Tiling a Fireplace Surround

2014-02-21 by bib. 9 comments


Our 1869 foursquare farmhouse had been renovated around 1905 to make it more “upscale and modern”. The front and back parlors were joined and a fireplace was installed.  In 1999, the house again got a makeover, with new beams, plumbing, wiring, but maintaining much of the molding, windows, and style from the turn of the 20th century.

The fireplace now consisted of a painted wooden mantle and trim, with a brick façade around the firebox.  The façade had been painted several times, but seemed fairly sound.  It was now a dull, dark greyish green. Time for a freshening up.

fplace orig2


We decided on tile, selecting an arts-and-crafts style that would have been in keeping with early 1900s décor.  The 4 ¼” x 4 ¼” tiles were handmade in California.  We chose field tiles (regular four sided tiles), bullnose tiles (with one sloped finished edge) and a few decorative bulls-eye tiles for accents.  The tiles were about 1/2” thick and slightly irregular, with no built-in spacers.

The layout worked out fortuitously. We wanted wide grout lines, often seen on arts-and-crafts projects.  We also wanted decorative tiles on the inside corners where the vertical and horizontal runs met.

With the moldings closest to the façade removed, and with a careful adjustment of the grout spacing, we were able to get a pattern that gave us two columns wide on the sides and two rows deep on the horizontal section.  We wanted only full tiles between the decorative corners, but the 48″ spacing between the inside edges of the firebox was a bit too wide for 10 tiles, even with 3/8″ grout.  Stretching them out was not an option because the grout lines would be too wide compared to the vertical runs. So we decided to add tiles to the vertical inside edge of the firebox. This narrowed the horizontal opening by about 1½” ( the thickness of two tiles and thinset), down to an overall width of 46 1/2″ .  With just a little fudging of the grout width to a hair more than 3/8” (but not quite ½”), we got a satisfactory fit of ten tiles horizontally between the bulls-eyes.



Getting ready for the installation, we took a closer look at the brickwork, only to find that it was not.  The sloping angle of some of the “brick” corners should have been a giveaway.  This was actually stucco that had been textured and grooved to look like decorative brick.

fireplace mid

As I begin each DIY project around our house, my wife asks “Have you ever done this before?” the unstated, but obvious worry being that I was going to serious wound myself, set the place on fire or cause a giant sinkhole to swallow up our homestead.  My usual answer is a smug, silent look, implying that, beyond question, I am up to the task.  But his time, I actually hadn’t done ceramic tiling before.  Time to start reading, surfing the web, and asking my good old friends on diy.stackexchange.com.

While the paint on the “brick” façade was largely intact, we were a bit unsure about whether the thinset mortar used to mount the tiles would adhere well enough.  A quick post on DIY brought me some great feedback.  Regular contributor HerrBag suggested trying a test patch of thinset on the surface to see how well it adhered.  The test showed fair (not great) adhesion with some paint peeling away and some thinset sticking pretty solidly.


Heavy tiles and some exposure to heat suggested a stronger grip was needed, so we went through a vigorous scraping of the painted surface with a wire brush to remove any loose paint.  Then we did a thorough scarifying of the surface using an angle grinder with an abrasive wheel to cut grooves into the stucco.


You know how they say “preparation is more than half the task”?  Well we didn’t prepare well enough for the hurricane of dust that blew through our entire house.  We had taped and masked the wood of the fireplace and put down newspapers for several feet.  We wore safety goggles, dust mask and gloves.  Nowhere near enough protection!  The grinder threw up clouds of paint and stucco dust, worst in the immediate vicinity, but the film reached upstairs bedrooms!  We have since been cleaning for weeks.  And with old paint there is always the risk of lead contamination.  (Next time, a full plastic tent around a grinding project.)


Before beginning the actual tile mounting, we put on a skim coat of thinset to level out the variances in the stucco and give a more complete base for the tile.


Now on to the actual installation!  Guided by several books on tiling and an internet sweep, we positioned a support brace at the top edge of the firebox (the bottom edge of the horizontal run).  It was leveled and attached with light duty anchors and screws (it’s only temporary).


