Fireplace facelift

See a 50-year-old brick fireplace get a glowing update

Peter O. Whiteley

After painting the walls of our living room a golden yellow, my wife, Beth, and I decided that the 50-year-old fireplace ― white-painted brick within a ready-made wood surround ― also needed upgrading. The masonry shell was well constructed, so the transformation could be largely superficial, like putting icing on a cake. The project took two weekends to complete and cost about $400.

Our new fireplace front has three main components: the material surrounding the firebox and covering the hearth (which must be fireproof), the new surround, and the mantel top. For the firebox and hearth, we selected African Prairie Slate, a richly patterned stone that is sold in gauged (evenly thick) 12-inch squares. The slate, which came from Echeguren Slate in San Francisco ( or 415/206-9343), cost about $5.60 per tile. With a wet saw rented from a home improvement store, I cut the tiles to size. I attached them to the old brick with Marble and Granite Adhesive (from Liquid Nails Adhesives, or 800/634-0015).

Old fireplace
Photos by Peter O. Whiteley

Replacing old frame with new

Working on the new frame


The frame of 2-by-6s for the new surround is screwed to the wall around the masonry shell with 3-inch deck screws.

After screwing on gypsum board, we applied an acrylic-based binder mix to assure that a plaster coating would adhere; we used Quikrete Bonding Adhesive ( or 800/282-5828). Then we coated the surround with an easy-to-apply, noncombustible clay plaster called American Clay Finishes ( or 866/404-1634); it comes in 12 colors, and we picked the tawny Nantucket Sand.

The crowning touch is the mantel top ― a 2-inch-thick slab of black walnut that is 9 inches wide and 74 inches long.

We replaced the original mantel (A) with a same-size frame of 2-by-6s (B) that we screwed to the wall. A new wood mantel top was attached to the frame with glue and screws driven into the underside.

Then we screwed the gypsum board onto the front and sides of the frame (C). Slate tiles were glued to the brick hearth and mantel face. Screw heads were covered with gypsum-board compound.

Two thin coats of clay plaster were used to cover the new surround. The plaster has a suedelike finish, which was created with a wet sponge.

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