Step 1: Create a Smooth Surface

photo of thinset being trowelled onto brick fireplace surround
Photo: Kolin Smith
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Remove the mantel if possible or mask off its edges with painter’s tape where it meets the surround.

If you’re tiling over bricks or any other uneven surface, you will need to create a smooth base for your tiles. Using a drill/driver fitted with a mixing paddle, prepare a batch of thinset mixed with the latex additive, following the directions on the packaging.

Using a finishing trowel, spread an even layer of thinset over the bricks to cover them and fill the grout lines. Smooth the surface with the flat face of the trowel. Let the thinset dry overnight.

TOH Tip: Properly mixed thinset should be the consistency of peanut butter and will stick to a trowel when turned upside down.

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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.