Exposing & Cleaning a 100-Year-Old Brick Wall

Ariel Noel
by Ariel Noel
Welcome to the living room of my 100-year-old condo downtown. It doesn't look that old, which is usually quite the compliment, except in this case it means my home was stripped of all character.
One cold afternoon, my husband and I were sitting around when I decided that it was the perfect moment to add some character to the room... by cutting down this wall here. I knew it had brick behind it, and I had previously cut a few tiny holes in it to see the condition of the brick. It appeared to be fine. Ah, so young and naive...
After turning off the electricity, we used an exacto knife to cute a giant hole in the wall. Spoiler alert: the brick was not in great condition. In fact, it looked EXACTLY like one-hundred-year-old brick that was never meant to be exposed would look like.
There was efflorescence (salt deposits that pointed to a possible moisture issue), insulation that was caked in mold, holes, old electrical wiring and plumbing, damaged bricks, cut-outs, AND a covered door to our neighbor's unit. Apparently, it used to be one large bachelor's quarters!
Normally, I love a good DIY project, but I knew repairing one-hundred-year-old brick was beyond my abilities. My grandfather had been a mason, and I appreciate the skill and experience required of the trade. Enter Paul. Paul is an experienced mason and construction engineer. He not only gave us a good price to repair the wall, but he asked us to "lend him a hand" to keep the price down and finish fast. In other words, he trained us. We love Paul.
This isn't Paul, but he was giving orders on how to mix and dye the mortar on the side. He also taught us how to cut brick, chisel it out of the wall, repair old brick, repoint sections, and more. He taught us that old fire-killed brick (like ours) required softer mortar so it wouldn't break over time.
The mortar is still wet in this picture..
The best thing he taught us though was how to clean the brick. It had become a point of contention in our marriage. After a lot of research, I had read that brick walls require nothing more than some dry brushing with wire brushes. We spent DAYS and DAYS brushing the wall for hours.
It was a non-stop dust storm in our home with no end in sight. Then, I read that a bit of water with the wire brushes *might* be necessary. Days and days of wet brushing followed, which was then followed by tears and wet vacuuming. It was barely making a dent in the dust-covered walls.
Paul introduced us to muriatic acid. Initially, I didn't want to use harsh chemicals in my home, but my aching arms (from the hours of brushing) encouraged me to just go with it. OH. MY. GOODNESS. It was worth it!
Finally, we sealed the wall with a commercial grade interior brick sealant that he had left over from a commercial project. I honestly don't know what it is called.
We gained a few inches of space in our living room and patched the floor, ceiling, and walls on our own. We also had an electrician come and attach the electrical sockets to the brick. We asked him to hide the lines through the ceiling and along the side wall, but he had said it was too much work. Now, I regret not insisting on it. The big electrical tube down the wall is an eyesore.
As for the doorway to our neighbor's home, we added an acoustic panel with insulation to seal it in, and we're trying to figure out what we want to do with it.
I've considered adding DIY built-ins (this was the beginning of an attempt). I've considered hanging simple shelves. Currently, I just shoved a large armoire that I already owned into it. Amazingly, it's a tight fit, but eventually I'd like to do something custom.
I realize that not everyone loves exposed brick, but it gave me the character I wanted in our old home. Although the brick has darkened the room quite a bit, i love looking at the variations in it. It reminds me of my mason grandfather. It reminds me of the history of the great city where I live. It reminds me of the craftsmanship of olden times. That being said, it was certainly NOT a quick DIY project. :)
Ariel Noel
Want more details about this and other DIY projects? Check out my blog post!
Frequently asked questions
Have a question about this project?
3 of 11 questions
  • Mbi7643411 Mbi7643411 on Jul 21, 2016
    Great job, my husband has wanted to do this in our row home for the past 3 years.I love the look but DO NOT want to deal with the mess. Besides we have 100 year old plaster that is in great shape. Why mess with a good thing.Did you ever consider brick facing in a contrasting color for the doorway with reclaimed wood shelves? Post photos once you've decided.
  • Lou8487846 Lou8487846 on Jul 22, 2016
    Have you thought about painting the conduit pipe to match the brick and mortar lines.? It would be so much less noticeable!
  • Mark hogan Mark hogan on Jul 17, 2019

    Hi. Was thinking about using acid to clean my bricks too. Can i ask how you rinsed the acid off once applied? And did you need to scrub the bricks once the acid was on? Thanks. Just after as much information as possible before i do it it

Join the conversation
2 of 157 comments
  • Zina Zina on Dec 08, 2018

    I need to clean my brick “corner” where the wood stove is, thank you for the information! Looks amazing

  • Nan Nan on Aug 09, 2023

    The natural brick is beautiful and dark. You might consider a thin brick smear. It would brighten the walls and camouflage the electrical conduit.