Dear PoPville – How Do I Expose Brick in My Entry Way?

Dear PoPville,

I recently bought a home in Brightwood. I wanted to expose my brick in my entry way. I got a chisel and went at it to see what was underneath. I didn’t find brick but what seemed to be thin brick or metal slabs. Do you know of anyone whos run into this? Wondering if it would still look good if I exposed this style of brick if anyone out there had tried doing it?

I can’t remember if they encountered these slabs on this video? Anyone ever deal with these before?

44 Comment

  • I love that you just went at it with a chisel. Respect!

    I can’t tell from the photo, but it looks like that could be the original lath under the plaster. In typical old construction, there would be some furring strips under those and then you’d be at the structural brick.

    • Depends entirely on how your block of houses were built. Unless you know there’s a brick exterior wall behind this plaster, you may wind up chiseling into your neighbor’s house.

      I agree with Anonymous 2:34 that this looks like some kind of lath. However, behind this layer may be the back side of the wall in your neighobor’s unit. I don’t know what DC building codes said when your place was built, but some older houses I’ve lived in don’t have brick party walls between the interiors.

      • What Joker said. My neighbors have exposed brick in their entry foyer (which our living room backs up to) and up the stairs- in addition to providing NO soundproofing, any time anything touches that wall, it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. We love our neighbors – I’m sure we do stuff that is equally annoying, so I figure it’s a wash. Not worth starting a war over. But, there have been times where I’ve fled the room or can’t sit on the couch because of the noise and I wish there was another layer of plaster between us. Can’t hear anything from the house on the other side.

      • In old houses that don’t have brick, what do the joists sit on and what hold up the roof? I’ve never seen an old row house that didn’t have brick. Yikes!

  • Exposed brick looks nice and all but…it brings dust..

    Should you test the dust from the mortar for possible toxins, etc..? Just curious as I have exposed brick.

    • Yep. I had an environmental inspector tell me that it can be dangerous to remove plaster improperly. This is from the wiki on “plaster”: “Some variations of plaster that contain powdered silica or asbestos may present health hazards if inhaled. Asbestos is a known irritant when inhaled in powder form can cause cancer, especially in people who smoke, and inhalation can also cause asbestosis. Inhaled silica can cause silicosis and (in very rare cases) can encourage the development of cancer. “

      • ah

        You also are likely to have some lead paint under all those layers.

        • Also a shame to see real plaster work, not wall board with spakle, destroyed.

          • Is it a shame? Why? I have original plaster walls in my house and it’s not all that. If they had never been painted and were a limewash or stucco I could see why it’s a shame. But a painted plaster wall? I dont see the advantage.

          • To Anonymous 11:27,

            I’m not sure what raymo-in-ledroit’s exact point is, but I will say this: you may not see much more than a bland wall where you have plaster but preparing a wall with plaster is an art, and a lost one at that. You might find workers to plaster a wall but if you’ve seen that and the work from one who has mastered the technique, it is something to be appreciated. If you’re just looking at what you see as a plain wall, you might not see it but if you knew the work and the skill involved, you might begin to appreciate the workmanship.

      • Lets be careful at the level of alarm we raise here.

        The dust from the wall can be controlled by sealing the brick, personally I like the one from home depot, I don’t remember what it’s called but it gives a a nice matte finish (I hate glassy brick).

        Regarding the asbestos, lead, silicone: these are truly only highly risky for adults at occupational levels. That is, prolonged exposure for years. Wear a mask, clean up well, don’t bring kids around, and you should be fine.

        The CDC says any lead exposure in kids is too much, but that’s a bit of a reach and is based more on psychology and marketing than on science. It’s necessary to tell people that because you can’t be cavalier about it, especially if you have kids… But I think even if you were cavalier, with no kids, didn’t take precautions and only did a couple projects over the course of your life you’d probably be fine. So be safe, but don’t panic.

        Remember, the lead and asbestos laws, as well as the air particulate stuff, all got started because we realized workers who were around this stuff all day (battery recyclers, refinery workers, construction) started to get the same sicknesses.

        • Home renovations are the leading cause of childhood lead poisoning second only to the risk from pealing/chipped/lead paint that results in inhalation of lead dust. Any house constructed before lead paint was banned in the 70s can be presumed to have it.

  • I know exposing brick is all the rage now but one thing people don’t think about until after it is done is that it increases the level of noise transmission between you and your neighbors.

    The lath and plaster over the bricks deadens a suprising amount of noise. People who move into houses where it already exposed don’t know the difference but if you have lived there before exposing the brick, you will notice, guaranteed.

    • My boyfriend and I exposed a wall in our house and have not noticed any increase in noise transmission–nor have our neighbors indicated they’ve noticed any increased noise transmission between that wall.

      • Same here. We still don’t hear a thing, and the neighbors haven’t said anything, other than that they heard a mysterious “tap tap tap” for a while when we chipped off the plaster.

    • Most of that know it, but choose the look over the sound. Sometimes the look is worth it!

  • I would suggest calling a contractor to come out and give and “estimate” of how much it would cost for them to do it. You dont want to endanger your new investment, or the house next door. And you do not have to hire them, just ask them what it takes, cost of materials, etc. and then figure it out if you can do it yourself, or hire them. And get a few quotes.

  • That’s the lathe. It would be very unusual for it to be anything other than wood. There’s probably brick directly behind it but there might be a stud wall between the brick and the lathe. Either way you’re going to have a gap to deal with once you get the plaster and lath down at the top and bottom of the wall that’s not going to look very good. This might be a bigger project than you thought…

  • Subject to many, many caveats, I hate to see a home’s historic detail go away. That plaster has likely been there for many, many decades dating back to the construction of your house. Based on the picture, it looks to be in good shape. My personal preference is to keep it. You can always achieve a modern aesthetic with your decor. The original plaster can never be brought back.

