the house,
we knew we had to figure out a way to seal it in.

Daniel sprayed it with a sealer, and while it was now all holding together quite well, the creamy mortar turned into wet looking clay.
I was mortified. Or mortorfied.

Every time I walked into the living room, I gulped. What had started out as something I loved was now a massive eyesore. This was NOT what I fell in love with.

The old yellow heart pine floors were sanded and re-stained and turned a lovely brown. The outside of the house got new siding and a roof. But this chimney had become the big bad wolf of the living room.

To make matters worse, there were a few spots where the mortar had fallen out altogether, and invited tiny fingers to keep picking, creating larger and larger crannies. Something HAD to be done.

Then one day it DID get worse- I had a child who decided to go chimney climbing and stood on the corner brick and found it was no longer attached. Or causing it to be no longer attached. When the avalanche was over, there was a child, a chipped brick and lots of mortar power on the floor. No real harm was done, except the that someone’s pride was bruised and we had to stare at a haggle toothed mantle for months.

So I set out on Pinterest and researched every brick treatment option known to man. I didn’t want to paint it since I loved the variation in the brick. But something that would fill in the cracks and lightly cover the color while still letting some show through. I stumbled upon the German Smear idea, and yes, this was before Chip and Joanna launched it on their show.
I watched every tutorial on Youtube about it, scoured for every blog post or article online till my confidence reached a level of launch-ability. I’ve felt frustrated that are so many projects in this house that I cannot do alone, but this was one I could.

I went to Lowes and got the bag of mortar the guy wearing the vest recommended. But when I got home, it was FAR too gray and corse for the smear I was looking for. It worked great for filling those gaping holes and reattaching the dislodged corner brick, but then I headed back to the store, a little more educated and a bit more self-dependent. Lowes workers have no idea what a decorative German smear is. So I came home with this baby.

I attacked it with a vengeance. Cleaned the dust and cobwebs off (yes, I am that mom who has spiders in her old home. Pardon me. We DO live in harmony, not like my last house with its genuine infestation of Brown Recluse spiders) and mixed it to milk shake consistently.

It’s pretty simple. Spray the brick to get it damp, smear it on, focusing on the mortar joints, and wipe off areas of excess with your gloved hand and a damp rag. You do want gloves for this, ’cause mortar does nasty stuff to the skin. Don’t ask me how I know (and yes, I did start off with gloves, but they weren’t up for the length of the job. Ahem.)

Wipe off where you want less, and once stuff has dried, use a wire brush to remove any smear from areas where you want more brick showing through. This is where my husband showed up from long hours of study and could be my eyes from afar.  “That dark brick one level up, take a bit more off there…”

Be prepared for dust EVERYWHERE. If you can tape off the area behind plastic, you will thank yourself. If your husband is full of great ideas like mine is, he might even find an old door and create a work platform and dust catcher. Men are amazing creatures.

All in all, the German smear was the perfect treatment for this chimney. It dramatically brightened up our living room, which oddly enough only has two narrow windows, neither of which ever get direct light, so every bit of natural light needs to be embraced.

The fireplace still isn’t complete; there are gaps between the brick and sheetrock that will soon be filled in, a mantle installed on the ledge (please drop your vote in the comments: white or aged beams?) and also the hearth will be redone.

Like the Nester says,
“It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.”

I think that is a vital perspective when living in an old house, or living with children, or living on the mission field. Perhaps it applies to all of life, unless you live in the pages of Potterybarn or reside in the folders of Pinterest. For the rest of us, it’s a constant teeter-totter between reaching for what you envision and embracing the mess of now.

I’m glad I stepped outside of my comfort zone and launched off in this project. Every time I step into my living room now, I’m embraced with the brightness of the white, instead of the tired clay red. It was a great $18 investment.


Do you enjoy before and after home renovations as much as I do?
I’m excited to share more with you about our 100-year-old farm house.
Like the outside which is sporting a new siding color and roof shape and lovely meandering porch, and the complete gut job and brand new kitchen still slightly in the process.

Now, please loan me your opinion and drop your vote about mantle finishes in the comments below. Bright white or rustic barn beam?


18 Comments Add yours

  1. Samantha says:

    It looks lovely. I say rustic barn beam 🙂

  2. Rachel says:

    I vote rustic barn beam too. I think the contrast would look really nice.

  3. Rosie says:

    My vote is for rustic, because then you can top it off with gleaming white decor and have the best of both worlds.

  4. Janelle Lehman says:

    Beautiful!! Rustic is my vote!:)

  5. Martha says:

    Yes, rustic barn beam! It turned out really nice! Well done! 😊

  6. Kendra S. says:

    It’s beautiful! And I also vote for the barn beam.

  7. Christine says:

    Beautiful work! So often we just get used to something we really don’t like, and don’t pull together the gumption and courage to make it change!

    I think a rustic beam would balance the whites and just set it off in a really nice way!

  8. naomi says:

    Rustic barn beam 🙂

  9. Beautiful transformation! And I can’t wait to see more of what you all are doing. I always love that kind of thing, maybe because we have done/are doing it ourselves? As for the mantle, my vote is a rustic barn beam as well! The bright white could look really nice too though, depending what you used to decorate it. somehow a dark rustic beam just seems like it would pop really nicely there!

  10. It’s so amazing you were able to complete such a beautiful restoration/transformation. I think there’s such a wonderful magic in old, crooked, weathered pieces and homes. You did a great job bringing this one back to life! 🙂

    Kaitlin ||

  11. Rebecca says:

    A rustic barn beam would fit your house the best! That’s my vote anyhow.

  12. Dawn says:

    Great job on the brick… I whitewashed mine before we moved in and love the transformation. I would go with a rustic beam mantle!😁

    1. Dawn says:

      And I didn’t look at the comments before I gave you my opinion😁

  13. Tina Miller says:

    Yes, it needs a bit of color so rustic mantle is my vote, too. I’m thinking to let my fireplace in Ohio the color it is for now because all the trim is brown. We will be painting the walls but updating the trim later! Maybe years later! When we do I’ll go with white trim and then think of doing a whitewash to my fireplace!
    Until then message me sometime about how to white wash the walls! I’m going to be doing that to the walls here in Texas! Should I do it as I put the 10” shiplap boards up or after they’re fastened to the wall?

  14. Lynn says:

    Rustic barn beam! Eye catching detail with the all the lovely whites. You did a great job! The fireplace is beautiful!

  15. Kim Martin says:

    Definitely rustic.

  16. Doretta says:

    Rustic beam is my vote👌

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