PHASE I: Slate Tiles
I started this project by first covering the old brick around the firebox opening with tiles made of Vermont slate. However, you can skip this step if the existing brick or stone facing on your fireplace is attractive and in good condition.

Originally I wanted to cover the brick with thick slabs of polished granite. That is, until I discovered it was going to cost $600 to $700. I also considered marble and glazed ceramic tile before choosing the 3/8-in.-thick slate for its natural beauty and texture. Two boxes of precut slate tiles (20 sq. ft. total) cost $26 at a local home center. I also picked up some thinset mortar ($13), gray nonsanded grout ($10) and a bottle of matte-finish masonry sealer ($14).

Note that it takes two days to complete the tiling because the mortar must cure overnight before you can grout the joints. Slate tiles come precut into squares and rectangles of various sizes. Chances are, though, you'll have to cut a few pieces to fit. You can cut slate with a masonry blade (either carbide-tipped or abrasive) in a portable circular saw, or you can rent a wet saw ($60 per day) that will easily slice through the rock-hard stone. But don't try to use a manual score-and-snap tile cutter; slate is simply too hard.

Start by brushing a coat of clear sealer onto the slate tiles. Sealing them at this stage before they're installed will make it much easier to clean off any mortar or grout from the surface. Mix up some thinset mortar and let it rest, or slake, for 10 minutes. Next, use a notched trowel to spread the mortar onto the brick ends along the right and left edges of the firebox opening. Also spread mortar onto the back sides of the slate tiles, a technique that's known as back-buttering. Press the tiles into place (step 1) and give each one a few sharp raps with a rubber mallet. For spacers between the slate tiles, I used two strips of thin cardboard, which produced 3/32-in.-wide joints.
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