We can finally mark our DIY fireplace tile and mantle update as finished. Coming straight from the horse’s mouth: it’s checked off. The whole nine yards is complete. Ok, enough. Let’s cut to the chase. See what I did there? Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. In all seriousness, we are so excited to share about our DIY fireplace tile and mantle project. The finished look is everything we were hoping for! Fresh, bright, clean and FUNCTIONAL!
To take a quick step back, we recently hashed out our living room storage dilemma and you can read about that here. Before we could address the built ins (read about that here), we decided to DIY the fireplace tile and mantle for a cohesive look.
If you’ve never tiled, you are probably like me and SUPER nervous to dive head first into tiling. But rest assured, my nervous energy transferred into super DUPER energetic happy dancing in the end. The whole process wasn’t totally smooth sailing though, so let’s get into the details. Here’s a before picture of our fireplace tile and mantle.
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Let’s do a quick rundown of the basic steps in the DIY fireplace tile and mantle project:
- Demoing the current fireplace
- Prepping for new tile
- Tiling the fireplace surround
- Grouting the fireplace surround
- Assembling and staining the mantle
- Attaching the mantle
Demoing the Current Fireplace
Early on in our DIY fireplace tile and mantle process, we learned our mantle was not a piece with historic value. Boo, it was lovely. But with this knowledge, we went ahead and removed it ourselves. Good thing it was not historic, because I’m not sure how we could salvage it. It was secured so WELL that it had to come down in pieces. Even with our Ryobi saw, it took quite a bit of effort to remove.
Once the mantle was down, we intended to pry the tile off without damaging the cement board too much. This was 100 percent wishful thinking. The cement board came down with the tile. Good news? Our old fireplace was suuuper sturdy!
The same was true for the hearth tile. It did not snap off in nice tidy pieces. Oh, quite the opposite.
Prepping for New Tile
Bad news? We had to install new cement board. Good news? Starting with fresh, clean cement board is easier to tile. So, we leveled off the torn edges and installed new, fresh cement board.
A quick word on the cement board. You should definitely use cement board and not plain old drywall. This is important. MMMkay? With demo and prep complete, it’s time to gather up our tiling supplies.
Fireplace Tile Supplies
- Tile spacers (make sure to buy the spacer size that aligns to the instructions on the tile box)
- Trowel (Size of trowel spaces dependent on size of tile)
- Tile saw (our Ryobi tile saw worked great and was reasonably priced, but these can be rented or borrowed from a friend!)
- Grout (we used premixed, but either premixed or self mix works)
- Grout float
- Two large buckets
- Grout Haze Remover (optional)
Psst: Check out the full list of our favorite tools on our DIY Toolkit resource page.
Tiling Our Fireplace Surround
Now the fun begins. Time to install the tile! We were anxious to slap those bad boys up, but we knew that a beautifully executed tile job meant some planning and forethought. We wanted the pattern centered, so we found the center of the fireplace with our level and marked a line on the cement board. Our first tile would be centered on that line.
With our center marked, we leveled, then screwed in a piece of scrap wood to sit just slightly below the firebox opening. Read more about that process on This Old House’s article about how to tile a fireplace.
Next, we got the thinset and trowel ready and started tiling! Working from the support ledge up, we placed the first tile in the center of our line. Then, we alternated tiling to the left and right, cutting the end pieces and adding rows. We let that tile set overnight, then unscrewed the scrap wood and completed the sides.
The hearth was the last tiling frontier. To avoid the headache of angled cuts on our tiles, we chose a modified herrignbone pattern where the chevron lays perpendicular to the wood floor.
We let all the tiles set overnight before grouting.
Grouting the Fireplace Surround
With the tiles set and tile spacers removed, it was time to prep for grout. Be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions for specifics, but our process was to gently chip away lose thinset with a plastic spackle knife, then vaccuum up the lose pieces.
Next, fill two buckets with cold water, plop a clean sponge in each and keep them nearby. Working in sections from the top down, apply the grout with the grout float, using circular motions and holding it at a 45 degree angle. Remove excess grout using a 90 degree angle and working at a diagonal from the direction of the grout seams. This will ensure you don’t accidentally gouge the grout lines.
For a bit cleaner grout lines, we used a large popcicle stick to gently go over each grout line before doing our final “scrape” with the grout float. If your grout lines are on the large side, a grout bag might be helpful.
Now it’s time to clean the rest of the grout off the tile. Ring out one of your sponges and wash the tile gently in circular motions. I fended up using the first sponge twice, then using a fresh second sponge twice. Here is an in progress shot:
You can see a few spots where the sponge dripped after cleaning. The better you wring out your sponge, the less dripping you’ll have.
Depending on the tile you selected, you may want to use grout haze remover. Applying grout haze remover is very similar to the initial process of washing the grout from the tile. Just be sure you use gloves and eye protection. You don’t want that stuff touching your skin! Here’s a shot to compare how the tile looked before and after the grout haze remover was applied. Can you tell which side is cleaned?
Yep! The top of the fireplace was cleaned, and the sides are not. If you look closely, you can see there’s a bit less chalkiness on the top tiles. The right side looks especially chalky. Can’t tell? Squint harder! Just kidding. It’s subtle, but we think worth the extra effort.
Use two buckets: one filled with the grout haze remover solution, and one filled with plain water. Apply the grout haze remover and let it sit for the time listed on the instructions. Then, use a rough brush to gentle scrub hazy spots. Then, wash the tile with plain water. I used sponges to apply the grout haze remover and wash the tile.
Assembling and Staining the Mantle
To build the mantle, we purchased three pieces of red oak board. We considered a few different options (maple, pine, white oak), but chose red oak because of the price point and availability. We also knew the read oak would take the stain better then a different option.
Using a Ryobi circular saw with our Kreg attachment (Kreg Rip Cut Precision Edge Guide), we cut the pieces to size. It’s important to sand the boards before staining. There are numerous articles on advice to sand (e.g., start with a lower grit, then work your way to an even finer grit).
When selecting stain, it is smart to first buy smaller cans of a few different colors. Test them on a piece of scrap oak from your previous cuts. We skipped this step, and ended up with a first coat that we didn’t like… end result was sanding down the stained board and restaining over it with a darker color. A pain? Yes. The end of the world? No. Here is our second attempt where tested the stain options against the tile. We went with the darker stain to jive with our dark wood floors.
We used a brush to apply and then used rags to wipe clean. We will also apply the Poly once it’s warmer out, so we can crack the windows. That stuff is stinky!
While the boards were drying, we built the “base” for the mantle. We screwed a 2×4 board into the studs where the mantle was to hang. We then cut support pieces that we attached to that 2×4 using pocket holes drilled with our Kreg Jig.
Attaching these perpendicular to the 2×4 on the wall allowed for a base to attach the oak boards to. If your mantle is thicker than the 2×4, you’ll need to attach some “cross pieces” of wood so that the oak board mantle pieces can attach to the “base” you built.
When attaching the mantle board, we started with the top. Using our Ryobi finishing nailer and some construction adhesive, we secured the top board to the base. We then attached the front piece, using the adhesive and the Ryobi finishing nailer. You only need a couple of nails here if you are using adhesive (you don’t want too many nail holes showing).
The bottom mantle board attached with screws. These aren’t visible, and we wanted to make sure this stayed secured to the base. Here’s how the finished mantel looks.
We love the dark wood contrast against the white shiplap and built ins. Read on to the next post in this series, showing our finished built in bookcases.
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