How to Expose a Brick Wall


One of the best things about row homes in Philly is that most of them have beautiful old brick hiding behind the plaster or drywall, and with a bit of hard work to expose it, your space can instantly be transformed.  When I plan a renovation, I love to take some of the original characteristics of the house, like the rustic warm feel of brick or the weathered old beams and wood floor (which can be repurposed into shelves or reclaimed wood walls), and mix it with more modern touches like bright white marble, dark hardwood floors, and light colors.
When I bought my new house, I wanted to expose the brick on one side all the way up through the third floor, and spent the weeks before settlement carefully planning my renovations.  The day that I closed, I went directly over with a friend and began making holes in the ceilings and walls. As I suspected, there was old brick behind the drywall and plaster, and we discovered that the ceilings could actually be raised over a foot in height!  The house and previously been “renovated” two or three times already, but instead of doing demolition, they had just framed in front of the existing walls and under the old ceilings (they even left the old light fixtures with the light bulbs in them!).  The result was dark low rooms, which had been painted a lot of crazy colors.  There was also a major roof leak in the rear.  This is what the living room looked like when I bought it:
Once we had the permit in hand, the demolition began.  Since the house had so many layers of walls, the amount of trash was impressive.  This is what the living room looked like during the demolition:
I tried to salvage what I could, including a set of ornate doors in the basement, (which had peeling paint and were slightly rotted at the bottom) and a couple of old windows.  I also saved as much of the old wood as I could, much to the chagrin of the guys working with me, who kept hauling it back out to the trash pile.
After the demolition was done, the first thing that we did was to expose the brick wall on one side of the house all the way up to the third floor.  When brick is covered in plaster, it is extremely messy and dusty to get it all off, so it’s best to take care of this before any other renovations.  First, you must use a hammer drill to chip off the plaster.  There will be smaller pieces that are still stuck the brick, but when you are done, you can clean those off with a stiff wire brush.  If you have three floors of brick to clean, just know that you will probably get a few blisters!!  Some people use a machine to sand it off, but I like my exposed brick to look a bit rustic instead of brand new, and when you do it by hand you have more control over how clean the brick ends up looking.
Here’s what the wall looked like before and after demolition:
This is what it looked liked right after chipping all of the plaster off:
After I was done with the wire brush, I filled in any large holes in the pointing and in some areas added extra brick where it was missing.  You can also redo all of the pointing if you want the brick to look brand new, but I like the more rustic feel.  Once everything had dried, I vacuumed the wall and wiped it down to get off the excess dust.  Exposed brick can disintegrate over time, leaving your house very dusty, so it’s important to put a sealer on it, and the sealer also makes the brick look much cleaner.  There are matte and shiny sealers, however my favorite is one that is called Natural Look Sealer by Drylok.  I wasn’t able to find it in Home Depot or Lowes, but, if you live in Philadelphia, you can find it at C&R Building Supply on 16th and Washington.  The sealer is very watery, so when you apply it, it’s important to cover any wood floors so that the liquid doesn’t drip and ruin them.  I apply the sealer with a large paintbrush, and I also put some in a sprayer to get it into the little cracks between bricks.
This is what the finished project looks like:
And here is the living room now:
If you like exposed brick, but don’t want to go through all of the hard work to get it, click here to check out some homes with exposed brick on the market, or give me a call at 267-357-1334.

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