Painted & Tainted: A primer on why painting exposed brick is often a No-No

Also, solid advice for homeowners on alternatives to painting brick when that newer brick doesn’t quite match the older

By Mark Fleischer

One is painted solid jet-black. Another is painted bright ocean blue. And yes, yet another was painted red.

But we’re not talking about just doors here, we’re talking about entire houses. Historic, 100+ year-old houses. Historic commercial structures too. Houses and buildings whose exteriors once proudly displayed nothing but their original, exposed and wonderful red brick, now covered and sealed in acrylic or latex of all colors of the rainbow.

For many homeowners, the painting of their historic home feels like a right of passage. The very act of picking up a roller or a paint brush may kindle memories of painting a childhood bedroom or that old dresser handed down from grandma. It also has a sense of a right of ownership, and pride, applying that personal coat of color like a signature on a deed. It may be a chance to spruce up the home after years of neglect or it may be a necessary evil like that roof that needs re-shingling or that plumbing that needs repaired.

Brick and weep hole images below from Bob Vila’s home advice site (bobvila.com) and House Logic (houselogic.com)

But the painting of brick – original, exposed brick in particular – is quite often a no-no, and not simply for aesthetic or even historical reasons. Structural integrity and the lasting life of both the exteriors and interiors of a structure are what we ought to be thinking about before addressing that old brickwork.

Cover image from Five Reasons Why You’ll Regret Painting Your Brick House.

So why isn’t it a good idea to paint original, exposed brick?

“Water. Water is our enemy in historic buildings,” said restoration expert Chooch Pickard, who is also an architectural designer at ArchInc. “If any water gets in and behind the paint on the brick, it can freeze and then thaw and damage the brick.”

What is easy to overlook, for those less experienced with the nuances of brick, is the fact that brick is a breathable material.

“A brick wall – even today’s brick veneers – have air spaces behind the brick, and that brick is made to breath. Any water that gets in gets to that air space, and then dries out before it can get into the building.”

Architect Ashley Wilson, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, speaking with House Logic, said “Old brick was handmade in a kiln (a type of oven), and some . . . has a harder surface. It weathers better, and was used on the face of buildings because it’s more impervious.”

With regard to historic homes and a neighborhood’s architectural guidelines, which advise against painting original brick, architectural historian and window expert Margot Payne says the idea is “more than maintaining the original look of the facade. Paint will only temporarily hide moisture and efflorescence issues. Sealing one side of the brick with paint will trap additional moisture and salts within the wall, causing further damage over time. For homeowners, understanding it is an issue of practicality and longevity for their home, in addition to historic integrity, might make them more amenable to the guideline restrictions on painting.”

A Primer on Painting Exposed Brick

For it’s article Five Reasons Why You’ll Regret Painting Your Brick House, the website House Logic tells us that painting brick can result in longterm brick and structural damage, it can quickly deteriorate into something looks awful, and that one could be destroying a bit of history. And not being an expert myself, I sat down with Chooch Pickard for a quick primer on painting brick. I learned that much consideration should go into that house exterior before a new coat of paint becomes a part of the picture.

Q: What about misconceptions by home and building owners about cost savings in painting?

Pickard: They’ll paint the brick because, well, let’s say the mortar is failing in it and they don’t really want to spend the money to tuckpoint. That’s an even worse reason. The water and moisture absolutely will get in there if it’s not tuckpointed. The mortar joints are actually a good part of what holds water out between the bricks. And the bricks themselves, as a clay substance, can breathe.

Q: What exactly is tuckpointing? 

Bob Vila’s home advice website says that “Mortar used to fill joints deteriorates over time – even if the bricks themselves are still in good shape. Tuckpointing involves removing a portion of the deteriorated mortar, filling the joints with new mortar (that closely matches the color of the brick), and then applying a thin line of putty in a contrasting color down the center of the joint.”

Tuckpointing, from Bob Vila’s home advice website

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Pickard: If water can pass through quickly where it’s not been tuckedpointed and where the mortar has deteriorated the water will stay behind. Then not only do you have freeze-thaw issues you can have mold and mildew issues. It is inevitable that water will get in a wall, and you have to make sure there’s ways for it to get out.

