This Old House TV: West Palm Beach house project
The fireplace in West Palm Beach homeowner Rob Thompson's living room was definitely in dire need of renovation. From the looks of it, the mantel had undergone a few paint treatments over the years. When the surrounding wood was removed at the beginning of this project, what we found was a fireplace that, despite having an attractive arched opening, had been partially camouflaged and done over with an awful faux-marble finish.

In a way though, as with a lot of projects, the uglier you find a fireplace, the more fun it can be to give it a makeover. Rob wanted to resurface with tile, which was certainly a drastic enough change for this old fireplace. The tile choices were narrowed to five different "finalist" styles—all of which would have worked very well in his house. These included a 6 square-inch Mediterranean style in muted colors, which Rob felt would be too drab. Another choice was a dimensional tile molding that my company produces from a clay and stone mixture. Perhaps not quite right for Rob's redo, the relief depicts monkeys walking in a row—actually a pretty big item here in South Florida! Ultimately, Rob decided to go with a colorful Moroccan look, an idea he had while on vacation in (of all places) Morocco. He thought the tiles would be a lively choice that was still in keeping with the overall style of the renovation.

And the look of Rob's new fireplace is striking. Each 5 1/2-square-inch tile is a traditional Moroccan starburst pattern comprised of many smaller, individually hand-cut shapes. The center piece is a 2-inch, 8-point dark green star. All 110 tiles—terracotta with a glazed surface—have this same center star, with the surrounding pattern alternating with yellow and red mosaics in every other tile. The overall impression is a beautiful, multi-color checkerboard of geometric shapes. The edges of the fireplace are trimmed using two strips of small tiles mitered to form a corner. The mantel top was leveled and finished using six-square-inch black "bull-nose" tiles—a term that refers to tiles with any kind of finished decorative edge. And finally, the arched opening of the fireplace was done in black to match the mantel.

In order to begin the job, the paint on the fireplace had to be stripped to the raw stone and the size of the mantel itself needed to be enlarged on both sides to accommodate the new tile. The builders used two-by-four wood fillers on each side to widen it, then plastered over the whole fireplace as preparation to receive the tiles.

Because each little element of the mosaic is hand-cut, the tiles must be assembled by laying out the pattern piece-by-piece, face-side down onto a thin, clear plastic adhesive, forming a strip of tiles. Having done this, however, the back sides of the resulting tiles present a rough, irregular surface—not at all ideal for adhering to the fireplace. To correct this, the installers use a trowel to work a layer of thin-set grout into the gaps and ridges, creating a slab surface that will bond well with the plaster. Each tile strip is then cut to the appropriate shape based on the topical features of the fireplace, such as the arched opening, then laid along pre-drawn plumb lines and "blocked in" — tapped with a hammer and a block of wood to create a strong all-over bond.

Special care has to be taken during the process of actually installing the tiles, since on the fireplace the tile strips abut one another directly without a visible grout seam—which means no margin for error. As a fail-safe precaution that doubles as a design element, we used a special "feature strip"—in Rob's case, black tile—that got laid in last in the center of the fireplace just above the opening. The feature creates a nice visual accent and in general can always be modified to fix any necessary dimensional adjustments that may have resulted from the installation of the other tiles. Finally, when the tiles are finished setting up, the plastic adhesi ve can be peeled off and the whole surface wiped clean.

If you're contemplating a fireplace mantel renovation, bear in mind that resurfacing the face and mantel top don't always have to be as complex as Rob's job. Depending on the design and materials you select, some projects can be easily done start to finish in as little as a few days. Other cases can of course be more involved and take a lot longer. Custom tiles like Rob's—which were fabricated in Morocco—must be ordered about six to eight weeks in advance.

Fully blocked in and buffed up, Rob's new fireplace—handsome, fresh and colorful—will be a wonderful focal point for his living room and a perfect addition to his new old house.

Joe Turchetti is president of Tile Walk, Inc., the company that resurfaced the fireplace and mantel in the West Palm Beach house with imported Moroccan tile.
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