Build a Beautiful Hearth

Protect your floor with recycled materials.

| January/February 2009

  • Finished hearth
    For a fraction of the price of a store-bought hearth, you can come up with your own design and construct it yourself.
    Nate Skow
  • Clean the haze off
    Make sure to remove all the haze; it's much tougher after the grout cures.
    Nate Skow
  • Grouting the surface
    You'll develop a feel for applying the grout with the sponge rubber float. Just remember to wipe across the edges of the joints, rather than along them.
    Nate Skow
  • Photographing your layout
    Photographing your layout (Step 8) before placing the pieces into the wet mortar may prevent serious head scratching.
    Nate Skow

  • Finished hearth
  • Clean the haze off
  • Grouting the surface
  • Photographing your layout
Stove Installment Precautions 

We had just finished painting our living room. With winter fast approaching and temperatures dropping every night, our woodstove lay on a hand-truck in the corner. The hearth was not yet built, and we had run out of money for this remodeling job.

I knew the look I wanted – a mosaic of black slate and shiny red tile. I doubted, however, that I could create the image I had in my mind. But since a trip to our local home improvement store proved we could afford nothing else, my husband encouraged me to try.

Thinking we could use them for crafts, our boys had collected roofing slates from around old, abandoned houses over the years. A friend offered a box of stained-glass pieces someone had given her. We also had a bag of grout left in the house from the previous owner.

We only needed to purchase a bag of thin-set mortar, a can of grout sealer, a notched trowel, some long, razor blade knives and a sponge rubber float. The cost of these items totaled $38.

To create your own beautiful hearth for practically nothing, follow these steps:

Step 1 – Educate yourself. I asked my second son to help me because he had at least watched someone lay tile before. I had no previous experience. We read a book on installing floor coverings. We also asked every possible question of both the flooring manager at our home improvement store and a friend with tiling experience.

Step 2 – Choose the tiles. I used old roofing slate and pieces of stained glass, but you could use old stoneware dishes or pottery, marbles, flat rocks, seashells – the possibilities are endless. To find discarded tile, visit your local flooring center or building contractor. They often sell odd tiles or broken boxes for a small fraction of their original cost. The flooring center may even give you the display boards they no longer use. Be aware, however, that some natural materials (like marble) have a grain to them and do not break on clean lines; a special saw is required to cut the stone.

Step 3 – Gather supplies.

  • Underlayment board (if your subfloor is wood)
  • Drill
  • Screws
  • Scrap 2-by-4s or other lumber the length of your hearth
  • Thin-set mortar mix
  • Grout mix
  • Grout sealer
  • Notched trowel
  • Rubber mallet
  • Sponge rubber float
  • Knife sufficient to cut away your former floor covering
  • Safety goggles
  • Cellulose sponges
  • Two basins to hold water
  • Tiles

Step 4 – Prepare the floor. You must start with a clean surface. Cut away any old carpet or vinyl and scrape the surface clean.

If you have a wooden subfloor, you need to apply a fire-rated, cement underlayment board such as Durock, Hardi backer or Densguard. These products protect your subfloor from heat. An underlayment also keeps out moisture while providing additional structural strength and a smooth surface on which to build.

To begin, mix the thin-set mortar according to the package directions. Spread it evenly on the floor, about ¼ inch thick, with the straight edge of the trowel. Comb it into ridges, the depth of the notches, with the notched edge of the trowel. Lay the underlayment on the wet mortar. Strike it with the rubber mallet to force it into the mortar and eliminate air gaps. Secure it to your subfloor with screws.

If your subfloor is concrete, the underlayment is unnecessary. Just make sure the surface is clean and dry.

Step 5 – Assemble the form. Using scrap lumber, construct a form around the perimeter of the space you intend to tile. This gives you a wall-like surface to work up to and produces a clean line of grout and tile around the edge.

Step 6 – Prepare the tiles. To break your tiles into smaller pieces, you can rent or buy a snap cutter or tile saw. You can also purchase a glass scorer and tile nippers, although doing so will increase the cost of your project. I simply placed my roofing slates between layers of newspaper. Wearing safety goggles, I struck the slate with a rubber mallet. After removing the newspaper, I snapped off flaking, uneven or sharp points with a pair of pliers. This technique also will work with ceramic tile, dishes and pottery. I used the glass shapes as they were since trying to break them with the mallet smashed them to dust.

Step 7 – Configure the layout. Since we had to cut away the old linoleum from our floor, I used the piece we removed as a template for positioning the new tile pieces. This allowed us to play with them for several days until the family agreed on a design. You could use newsprint or some other large sheet of paper for this step.

Steps 8 – Photograph the layout. Before beginning to place your pieces on wet mortar, take a digital photo of your layout. Print it out as large as you can. This gives you something to refer to when you start transferring pieces from the template, as you will get confused about where they are supposed to go.

Step 9 – Lay the tile. Mix the thin-set mortar according to the package directions. Spread it evenly on the floor with the straight edge of the trowel and rake through it with the notched edge, as you did when installing the underlayment. Cover only a few square feet at a time. Transfer the pieces from the layout on the template to the wet mortar. Place the tile with a gentle, twisting motion and then tap it with the rubber mallet to seat it in the mortar and level it. Check the surface with a level or straight edge to make sure that it is even.

Continue in this fashion until you cover the entire area. If you have any very small pieces, you may need to apply mortar to them with a putty knife – like buttering bread – before placing them on the floor. Also, if you have pieces of varying thickness, you can apply a little extra mortar to the thinner pieces to elevate them some. Let the work cure for 24 hours before proceeding to the next step.

Step 10 – Grout. Mix the grout to a mayonnaise-like consistency, according to package directions. Fill two basins with water. In one, you will rinse the sponge rubber float. The other, your helper will dump and refill. You need to keep the float wet with fresh water.

Using the trowel, drop grout along the spaces between the tiles and work it in with the float. Be sure that the joints are tightly filled, with no air gaps. If need be, pack the grout in with the handle of an old toothbrush. Smooth over the tops of the tile and work it in wherever you can. Avoid wiping along the joints, do wipe across them.

You will develop a feel for this once you start. The tiles will have grout all over them. Remove as much as possible with the float and use sponges to wipe them off. This is a process: wipe, rinse, wipe, rinse. When the tiles look clean, stop and wait. After 30 minutes, wipe any dried residue from the tile surface with a dry terry-cloth towel, polishing as you go. Be sure to remove all the haze now; it is difficult to remove after it has cured. Wait for the grout to cure before applying the sealant. Refer to the manufacturer’s directions for the appropriate length of time.

Step 11 – Seal. After all this work, you want to protect the hearth from damage. Dropped ashes and coals can leave black stains, as can moisture from wet or snow-covered logs. To prevent this, you need to apply a sealant. Following the directions on the can, spray the grout sealer over the hearth. Do this when you can leave the house for a few hours to escape the fumes. To test the sealant, trickle water on the grout to see if it beads up. It may need several coats.

Step 12 – Trim work. You may want to frame out your tile job. We put an oak frame around ours to cover the crack where the tile abuts the new vinyl covering the rest of the floor.

Step 13 – Replace the woodstove, light a fire and enjoy!

Carol J. Alexander writes from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where she enjoys rural living with her husband and six children.

1/28/2009 3:36:12 PM

This looks wonderful and I have loads of broken tile. The instructions are very clear and detailed too, thanks. The photos, however, look like computer images....or am I seeing things?



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