How to Set Tile on a Fireplace Surround

How to Set Tile on a Fireplace Surround

How to Set Tile on a Fireplace Surround

Jan 5, 2009

Kelly has over 30 years experience as a journeyman carpenter and 20 as a freelance writer and photographer.

Although almost all new homes are built with central air conditioning and home heating systems (where the climate warrants it), there’s still nothing like a crackling fire to gather around. Perhaps it’s a primal comfort thing left over from caveman days; providing warmth, a place to cook the evening meal, and a way to ward off marauding beasts.

And without a fireplace mantle, where would the Christmas stockings be hung? That being said, home décor fashions come and go, and consumers seem to prefer paint, ceramic tile. or natural stone on the surround rather than rustic brick.

Project Materials

  • Tile – It can be purchased at any home improvement store or a specialty store. There are so many styles, shapes, and colors that this article won’t address it; it’s left to personal preference.
  • Thinset Mortar – While a regular mortar or mastic works well on floor tiles, thinset should be used on vertical surfaces.
  • Latex Thinset Mortar Additive – Optional but recommended. It makes for a better bond.
  • 1” X 2” Boards (wider if the fireplace opening is wider than standard) – Used to support the bottom course on the firebox opening and for the lower border tiles.
  • Ceramic Tile Spacers – For a consistent grout line.
  • How to Set Tile on a Fireplace Surround
  • Grout – Available in a variety of colors.

Create a Working Surface on the Brick

The tile needs a smooth surface on which to adhere. It’s important to minimize any voids to maximize adhesion.

  1. Mix enough thinset with latex mortar additive to cover the square footage in question. It’s easiest to use an electric drill (not one of those toy tools) and a ribbon mixer or paddle bit.
  2. Spread a layer of thinset over all brick surfaces, using a finishing trowel. This may take a bit of practice since the surface is likely uneven, especially considering the brick mortar lines.
  3. Let it cure. This will be at least overnight, perhaps as much as 24 hours.

Secure the 1” X 2” Support Ledge

  1. Cut the board the width of the surround plus 1” on either side.
  2. Hold it horizontally across the firebox opening; using a 4′ level, the bottom of the board should span the firebox opening covering the lowest thinset spot.
  3. Draw a pencil line on the thinset at the top of the board for reference.
  4. Using a drill with a screw-tip, attach the board with masonry screws in vertical brick mortar spaces. It really helps to have a helper during this step.

Layout the Desired Tile Pattern

This is a personal choice. Usually, it starts with either a tile centered on the fireplace surround, or a grout line between two tiles.

Install the Tiles

  1. Mix up thinset/latex additive as before.
  2. Use a notched trowel to spread the mixture.
  3. Starting from the center of the firebox lay the first course from the center out using tile spacers between tiles.
  4. Use a diamond blade wet saw to cut the border tiles. Install them.
  5. Work the remaining courses upward and cut and install the top border tiles.
  6. Let the thinset set up.

Tile the Legs (Left and Right of the Firebox)

  1. Remove the support ledge.
  2. Noting that the top leg tiles nearest the first course already installed will be full, carefully take into account the tiles and spacers to find the size of the bottom border tile.
  3. Cut and attach another 1” X 2” ledge in place of the bottom borders.
  4. Trowel out thinset as before, being careful not to get it on the ledge, for ease of removal later.
  5. Set tiles as before, starting from the top down.
  6. After the thinset has cured, remove the ledges, trowel out thinset, and cut and set the borders.
  7. Finally, apply grout to the fireplace.


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