After mixing the thinset powder (having been warned away from premixed products) with a drill and mixing paddle, waiting the required slaking time (to fully absorb the water), and remixing, we slathered on the mixture, and then striated it using a notched trowel.  Finally, we began setting the tile, beginning with one of the corner decorative tiles, working across to the opposite decorative tile, using spacers to guide the placement and then tweaking to get even spacing.  Over the firebox, bullnose tiles are used, with the tapered edge facing down.

The row above then followed, finally filling in the area outside of the decorative tile, both using field tiles.  Numerous spacers were used to keep the tiles in position (including additional spacers gently wedged in where additional support or a slightly wider gap was needed).  Tiles are tapped into place with a rubber mallet to seat them firmly.  If precise leveling were needed, a tapping block, several tiles wide would be used under the mallet, but the slight irregularity of the hand-made tiles didn’t call for it.  We wiped off stray thinset from the faces of the tiles (lots on the first few, less as we got better at it).  Step back. Admire. Now go to bed.

top rows3


Time to remove the brace and begin the vertical legs.  Same routine with thinset and then to the tiles.  Line up the first row just below the bottom of the upper section, and work your way down.  What? Wait! What’s going on?!?  The tiles are sliding downward!!! Oh, yeah.  Now I remember, the books, the videos said “Start from the bottom, work up”.  Now we see why.  Gravity!

Pull the tiles, scrape off the thinset.  Begin again at the bottom of the leg, with a flat spacer under the edge of the bottom tile, building with tile, spacer, tile, until they meet the upper section.  Adjust the gaps, using spacers as wedges until the gaps are comfortably uniform.  As discussed earlier, the layout resulted in a lucky positioning that didn’t require any tile cutting, a pretty unusual occurrence.  If a partial tile had been needed, it would have been determined in advance, cut with a wetsaw and placed at the bottom.


The tiles on the inside of the vertical legs are bullnose.  They are placed so that the inner edge will line up with the face of the return tiles that will be placed inside the firebox in a later session.  Now do the other leg.  (Is it getting easier or are we getting better?)  Again, time to knock off to let the mortar dry.  But clean up before retiring (uncured thinset comes off oh-so-much easier).

  • edge2

The last tiles to be set are the return tiles inside the front vertical edges of the firebox.  Same routine as the legs, beginning with a spacer, tile, spacer, building from the bottom to the top.  Again, luck (and a little tweaking on grout width) gave us full tiles with no cutting.  Clean up, let dry overnight and pull all spacers.  The tiling is done!  (Not the project, just the tiles).


Next day, grouting begins. Huzzah!  We knew exactly which grout color we wanted – Tobacco!  So warm, so rich.  But let’s mix up an actual sample.  A few tiles on a board, grout around the edge.  Uh, oh.  The tiles are wrapped in fudge!?  OK, the next color lighter, Earth!! Hmm. Still pretty muddy looking.  Five days and four more colors on a sample board led us to the right complement color.  Seeing the grout colors in reality, alongside actual tiles, is much more informative than a color chart.  Given the cost of a tiling project, “wasting” a few tens of dollars on several bags of different colors of grout is a small investment to be sure you get a shade that you like.  And once the grout is installed, it is cast in concrete.

sample grout2

One more step before the actual smear.  The top edge of the upper horizontal row will get a grout line that will show below the upper molding.  To keep that line on the same level as the rest of the grout, we installed a strip of furring level with the surface of the tiles.

Grout mixing and installation is like the books and videos say, but pay attention to the amount prepared at one time. Amateurs (like us) really should limit themselves to a small bucketful.

Mix, let slake, remix and apply.  The pundits vary in their advice about consistency from thinner than mayonnaise (or even soupy) to thick peanut butter.  Because of the wide joints, we leaned toward the stiffer end.  Using a grout float, work it into the channels, scrape off, holding the float at nearly a 90 degree angle and on the diagonal.  It really is a question of practice makes easier, if not perfect.  The nice part is you can go back over the area a few times if the first pass is a bit ragged.


Follow the grout’s instructions about waiting before wiping down with a sponge, and then do so gently. Aggressive will just undo the careful joints you have so lovingly created.  You may need to finesse the ends of the joints, especially as they round toward the firebox returns and the decorative corners.

After wiping, wait the designated hours (as instructed on the grout bag, RTMS) to allow a good set before polishing the haze off with a soft cloth.  You can gently tune up the edges of the tiles if the grout is still a bit high, but moisten the rag to avoid digging out too much.