The other thing painting does is cover up weepholes.

Q: What are weepholes?

Pickard: Weepholes are there to allow water to escape out of the wall.

Weepholes are those small gaps left in between some brick in the masonry wall. They are there for a reason. And they serve two important purposes, for ventilation and drainage. 

However they are also an access point for rodents, insects, and swarming bees and wasps. Experts say that for weepholes that have become critters’ front doors, one should do not resort to sealing the hole. Instead they can be partially blocked with materials that still allow airflow, such as with wire mesh or tiny screens.

Q: Is there ever a situation where painting brick is acceptable?

Pickard: Sure. If over the life of that building a building has always been painted, it’s obviously more acceptable to paint it. But in general, it really is not a good idea.

Q: What if the brick is structurally fine, but because of repairs and replacements over the years it’s now inconsistent in terms of color – some owners may want to paint over for consistency. Can brick be cleaned, or stained?

Pickard: When it’s been patched with brick and mortar that doesn’t match the original – it is tough to match brick – there are ways out there to stain it. Artisans can stain brick so that it looks exactly like the rest. However, stains are meant to change the color of a brick, not coat it – that’s the difference. Like with real wood, staining doesn’t seal the wood. The coating you have on the outside of it seals and protects it. So staining brick is one way to do it. It’s not inexpensive, but it’s less expensive than going out and finding a handful of bricks that match exactly, which actually is one approach that’s been used over the years.

Q: With regard to paint colors themselves, some ask why there aren’t typically paint color guidelines in historic guidelines. It seems the answer would be both in practicality as well as historical significance?

For example along the historic canals of Amsterdam, the famous leaning Dutch houses of the canals have historic significance. The colors of the houses are a part of the story, and therefore a part of their history. And generally speaking, in most of our historic residential neighborhoods, paint color is not a historical marker. 

Pickard: Well it’s not just that. When the historic districts were formed you had to get as many people on board as possible. So what is one thing people will give in on? They’ll say “well you’re going to make me keep my historic windows, but don’t make me paint certain colors. You know, I need to be able to have that freedom.”

Q: I would also argue and appeal for the original brick for its raw beauty. I myself love brick.

Pickard: Yes. The other the other thing with painting brick – a lot of times you’re covering up the character the wall. Brick is not a monochromatic color. It’s not meant to be. The mortar is another color, or has been uniquely picked to match. I mean, the design of that wall, the original intent in its design was never meant to be monochromatic. 

Some think because the brick is a little discolored it looks bad. But more than likely they’re looking at a bad brick job, and what you see is mortar that wasn’t put in properly, which makes it look worse than the actual bricks. It’s actually cheaper to go in and tuckpoint and put the real the right color matching mortar in there.

Q: Seems like what we’re talking about is not simply ‘why can’t I paint my own house?’ but the overall intent of historic guidelines. I mean, these are historically significant neighborhoods, and original materials are obviously a huge part of them.

Pickard: Right. Often you have stone mixed in, or other colors of brick for detail work. It’s what we very often see in Memphis and Midtown, like up in Vollintine-Evergreen, and some of these Craftsman Homes that have incredible stone and multicolored bricks that were meant to be a part of that original design. When they’re covered up by paint, it bothers me more than anything.

* * * * * *

Cover image from Five Reasons Why You’ll Regret Painting Your Brick House.

For more on proper tuck pointing and gentle cleaning, consult the briefs at the National Park Service’s tips on historic restoration: https://www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs/6-dangers-abrasive-cleaning.htm

More on tuck pointing a historic home can be found here at Bob Vila’s home advice site.

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About Mark Fleischer 89 Articles
I was a career consultant and communications specialist in the payroll industry until moving from southern California to Memphis in late 2015. The Bluff City gave me a new start in the second half of my career, gifting me with a chance to return to my childhood fascinations with cities and my college passions in writing, theater, film, and storytelling, all the while allowing me to use my experience working with people, in consulting, teaching and communications, to bring a new voice to Memphis. This may be my first venture into multi-media publishing, but Life and Place - Memphis - gave me all the prep and tools I need.

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