For a modest cost, tile will alter the look of a fireplace and dramatically improve the overall character of a room. The major difference in tiling a fireplace compared to other surfaces is the type of mortar required. Use heat-resistant epoxy (up to 400 degrees F) when tiling over wood; use heat-resistant cement-based mortars on masonry surfaces.
If a brick surround and hearth are stable and in good repair, you can tile over them. Clean them thoroughly, removing any soot, which interferes with adhesive; flatten any high spots with a rubbing stone. Spread a thin coat of heat-resistant mortar over the brick surface, leveling the mortar with a 2x4 set against 1/2-inch screed boards tacked into the mortar joints on either side of the opening. Let the skim coat dry and use it as a base for the tiles.
If the surface is in poor repair or you don't want to apply a skim coat, cover it with backerboard. Backerboard must be used when applying tile to a metal surround because most metal surrounds are not strong enough to support the weight of tile.
If you plan to tile the surround, expect to spend four to six hours tiling. This does not including prep time. For the hearth, plan to spend about three hours tiling. Clean the fireplace and level the surface before you begin.
Before you begin, measure the dimensions of the surface to be tiled and transfer them to graph paper with a 1/4-inch rule. Experiment with several designs until you come up with the one you want to pursue. Draw the design to scale using the actual dimensions of the tile, including grout joints. If you find that the dimensions result in unattractive narrow pieces along any of the edges, you may want to use a wider grout joint or larger tile.
Measure the dimensions of the surfaces and cut backerboard to fit. Install the backerboard with thinset mortar and self-tapping masonry screws. Tape and finish any joints in the backerboard using fiberglass tape and joint compound.
Using your dimensional drawing as a guide, lay out the tile pattern on the floor. Be sure to put spacers between the tiles so the pattern will fit the installation.
Place any insets on the field tile and mark their outlines with a china marker. Cut the field tiles and test-fit them in the design. You may have to trim the field tiles to make the design fit and still leave enough room for grout joints. Number the tiles to indicate their location before you pick them up.
Set the edges of the opening with trim tiles or bullnose tiles. Keep them straight with a batten. If bullnose is not available for the tile you've chosen, set field tiles and, when the mortar has cured, round the edges with a rubbing stone.
Spread and comb mortar for the field tiles. Line up the bottom edges with a metal straightedge and support the tiles with 8d finishing nails driven into the backerboard. Repeat the process for the rest of the rows, setting the insets as you go. Finish setting the tiles and grout them.
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