Learn how to do a simple and inexpensive DIY german schmear technique to update brick.
Have done any research on how to update old brick? If so, you have likely come across some examples of German schmear.
Today I want to tell you all about this awesome technique AND show you how I gave my own fireplace an incredible makeover using German smear for just $15! I even have a video to help you understand the project a bit more.
If you have landed here, you may be exactly where I was a few months ago. That is, staring at some outdated (maybe we could even go so far as to say ugly?) brick in your home and wondering how the heck you can update it without demolishing everything and starting fresh. Does that sound right?
If so, you’ve come to the right place. Because today, we’re going to explain and tackle a DIY German smear project to update brick. And we’ll explain a bit about the difference between this technique and others that are also frequently used for brick updates, as well.
Before we get into all the DIY details, check out this german smear technique in action!
German Schmear Video Tutorial
I’ll explain how to do the technique below, but first let me give you a visual primer. Here’s a time-lapse video of the project being done…
Here’s what we’ll cover in this tutorial…
And to make this project as simple as possible…
1. I had NEVER heard the term “German schmear” until like 2 weeks ago.
2. I don’t scare easily.
I’m the small, scrappy type. Napoleon complex, small-woman-syndrome, call it what you will, but I don’t like things to get the better of me. Especially when it comes to a novel DIY project. After all, that’s what we do, right?! Right.
But my Mama didn’t raise no liar, so I gotta tell you, I was NERVOUS to try this “German smear” or “mortar wash” whitewash brick project. But preparation is the key.
So let’s make sure you understand where we’re headed. You’ll want to know the difference between this brick update technique and others.
German Schmear versus Other Popular Brick Updates: FAQ’s
What is German Schmear?
The German schmear (interchangeably called “German smear” or sometimes “mortar wash”) technique utilizes a white or light-colored mortar to schmear over brick and create a rustic, old-world European style finish. Yup, think of how you might schmear cream cheese on a bagel! Similar idea. 😉
Before you proceed to the German smear, make sure you’ve ruled out whitewashing, limewashing or painting your brick. If you want to see more examples of what a mortar wash looks like, we did a post with 40+ German smear examples for you!
What’s the difference between German schmear and whitewash?
With a whitewash, you are essentially painting your brick with watered-down latex paint. Depending on how much coverage you want on the brick, you can water down the paint more or less.
The more watered down the paint, the more of your original brick will show through.
Unlike whitewash, German schmear does not completely cover your brick. Instead, you can control the coverage of the brick by using more or less mortar.
Both the schmear and whitewash are lovely. I have both in my home! You can see my whitewashed fireplace right here.
German Schmear vs Limewash
Limewash is a brick painting technique in which the brick is painted with a “limewash,” which is basically a special type of paint. Rather than latex, it’s made from slaked lime.
The overall look of a lime wash is probably most similar to a whitewash. BUT a limewash allows you to preserve a bit of original brick coming through more so than with whitewashing.
And, another nice feature is that apparently limewash can be removed from the brick until about 5 days after its been applied…great if you change your mind!
Again, this differs from German schmear because you are painting the brick.
If you want to check out how a limewash looks, check out the limewash tutorial from my friend Lauren from Bless’er House wrote.
German Schmear vs Painted Brick
Painted brick is just what it sounds. Painting brick with regular old latex paint is not only possible, but it can look great! This is basically identical to a whitewash except the paint is full strength/not watered down. This is a great technique for FULL coverage of your outdated brick.
With German schmear, you are still going to see your original brick peeking through the schmear. So, if you absolutely HATE your brick – painted brick may be the way to go!
Take a closer look at our painted/whitewashed fireplace tutorial to rule out that technique. And if you’re still not completely smitten with any of these ideas, then look at these other brick update ideas.
Get free printable instructions & supply list for this project. Click here or on the image below. Your PDF will be sent immediately⤵️
We’ve got the lingo down, so let’s talk about the materials and supplies you’ll need to tackle this DIY project…
Supplies needed for DIY German schmear:
- (2-3) 5-gallon buckets (1 for the mortar, 1 for water to dip your sponge, a 3rd if you want another water bucket to keep clean/dirty water separated…nice to have but not absolutely necessary)
- stiff bristle brush (we have THIS one)
- rubber or nylon gloves
- WHITE mortar (we used THIS kind)
- builder’s paper and painter’s tape (to cover and protect floors if this is an interior project) or tarps
- brick we used (see more below!)
