The Unhandy Man’s Guide to Exposing a Brick Wall

how to expose a brick wall

how to expose a brick wall

This my husband Aaron’s 1st post! :D

I’m semi-handy, I guess, and I’ve never attempted a full-scale home renovation project, because I never owed a home until now. In our new place we had a damaged wall, so I decided to do the stupidest thing I have ever attempted to do (to date) and expose the brick under the damaged plaster. Exposing a brick wall isn’t fun or easy, and it creates a terrible mess. I wouldn’t choose to do it again but I am glad I did it because it saved us some money. Exposing a brick wall is easy to do it you’re mildly handy, have three to four days you want to kill, an urge to expose a brick wall, and the guts to give it a try. This is how I exposed a brick wall for about $120.

The Unhandy Man’s Guide to Exposing a Brick Wall…

how to expose a brick wall

how to expose a brick wall

The Essential Tools for Exposing a Brick Wall:

  • Hammer
  • Putty knife $.99
  • Crow bar $2.50
  • Respirator (the paper one’s won’t cut it. I borrowed one from a friend)
  • Gloves $1.19
  • Eye protection (also borrowed from a friend)
  • Oscillating saw $19.99
  • 3 x Sponges $1.99 each
  • 2 x Expanding foam (it’s called Great Stufff) $5.00 each
  • Joint compound $5.15
  • Plastic tubs (we already had them around)
  • 4 x Wire brushes $2.99 (for set of 4)
  • Old vacuum or shop van (already had)
  • A lot of plastic sheeting $1.50-$3.89 (cost varies depending on the mils/thickness)
  • Brick sealer $26.99
  • Sander $9.99

Key Things to Remember When Exposing a Brick Wall:

  • Have confidence
  • Prep, a lot
  • It will take longer and be far messier than you think it will

how to expose a brick wall

How to Expose a Brick Wall:

1. Pick the wall you want to expose (an exterior wall)

First, after picking your wall, drill a pilot hole to be sure there is actually brick back there. After you are sure, expose a small section (perhaps a square foot) to be sure the brick is something you want the public to see. If not, stop there and consult someone other than me on how to patch a hole, because I don’t know how to do that and (perhaps stupidly) chose to proceed.

2. PREP (a lot!)

Use your plastic sheeting to completely seal-up your work space, and have plastic tubs ready for constant plaster removal. You don’t need to be Norm Abrams (I don’t like Bob Vila) in order to expose a brick wall, you just need to have the confidence to see it through. During my brick exposure escapade, my confidence left me several times, namely when I saw the outside through a gap in the brick, and the other time when I realized I have no clue what I was doing. The second thing to remember (perhaps it’s more important than the first), is to prep, prep, prep. Prep. Your. Ass. Off. The more time spent prepping, the more you will love your life after it’s over. Whatever area you are exposing, quarantine it off like Ebola just hit your house. Walls, ceiling, floor, everything. And then, when you are think you are done, add more plastic everywhere. This can’t be stressed enough. I read up about exposing brick, and heard that it’s extremely messy but I took it too lightly. Hear me now- it’s more dirty then you can imagine (or have ever dared to imagine). During the brick exposing process, I had a full-scale breach of my quarantined area, and the clean-up cost me valuable time when I was forced to re-quarantine the next day. When you’re prepping, put cardboard directly under the wall because plaster chunks will come raining down, and 3 mils of plastic sheeting will not go the distance. You’ll want the plastic tubs nearby so you can clean as you go. Plaster gets very heavy, very quickly, so clearing it out often will save you back-breaking work later on.

3. Cut out all the trim

After your room is properly prepped and you are geared up (don’t wear anything you care about and plan to put your entire outfit right into the trash after the project) the next step is to stare that wall down and swing your crow bar. Actually, that’s not true. Take your oscillating saw ($19.99 at Harbor Freight) and cut out all the trim..along the walls, ceiling and windows (if you have any). This will take a while, but it gives you a nice clean break at the corners.