You may need to do the grout process in several stages. It took us three sessions – one for the horizontal field and one for each of the vertical legs and their firebox returns.

With moldings reinstalled, the project is now just waiting for caulk, color-matched to the grout at the base, grout sealing, and the first blazing fire.



profile for bib at Home Improvement Stack Exchange, Q&A for contractors and serious DIYers

Holding up the Shovel

2012-01-31 by Steve Jackson. 2 comments

To our esteemed readers:

The blog team here at Home Improvement Stack Exchange has endeavored to keep the content flowing with at least one new entry a week. We want to keep you coming back for more and we want to share posts that are interesting and worth reading. Unfortunately, our small contributor pool means that we’re having a hard time getting an entry together each week. The blog can’t continue to publish worthwhile content weekly without new contributors.

We need your help! Keep the blog in mind as you gear up for your DIY projects. Take pictures of the work in progress and send them along. If you have old stories to share, new tools to review, or article ideas, please let us know. This is a community run blog, we want to share everyone’s experiences and build a site you want to be part of.  Please see this for more info on how to contribute.


We’re not closing up shop, there are interesting projects, tools, and ideas in the pipe.  Please bear with us as we attempt to unclog the line, and try to get posts flowing.


DIY.SE Blog Team

Learning on the Job

2012-01-24 by Steve Jackson. 2 comments

It’s come up in the chat a few times, why are all these programmers and sysadmins avid DIYers?  I think it’s partly a natural extension of the tinkering we do on the job and partly our comfort of dealing with huge mistakes that cost a lot of money.  Nearly everyone in this field has war stories of downtime on systems that can not go down or impossible bugs that ruin deployments.  Big bucks are on the line and you have to come through.  In comparison, the prospect of a few holes in the wall and a small flood in the bathroom aren’t that scary.

So in that vein, I’m happy to pick up a hammer and drill and set to work destroying improving my home.  And things don’t go quite right.  This is another feeling I associate with programming for a living:  beating my head against the wall trying to figure out why this simple thing isn’t working as designed.  That feeling of learning on the job.  And while I’m outwardly cussing at myself or others, I’m secretly enjoying myself.

I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by marvelously handy people.  My dad designed a switch that cut the volume on the stereo and TV speakers when you picked up the phone.  Our sliding glass door was remote controlled to let the dog out (this is in the 80s, people).  My grandpa owned his own family woodmaking business.  My brother is a bathroom remodeler.  Despite all this, I managed to absorb perhaps 5% of what they know.

After I reached a certain age, I suppose I started asking the right questions.  I actually paid attention and started trying to learn how to do certain things.  I learned more about construction techniques, and lo and behold, this stuff wasn’t as easy as they made it look.  They had to learn on the job.  The only difference is when they screwed up they usually had someone nearby to tell them it was wrong, how to make it right, and if it was too far gone and they should just start over.  This is clearly where we DIYers can get in over our heads.  So I’m glad there’s a resource like Home Improvement Stack Exchange to help me out!

There are a lot of small details in construction and finishing that add up.  That’s a good chunk of the reason why a DIY project always seems to take so long.  I learned a great deal more about framing and drywall while building a closet above my garage.  There was one corner in particular where the wall was already framed in by the roof  supports for the garage.  Not knowing any better, I reused that “wall” when framing and threw some drywall on top.  The drywall wasn’t quite flush, but certainly “close enough”.  Then I went to mud.  And mud.  And mud.  Three corners on a piece that wasn’t quite right?  Oy vey.  So I learned the hard way, it’s easier to fix it in framing than it is before drywall.  It’s easier to cut the drywall again than fix it with mud.  It’s easier to get the mud smooth than cover it with paint.  Each shortcut taken early just makes the overall project take longer – at least until you figure out which shortcuts you can use effectively.  On the other hand, now that I have that kind of hard-earned experience, I can cover up many of my mistakes hanging drywall.  Now I can focus on figuring out when to apply which experience, much like I do on the job.

