Category Archives: renovation

Adventures in Stripping: Patience Is a Virtue … And I’ve Never Been Very Virtuous


I think one of the hardest parts of even the lightest of renovations is sticking it out until the end. It takes patience to see a project from conception to completion. It takes little reminders that it will be done if you just keep chipping away at it. And that even though it may be in a state of semi-completion for a few months, one day it will be finished.


I’m finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel with stripping the fireplace brick. After staring at the half-finished fireplace all winter long, silently cursing myself for not finishing it last summer, I’m excited to have gotten close to the end of the job. We finished the front last year but the sides have remained untouched. It was kind of neat to see the difference between the stripped bricks on the front and the side bricks that were still covered in dark gray paint. It made me really appreciate all the work that it took to strip the front.

I started the right side earlier this spring.The Citristrip is doing a great job at pulling off the old paint. It takes a couple of coats and a liberal amount of elbow grease applied to a steel brush, but it the paint does come off. I’ve developed a system with plastic bags and painters tape that make cleanup a little easier. That was important because I was able to work on a few rows of bricks at time. Well, I finally wrapped up the right side a couple of weeks ago. And over this past week I’ve managed to get most of the left side stripped as well.


There are a couple of projects that have been on hold until we’ve finished stripping the brick. We want to grab a couple of cabinets to place on either side of the fireplace (giving up on our idea of having the original built-ins rebuilt) and then we’ll want to repaint the entire living room and all the trim. Little by little (brick by brick!) we’re making progress. All it takes is a little patience.

Playing with Fire: Having the Chimney Relined

Chimney Relining at This American House

When you live in the upper Midwest, where it’s cold 6+ months of the year, a fireplace feels less like an extravagance and more like a necessity. When we bought our house we weren’t sure whether the fireplace was operational. The house inspector was able to tell us that the chimney didn’t seem to be blocked off at the top but that was about it. (He made sure to tell us repeatedly that he was not a licensed chimney inspector and that we should have the fireplace fully checked out before using it).

Since we closed on the house in late November, we weren’t able to have the chimney inspected that first winter. We spent those first freezing months in the house wishing we could use the fireplace and counting down the days until spring so we could have it serviced. We tried to content ourselves with the wood burning stove in the basement but, honestly, it just wasn’t the same. You can’t see the fire in a stove and you can’t fully appreciate the crackles and pops that it produces.Chimney Specialist Relining the Chimney of Our American System Built Home

And then, one cold, cold winter day, I removed the metal sheet and piece of insulation that had been stuffed inside the chimney just above the firebox and shined a flashlight up into the darkness. “I can see light!” I called out to The Mister. And if I could see light at the top of the chimney, that confirmed that the fireplace had not been capped off. As far as I was concerned, that was clearance to start a fire in the fireplace.

I started with a tiny little fire that first time. First, I wanted to make sure that the smoke was going to get drawn up into the fireplace and out of the house. When that seemed to be happening I was confident that we could infrequently build small fires while we waited for the weather to warm and the chimney sweep to make it out to the house.


When spring did roll around, we made an appointment to have the chimney swept and inspected. Our hope was that we’d be able to have the chimney swept and then we’d be good to go. As these things tend to go in old houses, our hopes were not met with reality.

It turns out that the pipe for the basement stove was running up the middle of the chimney, making it impossible to get a brush around it to sweep the chimney. Plus, the chimney sweep informed us, an inspection of the chimney showed that the liner was crumbling. The danger in that is that if the wood lathe is exposed and enough heat is created inside the chimney … well, we definitely wouldn’t have any trouble staying warm! We could just roast marshmallows outside the house as it slowly burns to the ground.IMG_6819

The chimney sweep gave us two options. We could keep the stove in the basement and have a fireplace insert installed upstairs. Or we could remove the basement stove entirely and have the chimney relined. Both options would cost roughly the same. The chimney sweep pushed us toward the insert. It would be more efficient, he said, and would allow us to keep that stove in the basement. He could have saved his breath. We had pretty much made up our minds before he finished his sentence.

Fireplaces were an integral part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. In his own homes there were often multiple fireplaces throughout the house. And in Wright’s designs for others, the fireplace was almost always the center of the home. Even in these American System Built Homes, the fireplace was central to the design of the house. As we’re trying to restore as many of the original features to the house as we can, and with the fireplace being one of the few originals left, we knew right away that we didn’t want to install an insert. What we would have gained in efficiency we would have lost in charm. So we made the choice to sacrifice the stove and have the chimney relined.

