A reader wants to return painted brick walls to their original state. (Reader photo)

Q: I live in a brick house from the 1880s. Thirty-five years ago, it was painted for the first time. I have continued to paint it. I have always wanted to return the house to the original brick but have been told this is really not good for the brick. Is there any way it can be done to keep the bricks "healthy?"

Washington

A: Not only can it be done, but it’s probably the best way to keep your brick “healthy.”

Some old brick used in walls is porous and was painted to make it water-resistant. But if your house had that type of brick, it would have been painted many decades ago. Thus, it’s far more likely that the brick in your house was the more typical kind: fired at a higher temperature and in no need of paint.

Today, mortar in brick walls is made with Portland cement. But before 1920 or so, it consisted of sand and lime. Over time, the lime erodes and the mortar crumbles. Then a masonry company needs to repoint, a process that involves chipping out the mortar to a depth of about twice the width of the joints and then installing new mortar made with the traditional recipe.

Because repointing is expensive, homeowners over the years sometimes have decided to paint brick that did not need paint, in the mistaken belief that it would protect mortar that was in need of repointing, which is typically needed every 75 to 100 years, said Brendan Meyer, a historic preservation specialist for the D.C. Historic Preservation Office. “The need to repoint is not extended or avoided by painting,” he said, adding that brick walls that initially were left bare usually perform best when they are not painted because paint can trap moisture in the wall. Avoiding paint also helps homeowners’ pocketbooks. “Painting adds a maintenance issue,” Meyer said.

That said, it’s also true that paint can cover up maintenance issues, at least for a while. Mark Vaughan, owner of Vaughan Restoration Masonry in Alexandria (703-823-5944; vaughanrestoration.com), said when he bids jobs for removing paint from old brick, he always emphasizes that mortar problems will probably be evident when the mask comes off — because covering up those problems is often what prompted the decision to paint. He wants homeowners to know the potential costs of getting the walls into good shape before he begins.

Meyer and Vaughan both said a combination of carefully chosen chemical strippers and power washing at low pressure generally do an excellent job of removing the paint without damaging the brick. Vaughan uses strippers from EaCo Chem (eacochem.com), usually Stripper Cream, which is viscous enough so that he can roll it on about one-eighth-inch thick. He rinses off the residue with a power washer set to 500 to 600 pounds of pressure per square inch and screens the runoff to separate the paint gunk from the rinse water. He test-strips several areas before settling on a product and process, however. These tests also can be useful in assessing the condition of the mortar, which is often in the worst shape on the more shady, damp-prone walls facing north or northwest.

The biggest hassle, from the contractor’s perspective, is controlling and containing the residue, which typically involves using lots of plastic tenting to protect landscaping and neighboring homes, even if lead paint is not an issue. Although you may know the paint was put on around 1983, you will still need to have the paint certified as being lead-free because the building dates from before 1978.

Permit requirements for painting exterior brick or removing paint from exterior brick vary by community. In Washington, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs does not require a permit for either process, even in historic districts, except when a building has landmark status, Meyer said. Most landmark-status buildings are owned by institutions; they are rarely homes. However, the contractor you hire may need permits for other aspects of the job, such as for erecting scaffolding.

Vaughan said he generally charges around $20 to $22 a square foot to strip paint from a brick building, with about half of that going toward the scaffolding and plastic. (The cost rises for structures taller than four stories because the scaffolding is more expensive.) For repointing, he typically charges around $15 to $16 a square foot, plus $10 or so for scaffolding if it is not already up. Ideally, he sets the scaffolding and does both processes, one after the other, or at least does spot repointing where necessary. But if homeowners aren’t prepared for the possibility that they might need to repoint after the paint comes off, they might have to finish the job later. Not only might they need to pay for scaffolding twice but their costs could soar if the crumbling mortar joints allow water to penetrate into walls, causing interior damage.