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How to German Schmear Brick (Mortar Wash Fireplace Makeover)

Learn how to German schmear brick, in no time! Makeover a brick fireplace with mortar wash, a beginner-friendly DIY project.

As much as I love the cozy features in our cottage-style home, some of it is a bit dark for my liking. For example, our east-facing living room only gets morning light, making it dim in the afternoons. Though I like the chunky wood trim, I’m not tied to the brick fireplace or mid-tone walls. Therefore, a German schmear brick fireplace makeover was a solution to brighten the living room.

how to german schmear brick

German schmear, like a whitewash, doesn’t fully cover the brick. While I like painted brick, I felt retaining some amount of exposed brick would be true to the modern cottage design concept we’ve chosen. So, if you are a brick lover, a German schmear is a great compromise — lighter and brighter, while still preserving character. 

What is a mortar wash?

A mortar wash is a decorative effect which involves strategically spreading a mixture of mortar and cement across brick.

The term German schmear (or German smear)  has origins in Germany from the word “schmear” meaning “to spread, grease, smear.

Fireplace Christmas Decorations with Feather Wreath, Brass Candles, and Garland. Christmas Mantel Ideas on a German Schmear Brick Fireplace.

Unlike a whitewash, which is typically thin paint or paints thinned with water, the German schmear technique uses a thick medium. Mortar is the traditional medium, or use paint for a faux treatment. Completing German schmear with paint is simpler, and achieves a similar look.

You might also like: What are the differences? German Schmear vs. Mortar Wash vs. Limewash 

How to German Schmear Brick

Note: This tutorial utilizes paint. If you want to try mortar, I suggest this mortar wash tutorial from Dimples and Tangles.

Supplies Needed

Instructions

  1. First, vacuum the brick to remove dust, debris, and cobwebs.
  2. Once clean, cover the mantel, firebox opening, floor, trim, etc. with plastic dropcloths and painters tape.
  3. Now, dip the paint brush into the paint. There is no need to cover the brush in paint, only the tip of the brush.
  4. Next, run the brush tip over the mortar surrounding a brick, generously applying paint.
  5. Once the mortar is covered with paint, take the brush (without adding paint) and from the mortar and across the brick. This smears the paint over the face of the brick… hence, the name “German schmear.
  6. Finally, repeat steps 3-5 until all of the mortar on the fireplace is covered. If you aren’t satisfied with the coverage, apply a second coat.
    note: For reference, my fireplace has two coats of German schmear. It took less than 4 hours to complete, including dry time and cleanup. I used less than 1 gallon of paint. 

DIY German Schmear Projects

German schmear can be used on interior or exterior brick – even on faux bricks! If you’re considering giving german schmear a try, you’ll want to check out the following posts, too:

We couldn’t be more pleased with our german schmear fireplace, and plan to use the technique on the exterior of our modern cottage home and on the basement fireplace.

German Schmear Brick Fireplace with Christmas Decorations - Feather Wreath, Brass Candles, and Garland. Christmas Mantel Ideas on a German Schmear Brick Fireplace.

FAQs

Q: What is the difference between mortar wash and whitewash?

A: A mortar wash uses a mortar/cement mix or with undiluted paint. A whitewash requires thin paint or paints diluted with water.

Q: Do I need to use a primer to paint brick?

A: No. However, using paint and primer in one may reduce the total number of coats required.

Q: What type of brush should I use to paint brick?

A: Skip expensive brushes since the brick will be tough on the brush bristles. Ideally, choose a brush that is thick enough to cover the mortar lines, and approximately 2 inches wide. This will make painting the mortar quick and easy.

Q: Do you add water to the paint?

A: No. German schmear is a dry brush technique.

Fireplace Christmas Decorations with Feather Wreath, Brass Candles, and Garland. Christmas Mantel Ideas on a German Schmear Brick Fireplace.

How to German Schmear Brick (Mortar Wash)

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Active Time: 2 hours
Total Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Difficulty: Easy

Learn how to German schmear brick, in no time! Makeover a brick fireplace with mortar wash, a beginner-friendly DIY project. 