DIY usually forces you to improvise.  If you had unlimited time and budget, you might not even do the work yourself.  DIYers tend to put some pretty unreasonable constraints on a project, ones that a professional would never agree to.  Reusing roller covers, resuing old fasteners, barely having enough material to finish the job, using the wrong tool for the job because it’s handy – all things I’ve found myself doing that I would never agree to if I was being paid to do the job.  These improvisations are really at the heart of what makes DIY fun and frustrating, and most importantly, creates funny stories.

So while I was doing this closet, I did the carpet myself too.  I got the carpet for free (DIY alert!) which meant I couldn’t get those lovely cheap install prices.  First time doing a carpet job myself – I rented a stretcher and kicker and got to work.  And it went pretty well – until:

Pro tip:  Always make sure the stretcher is in the middle of the stud!

My experience led me to the easy fix: cut it square, toenail in a 2×4, and slap up a new piece of drywall. Look ma, I’m improvising!

Later I was doing the trim – and remember that funky corner?  Well my trim wasn’t going to fit as-is, so I traced the wall and whipped out the jig saw:

Whoa!  Step away from the jigsaw!


Turned out pretty well though


What sorts of “fun” things have you learned while doing DIY?  Share in the comments!


profile for Steve Jackson at Home Improvement, Q&A for contractors and serious DIYers

Resuscitating the roof: Providing adequate roof ventilation.

2011-12-06 by tester101. 17 comments

Proper ventilation is an important; often overlooked, contributor to roof health. Controlling the temperature of the roof with ventilation will increase the life of roof coverings (e.g. shingles), as well as help prevent roof damaging problems like ice dams.

To control the temperature of the roof, ventilation is key. You’ll want outside air to be able to flow along the underside of the roof, and warm moist air to be able to escape from under the roof.  “But wait… I want to insulate my roof to keep my heat in” you might say “How can I insulate the roof, and still keep proper air flow?“. Hold on to your britches, we’ll get to that.  But first, we have to talk about roof vents.

Roof vents

When the sun beats down on the roof the roof becomes hot (obviously), this heats the air under the roof. Our first step to ventilating the roof, is to get this hot air out from under it. We can get some help here since warm air is less dense than cold air, so it will rise naturally. To allow all this rising air to escape, we’ll want to install some roof vents. These can be either a vent on the face of the roof near the ridge,

or a  Ridge Vent.

Roof vents come in all shapes and sizes, so it shouldn’t be a problem finding one that looks good on your house.

So now we have a way for the hot air to escape from under the roof, but that air has to be replaced by air from somewhere else, right? That’s where Soffit Vents come in.

Soffit (Eave) vents

Soffit vents can be actual vents; like those you would see on the walls or floors of a home with forced air heating,

or slits or holes cut into the soffit covers themselves.

These allow cooler outside air to flow up under the roof, to replace the warm air that is escaping thought the roof vents.

But I still want insulation in the roof! How can air flow from the soffit vent to the roof vent, if I have insulation?“. Alright, don’t get so excited. This is where baffles come in.


Baffles are long U shaped pieces of plastic or foam, that are secured to the underside of the roof decking between the rafters.

They allow air to flow freely between the roof and the insulation under the roof, by creating an unrestricted channel under the roof decking. This allows you to install insulation in the roof, while not blocking the flow of air under the roof.

Baffles are installed by nailing or stapling them to the underside of the roof decking, between the rafters like this.

The baffles can then be covered with the insulation of your choosing.

If you are not going to install insulation in the rafters, you may only have to install baffles at the lower end of the roof or not at all. You’ll want to make sure air can get from the soffit vents into the rafter voids, so you may need short baffles to run from the soffit past the insulation in the joists of the attic floor. In this case, the baffles do not have to run the entire length of the rafter void.

Let the air flow

OK, so now we have cool air flowing into the soffit vent, warm air coming out the roof vents, and an open passage to allow the air to flow from soffit vent to roof vent.

But how does that make the roof healthier?” you might ask. Well, now that you have good ventilation the roof will stay cooler in the summer (hot months). This will help the roof covering last longer, by preventing it from getting as hot as it would without ventilation. In the winter (cold months), ventilation will keep the roof colder helping to prevent problems such as ice dams.

Ice Damming

Ice dams form when snow melts on a warmer section of roof, the water then flows down the roof until it reaches a colder section of roof (usually above the soffit) where it re-freezes. Eventually the freezing water will create a ridge, which will catch more water, which creates a larger ridge. Until finally, you have a dam of ice that prevents water from draining off the roof.

