A revamped fireplace

A revamped fireplace

A fireplace is THE focal point of the room it’s in. The typical update is to paint it. Though that’s an easy improvement, I wanted something bolder and more modern, something that would transform the look and feel of the room. I decided to cover the old brick with oversize tiles. I also removed the hearth for a more streamlined look. I’d never done a project quite like this, but it all came together without major snags. And the results are even better than I’d imagined.

Tools required

  • 1.2kg maul
  • 20mm round-notch trowel
  • 20L buckets
  • Angle grinder
  • Brick set chisel
  • Chalk line
  • Drill
  • Margin trowel
  • oscillating multitool
  • rail tile saw (rental)

Materials Required

  • 12mm cement board
  • 35mm x 120mm x 2400mm board
  • Cement board screws
  • Duct tape
  • Hardboard
  • Metal edging
  • Modified thin-set
  • Painter’s tape
  • Porcelain tile
  • Rosin paper

A few things we learned

Large tile carries an extra cost

I chose Sofia Charcoal porcelain tile for its texture and consistent colour, which made the seams almost disappear. The fireplace was about 5.5 square metres, but with large tile there’s a lot of waste. So I had to buy 8.4 square metres, meaning greater cost.

Tile costs vary a lot

Tile was by far the biggest cost for my build, but you can find good-looking tile for much less than I paid if you’re willing to shop around.

Rent a tile saw

For the large tiles I chose, I had to rent a large-capacity saw ($75 per day).

Dive into something new

In removing the hearth, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into. I’m usually not a fan of exploratory demolition, but one of the best ways to learn how to build something is to first take it apart.

Choose reinforced thin-set

I used a modified thin-set ($60 per bag) that’s reinforced with fibre. It allowed the tile to stay put on the wall without sagging and provided an extended working time, so I didn’t have to rush.

Wide-notch trowel

Larger tile tends to be slightly cupped. To make sure the tile adhered well, I had to fill it with thin-set to compensate. I used a 20mm round-notch trowel to be sure there was enough thin-set to adhere the tile.

Mind the edges

I opted to install the tiles tight together instead of leaving gaps for grout. To get these tiles to match up perfectly, I placed the factory edges of the tiles together and kept the cut edges on the outside.

Beware of painted brick

If you tile over a painted fireplace, you’ll be rolling the dice. If the paint peels, so will the tile. The safe approach is to remove most of the paint before tiling. Now read on for the step-by-step guide.

Tile installation: learn how how to tile over existing tile.


Step 1: Protect your floor

Step 1: Protect your floor

This project calls for the ultimate floor protection.

Start with a layer of rosin paper taped at the seams and edges.

Then cut sheets of hardboard to fit around the fireplace and join them with duct tape.

Pro tip: The rosin paper keeps granules that might get under the hardboard from scratching the wood floor, and the hardboard protects against dents.

Step 2: Chip out the corbels

Step 2: Chip out the corbels

After removing the mantel (ours wasn’t even fastened), chip out the corbels with a maul and a brick set chisel.

Note: These bricks were embedded, but I lightly chipped all the way around them and eventually they sheared right off.

Step 3: Bust up the hearth

Step 3: Bust up the hearth

With a brick set chisel and a maul, start chipping away at the corner of the hearth.

After peeling away the first layer, I thought the hearth was solid brick. But as I kept chipping, I found packed sand, broken bricks and even an old soft drink can holding up the rest of the bricks.

Check out the DIY demolition tips you need to know.

Step 4: Change of plans!

Step 4: Change of plans!

Most DIY projects include some surprises and require on-the-spot problem solving. In this case, I had intended to leave the brick ledge underneath the firebox. But as I finished cleaning up the area, I noticed nothing was holding these bricks up. I decided to knock them down and rebuild the ledge.

Step 5: Fill the empty hearth space

Step 5: Fill the empty hearth space

To fill the void left by removing the hearth, I built up the ledge in front of the fireplace.

I set the 2×4 ledge 12mm inside the opening, screwed it to the floor and anchored it into the brick at the sides.

Then I covered this space with 12mm cement backer board.

Check out these DIY fireplace shelves.

Step 6: Cut the tile

Step 6: Cut the tile

There are a few things to know about using a tile saw.

Keep the blade cool with water and cut slow, especially through the last 50mm of tile.

Pro tip: For notches, start with the tile saw and use an angle grinder or tile nippers to finish the cut.

Step 7: Tile the floor first

Step 7: Tile the floor first

Cut metal tile edging to fit around the perimeter of the floor tile.

Apply thin-set to the floor with a 20mm round-notch trowel and press the metal edging into the thin-set.

Starting with a full-width tile, spread a layer of thin-set on the back of it (called “back buttering”).

Make sure the tile is centred and set it onto the floor. After the centre tile is in place, cut and set the end tiles.

How to grout tile: grouting tips and techniques.

Step 8: Cut the trim

Step 8: Cut the trim

Instead of cutting the tile to fit the profile of the trim, cut the trim back and slip the tile against the wall. It’s much easier!

To cut the trim, use a piece of tile and a piece of hardboard as spacers and a guide for your multitool.

Step 9: Start on the sides

Step 9: Start on the sides

Tile the sides first so the tile edges will be covered by the tiles on the face of the fireplace.

Pro tip: Throughout this project, plan your cuts so that factory edges will meet other tiles and cut edges won’t.

For the sides, that means the factory edges will be the top and bottom and the cut edges will go against the wall and flush to the face of the brick.

What is German Smear? Learn about this brick painting technique.

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