Overview

Tile a Fireplace Overview
Illustration: Gregory Nemec
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A flawless fireplace surround starts with a well-thought-out design and ends with an eye for even spacing. Depending on the tile you use, the design may be as simple as centering the starting position, as with subway tile, or as complicated as spacing decorative tile in the middle of a field, as with accent art tile.

Many art-tile manufacturers will custom-make their tile to match your surround. But regardless of which tile you use, you’ll save a lot of time by making a cardboard template of your surround so that you can lay out a pattern on the floor, space the tiles appropriately, and choose a starting position before committing everything to the fireplace itself.

Start by laying a row of tiles on the template where the top of the firebox would be, beginning with the center tile and working outward from there. Then you can see if you need to adjust the tiles to avoid cutting any slivers at the ends. On the legs of your surround, plan to use full tiles in the field and leave any cuts at the bottom.

Whenever you tile a vertical surface, you have to start from the bottom row and work your way up. For the field above the firebox opening, you’ll need to screw a piece of wood to the bricks to provide support for the heavy tiles while they set. At the bottom of the legs, you’ll have to estimate the size of the last cut tile and rip a piece of wood for a level starting point that keeps the joints lined up from leg to leg.

Keep in mind that tiling requires you to work quickly, and while tile spacers are helpful, it may be necessary to go back before the thinset grabs and slightly cheat the tiles one way or another to make them fit perfectly with their neighbors. As long as your joints look even, it’s more important that you avoid a large grout line at the last tile than worry about sticking to the exact measurement of the spacer.
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    Tools List

    • drill
      Drill/driver with mortar mixing paddle
    • flat finishing trowel
      ½-inch notched trowel
    • two-foot level
      2-foot level
    • circular saw
      Circular saw
    • wet saw
      Wet-cutting tile saw (rents for about $40 per day)
    • 1 1/2-inch angled sash brush
    • putty knife
      Putty knife
    • Painter's Tape
      Painter's tape
    • rubber float
      Rubber grout float
    • grout bag
      Grout bag
    • grout sponge
      Grout sponge
    • caulk gun
      Caulk gun

    Shopping List

    1. Tile Available through manufacturers, specialty shops, or home centers in a wide variety of materials. For most basic tile or stone, you can calculate the square footage of your surround and buy 10 percent more tile than needed, to account for cuts and mistakes. If you’re working with art tile, many manufacturers will create a custom pattern and materials list for you if you send them a measured drawing of your surround.

    2. Thinset mortar Look for a product that’s good for wall applications, such as Laticrete Mega Bond. A 50-pound bag will cover up to 100 square feet.

    3. Latex additive to improve the flexibility of the thinset and create a stronger bond.

    4. 1x3 lumber to create support ledges for the upper field of tiles and the bottom edges of the legs.

    5. 2-inch masonry screws to attach the support ledges to the bricks.

    6. Tile spacers to separate the tiles evenly and keep them from sliding down while the thinset cures. The size of your joints can vary, based on the tile; a sharp-edged material, such as granite, can be spaced as little as 1⁄8 inch, but more rustic art tile can have 3/16- to 3/8-inch spacing. Buy plastic spacers or make your own from cardboard.

    7. Grout If the space between your tiles will be greater than 1⁄8 inch, you’ll need sanded grout; less space calls for unsanded grout.

    8. Sanded acrylic caulk is usually available from the grout manufacturer in a complementary color.