This will be a two part series about how we made over our fireplace. But first, I’m going to divulge the secrets that other bloggers and any show on HGTV or DIY network leave out. Doing house projects suck. They aren’t always easy, and they NEVER go according to plan.
Both of us have full time jobs. We have errands to run, a house that stubbornly won’t clean itself, dishes, laundry, yardwork, etc. Oh, and family obligations, church, and the occasional friend hang out to preserve our sanity. Point being, time is scarce and the last thing I want to do is dedicate an entire weekend to a house project. Why do it? Well, because we have a vision, and the reward is seeing it come to fruition, knowing you worked hard for it. And because it’s the home we live in, and we want to make it ours.
Enter the fireplace makeover. Kara had a vision for this thing. A vision heavily borrowed from Young House Love’s fireplace makeover. This has been a LONG time in the making. We busted up the original hearth a long time ago in preparation of laying hardwood. When I put the new floor down, I left an area for what would be our new hearth. After finally being able to finish the floor last summer (after the front door fiasco), we wanted to get the new mantle done before Christmas decorations went up.
First, even though Kara had a plan and vision based off of what Young House Love had done, we still needed to layout said vision with our measurements since our fireplace box and area was not exactly the same as theirs. So doing what I do best, I grabbed some paper and a pencil, and I set out to draw this up. I’ve learned it’s a good idea to draw up your design beforehand to get a good visual of how it will look, but also to ensure you aren’t missing any pieces or measurements.
As with the floor, front door, kitchen, etc., this project did not go to plan. Dismantling the old mantel (ha!) was somewhat of a chore because like most mantels, it was assembled with the idea that it’s going to be permanent. All one piece nicely tied together with heavy screws and glue. Needless to say, it got destroyed in the process.
Then, removing the existing tile was much more than we bargained for as well. For whatever reason, it wasn’t adhered with a simple mastic. No, it appears they used glue. While we were able to bust most of it off with a hammer, there were a handful of stubborn pieces that took large chunks of our drywall out with it. I made the decision to cut out the swiss cheese drywall and install fresh pieces on either side of the firebox. Kara then filled any holes, including a few larger ones where we did not replace the drywall, with joint compound. We were not super worried about these being perfect because they would be covered with mastic, tile and a big ol’ mantel.
Now that the surface was a clean slate after demo-ing and repairing, it was time to start laying new tile! We were using subway style Greecian White marble tile from Home Depot. At $5.69 per box, for a small project like our fireplace, it’s reasonably priced for marble. We liked the marble also because it matches the marble counter top on our island which sits directly opposite this living room space.
Here is what you will need to tile a fireplace hearth /surround:
- Backer board (if you are tiling to plywood subfloor)
- Pre-mixed Thin-set Mortar
- Large bucket
- Notch Trowel & Finish Trowel
- Tile (Our choice: Greecian White Marble)
- Wet Saw (Ours: 7 in Wet Saw)
- Tile Spacers (Our choice: 1/8 size)
- Non-Sanded Grout (Our choice: Snow White)
- Grout Float
- Utility Sponge
- Rosin paper (optional)
The first thing we did before even getting started with the tile was to lay down some leftover rosin paper to protect our new hardwood floors. Then we laid out all of the tiles. This is a really good idea so that you can discard any chipped or off-color pieces and you can ensure you are mixing how you lay pieces so it is cohesive. You don’t want all of the very white pieces on one side.
After cutting and screwing backer board to the hearth area, we were ready for tile! We followed the instructions on the tub of thin-set and laid a nice thick (but not too thick) even layer across part of the hearth. If you lay more than you will get to quickly, then you risk it drying out too much before you lay tile on it and you don’t want that. After you have laid your thin-set, run your notched trowel across it to give you deep trenches for the tile to adhere to. You will know you have enough if the tile sticks and is not easy to pull back off.
To create the herringbone pattern on the hearth, we started in the center of the fireplace and worked outwards. We set the first piece on a 45 degree angle rotating the rectangular tiles as needed to create the pattern. We used smaller spacers in a 1/8 size for keeping the tiles evenly spaced. Anything larger did not look right to us. Overall, while laying all of the tile took a day, the hearth took the most time because of all of the triangular cuts needed. So I cut tile while Kara laid them all and that really cut down on time. Teamwork, man.
Here’s a big tip though – cutting marble even with a wet saw set with a brand new blade is difficult. Marble is very delicate and brittle. Even moving as slowly as possible, the corner at the end of the cut would break off. So take care and be gentle with marble tile!
After the hearth was tiled, we moved to the surround of the fireplace. We left this in a typical brick pattern because carrying the herringbone up would be very tedious and too overwhelming in design. We started at the top center though to ensure the center lined up and both sides were even. To be honest, working down was not easy, but it looked the best. You have gravity working against you, so you have to firmly press each tile into the thin-set and work quickly to keep them from sliding down. But the brick pattern still went up much quicker than the herringbone – the cuts were easy and straight and repetitive. (Also, if you notice the WB logo on our tv…we were in the midst of an annual Harry Potter marathon)
Don’t fret too much over spare thin-set stuck in random places. You can scrape it off later after it dries.
You can see above where we had to rip the very last row down a bit to make it fit. This is not even noticeable with the finished product. Grout and having a mantel in place hides that it is even different.
With all of the tile up, we left it and forgot about it for a day to allow the tile to really set up before grouting! Although, it already looked amazing. That pretty marble tile is a world of difference from the before.
The next day, Kara got to grouting! We used Polyblend Snow White Non-Sanded grout from Home Depot. She only needed about half the bag. Whip it up with a little water in a large bucket by following the instructions on the bag. You will need something sturdy to stir with as you add very little water to make a super thick paste.
Then schmear that stuff all over! Kara noted how this entire process from spreading the thin-set to spreading the grout is not that different from frosting a cake – so baking, her home base. You want to ensure you get a thick amount into every single crevice, so you actually want to push it in as you schmear and pull away. You try to scrape away as much excess as you can during this process. The best tool for this job is called a float and it’s basically like a rubber straight edge trowel. We did not have one, so just used our regular trowel and wiped away excess with a damp sponge. It got the job done. Obviously. If you use a float, then your last step would still be to sponge off the leftover excess grout with a large damp utility sponge.
And voila! That’s all she wrote. After you sponge off the excess grout, as it dries, you will be left with this film of dust. Don’t keep wiping with a wet sponge because it won’t work. Just let it dry and come back with a dry cloth to clean off the dust. You can see some of it on the black fireplace insert above. Oh, please note the Dodge in the fireplace reflection…with a bone in his mouth. Ha!
We waited another day or so to allow the grout to firm up and dry, then we sprayed the tile and grout with a sealer. With it being marble tile and white grout around a fireplace, we wanted to play it safe. We picked this up at Home Depot for a few bucks. Peace of mind! Side note: I’ve now read some not so great reviews on this particular sealer – people say it leaves a milky residue. Since our grout was already snow white, I did not notice, but you may want to select a higher rated product. 🙂
Next up will be Part 2 – an exposé about building mantels. We will also share the true total cost of this project…hint it’s always more than you think.
*Update: We added 3 1/2 pencil tiles as a border / edger row against the bottom of the fireplace insert. Even though we added them after laying the rest of the tiles, it was not difficult to just spread a thick enough line of thin-set over the gap and set the pencil tiles. Then Kara added enough grout to fill the gaps around the pencil tiles.