Quick side note on Harbor Freight..if you are an UN-handy person working a limited budget, Harbor Freight is about to become your best friend. It’s cheap, super cheap. The power tools are pretty crappy, but again, if you are un-handy, chances are you won’t be doing many renovations anyway, so you don’t need the best. Unfortunately, they don’t have everything so you’ll ultimately be going to Home Depot during this operation, but start the journey at the Freight and get what you can….

Back to the wall.

4. You precise, calculated blows

You can’t go ape on the wall, don’t even think about going ape. You must use precise, calculated blows. I heard a crow bar was the best, but I found its distant cousin the putty knife to be more effective. Starting at your test area take your hammer (and this is the only time you’ll be able to Mike Tyson the wall) pound around in a 1 square foot radius. This leads me into another excellent point, work in small areas. Don’t jump around from spot to spot. Attack this wall with calculated precision. After you pounded the wall, work your putty knife between the plaster and brick as far as it will go and then pry. Hopefully big chucks will fall. Don’t expect this to be easy. Some sections will come off in huge, glorious chucks. Other areas will be so much trouble you’ll want to cry, but by that time your tear ducts will so clogged with plaster dust that a 1000 year old mummy has a better chance of producing a tear than you do. Which leads me to my next point. When you get frustrated, it’s tempting to start wailing away on the wall with your crow bar, but this is exactly what the wall wants you to do, it really doesn’t want to be exposed. It’s cozy under an inch and a half of plaster. It’s been like that for the last 100 years. It doesn’t want to be revealed and it will fight you at every turn. Going ape with the crow will do nothing for the cause, because if plaster is not in big chucks it’s in dust form. And when it goes dust, it permeates everything and goes into every orifice of your body. So after you have cleared all the plaster off your wall, you’ll notice it doesn’t look very good.

5. Scrub the wall with wire brushes

The next step is to take wire brushes (in various size, the smallest being tooth-brush size, the biggest 8 inches) and scrub the wall hard! This unfortunately produces tons of dust, but it can’t be avoided.

6. Vacuum

Okay, congrats…the extremely mess part is done, but you are far from completing this project, which by now I’m sure you are regretting. Now is a good time to grab your vacuum (this project will destroy any normal vacuum, so be sure it’s old and pretty much useless or it’s a shop vac) and vacuum up all the dust that has settled on the baseboard, windows sills, etc.

7. Sponge down the newly exposed brick

After the dust has been somewhat cleaned up, grab a bucket of warm water and a large sponge and wipe down your newly exposed brick.

8. Fill holes and gaps in the bricks with mortar

Hopefully you don’t have large cracks, but if you do you can do one of two things…lie to yourself (because at this point you want the project to be done) and say, “Hey, the cracks give the wall character!”, and leave them alone or get scared (like I did) that the bricks will start falling out, which will lead to my house collapsing. So, if you don’t want your house to collapse, grab some mortar repair (cement filler) and fill in the cracks. You’ll sleep better. And yes, the mortar won’t look like the 100-year-old mortar you just exposed, but at least your house won’t fall down (which it probably wouldn’t anyway).

9. Fill gaps along the trim with expanding foam

After all that, grab a can of this magical foam stuff that expands when you spray it and fill in all the seams around baseboards, windows, ceiling, etc.

10. Trim off excess foam and sand

Wait for the foam to cure, then buzz the excess hardened foam with your oscillating saw, sand it smooth and throw some joint compound over it and guess what ?!! …you are still not done. Oh No. You’ll be working on the edge work far long than you worked on anything during this process and they will still look like crap. To date, I am still trying to get my edges looking good.

11. Clean the bricks, again

Next, clean the brick one more time with a sponge to get any remaining dust off.

12. Seal the bricks

And now, it’s sealant time (the sealant was the most expensive part of this project). I heard a sprayer works best, but since I didn’t have one of those I used a s paint brush and sponge. It’s tempting to rush through this process, but the sealant is key to long-term success, especially if you don’t want to be cleaning up mortar dust for the rest of your life. Use the paint brush to get into all the nooks, crannies, mortar (trace around each brick), and use the sponge for the face of the bricks. You can measure success when you can wipe the bricks with the sponge and you don’t hear any more mortar dust falling off and hitting the plastic below.

