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How to Prep a Fireplace for New Tile

Watch DIY Expert & House One Editor Jenn Largesse, as she covers phase one of her fireplace wall makeover and upgrades her mantel with new molding.

I’m in the process of renovating the entire fireplace wall to include built-in cabinets and mount the television over the fireplace, but step one was to demo the fireplace and get it ready for new tile, which, for me, included removing the mantel to cut it shorter and so I could modernize it with new trim.

First I removed the molding along the entire wall, and at the base of the mantel. I’m planning to reuse some of the molding, so I first scored the seam with a utility knife, and then used a thin putty knife to open the joint. After that, I was able to use a pry bar and hammer. I like to start at an outside corner so the molding can break free easier, and then work my way down the molding until it’s loose enough that I can pop it free. Next I could remove the transition molding that covered the seam between the tile and flooring.

Now it was time to remove the mantel. I didn’t know how the mantel was secured, so the key for me was to work my way around the edges with a pry bar until I found a spot that worked free. I then concentrated on that section to pull it loose and give me leverage to remove the rest of the mantel. I found the mantel was secured with two mounting blocks in each leg, so I knocked those out and set them aside to reinstall the mantel later.

With the mantel out, I was ready to remove the tile. I was planning to cover and protect the firebox and floor, but the tiles started coming off so easily that I was able to just hold and remove each full tile. All the tiles on the surround needed was a bit of pressure from a pry bar to pop free, so I was able to set them aside without a ton of mess. Next I started on the tile hearth. Again, with just a bit of pressure, the tiles popped free, along with the metal edge trim. Once all the tiles were removed, I vacuumed the area clean.

With all the tiles removed, I was able to assess the wall and hearth base. In my situation, there was so much mortar stuck to the drywall, and the fact that the base under the hearth was plywood made me want to remove the surfaces and start fresh. Also, I’m working with smaller tiles, so I knew that having a fresh smooth surface would make installation much easier. For the hearth, that meant removing the plywood so I could replace it with tile board. I then scraped as much mortar as I could off the front of the firebox with a putty knife.

To prep the wall, I used a saw to cut out a section of drywall where the seam would fall behind the mantel, and on a stud so I had a nailer for the new piece. I then broke out the drywall. This was probably the messiest part of the job, but a shopvac and bucket of water and sponge can help minimize dust. My room was empty, or else I probably would have covered the furniture with plastic too. Once everything was removed and clean, I could install a new piece of drywall with drywall screws. If you go this route, make sure you get drywall that matches the thickness of your wall so that it sets flush.

For the hearth, I picked up a piece of tile board. At my home center it came in 3 foot x 5 foot pieces at ¼ or ½-inch thickness. The thickness is important if you want the tile to set flush with your flooring. I also picked up the specialty screws for the HardieBoard I chose. Because I’m using HardieBacker, which is less crumbly than some other options, I can get away with cutting my small notches for the mantel legs with a jigsaw fitted with a coarse wood blade. Still, was important to make this cut outside and wear a good mask. I set the mantel back in place to mark its location, and then placed the board on the hearth. Lastly, I screwed in the tile board down with the specialty screws.

With my surfaces complete, it was time to update the mantel. I first cut the legs shorter to bring down the height of the mantel so I can mount a television at a more comfortable viewing height. I then cut the edges of the top of the mantel to allow the new bookcases to set flush against the sides. I also wanted to get rid of the flutes on the face of each leg, but I wasn’t confident I could fill and sand them smooth so I removed the trim, cut the face board off each leg, and just flipped it. I removed the rest of the edge trim and replaced it with 1x2s for a more modern look, including the trim piece that covered the seam on the face boards. After a new coat of paint, my mantel was ready for install. To install the mantel, I remounted the blocks on the wall, pushed the mantel over the blocks, and then nailed the mantel to the edges of the blocks. Lastly I attached new metal trim edges to the firebox with adhesive to create a clean edge.

See part 2: How to Tile a Fireplace