IMG_6831That was last summer when we decided to move forward with having the chimney repaired. We wrote out a check for a deposit and then waited for the chimney folks to come back out and do the work. And we waited. And waited. Some time around October I called to see if we could expect the relining to happen before snowfall. “You’re next on the list,” they told me, “but we probably won’t get out to you until spring.” That was not what I wanted to hear. But of course our hands were tied. We had already written out a sizable check to cover the deposit so we’d just have to wait. And in the meantime, we might have enjoyed a fire or two in the fireplace. Ssh … don’t tell the fire inspector.


Now that it’s summer, the chimney folks finally came back and poured a new chimney lining. First, they removed the pipe for the basement stove from the chimney and then sealed it off in the basement. Now that the stove has been rendered useless, I can say that I will in fact miss it. I mean, I’m happy that we’ll have a working fireplace in the living room. But it was nice building fires in the basement when we were down there working on projects. We do plan on having a gas fireplace installed in the basement at some point. For now, we’ll rely on space heaters to warm the basement over the winter.


Once the pipe was removed and the hole for it had been sealed off, the chimney guys poured the lining in the chimney. I wasn’t home that day but The Mister reported that it was a very noisy operation that got the attention of half of our small town. According to The Mister, neighbors pulled out lawn chairs to watch the operation in progress. And more than one car made several passes in front of our house that afternoon. You gotta love small town life. Meanwhile, I was in awe of the scaffolding and the way the guys stood on top of the roof as if it’s nothing. All in a day’s work for a chimney sweep, I suppose.

The job took the entire day – from removing the stove pipe and sealing it up to pouring the new lining and installing a new trap door in the basement. As it turns out, the company we used – Chimney Specialists out of Madison, Wisconsin – used to be on contract for the chimneys at Taliesin. And, of course, it wasn’t until after we had the work done that we learned there was someone local who could have relined the chimney. We’ll be back to use you as a chimney sweep next time, Kurt.

We’re looking forward to a winter full of crackling fires in the living room. Now, know anyone who wants to buy a used wood burning stove?

Images: This American House

Brick by Brick: Slowly Stripping the Fireplace
Adventures in Stripping

Refinishing the Fireplace Brick in Our American System Built HomeThe last time I talked about the fireplace was just after the winter holidays. I learned a very important lesson in that first big attempt at removing paint from brick. DON’T BE A HERO.

You may think it’s a good idea to slather Citri-Strip across the entire surface of the fireplace but it’s not. You’re going to have to scrape and scratch and rub and wash every last inch of that fireplace to get the paint and stripper off. It’s going to be messy. And it’s going to work muscles in your body you didn’t even know you have. And you may even end up half-assing a big section of it because you’re too damned tired to muster the elbow grease that it takes to really make a piece of steel wool work.

Stripping Brick Fireplace

For the record, I had every intention of stripping the fireplace in small sections. I had done my Pinteresting and read quite a few blog posts about the trials and travails of stripping brick. I had indeed been working in small patches when The Mister announced that he was going to help. I left the room for a little while and when I came back I found that he had spread stripper across half of the fireplace.

Now, folks, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my sixteen years as a couple, it’s to appreciate the help you’re getting. So while my first reaction was to stop The Mister I decided to just go with the flow. Um, yeah, I should’ve said something. Many, many, many hours later, we were knee deep in paint goo, my back was about to give out and The Mister was declaring the whole thing a disaster.

OK lesson learned.

Adventures in Stripping: Refinishing the Fireplace in Our American System Built HomeThe new approach to stripping the fireplace is much more methodical. First, I tape a garbage bag to the area of the fireplace that’s below where I’ll be working. I don’t want any of the stripper, paint chips or goo to drip down on the bricks that are already finished. I also tape plastic garbage bags to the floor to catch the mess. Then, I apply the stripper to the bricks and let it work its magic over a twenty four hour period. I’ve been using steel wool and old toothbrushes to apply the stripper.

After twenty four hours, the arduous task of scraping the paint off the bricks begins. The most effective tools for removing the stripper and paint are wire brushes of varying sizes and toothbrushes. And even with wire brushes, a lot of pressure must be applied to really remove the paint from the bricks. I’ve also been using steel wool and good old fashioned elbow grease.

Close Up for Stripped Fireplace Brick

By taking it a little slower and working in small sections, we’re getting much better results. Not only do the bricks get cleaner, but we’re actually even getting the paint off the mortar as well. This is actually a delightful surprise. I wasn’t expecting that we’d actually be able to strip the paint from the mortar at all.

As I mentioned in the previous post about stripping the fireplace, we were surprised to discover that the bricks are not red. When we stripped the dark gray top layer down to the white layer and then down to dark gray brick, we had an “oh shit” moment. I mean, why are we going through all this trouble just to go from dark gray to, well, dark gray? But then when you see the lintel stripped of paint and you stand back and see how the bricks have more depth and character when they’re stripped of paint, well, that makes it all worthwhile.