13. The clean-up

Now for the clean up (which will hopefully be a breeze if you prepped properly), meticulously tear down your plastic slowly and precisely to keep the dust from spreading. Sweep up the dust that inevitably got through, bandage up your bruised and bloody fingers kick back and realize that it looks pretty good for not being a pro pin-tucker, and you did and you did it for cheap. Congrats.

One last thing I forgot to mention… this project will leave you battered, bruised and unbelievably sore. At one point my hands went numb from overuse, and at another point I lost the ability to reach above my head. After the first day (which is the hardest manual labor day) I laid in my bed, begged Anna for any type of massage she was willing to give.

P.S. I never really mentioned the use of the crow bar, it’s really not needed but it feels good to have it on standby. You’ll inevitably, in bouts of frustration, reach for the crow bar thinking you’ll show this walls who the boss hogg is and take a few heated whack just realize the crow is too big and bulking for this project and that the putty knife is actually perfect even though it might feel slower.

 

Have you ever exposed a brick wall? Do you have any tips on how to do it? Do you think you might try exposing a brick wall?

 

31 comments

in DIY, How To

30 Comments

  1. Elayne Woods // February 16, 2013

    So. . . I’m going to be tackling exposing the brick in my studio, and everyone keeps asking me if it’s glued on, or whatever. Was your drywall in this story glued on? (because mine is). Does that make the steps any different?

    • Aaron // February 18, 2013

      By drywall, do you mean the “plaster”? Drywall is different that plaster. I’m not sure how the plaster is actually adhered to the brick, but whatever adhesive method is used, the plaster will not come off with a fight. On this project, before striking plaster, I only had to contend with about 106 years worth of paint and wall paper layers.

  2. Meg // February 16, 2013

    Looks great – nice work! Did you have to go outside and repair the mortar too? What other issues have you discovered in an older house? Did you have any other freak out moments where you thought that maybe you went over your head with such an old home or do you absolutely love it?

    • Aaron // February 18, 2013

      I didn’t need to go outside to repair any mortar, I only repaired the mortar on the inside. I did, however, on very deep cracks use the spray foam that i mentioned to fill up most of the gap, than i use the mortar repair compound.

  3. Noël Sumstine // February 16, 2013

    Oh, you are such a stud. Really. Reallyreallyreallyreally.
    I have been happily married for more than two decades and men like you make women like Anna and I the envy, The. Absolute. Envy. of women around us.
    Of course my husband also hateshateshates do-it-yourself stuff, especially if it requires straight cuts and precise angles (just forget it!), or plumbing, but he likes to save those dimes too, and I am not studly enough for some of that stuff, so he has to do it.
    Pampering helps.

    • emily // February 18, 2013

      i was just telling my hubby today that–wether he likes it or not– it is quite sexy that is is relatively handy compared to the other men i know (he just built a shed in our backyard!) and that i am very lucky to have him (and save so much moola in the meantime!)

      • Noël Sumstine // February 18, 2013

        We have a little joke .. I squeeze his arm muscles and say “oooo aaaah!”. Whenever he does something handy. It works for helping around the house too. :D

        • Anna Newell Jones // February 27, 2013

          niiice;) something about those handy man clothes on him i really like…

      • Anna Newell Jones // February 27, 2013

        you are VERY lucky! i’ve got to agree with you, it is a sexy quality;)

    • Anna Newell Jones // February 27, 2013

      gotta love those handy husbands;)

  4. Rebecca // February 17, 2013

    WOW. That is some really kick butt moves. Jealous!

  5. Christa the BabbyMam // February 17, 2013

    It might end up being a total pain in the rear, but I love love love the look of exposed brick! So cool!