Materials

Tools

Instructions

  1. First, vacuum the brick to remove dust, debris, and cobwebs. 
  2. Once clean, cover the mantel, firebox opening, floor, trim, etc. with plastic dropcloths and painters tape.
  3. Now, dip the paint brush into the paint. There is no need to cover the brush in paint, only the tip of the brush. 
  4. Next, run the brush tip over the mortar surrounding a brick, generously applying paint.
  5. Once the mortar is covered with paint, take the brush (without adding paint) and from the mortar and across the brick. This smears the paint over the face of the brick... hence, the name "German schmear."
  6. Repeat steps 3-5 until all of the mortar on the fireplace is covered. If you aren't satisfied with the coverage, apply a second coat.

Notes

For reference, my fireplace has two coats of German schmear. It took less than 4 hours to complete, including dry time and cleanup. I used less than 1 gallon of paint.

If you liked this DIY project, you might also like:

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Tawney

Sunday 24th of January 2021

I have old brick that is more pink and red in color. I love the look of the brown/gray tones of your final product so would I have to paint it brown first before using that smear technique?

Lora Green

Monday 25th of January 2021

Hi! I would be inclined to try a stain, as opposed to brown paint. It would be fairly easy to test a stain on the brick, to see if it gives the brick more brown/gray tones. If it doesn't, you could always try brown paint. If you go the paint route, I'd either apply it with a dry brush somewhat sporadically - or dilute it with water. In other words, it would still have that natural variation in color that is characteristic of brick, but with a brown tint. I'd suggest picking a less conspicuous area to test it out on. Once you achieve the right look, replicate it across the rest of the brick. Good luck!

Carrie

Sunday 29th of November 2020

Thank you for these instructions! Was looking for a way to accomplish this look without using mortar and it worked perfectly. I have a small brick fireplace and this took me about 20 minutes to do and completely changed the look of my whole room!

Lora Green

Tuesday 1st of December 2020

That's awesome, Carrie! Aren't quick and easy projects the best?! I'm glad the tutorial was helpful :)

Dee Negelein

Monday 16th of November 2020

Ok, so I've had your site and tutorial bookmarked for months now, and nervous as all get-out to actually make the move to do it. After all, I knew there was no going back. I knew I could always cover it up with solid paint if I didn't like it, but I didn't want the solid look either. Finally I got my nerve and took the plunge (hands shaking and all - literally)! I am SO glad I did the paint method rather than the mortar wash; I just envisioned that as a complete mess, and the paint was easy-peasy! I would love to share before and after photos with you, but not sure if I can do that here. Thanks for your instructions!!

Lora Green

Thursday 19th of November 2020

Yes, Dee! I'd love to see the photos!! I'm so glad the project was easy for you - it is seriously one of my favorite projects ever.

Katelyn

Tuesday 11th of August 2020

Is this a working fireplace? I would like to do this on our main fireplace but we use it daily in the winter months and I worry about heat damage. I know there is special high heat paint for the inside part of a fireplace, wondering if there is an additive to make the paint more durable to withstand high heat?

Lora Green

Friday 14th of August 2020

That is a great question, Katelyn! Our fireplace is not a working fireplace. However, we painted the brick fireplace in our last home and it was a working fireplace. That being said, we didn't burn it regularly - maybe 10-15 times per winter at most. To be sure, I'd just ask Sherwin Williams/Benjamin Moore, etc. wherever you buy your paint, to confirm.

Shelley

Sunday 19th of July 2020

Hi, I love the look of your fireplace. Awhile back I painted my brick all white. I'm not thrilled with it. I have thought about repainting the brick back to the original ugly red orange and then doing the schmear technique. Do you think that would work and if so what shade of brick red should I use? Thanks so much:)

Lora Green

Sunday 26th of July 2020

Hi, Shelley! Great question. I would actually try using something abrasive - such as like stainless steel scrubbers/scouring pads - to remove some of the white paint. Essentially, kind of like a reverse german schmear where you partially uncover the brick as opposed to partially covering the brick.

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