- grout we used
The Brick we Used for This Project
The brick (source HERE) we used (seen in the shot below), is real brick, but cut into thin slices.
The slices are mounted on a tile webbing, similar to mosaic glass tile you’d use for a backsplash project or something.
We had never used this kind of product before, and I gotta say, it’s great stuff. It’s REAL brick, so no phony looking brick wallpaper, or tile product that looks like brick but doesn’t feel like it.
This is the real deal, only 20x lighter weight, and 20x easier to install than having to mount them brick by brick by %^$* brick.
It turned out lovely! No one would ever guess the brick is any different than your standard blocks.
Optional: Add a Faux Fireplace
This is a project we are doing in our master bedroom. We framed out this fireplace wall and then mounted the brick. There was a whole wall of NOTHINGNESS there before.
Dave and our brother Troy (of DIY Network’s “Nashville Flipped” fame), framed this thing up.
Once the framing was done, Dave and I installed the brick. He cuts, I mortar those puppies in place. When it was done being installed and grouted (we used THIS sanded grout), this is what we had.
That big hole in the front is where our little electric fireplace will go.
I kinda loved it as is, to be honest. We hemmed and hawed about leaving it as is or moving forward with this German smear technique (also called a “mortar wash”).
Truth is, I was SCARED to move forward. Having just spent $$ on brand new, totally fine as-is brick, I didn’t want to screw it up.
And remember you can grab the printable to make this easier…
Want a free copy of the printable supply list and instructions for your german smear project?
How to Apply German Schmear to Brick
This DIY brick update took me about 2 hours, maybe a little less. If you want to try it, here’s how.
1. Before you begin…have a CLEAR picture in your head!
There are BUNCHES of different looks for painted brick, whitewashed brick, mortar washed or german smear brick. Add to that other techniques (like limewashing) we discussed above. Pin looks you like on Pinterest, and be sure to check out the 40+ examples of the german smear technique we personally love, for inspiration.
The technique you will use depends ENTIRELY on the look you’re going for. For instance, in our family room, I used a basic DIY whitewash brick technique, which gave us this look…
Get Inspiration Images Together
But for this project, I wanted to be able to see more of the brick because it’s pretty brick, and I didn’t want that completely covered or lost, as it would have been with the whitewash technique used in our family room.
But there are many different ways to accomplish a german schmear, so it’s important to gather a couple of inspiration shots together so you can figure out your own ideal. Pinterest is a great place to start.
And here are a couple of images I found that may help, too.
German Smear Example 1:
You can see in this example that mostly ALL of the original brick has been covered.
Inspiration Shot 2:
Below, you can see that this homeowner has chosen to use less of the mortar, so that more of the original brick shows through. SAME technique has been used in both examples, but just a different amount of mortar has been applied.
German Schmear Exterior Inspiration:
Here’s a great example of the look on the exterior of a home.
LOOOOVELY, no? I wanted a tad more brick showing through, and a little more choppy/uneven look.
German Smear Brick Fireplace Example:
I really like this example, because it’s perfectly imperfect…
So now, armed with your inspiration (and if you need more, remember you can check out our article with A LOT more examples of this look), it’s time for you to prep your brick, and begin your project!
2. Start with clean brick with WHITE grout.
This tutorial assumes that you are starting with a slate similar to ours, which is clean bricks that have WHITE grout. If not white grout, then it needs to be a color you are HAPPY with.
If not, then you need to do some prep work. And to be honest, I’ve looked around for tutorials on prepping old, we’ll call it “unattractive” brick, and the prep work looks like it can definitely be a wee bit grueling, quite honestly. Doing the German schmear itself? Easy. It’s the prep you gotta consider.
If you don’t love your existing grout, cover the grout lines with a fresh layer of new, white grout. A grout bag can be helpful for this part. This will be easier if your existing grout lines are deep, meaning, there’s room for more grout to sit between the bricks.
I’ve included and/or linked a couple tutorials/articles/videos on both cleaning bricks, as well as executing a German schmear in different ways and on different brick surfaces that I’d recommend checking out before diving in:
- Jenna Sue (love her) YouTube tutorial – * note: her process took much longer than mine because she waited until the mortar had dried before removing as much as she wanted to. If you remove the mortar with a wet sponge before it dries, it is very, very quick and easy. Plus, NO SANDING at the end which avoids a time-consuming, and very messy process. Here is her tutorial⤵
- Renaissance Southpaw YouTube tutorial – she german smears her fireplace but goes for more of a total brick coverage look
- Less than Perfect Life of Bliss – tutorial for exterior application of a mortar wash
- Recaptured Charm – this blogger goes for a similar look using different materials
3. Prep your workspace.
Get out the builder’s paper or tarps and cover your flooring if this is an interior project. We don’t want to mess up your floors while fixing up your walls.
