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All about German Schmear

Image via The Quail’s Nest Blog

Over the last few months, I’ve been considering German Schmear for the fireplace of our 1930s home, as a way to modernize and spruce up the red brick surround.

Back up. German what, you said? I know, it sounds like a something you’d order on your bagel.

What is German Schmear?

But, German Schmear is actually a historic masonry technique that’s been around since the 1500s. Similar to the schmear you’d put on your bagel, the term gets its name from the German word for “to spread.” But, instead of cream cheese, you’re spreading mortar. (OK enough with that analogy). The mortar gives the brick a whitewashed look, and helps protect and strengthen it.

These days, though, German Schmear has become a popular alternative to whitewashing brick. It achieves a similar look (white brick with hints of red and pink showing through) but the Schmear has more dimension and can feel more authentic in older homes.

I really like the look because it seems like a cross between painting the brick (which I fear would eliminate some of character) and leaving it red, which is sort of killing the vibes in my living room. It’s like the best of both worlds.

Here’s a photo of said fireplace.

I tend to like things a bit more neutral in our main living spaces, and have lived with the red brick for four years now because I can’t decide what to do with it. Painting just feels like it would be too harsh, and I think it would somehow ‘cheapen’ the look of the space.

German Schmear vs Whitewash

A lovely German Schmear’ed exterior by Made by Muermanns

I could whitewash the fireplace brick instead of doing a German schmear, but after looking at photos of both, I prefer the latter, at least for my space. Whitewashing is a painting technique that achieves similar results to German Schmear. There are a few main differences, though.

The biggest is the material you use for each technique. With whitewashing, you mix white paint with water to make it more translucent, so when the paint mixture is brushed on, some of the brick shows through. It tends to create a more even finish.

German Schmear uses mortar, that’s wiped onto the brick with a trowel. The mortar creates a dimensional appearance, and you can use more or less mortar to create a look that’s bolder, or more subtle. Personally, I’d go for the more subtle look because of the style of my home, but I think they heavier mortar style (which creates a fireplace or brick wall with more white area) works well for farmhouse homes, or shabby chic decor.

How long does German Schmear last?

A faux German Schmear wall (that’s an option, too!) by Naptime Decorator

Another great thing about German Schmear is that it’s designed to last. Because it was originally a masonry technique, not a decorative one, it’s meant to be permanent and strong. As long as you use mortar to achieve the look, it should last as long as you own your home.

That actually brings up another good point about the technique. If you’re not sure you’ll want to live with the look forever, German Schmear is probably not the best way to update your fireplace (or brick wall, etc). Because the look is dimensional, even if you painted over it in the future, you’d still see the texture of the mortar, without some heavy prep work.

If you think you might want to paint your brick a different color in the future, but you love the soft look of German Schmear, try a whitewash.

What styles does German Schmear look good with?

German Schmear complements a few specific design styles well. The first is, of course, shabby chic and farmhouse decor. Its imperfection adds a rustic, historic home quality that’s a hallmark of both looks. It’s also white, which is another must-have for both styles.

Because it suits both so well, it’s also become a bit of a home decor trend over the last ten years, but in my opinion, it’s still timeless.

The other styles its well-suited to are coastal homes, cottage-style spaces, and in some instances, traditional homes. My house is definitely traditional, and I think it can work with classic, neutral spaces as a way to soften a red brick without totally painting over it.