We’ve been in the process of tackling a somewhat major remodel of our 1970's wood-paneled, man-cave basement, and let me say, it’s been quite the experience! Initially, it was difficult to decide which major project in our house we really wanted to complete first. Our second floor is in need of some serious changes as well as the kitchen / mudroom, and they won’t be cheap. Ultimately, we chose the basement because it is the smallest financial investment for the most value-added updates.
And boy does it need some updates. It was a nauseating oasis of honey-stained wood paneling, parquet flooring, cabinets, and a wood-burning fireplace - the stuff of dreams for your duck-hunting, tool-wielding man of the 70's and 80's. But, fast-forward to the new millennium, and this stuff is the perfect candidate for a modern design revival!
After we had the wood-paneling painted white (Benjamin Moore Simply White), we were left with the rather large, red brick fireplace with a dated black and gold firebox smack in the middle of it all. Honestly, I hadn’t really considered refinishing the fireplace because sometimes I like the contrast of brick against a white wall, especially when everything these days is painted white it seems. But this fireplace was lacking charm. It just looked...well, tired. And against the backdrop of the bright white walls and soon to be surrounded by new flooring, we felt like something had to be done.
One of my friends suggested a German schmear, and after that, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Kyle and I binge-researched pictures and tutorials on the look and how to get the finish we wanted, and here’s how we did it! We wanted some of the brick to show through, like this inspiration photo below (I do not know the original source for this photo, but it is not my own).
German Schmear How-To
Grout bag (optional)
Mapei Porcelain Tile Mortar (White) - you want a premixed mortar that you just add water to
How we did it:
In our research, we quickly discovered there are many ways to apply a German schmear, and this is what we decided would be best to get the exact look we wanted. We wanted some of the brick to show through, not a complete white wash.
Remove or tape off the firebox cover. Tape off the walls and ceiling with painters tape. Lay drop-cloths down all around, even on the hearth. This gets messy and sloppy, you don’t want to fling wet mortar onto your wall or rug!
We used wet rags to white down the entire area to get some of the loose dirt and dust off so it didn’t get permanently adhered to our finish. I don’t think this step is a requirement, but it is handy especially if your surface is extra dirty.
Grab your bucket and scoop in the mortar mix and add water.
Mix the mortar and water in the bucket using a power drill with a paddle attachment. Keep adjusting your ratio until you get a peanut butter or thick buttercream consistency.
(This next step is optional, but I would HIGHLY recommend it if you have deep grout lines between your bricks.) Using the second bucket, open the grout bag and fold over the top edges so one edge is around the edge of the bucket. Use a trowel to shovel some of the wet mortar into the bag, but not too much because it gets heavy. I just pretended like I was about to ice a cake! Keep the tip of the bag in the bucket so it doesn’t ploop out everywhere and make a mess. Push the mortar down to the bottom of the bag, twist the top of it shut, and you’re ready to start piping! This part was a little tricky at first, and Kyle actually got fired from piping because he didn’t understand how to do it. This is when he was booted to cleanup crew, and I ended up doing most of this project by myself!
Starting at the top of the area, thickly pipe the mortar into the ground lines in a small, manageable area. If you’re working with two people, you can have one person keep piping and one person behind them scraping away.
Here's a close up of the piping below, our grout lines weren't that deep. If you have deep grout lines, I think using the bag will save you a ton of time.
Using the paint scraper, scrape across the grout lines to spread the mortar horizontally along the brick. Do the same with the vertical grout lines, wiping any excess mortar onto naked bricks below.
Then, scrape in a criss-cross or random pattern around the area to smear the mortar and get the finish you want. How much you cover the bricks is up to you, we did a combination of total coverage and some peeking through.
Repeat this process over the whole area! When the entire area is covered, you’re done! You can always go back and add more to spots you did earlier, so step back every so often to check that you’re getting the look you want.
German schmear was actually very easy and almost relaxing once I got the hang of it, and I think the final impact was worth the effort! Even if you had to buy every single item on this list brand new to do the project, the cost would be under $150. We only had to purchase the mortar because we had everything else on hand already, so this project cost us $23 and about 5 hours of time!
We still plan to add a new mantle and fireplace cover, so stay tuned for updates on that. Until then, I’m going to revel in what we’ve accomplished so far, and can’t wait until the new flooring surrounds it, too!
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