4. Mix your mortar.
Following the directions on the package, mix your mortar. We started with a 7lb bag. We have approximately 48 sq ft of brick on this fireplace wall. And for that much brick, we only ended up using approximately 1/3 of the bag.
*If you are going to do the mixing in batches (we started by mixing 1/2 of the bag, and didn’t even need the rest), then make sure you are applying the mortar in RANDOM locations all around the wall, and NOT just in one quadrant or location of your brick wall.
This will prevent a splotchy/uneven look if your later batch(es) of grout is not mixed to the exact same consistency as previous batches.
Once your mortar is mixed, WATER IT DOWN just a tad. I’d describe the desired consistency to be that of honey. NOT as thick as peanut butter.
5. Apply mortar.
With your bucket or mortar ready, gloves on, and another bucket of water close by take your sponge and wet it with water. Not dripping wet, but wet enough that if you wanted to squeeze water out, you could easily. Now dip your sponge in the mortar and put enough mortar on the sponge that one corner is covered.
OK, take a deep breath…THIS IS THE SCARIEST MOMENT:
Pick a spot, ANY spot, and smear.
There’s no turning back now! Be random. Smear horizontally at times, vertically in others. Put it on heavy in places, and light in others. Frequently step back from your wall and check it out.
Too heavy in spots? Then get some clean water on your sponge and wipe some off. Too light in others? Apply more.
The look I was going for is a bit choppy. Not too even or refined. I wanted the brick color to come through here and there, and I wanted the brick in other areas to be white.
Don’t forget to grab your free copy of the printable supply list and instructions to make this project easy breezy ⤵️!
*Depending on the size of the wall or area you are covering, you will have time to adjust the application before it totally sets.
The whole process for me took about 2 hours, and that WHOLE time, I could have easily wet my sponge with water and scrubbed off most, if not all of the mortar.
So don’t freak out too much…you should be able to fix any “mistakes”.
**KEY MOVE: After I was fairly happy with the coverage I had on the wall, it still looked a bit contrived. I found what REALLY helped to unify the look was using my stiff bristle brush at the end of the process. I simply took the brush, and went over the whole wall in huge “X” patterns.**
6. Knock any clumps down with a brush.
I’d highly recommend looking over your whole wall/area before you start cleaning up and before the mortar dries and make sure you’re 100% satisfied with the look so that you don’t have to do ANYTHING to the wall once the mortar dries. Once it’s dry, if you start fussing with it, you’re going to have a LOT of nasty dust to deal with. YUCK.
Before the mortar dries, OR, if it’s too late, then AFTER the mortar is already dried, go back over the area with your bristle brush and knock down any areas where there are clumps or places where you don’t like how the mortar is setting.
Final Thoughts on German Schmear
And the bottom line? I was sh$%ing bricks before I started this process. DEFINITELY apprehensive that I wouldn’t like the after as much as the before. THIS LOOK IS NOT for everyone, but personally, I LOVE the charm and personality and depth/texture/what-have-you it added to this master bedroom.
So if you dig it too, don’t be too nervous to try it. It was SUPER inexpensive to do…less than $20 (given you already have a brick wall to try it on). And being a little scared is good for us once in a while. Helps us grow, right?
If you try this project, we’d LOVE to see your results! Add a photo to the Pinterest pin and your comments on how the project went!
Not quite ready to jump in? Pin this german schmear brick update for later:
Pssst…before you go, I sure would love to hang out with you again really soon! Sign up now and get a FREE copy of “Builder-Grade To Beautiful: 10 Totally Transformative Home Decorating Solutions, All Under $100!” Click here to enter your email or on the image below. Your copy will be sent right away!
Darla Fontana says
Can you do this technique on travertine tile?
Elise Hernandez says
Hi Heather! I’m curious why you say that I need to re-grout if I don’t like the current grout? Doesn’t the mortar Cover the existing grout? I have a 1960s fireplace and the current gray grout is flaking and in general I like the look of the German Schmeer. So I want to lighten up the look of the chimney with the white look. Can you clarify why I would need to re-grout? Thanks so much, I am so grateful for your post!
The german smear is like it sounds…a smear. So if you don’t intentionally go back over the grout lines with the white, then some of your old gray grout will continue to show through.