The time for those exposed bricks framing your fireplace, with their pocked faces and rustic finish, is long past. But before you go at the bricks with a paint roller and some white semigloss, consider the more elegant cover-up of art tiles.
Tiling or retiling a fireplace surround isn't a quickie makeover. But as This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers demonstrates, it's well worth the effort. In a few days, you can upgrade the heart of your home, taking it from date-night cliche to elegant entertainment spot ready to impress.
Tile a Fireplace Overview
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.
How to Tile a Fireplace Surround
1. Create a Smooth Surface
- 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.
Tip: Properly mixed thinset should be the consistency of peanut butter and will stick to a trowel when turned upside down.
2. Install a Temporary Support Ledge
- Mark the center of the top of the firebox opening. Using a level, draw a plumb line at the mark that extends from the firebox to the top of the surround. Use this centerline as a starting point to ensure a balanced design.
- Cut a 1x3 to fit the width of the surround. Position the 1x3 just below the top edge of the firebox opening and check it for level. If the ledge and the top of the firebox are not even when the ledge is level, position the wood slightly below the opening on one side, rather than let it ride up on the other side. This will ensure that all of the surround will be covered when you install the tiles.
- Using a drill/driver and 2-inch masonry screws, secure the wood at each end to the surround.
3. Set the Upper Field Tiles
- Mix up a new batch of thinset and additive. Using the flat edge of the trowel, apply a horizontal band of thinset across the center-line above the support ledge. Score the thinset by combing the notched edge of the trowel through it at an angle.
- Position the first tile at the centerline, with its bottom edge resting on the support ledge. Tip it into place and wiggle it to set it fully.
- Continue placing tiles on either side of the center, alternating left and right. Periodically check the tiles for level and plumb and to be sure all their faces are flush with one another; to keep them even, adjust the spacing between them when necessary.
4. Lay the rest of the field
- Work your way up the centerline course by course, keeping the joints staggered by alternating the orientation of the tiles at the centerline. Place art tiles according to your pattern. Use spacers between the courses. Let the tiles set overnight.
Tip: When dealing with art tiles that have irregular edges, use pieces of cardboard as spacers.
5. Tile the Legs
- Remove the support ledge. Taking into account the height of each tile plus a grout line, estimate the size of the final cut tile that will sit at the bottom of each leg. Using a circular saw, rip a 1x3—long enough to fit across the surround—to that height. Position it across the bottom of both legs and check it for level.
- Screw the strip in place. If you plan to tile the inner edges of the firebox, rip two more 1x3 support pieces to fit those spaces and screw them in place.
- Starting on one leg, apply thinset above the 1x3 and notch it with the trowel. Set the field tiles along the leg, working from the bottom up and staggering the joints, as you did with the upper field. Tile the other leg in the same manner.
- Wait a few hours until all the tiles are firmly set.
Tip: As you work, periodically clean the tiles and joints with a damp cloth to remove excess thinset before it hardens.
6. Set the Cut Tiles
- Remove the spacers and the support ledges.
- Measure the distance up from the hearth to the bottom of the tiles. Subtract the width of two grout lines. Using a wet-cutting tile saw, trim a tile to this measurement.
- Butter the back of the tile with thinset, using the edge of the trowel. On larger tiles, run the notched edge of the trowel over the thinset. Push the tile into place and wiggle it until it holds against the wall, evenly spaced between the hearth and the tile above.
- Repeat this process for the other three cut tiles at the base of the legs. Allow the tile to set overnight.
7. Grout the Tile
- Using a putty knife, clear away any pieces of thinset stuck between the tiles. Place painter's tape over art tiles that have irregularly shaped surfaces, in preparation for grouting.
- Using the drill/driver fitted with a mixing paddle, mix the grout according to the manufacturer's instructions. Using a grout float held at an angle, pull the grout across the face of the tiles to pack it into the joints. Then turn the float on its edge and pull it diagonally across the grout lines to remove the excess from the face of the tiles.
8. Grout the Art Tile
- To grout the art tiles, load the mix into a grout bag and squeeze it into the joints.
- Let the grout dry for 30 to 60 minutes or until firm to the touch. Dampen a grout sponge and wipe the tiles in a circular motion to clean off the excess. Let the grout dry overnight.
- Using a clean cloth, buff the face of the tiles to remove the white haze. Reinstall the mantel and use a caulk gun to caulk between the outer edge of the tile and the mantel's inner edge. Allow the tile to cure for another two or three days before building a fire.
Tip: Mist the grout with a spray bottle occasionally to keep it from cracking as it dries.