Once this happens, water can backup under the roof covering leading to water infiltration.

A happy roof, makes a happy homeowner

So, now that you have good roof ventilation. Your roof coverings should last longer, and the house should be slightly cooler in the summer. Ice dams, and dangerous icicles will be less likely to form. And you’ll likely notice savings in your heating and cooling bills, which is always a good thing.


profile for Tester101 at Home Improvement, Q&A for contractors and serious DIYers

Talk About a Blog Overflow

2011-11-22 by Aarthi Devanathan. 3 comments

I really do love reading blogs. Every morning, first thing after I check my email, I cycle through my blogroll. It’s almost zen; I click through, scroll, open in a new tab to comment or read further, and then on to the next one. I’ll routinely get through 5-6 tabs each day, commenting, reading, linking. I’ve even started sharing posts in our very active DIY Chat when the post is interesting or something that our users could offer insight into.

For a while, I was following something like 50 blogs. I’ve since managed to pare it down to 16, and this is a much more managaeable number. (You’ll see why in a sec.)

Mostly, though, it’s one of my favorite parts of the day, and I figured I should share my favorites with you all. I should note, of course, that my all time favorite blog is, of course, this one. And I’m not biased at all, haha.

So, in no particular order:

Little House Blog — Aubrey and Lindsay (the latter of whom is the author of the blog itself) are a Canadian couple with a wee one who blog about decorating, craft projects, and DIY work they’ve done around the house. Canada, right now, is something of a hotbed of DIY activity, so searching for Canadian bloggers was pretty important to me. Lindsay’s got a great voice, takes fantastic pictures (seriously, every photo is artful) and her entries are short and sweet. The best combination of things!

Bower Power — Katie runs a blog that’s as much about what’s happening in her life as it is about her home improvement projects. Whether it’s painting her dining room or antiquing a window, Katie has a great sense of humor, a really casual writing style, and a kind of tongue-in-cheek honesty that makes me laugh as I read her entries.

Making a House a Home — Joey and Lana (the latter, again, the main proprietor of the blog) are kind of my heroes. They both work full work-weeks and still manage to find the time to DIY. It’s amazing. I’m constantly in awe. Lately, they’ve been rushing to finish their to-do list so that they can (gasp) move across country! I’m loving their kitchen renovation stories, dining room painting stories, and just….I like them. Lana is particularly active on Twitter, and she’s just such a joy to communicate with. So is Joey, lest I forget him! I love that Lana and Joey are honest when they’ve messed up a project (I believe they had to repaint their kitchen cabinets because they used the wrong kind of paint) and about how difficult or easy a project has been. I also love how much they love their power tools.

Manhattan Nest — I will totally cop to loving Manhattan Nest. Aside from having one of the coolest blog headers around, Daniel is awesome. I love his voice in his blog posts. Okay, his blog posts are profanity-filled and irreverent, but I love it. He’s also really easy to “listen” to as he builds bookshelves or reorganizes his kitchen or paints all his doors black. I love his blog posts, and he deserves a bit of a bump.

Young House Love — John and Sherry are a blogging couple (yes, John blogs too!) who have been blogging for, like four years. They’ve detailed their DIY drama and triumphs and even though I’ve only been following along since August, it feels like far longer than that. I’ve enjoyed watching them do everything from potato stamp the inside of a closet to building in a 13-foot desk. The entries are amazing, with pictures and step-by-step explanations (including products used!) as well as a little silliness along the way. Plus, Sherry will personally reply to comments and tweets, it’s amazing. (This is remarkable because entries can rack up as many as 600 comments for a particularly fun entry.) Plus, John and Sherry have been a joy to work with in the past. Great entries — and frequent ones! — along with fantastic content makes YHL possibly one of the best DIY/home reno blogs around.

So, my top five-but-unordered DIY blogs….that aren’t this one. 😀 I kind of love reading them so much. Some are better at updating than others, but all of them have great content and great people behind them. So grab a cup of coffee/tea/hot chocolate, your screenreader of choice, and settle in for some DIY goodness. Happy readings!

profile for Aarthi Devanathan at Home Improvement, Q&A for contractors and serious DIYers