Lessons in a Fireplace Makeover
*This article first appeared on HouseBeautiful.com
I’ve always thought everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten. Apparently, everything I need to know I can learn on YouTube. At least that’s what I recently discovered through the process of renovating the fireplace with my husband Andrew in our North Carolina home. Our ugly, outdated fireplace topped our “must fix” list when we purchased the house in 2016. But I was seven months pregnant at the time, and Andrew was a medical intern, so naturally, our timeline got bumped a bit.
Although the fireplace worked, it technically wasn’t up to code, and we couldn’t stand its crumbling fake stone hearth, rusty metal screen, and puny mantle. So one rainy Friday night in early Spring, while I was zoning out on Netflix, Andrew took a deep dive into YouTube and then surfaced with the declaration that yes, we could totally pull off this project! We wouldn’t have to change the chimney or firebox itself, but instead do more of a cosmetic overhaul from top to bottom.
I almost didn’t say yes to the whole thing, mostly because of time. While I run my own design business, he’s a radiation oncology resident, so his days are spent at the hospital. But he loves working with his hands, and he’s tackled big home projects before in little doses on weeknights and weekends. Plus, he has the patience of a saint—a personality trait that very much comes in handy with house projects.
After 30 or so hours of lessons at YouTube University—see what I mean about patience?—we gathered our tools and plotted out our project timeline. We worked late nights and during our daughter’s naps over the next four weeks, destroying the fireplace and resurrecting it with clean lines, a neutral, graphic tile, and a salvaged wooden beam. Did I mention we did it all for under $1,000—a figure much lower than any quote we received from pros? Not only do we love that we’ve left a mark on this home, we know we’ve increased its value. And we learned a TON along the way.
Here's What it Took to Overhaul Our Fireplace:
Essentially, we demolished the existing hearth and removed the mantel. Then we constructed a steel frame and surrounded it with concrete board, covered in joint compound and paint. A 100-year-old salvaged beam was installed as our new mantel, and finished off the hearth by laying modern, graphic tile.
We filmed the entire process, so we could make the video we wish we’d had from the get-go: a 4-part series with step-by-step instructions.
What You Should Know Before You Get Started:
It’ll take 2-3 times longer than you’ve planned. The whole process took about 4 weeks—but that was only working weeknights and weekends. It probably took about 3 times longer than we'd anticipated, due to a combo of on-the-job training, toddler interferences, and design goofs.
Not all YouTube videos are created equal. Have you ever landed on a lovely video about tiling a bathroom and then suddenly Nine Inch Nails is blaring from your computer? So many renovation videos are set to obnoxious music or the subject spends the entire video with his or her back to the camera so you can’t even see the work. Look for videos with a good ratio of likes to dislikes and ones that quickly display a professional knowledge of a topic. Manufacturer videos are usually high quality, as are YouTube channels with multiple videos on home renovation. (Home Renovision DIY and This Old House were very helpful during this process!)
Measure twice (or 4 times), cut once. Precision is the name of the game when you want a project to look more amazing than amateur. Minor imperfections make all of the difference, so to avoid them, be diligent about your measurements and your decisions. For instance, our steel frame required exacting symmetry: The pieces had to be cut at exactly the same length in order for the frame to be completely level.
Incorporating something old adds character.The mantle provided the perfect opportunity to bring in rich-toned, beautiful wood—a design feature throughout our home—and make good use of discarded materials. We scored a $40 cedar beam at our local salvage yard that was pulled from a local house built in 1913. It measured about 16 feet long and about 4 inches thick, so we cut it down to about 6 feet in length and applied a few coats of polyurethane to enhance the graining and protect the wood. The beam is full of imperfections like nail holes and scratch marks—unique characteristics you won’t find in something new.
Mistakes happen. A general willingness and even affection for troubleshooting makes a happy renovator. Our biggest goof: Using a power sander without a vacuum attachment. Imagine the city of Pompeii in your living room. We’d applied joint compound—the white material that makes the fireplace frame look finished—and needed to sand the frame to make it look even. I wasn’t home at the time, and Andrew didn’t notice the damage until after it was done. And then he was too worried about me getting pissed to take a photo, but you really should’ve seen this place. Our mop has never seen so much action.
Make savvy material choices. We knew we needed a matte black spray paint to freshen up the dingy fireplace, but as we learned, any old spray paint wouldn’t cut it. Rustoleum makes a heat-resistant option that can withstand a fire without flaking and caking. This sort of detail could be easily overlooked if you’re not being thorough.
Know your renovation limits. It’s tempting to go out on a creative limb, but it’s better to play it slightly safe when you’re tackling a skill for the first time. We initially dreamed up a complex penny tile mosaic for the hearth that was nearly impossible to lay out beforehand. Instead, we chose a square patterned tile that we could arrange just a few ways. The result: A beautiful, modern design that feels right at home in our home.