  • bfinpetworth

    Exposed brick is a trendy choice right now. But that is a huge project that may not necessarily enhance the value of the home 5 or 10 years from now. I’d think twice about trying this on your own. Also, a poster above is right on – you will have a messy gap that will be difficult to deal with, especially just above the staircase. The treads likely don’t extend all the way to the brick and you may end up having to replace the entire staircase or have an unusually thick baseboard installed to fill the gap.

  • The fact that you did not know that you had exposed the lathes, and sent in your question to POP tells me that you do not have sufficient knowledge about construction to undertake this project on your own.

    I will second Nick in recommending that you leave the original plaster wall intact. Aesthetics aside, it performs important insulation and sound damping functions far better than an exposed brick wall would. I have an exposed brick wall, and it does shed dust and mortar so that I am regularly sweeping up a fine layer from the floor. Once you expose the brick, you may also have to tuck point it. Up until you expose the mortar, even if it is crumbly, the plaster wall has held it in place.

  • From the photo, hard to tell if those are furring strips. If those are wood, then they’re furring strips. However, that’d be very odd on a brick party wall. Brick walls most always were built then coated/smoothed with cement, then plaster, then painted. If those strips are brick and not wood, well that’s your brick wall (they may have just used a small/odd size brick, at least in that section).

  • STOP. Right now. That is not lath or brick – that’s the terra cotta block which you do NOT want to expose. Most houses built in the late 20s early 30s used terra cotta as a filler because it was cheaper than brick. It does not look pretty back there and there is nothimg else to find beyond it other than you actual exterior wall or you neighbor’s living room.

  • Hard to tell from the photo. If it is metal, I guess it is lath. If it is brick-like then it is what builders called terra cotta block or tile, which have those raised strips on them. If you have a common wall, the stairs are usually along it, and this hollow tile apparently met code for common walls. I had a 1928 house in DC that had a t. c. block common wall that was exposed in the attic. T. c. was a common building material made from clay that might have been dug and fired right here in DC.

  • That’s wood lathe. Your stairway looks identical to mine and I have spent many hours cutting out small holes in the plaster and lathe throughout our house for various re-wiring projects. You may have brick behind that, but you also have studs, you’d end up with a gap and the brick behind there will probably need tuckpointing. Also, when cutting into things to check stuff out it’s always a good idea to do it in a corner or somewhere not quite as noticeable. In my experience although you always have the best intention of fixing it quickly, 3 years later you realize you’re still looking at that hole you cut out.

    • NOT lathe (terra cotta). But, +1 on the probably of still looking at that whole 3 years from now…

      • Very positive this is lathe. Terra cotta block would have uniform “grooves”. It’s very clear in the photo that the “grooves” are differing from one groove to the next.

    • hahaha…excellent point/prediction about what this will look like 3 years from now.

      Anybody interested in visiting my place and seeing a few stripped-and-un-re-finished doors?

      • My money is on a large painting with a nice frame or maybe a mirror covering that hole in 3 years.

  • Regardless of whether it’s terra cotta, you’re going to need to come up with a plan to fill any gap (if indeed there’s any brick back there). What are you going to do with the molding / stairs, which stop at the present wall for instance?

  • As a few have mentioned, it DOES look like terra cotta block. I have that for my 1941 foundation. When I had the basement waterproofed, the contractor said that terra cotta is much stronger than cinder block, and will last forever, but it’s fragile. If this is terra cotta, and your hammering away at it to remove the plaster, you could cause some major damage.

  • Personally I don’t like exposed brick wall at wall. To me, it looks cheap and not classy at all. I have never seen a classical mansion has exposed brick wall.

  • One of the best threads in a while, I wonder who is still around that was part of the Wardman family teams that built so many of the rowhouses around here.

    A local Petworth contractor told me once he found, during wall demolition, a bunch of cocaine and gold inside the wall! Wouldn’t that be something. I’m still looking for the bank loot.

  • Ever consider installing a brick facade on top of the plaster?

  • They said “thin brick or metal.” Hard to confuse wood (lath) with thin brick or metal, so I’m siding with the terra cotta camp. I’m also siding with the hire a professional camp.

    But I love the way they just tackled this head on with a hole in the wall. That’s the way to do it. This thread would have been completely uninteresting without that.

  • My neighbor on one side of our 100+ year old town house exposed the bricks. It sucks. I can hear him and worse, I can smell his cigarettes. Exposed brick sux.

  • brookland_rez

    Those are clay blocks that are about 8-10″ square. The inside of the exterior walls of my house is made with them as well. They are hollow down the middle. The are also extremely brittle if you start chiseling at them. I wouldn’t expose them. They won’t look that good and you could possibly damage the integrity of your house if you chisel at them too hard and they start breaking up. My house is a rowhouse that was built in 1926. I wonder if the same builder built yours as well as mine?

  • Agree. Brick facade will do the trick. It’s brick just inch thick. Same visual, same feel, lot less work and you can keep your plaster barrier.

  • When we were having our inspection I was talking to my husband about possibly exposing the brick and our inspector went up in to the attic and saw that the wall between our neighbors and us was actually made up of concrete blocks. It may be worth going up in to the attic and seeing if the wall you are talking about is already exposed. Perhaps you will have a better sense of what you are dealing with.

  • it’s not brick it’s plaster & wood sheeting. I have demoed walls like this 1000 time over.

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