How to Tile a Fireplace Surround and Hearth

The fireplace is a natural gathering point and focal of any home design. Giving the fireplace surround and hearth a makeover with a new tile design can be an easy way of updating the look of the whole room. Simple fire place tile designs can be installed quickly and easily by homeowners willing to work carefully and place close attention to detail.

The Current State of the Fireplace Hearth and Surround

Before beginning the tile project, take a look at the current state of the fireplace. Is there a hearth or surround that needs to be removed before the new one can be installed? Is there a brick surround already in place? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, some prep work will need to be done.

Remove any old tile by using a hammer and chisel. Aim the chisel at a 45 degree angle to the joints between the tiles and hit it firmly to remove the first pieces. After that, aim the chisel directly into the exposed mortar, and be sure to bring up as much old mortar as possible, to make as smooth a surface as possible to tile over.

To tile over a brick surround, check the thickness of the surround and the surrounding areas. Rather than removing the brick, Durock or another tile backer will need to be installed over the bricks. This will add anywhere from an additional 1/2″ to 1” in thickness to the surround. Be sure that this added thickness will not be interfering with the rest of the design and plan accordingly for additional bullnose or end cap pieces to disguise this additional thickness.

Project Materials

  1. Tile – It can be purchased at any home improvement store or a specialty store. There are so many styles, shapes, and colors that this article won’t address it; it’s left to personal preference.
  2. Thinset Mortar – While a regular mortar or mastic works well on floor tiles, thinset should be used on vertical surfaces.
  3. Latex Thinset Mortar Additive – Optional but recommended. It makes for a better bond.
  4. 1” X 2” Boards (wider if the fireplace opening is wider than standard) – Used to support the bottom course on the firebox opening and for the lower border tiles.
  5. Ceramic Tile Spacers – For a consistent grout line.
  6. Grout – Available in a variety of colors.

Create a Working Surface on the Brick

  1. The tile needs a smooth surface on which to adhere. It’s important to minimize any voids to maximize adhesion.
  2. Mix enough thinset with latex mortar additive to cover the square footage in question. It’s easiest to use an electric drill (not one of those toy tools) and a ribbon mixer or paddle bit.
  3. Spread a layer of thinset over all brick surfaces, using a finishing trowel. This may take a bit of practice since the surface is likely uneven, especially considering the brick mortar lines.
  4. Let it cure. This will be at least overnight, perhaps as much as 24 hours.

Secure the 1” X 2” Support Ledge

  1.  Cut the board the width of the surround plus 1” on either side.
  2. Hold it horizontally across the firebox opening; using a 4′ level, the bottom of the board should span the firebox opening covering the lowest thinset spot.
  3. Draw a pencil line on the thinset at the top of the board for reference.
  4. Using a drill with a screw-tip, attach the board with masonry screws in vertical brick mortar spaces. It really helps to have a helper during this step.

Planning the Design

When tiling a fireplace surround, the most simple designs will be those that can easily fill the space of the surround, including an edge work. Keep in mind that bullnose tiles will be needed to frame out the interior edge of the firebox, and if backerboard was put on over old bricks, additional bullnose will be needed for the outside edge to give a finished appearance.

So if a fireplace surround is 8” in width, and bullnose is only needed on the inside edge, try using a 2” wide bullnose, and 1 row of 6” wide tiles, or 2 rows of 3” wide tiles. This could mean using 3×6 subway tiles, alternating two cut tiles side by side with a whole tile, stacking 6” tiles on top of one another, with or without decorative tiles, or mixing up a patchwork of 3” tiles in multiple colors, of one color with decoratives scattered throughout.

Another method would be to use a 1” wide bullnose, and to fill in the rest of the space with mosaic tiles, or to use a pencil molding, and to cut down larger, 12” tiles to fit the space exactly, for a contemporary look.

Whatever the design chosen, be sure to account for all edging materials, and to take into account the change from tiles on the legs of the surround, to tiles moving across the top of the surround. Account for the grout lines as well; some tiles are slightly smaller than the nominal size advertized to account for an installed grout line. Other tiles sizes are exact, and a grout line of up to 1/2″ will need to be accounted for between tiles, particularly for rustic tiles, handmade tiles or tumbled marbles. Contemporary tiles may have less of a grout joint. Always leave at least 1/8” of grout between glass tiles, to accommodate for flex and movement.

Installing the Tiles

When installing tiles on a fireplace, begin with the tiles on the hearth, if applicable. The tiles on the surround are going to come down on top of the hearth, so the hearth should be completed first.

Use full tiles in the front, center of the hearth closest to the rest of the floor, and then move in equal tiles out to the sides and towards the back. Bury the cut tiles equally on the two sides, and at the back of the hearth.

When tiling the surround, begin above the firebox at the top, center of the surround. Again, move out to the sides of the surround. When the top has been completed, begin moving in full tiles down the sides. If needed, use a cut tile across the top, dying into the bullnose, and have a full tile begin reaching from the top down into the legs of the surround. Bury any final cut tiles at the bottom of the surround dying into the hearth.

The key to the fireplace tile design is balance; always begin in the center of the design, and work outwards in equal measures to achieve a symmetrical design. Never start from one side and work out, this could lead to a lopsided tile job.

Use setting materials recommended for the tiles being used, and be sure to step back from the job and regard it from a few feet away every few tiles to be sure that the installation is proceeding correctly. With a little time and patience, a new fireplace tile design and installation will be brightening the room.

Key Steps

  1. Mix up thinset/latex additive as before.
  2. Use a notched trowel to spread the mixture.
  3. Starting from the center of the firebox lay the first course from the center out using tile spacers between tiles.
  4. Use a diamond blade wet saw to cut the border tiles. Install them.
  5. Work the remaining courses upward and cut and install the top border tiles.
  6. Let the thinset set up.

Tile the Legs (Left and Right of the Firebox)

  1. Remove the support ledge.
  2. Noting that the top leg tiles nearest the first course already installed will be full, carefully take into account the tiles and spacers to find the size of the bottom border tile.
  3. Cut and attach another 1” X 2” ledge in place of the bottom borders.
  4. Trowel out thinset as before, being careful not to get it on the ledge, for ease of removal later.
  5. Set tiles as before, starting from the top down.
  6. After the thinset has cured, remove the ledges, trowel out thinset, and cut and set the borders.
  7. Finally, apply grout to the fireplace.