Exterior brick restoration/refacing help
January 26, 2014 5:00 PM   Subscribe

My house was built in 1910 and has several flavors of brick on it. How can I make them the same?

I have several varieties of brick finish in my foundation and porch columns. Some are smooth, some have a wire-brush finish, and some are a rough finish - I put up an album here. We will be redoing the porch columns, and in several areas the brickwork is in need of repointing.

Ultimately, I'd like everything to be smooth brick, but I'm coming up dry on effective ways to go about it, short of ripping out and redoing the entire foundation, which I would like to avoid.

I live in eastern North Carolina, where it is humid, hot and damp for much of the year. My crawlspace has been encapsulated and has a dehumidifier.

For bonus points, we would also like to tint or color the end result to a neutral gray of some as-yet-unknown shade.

Have you done this? Is there a product I can smooth onto each brick to create a smooth finish? Or...?
posted by bookdragoness to Home & Garden (8 answers total)
well, paint them, a good painter will make them look the same
posted by raildr at 5:50 PM on January 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Is stucco a consideration? You'll still have the feeling and permanence of masonry, but with more control over the color and finish. It could even be patterned to resemble painted brick with a lot fewer maintenance hassles. Once you paint brick, it's every five years.

Also check out brick veneers, since you'll have everything right at hand if you decide to repoint your existing brick.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:28 PM on January 26, 2014

Best answer: Yes, I'm not sure there's a way to get them looking uniform other than painting. Making different types of brick look the same strikes me as a difficult problem; I have some thoughts (see below) but I don't really know if they're realistic. I think you're going to want to talk to a professional who is experienced in brick restoration, and discuss your options. If you want the cheapest, simplest, and most straightforward solution I think you'd be best to just paint it all. Some people hate the look of painted brick though.

Here's why I think this might be a tricky problem to solve; it comes down to the fact that the different finishes represent fundamentally different material properties. Different brick finishes (rough vs smooth) are I believe a result of different manufacturing processes – specifically, and I may be wrong here, I believe that the smooth bricks are baked at higher heat such that the silica in the clay melts a bit, giving a harder and glossier surface. So they're not only different on the surface, they're actually different all the way through.

Bricks also vary quite a bit from manufacturer to manufacturer – especially older bricks, like you have (modern ones are more uniform). Back in the day, and to some extent even now, brickmaking was as much an art as a science. Different brick factories would get their raw materials from different local quarries, mix their own clays, and bake them somewhat differently based on the properties of the mixture, the desired finished product, and their personal preferences. Certain manufacturers were quite distinctive, and their bricks are valuable salvage; St. Joe Soft Reds for instance are highly prized here in New Orleans.

I really doubt there's going to be a way to make them look the same without painting them, and even then you might notice some differences in the underlying texture. Possibly the bricks can be sanded down such that they're finish is similar enough that they'll look the same when painted.

Another couple of possibilities come to mind, though I have no idea whether they're actually feasible:

One, you could have a uniform layer of brick veneer installed over the existing brick. This might be too thick to actually work though in your application. Talk to a mason about whether this is an option for you.

Two, it might be possible to have the brick sanded down to make it more consistent, and then stained/sealed such that it all looks close enough to uniform that you won't notice. Whether this is a real option or not is again something that I am unsure about, but a professional would know.

Really, I think this is a question that you should ask of a professional mason or some other professional contractor/builder who specializes in brickwork. I imagine that he or she will be familiar with your situation (it's a common one) and will be well aware of what your options are, the pros and cons pertaining to your particular situation, and what the prices of different treatments would be. You could probably get some estimates for different options fairly easily, and information about what the final result would likely look like.

Finally though, I think you may be worrying about this more than is strictly necessary; this may be something that only you are noticing. I must confess that in your gallery I am hard pressed to tell the difference between the different brick types, even in the pictures where both types are visible in the same photo. Granted it may be more noticeable in real life, and of course if it's bothering you then that may be reason enough to do something about it.
posted by Scientist at 6:32 PM on January 26, 2014

Oh, I was going to add something at the end but then forgot: even though I don't personally think your brickwork looks all that different, I would say that it doesn't look awesome. The mortar seems to be crumbling a bit and the bricks themselves are not, to my eye, especially pretty. That alone might be good enough reason to get a mason onsite to give you some recommendations.
posted by Scientist at 6:33 PM on January 26, 2014

Best answer: Don't hide your neglected old brick, which has character, under paint or (ugh) stucco: as you're already planning to do, just go ahead and repoint the mortar and gain the consistency you seek there. It should help a lot.
posted by Scram at 7:24 PM on January 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far!

To clarify, I'm not looking for perfectly alike brick textures. The brickwork definitely needs work and looks crumbly (partially due to the crumbling mortar and past "touch up" jobs). The "rough" texture bricks are +/- more than a quarter of an inch from the nominal plane of the face, which promotes mold/moss and is fairly unsightly. These are primarily in the front and on the porch columns.

Unfortunately, this brick has not been well-treated and while it's structurally sound, it's definitely not especially pretty. I've cleaned it up some since these pictures were taken last year, but the previous owners repointed some areas with cement(!) instead of mortar or smeared mortar in globs on the brick surfaces, and some of the original mortar is in poor shape.

Good info on the various compositions - the "smooth" brick is also a much paler color. The photo with the seam in it is entirely smooth brick, sorry for any confusion.

There's a brickyard in the area and there used to be a brickworks in town, so I'm sure come spring I can find someone knowledgeable to consult. Until then, I welcome more options to discuss with them for leveling/smoothing (to whatever extent) the roughest of the craggy bricks.
posted by bookdragoness at 7:34 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't rule out just re-pointing, particularly if you use a colour that takes some of the focus from the differences between the bricks themselves. Once you paint bricks, you'll spend the rest of your life repainting them and it will almost certainly reduce your re-sale value as lots of people hate painted bricks.

A thorough wash with a mild acid will make a huge difference to the appearance of the bricks too. To some extent, variegation a are a feature of all bricks and, short of covering them, you probably can't get away from that.
posted by dg at 11:19 PM on January 26, 2014

Best answer: As a lifelong historic preservationist I would urge you to get down with, and love, your variegated brick. It's one thing if you have a major feature you need to rebuild, like porch supports or a chimney; by all means do what you can to improve the similarity. But even in original construction brick was often quite varied, as there wasn't industrial consistency in the early years of brickmaking anywhere, and in fact there have been eras where specifically variegated brick (usually in a random pattern) was a desirable feature.

Here's a good gallery of mortar repointing from a professional firm that does work on historic structures; there's one residential porch in particular that shows up that has brick color/surface variation not dissimilar from your own. Done right, it is not only important for maintenance, but enhances the appearance and appeal of a brick building.

If you ask me, the biggest mistake made by modern masonry contractors is creating a flush joint (as here), where a concave "bucket handle" or recessed profile is called for. This gives the brick a negative space with which to visually contrast, creating a three-dimensional effect. With this attention to detail in the repointing, few would notice the different colors or surfaces of your brickwork. (Sadly, many historic brick buildings I have seen have such poor tuckpointing done that the mortar actually extrudes beyond the brick, often messily, making what should be a neat exterior brick facade look like the inside of a slurry wall.)
posted by dhartung at 2:32 AM on January 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

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