    • Anna Newell Jones // February 27, 2013

      me too! it turned out gorgeous! it was totally worth the trouble (says the girl who didn’t work on it;)

  6. Marianna // February 17, 2013

    Just here to say that I support your invokation of Norm Abrams

  7. emily // February 18, 2013

    stupendous! this is a terrific article and rather inspiring. though we all know who would be doing the work (not me. my hubby). not sure if i could get him to commit to something like this right now but we have a wall in our dining room (plaster and lathe) that’s practically begging to be torn down. bravo, aaron!

    • Anna Newell Jones // February 27, 2013

      that would be so cool in a dining room! let me know if you decide to do it or need aaron to come over to show y’all how it’s done;)

  8. Cari // February 19, 2013

    Love your site, and while I don’t have any exposed brick projects right now, I did pin it for future use. Which leads me to the suggestion of adding the little pin it button to the bottom of your post along with tweets. I actually came across your site through pinterest as well. I guess you’re just pinnable!

    • Anna Newell Jones // February 27, 2013

      Hey Cari, Thanks for the suggestion. All those buttons should’ve appeared at the bottom of the post. If they’re not there than there’s a problem going on. Thanks for the heads-up! :)

  9. Becca // February 23, 2013

    LOVE the writing style… “don;t go ape with the crow” hahahaha… Looking forward to more DIY home posts!

  10. anon-editrix // June 3, 2013

    “pEEk” = take a look

  11. Shannon // November 12, 2013

    Do you find that it is cold or your heating bills have increased with the exposed brick?? I want to expose an exterior wall but fear that it may make the house really cold and hard to keep warm and cozy in the winter.

  12. Jessica // January 7, 2014

    Alright so we just undertook this project and it’s all your fault! ;)

    I have a question and I’m hoping with your experience and having ‘been there done that’ you might be able to give some advice.

    When we exposed the brick, we didn’t remove the baseboards… So, naturally there’s some roughed up plaster directly behind the baseboard and you can see that rough edge since there isn’t plaster over the brick. Did you guys use the expanding foam there as well?

    If you have any advice I would LOVE it. I’ve tried googling and I just keep coming back to your blog.

    Thanks,

    Jess

    • Aaron Jones // January 8, 2014

      Hi Jess,

      I cleaned out as much plaster as I could behind the baseboard then filled it with expanding foam. After the foam cured I buzzed off the top of it using my oscillating saw and sanded it as flush as possible. I then used joint compound over the sanded down foam to even everything out. After the compound dried I again sanded it smooth and add a fresh layer of paint to the baseboard. Depending on how wide your gap is you might be able to forgo the expanding foam and fill it in with joint compound only. But I had a pretty big gap so that’s why I used the expanding foam.

      Good luck…Hope this helps!

      • Aaron Jones // January 8, 2014

        jess-
        Its a small photo and won’t help much, but if you look close at the one above that says “cement filler” you can see the expanding foam between the baseboard and the wall.

        Aaron

        • Jessica // January 8, 2014

          Thanks so much, the clarification is very helpful! I thought that was what you did based on the photos but I just wanted to be sure. I’ve had others suggest the same thing. How has it held up?

          • Aaron Jones // January 14, 2014

            Jess –
            No problem. Its’s held up well, especially around the baseboards, but truthfully doing the “edge” work is the hardest part of the whole project and it takes time to get it to look good.
            Aaron

  13. Paul // January 28, 2014

    I’m exposing a brick wall in my room now and soon realized what I thought was plaster was partially concrete (in a vertical column from what I think used to be a chimney). If anyone else runs into a fun surprise like that, I found that a rotary hammer with a chisel bit will be your best friend. Home Depot rents them out for about $60/day (just make sure it has a hammer only function). You could save some money by buying a mason’s chisel, but the rotary hammer will probably save a dozen hours of work

  14. Shawn // February 24, 2014

    I’m curious what product you used for your sealer. We have a couple exposed walls in a new rental property and have not been able to decide on one.

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  1. […] you fancy seeing what your house is hiding, The unhandy man’s guide to exposing a brick wall is reassuringly comprehensive. However, if you fear the centipedes, you could always fake it […]

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