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Install Tile or Natural Stone on a Fireplace Surround

Give Your Living Room a Face Lift and Boost Home Equity

© 2011 by all rights reserved; content may not be copied, rewritten, or republished without author’s written permission.

Candlelit Christmas Ornaments on the fireplace hearth

Cosmetic decorating trends go through cycles. Many homeowners are on a mission to remove popcorn ceilings, for example. For a few years new granite countertops have been the “in thing”. Today, more and more homeowners considering updating their brick fireplaces by putting a veneer of tile or natural stone on their existing fireplace.

In most areas, new homes come with central HVAC systems, but there’s still nothing that says comfort like a crackling fire in the evening. After all, at heart we are primal creatures with a bit of the neanderthal remaining; fireplaces provide heat, a cooking area, and a method of warding off the marauding beasts that hunt at night.

Project Materials for this Project

  • Tile and/or natural stone. Tile can be bought at any home improvement store or a specialty tile store. The best selection of stone is usually found at specialty distributors.
  • Thinset for mortar. A standard mortar or mastic is fine for floor applications, but thinset is the ticket for vertical surfaces.
  • Latex thinset mortar additive. This is not strictly required but highly recommended. It creates a much better bond. It’s well worth the small extra cost.
  • 1” X 2” boards. This size is fairly standard in most cases but wider ones may be used if your fireplace opening is wider than normal; the boards are used in supporting the lower course on your firebox opening as well as standing in for your lower border tiles.
  • Plastic tile spacers. These are used just the same as when laying floor tile; it makes for even grout lines.
  • Grout. Grout is available pre-mixed or dry, sanded and non-sanded. Sanded grout is stronger and is usually used when the spacing between adjacent tiles is greater than 1/16”. Choose a color that complements your tile or stone.
  • Grout sealer. It’s always a good idea to use a high-quality sealer. Although it’s not likely that your fireplace will get as wet as the bathroom floor, a sealer helps prevent mildew.
  • Tools. You’ll need trowels (finish and notched), a plastic bucket, electric hammer drill, blue Tapcon screws and masonry drill bit (the correct size is packaged with the screws), 4’ level, ribbon mixer or paddle bit, and a diamond blade wet saw.

First, create a Working Surface on Your Brick

Your stone or tile requires a smooth surface to stick to. Any voids on the surface lowers the adhesion value and an unsmooth surface will show up in the finished job. As they say, if you want to make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear, you’ve got to start with a silk sow. This step takes care of that.

  1. Mix up a sufficient quantity of thinset to cover your brick. Don’t forget the latex mortar additive. I use a heavy duty electric drill along with a ribbon mixer or paddle bit.
  2. Use your finishing trowel to spread a layer of thinset over all the brick surface. This will take a bit of patience because the brick is probably uneven, especially when you think about your brick mortar lines.
  3. Now allow it to cure. It will take at least overnight and maybe as long as 24 hours.
  4. Check the surface with a straightedge or 4’ level. Repeat as needed.

Secure the 1” X 2” Support Ledge

  1. Cut a board the width of the front of your fireplace surround at the firebox opening adding 1” on either side.
  2. Hold your board horizontally across the firebox opening and use the 4' level to be sure it’s level. The top of the board will span the firebox opening covering the lowest thinset spot. The board will support a course of tiles where the bottom of the tile is flush with the top edge of the firebox opening.
  3. Draw a reference pencil line on the thinset at the top of the board.
  4. Use your hammer drill to drill through the board and thinset and into the brick. Attach the board using Tapcon screws. Having a helper for this step is a good idea.

Layout Your Choice of Tile Pattern

Generally, a tile pattern has either a tile that’s centered, or a grout line between two tiles. Just choose the one that will make the larger tile borders on the vertical sides of the firebox and edge of the fireplace. Now you’re ready to install the tiles.

  1. Mix a batch of thinset and latex additive as you did earlier.
  2. Spread it on with your notched trowel.
  3. Start at the center of your firebox and lay the first course on top of the support board. Use the tile spacers between tiles.
  4. Cut the border tiles with the wet saw and install them.
  5. Work upward installing the remaining courses. You can either alternate grout lines or keep them the same. Cut and install your upper border tiles.
  6. Allow time for your thinset to set up.

Finally, Tile the Legs (Left and Right Sides of the Firebox)

  1. Unscrew and remove the support ledge board.
  2. The top leg tiles intersecting the first course you set will obviously need to be full. Take into account both the tile size and the spacers and determine the height of your bottom border tile. Note that the left and right side might not be the same. No room for error here.
  3. From your boards, cut and attach 1” X 2” ledges in place of your bottom borders. Before cutting the boards, subtract the thickness of the tile spacers.
  4. Trowel on thinset and be careful not to get any on your ledges. In fact, keep it just above the thickness of the spacers. This will make it easier to take the supports off later without disturbing the tile.
  5. Install tiles from the bottom up. Start with spacers on the support boards. This is why you subtracted this thickness above. You’ll want to use your level as you go to insure your grout lines are straight and match up.
  6. After letting the thinset cure, take off the ledges, apply thinset for the bottom borders, and then cut and set them.
  7. Finally, grout the tile.

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