Images: This American House

Adventures in Stripping: Refinishing Fireplace Brick

Adventures in Stripping: Refinishing Fireplace Brick

We’ve had an ongoing debate for the past year about what we should do with the fireplace. The bricks had been painted white some 30+ years ago and then the most recent owners painted the fireplace a glossy dark gray. We knew we didn’t want the gray but we weren’t sure whether we wanted to tackle the monumental task of stripping the fireplace either.

Finally one evening, in a stab at decisiveness, I grabbed a can of white paint and a brush. “I’m just going to paint the fireplace white,” I told The Mister. “And then we can decide what we want to do later.”

I painted two whole bricks before I reconsidered what I was doing. If we’re going to do this, we may as well do it right. I wiped off the wet paint, grabbed a bottle of Citri-Strip
and, well, now there’s no turning back.

Stripping Fireplace Brick

At first, the project was going really well. The small section where we first applied the stripper was looking incredible. The dark gray paint peeled away quickly and with some scrubbing and brushing and lots and lots of stripper, the white paint washed away to reveal beautiful bricks. The bricks are not the dark red that we were expected but where instead shades of gray and blue and brown.


Buoyed by the success of the first few bricks, we decided to forge on. And so on New Years Eve, while others were donning party hats and festive attire, we were dressed in grubby clothes and rubber gloves. We taped garbage bags to the walls and floor and proceeded to cover the entire front of the fireplace with stripper. And that, as it turns out, was not a very good idea.

You see, stripping a small section of a dozen or so bricks seems completely doable. Scrubbing the entire surface of a fireplace over a twelve hour period seems like some sort of torture.

Applying Citri-strip the fireplace brick

Still, it was great seeing the progress as we went along. Slowly (ever so slowly) the gray and white paint would chip away and we would expose more and more beautiful old bricks. But oh the mess that it created! Even with the plastic bags lining the floor, we still ended up tracking little bits of paint and stripper all around the house.

The mess of stripping the fireplace

At one point we had four wire brushes, a half dozen steel wool pads, two buckets of water, a pile of wet and dry rags and a few sponges at work. Here’s a little overview of our process.

Step 1: Use a steel wool pad to apply a layer of citri-strip to the brick. Let it stand for about an hour.

Step 2: Use another steel wood pad to apply another layer of citri-strip. This would essentially wipe away the gray paint, which would reveal the white paint. By applying another layer of stripper, we were hoping to make removal of the white paint a little easier.

Step 3: After letting the second layer of stripper sit for a few hours, we used wire brushes of various sizes to scrape away remaining paint. Talk about labor intensive! And oh the mess!

Step 4: Wash the brick with clean water.


Every hour or so we would stand back and admire our work. And by admire I mean we would question our sanity and try to give ourselves pep talks about the progress we were making. But, truly, we were making progress, even if it did feel like it was at a snail’s pace.

By 10PM on New Years Eve, we had worked on the front of the entire fireplace for more than twelve hours. Some parts of it looked amazing while others obviously required more work. Sometimes you have to know when to say when, however, so we cleaned up our mess and decided we’d come back to it another day.

011115-stripping-fireplace-brick13The funny thing about all of this is that when you stand back, it’s kind of hard to tell that we did anything at all! I doubt that the previous owners had any inkling about the brick color when they decided to paint the fireplace dark gray. And yet their choice of color has made it difficult to discern what has been painted and what has been stripped. When you get really close to the fireplace you can definitely see the difference.

Fireplace bricks after hours and hours of scrubbingWe still have a lot of work ahead of us. We’ll need to do another pass with stripper and wire brushes on the front of the fireplace. I actually quite like the white paint that clings to the crevices of the bricks. I think it gives the fireplace a weathered look. If we can get the entire surface to look like the bricks pictured above, we’ll feel like it’s been a success.


Of course, we haven’t even started on the bricks on both sides of the fireplace. For now, I think we’re happy to pretend that magic elves will come do that part for us.

Are we crazy for having started this job? Yes, I’m sure we are. Are we happy with the outcome? Yes, I think we are. So, really, it’s all worth it in the end.

Images: This American House

Adventures in Stripping: Or Maybe We’ll Paint

Adventures in Stripping: Maybe We'll Paint | This American House

The topic of the house’s woodwork and whether it should be stripped or painted has been hotly debated for months now. The Mister and I have gone back and forth on the issue at least a dozen times. He has a been a proponent of stripping the woodwork from the very beginning. I initially wanted to keep everything painted, but after some cajoling I, too, thought the trim and window frames should be stripped.

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