Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Fireplace Makeover Part 1: A Crispy Facade

In my most recent house tour post, you may have noticed something a little crispy in the corner:

Did someone order a brick facade, well-done, topped with a wavy bacon strip mantel? No? Let's just cover it with a plant and hopefully no one will notice?

Since this eyesore was fairly focal in our living room, it was already pretty high on the project priority list. Not to mention my mom, who is into the whole Feng Shui thing, kept commenting on how this was my career area of the room and how it needed to look nice (hence the plant). And then something unfortunate happened which we did not see coming....I lost my job. Yep, Dreamworks had a bad quarter and laid off a huge portion of their employees. I don't want to dwell on it, but let's just say my "career" area was now squarely centered in my renovation crosshairs.

I'm not a huge fan of painted brick (too non-dimensional), so I went a-hunting for some inspiration.

Boyfriend and I both LOVED the gray oversized subway tile in this one:

And the modern, clean lines of the surround in this one:

So with these in mind, I designed our fireplace and drew it up using Sketchup. Here's roughly what it would look like (these are not the final textures by any stretch). Plans included demolishing the raised hearth, tiling over the brick, painting the interior black, and building a clean modern-but-not-too-modern mantel.

Boyfriend's parents were visiting for a week, and his dad has quite a bit of experience with tile. So of course, like I have a bad habit of doing when relatives are in town, I started a project.

Step one, demolition! We decided to tear out the brick hearth because it was intrusive and we preferred something more flush with the wood floors. Lots of very loud chiseling brick-by-brick until THANKFULLY the middle part just came loose (the rest of the brick took me about an hour).

I guess the dogs are really used to my noise these days, because this is what they looked like with all the chiseling going on.

Boyfriend and his parents were out for the day, so while I waited for the men to come home and haul everything to the garbage, I went ahead and said goodbye to the ugly bacon mantel. Yikes! I doubt this thing had been cleaned since the house was built over 50 years ago.

Step two was to create a smooth surface to tile over. (BTW, I'm following this tutorial from This Old House as well as lots of helpful instruction from Boyfriend's dad) We used a quickset mortar and just smoothed it over the brick. Pro tip: try to get things as smooooooth as possible because if you don't, you'll have non-level tiles down the road. Not that I would know anything about that....maybe.

It helps to use a drill bit mixer for this.

That had a few days to dry while we acquired the tile we would be using. Finding the perfect tile was tricky. The big box stores had gray rectangular tile, but it was either really big or way too small. Then, wouldn't you know it, I discovered the most fantastic tile on Craigslist! I guess this should be no surprise since most of the furniture in our house is the result of diligent Craigslist hunting. But tile! Apparently some lady had bought too much (as in 1800 square feet too much) and was selling the excess at a discount. We bought enough to do the fireplace and both bathroom floors plus the shower walls, if we so desired.

Now back to work for step three: laying some tile! I decided to do the top row of tiles first. Since you have to start with the bottom row (tiles will slide down if not supported), I used a scrap piece of wood and screwed it into the studs on either side of the fireplace, making sure it was level.

Then I mixed some more quickset and applied a thin coat to my work area using a notched trowel. The notches create suction which helps keep the tiles from falling away from the wall. Here you can see the more true-to-life color of the tile.

Here I've got the upper part tiled with 1/4" spacers. The tape is to make extra sure that they won't tilt forward while the quickset dries. You may notice some of the border tiles are chipped or wonky, but these will be covered with the new mantel later.

I completely forgot to take photos of the rest of the tiling process, but basically I used the same technique for the sides starting from the bottom and working up. The hearth was straightforward as well, and I got super lucky that exactly three rows of tile fit in that space. Another pro tip: do all of your cuts first, especially if using quickset. It's no fun having to scrape off quickset that's dried too much while you were trying to make adjustments to a cut and having to re-apply.

Step four is to grout (they say grout fixes all's true). You love my green slippers, don't deny it.

So for the grout, I got tired of cleaning the bucket and mixer bit, so I decided to mix it in a Ziploc bag. Then I snipped a corner off and used it like and icing bag to fill in the spaces. Then I simply tossed the bag when I was done, no cleanup! You guys, I seriously felt like a genius.

I don't have any pictures of this part either because it was a two-person gig and required us to work quickly. I used a grout float to spread the grout evenly and make sure it got in all the nooks and crannies. Boyfriend followed closely with a damp sponge to smooth out the grout lines and clean up the excess on the tile surface. You'll need a bucket of water to rinse the sponge frequently.

We did about three passes with the sponge (again, lots of clean water) to get things looking pretty good.  Be patient and delicate. It'll get there.

After letting the grout dry for a couple of hours, I did a few more passes with the sponge to get rid of the grout haze on the tiles. Use EXTRA clean water for this and don't be afraid to scrub a little.

Here it is, cool as a porcelain cucumber. A far cry from the burnt mess that we started with! (Don't mind the mess in the're looking at it, stop.)

So the verdict on my first major tile job: tiling SUCKS. It's messy, it's tedious, and it requires a lot of precision. Basically all the worst parts of any DIY project rolled into one yucky bleh. But you know I'll be at it again when it comes time to redo the kitchen/bathrooms because despite all the suckiness, I'm pretty damn proud of how it turned out!

Stay tuned for the next, more-fun part, building the mantel!


  1. Are you going for a wood mantle like in the inspiration image, or keeping it just roughly in that shape, but painted white? I like the "earthiness" of the natural wood there, gives it a nice feel. If you wanted to keep some white in it, the inset area might work well. But I also get the modern clean look of having the entire mantle white, if that's the route you're taking, not to mention it would be a lot less expensive than finding some nice big pieces of wood with that feel. Cool to see this project coming along. :D

    1. We're going to paint it white. We toyed with the idea of using natural wood (cuz it's beautiful), but decided against it for several reasons. 1) My skill level is not there yet (paint covers lots of flaws), 2) finding quality wood of those dimensions would be much more expensive, and 3) we think it will be more timeless if it's simply white and gray.
      Thanks for stopping by, Chris! Hope you are doing well :)

  2. so impressed by your diy skillz

  3. Looks great! It is going to be a HUGE change to that room!

  4. Loving it and almost wishing I had a fireplace to redo too! =D

    1. Thanks Yvonne! I'm not much of a fireplace fan myself, but a lot of people are, so you just work with what you got :)

  5. What dimensions are the tiles you used for this?

  6. hi do you have the dimensions/measurements of the mantel you can share? thx u