2 Paint Pros Explain Why This Timeless “Fixer Upper” Finishing Technique Is So Popular

published Dec 30, 2023
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When it comes to adding interest to the walls and stonework of your home, you have more options than picking out a pretty paint color. With cozy, comfortable decor aesthetics on the rise (hello, English country vibes), homeowners are increasingly turning to centuries-old techniques — from velvety limewash to chalky Roman clay — to introduce character, texture, and a timeless patina to their spaces. Another option we love for leveling up your design, particularly if you have some stonework, is German schmear. Intrigued? Here’s everything you need to know about the textural technique.

Quick Overview

What Is German Schmear?

This finishing technique originated in Germany, and it’s used to apply a distressed finish to stone surfaces like brick and rock. It’s most commonly used on fireplaces and stone exteriors.

What Is German Schmear? 

Originating in — you guessed it — Germany, this technique was traditionally used to restore and rejuvenate the exterior of old buildings. Its quirky name actually stems from the German word “schmear,” which means to smear or spread (like with butter), referencing the unique way the thick mortar mixture is applied using a trowel.

German schmear is made with a mixture of cement, sand, and water (although modern iterations rely on pre-mixed mortar in place of the sand and cement). It creates a distressed, textured, light-colored finish on surfaces such as brick and stone. “These days, the technique has gained widespread popularity, thanks to shows like Fixer Upper,” says Alonzo Perez, owner of A&X Masory in Garland, Texas

“We mostly apply the treatment on exterior facades made of brick or stone, as well as interior features like fireplaces,” Perez says.

Credit: Okaycm'Stocker / Shutterstock

German Schmear vs. Whitewash vs. Limewash

German schmear, whitewash, and limewash all look similar, but their ingredients and applications vary. While German schmear is made from mortar, limewash is technically an old-school type of paint made from ground limestone and water. It works best on permeable surfaces and is painted on using a firm-fiber paintbrush and X-shaped brush strokes. Similarly, whitewash refers to adding a watered-down layer of traditional paint atop a surface (typically stone or wood) to subtly change the color or give it an aged look. 

Of the three techniques, German schmear is the most protective finish, working to fill in mortar lines and adding a thicker layer atop materials like brick and stone. Whitewash and limewash deposit color atop the stone, but German schmear is thicker, thanks to the mortar, and can also help disguise the shape of the stone to soften the look of crevices on your fireplace or facade. 

Where to Use German Schmear

Pros agree that German schmear performs and looks its best on stone surfaces like brick, rock, and even concrete. 

German Schmear on Brick

“Most commonly, people will use German schmear on their fireplaces,” says Drew Gwaltney, president of Accent Walls & Finishes in California. “It’s a nice and easy way to update a red brick fireplace without invasive work or breaking the bank,” he says. “It can also be used to upgrade brick accent walls inside homes and in kitchen areas, providing a unique and rustic accent,” Perez says.

Gwaltney also sees plenty of German schmear applications on exterior brick. “Some houses have brick details, either wainscot or pillars, on the exterior, and the schmear can help brighten things up and bring a fresh look,” he explains.

German Schmear on Rock

You can also use this technique on exteriors or fireplaces covered with large or small rocks, as they’re grouted similarly to bricks. “My favorite use is to overfill with the German schmear and use large amounts to build up the grout joints with a sponge float, then do a second coat with a brush to give it a mild linear brushstroke effect,” says Gwaltney.

Another important note: While German schmear is primarily associated with (and beloved for) a creamy white finish, it can also be tinted to any desired color. You can achieve a textured finish in shades of green, black, blue, and even purple!

How Long Does German Schmear Last?

Because German schmear uses mortar, it permanently adds texture, weight, and grit to a surface. In other words, this is not a renter-friendly project. But its permanency is one of its perks. 

“When applied correctly, German schmear can last for a decade or more, both indoors and outdoors,” Perez explains. “To ensure its longevity, it’s important to inspect the surface periodically for any signs of wear or damage (like chipping) and perform any necessary touch-ups as needed.” Perez says you can seal your work with an impregnating sealer to make it last longer. 

“German schmear is very permanent and even if you chisel and acid wash it off, there will always be remnants,” Gwaltney says. He explains how he once schmeared “a whole brick ceiling,” and then the client wanted to change it after a year. “They ended up hiring a sandblaster and it took a few days and a whole lot of mess to get it off,” he says. “Even after it was off, the bricks were still showing white and had to then be faux-painted to appear red again.”

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How Much Does German Schmear Cost?

Like many bespoke finishes, the cost of German schmear can vary greatly depending on the surface you’re choosing to cover, how much square footage you require, and whether you opt to hire a pro or take on the task yourself. “German schmear can be attempted by DIYers and weekend warriors, but it requires careful consideration and preparation,” Perez says.

Professional German Schmear Cost

“For larger or more complex projects, it is often best left to the professionals,” Perez says. He says the cost of a professional German schmear job could range from $3,000 to $20,000. The price depends largely on the size of your project (i.e., a single fireplace or entire home exterior), the look you’re going for (a thin coat of mortar will use a lot less material), and the current state of your stone (any major repairs will cost you extra and need to be completed ahead of schmearing). 

DIY German Schmear Cost

“It’s important to factor in the time and patience required to achieve the desired outcome when deciding to take on the project yourself, especially when working on exterior surfaces such as chimneys,” Perez says. If you’re considering taking on a DIY project — which can cost about $30 for materials like pre-mixed mortar and sponges — Gwaltney recommends doing a practice run before going all in. “I suggest DIYers start small in an inconspicuous corner of their stone before committing to the whole thing,” he says. “You can even buy a fake brick wall from Home Depot to practice on so you can get a feel for it before taking on a whole wall.”