Three years ago I built a fireplace mantle. It went exactly according to plan, but a week later I knew I wasn't quite done.
While I initially thought brick around the opening would look fine, it began to bug me. I wanted to add some kind of tile. Three years later I'm finally done with my fireplace after adding tile around the opening.
I used 6"x24" tile to reduce the number of joints, but you could use 1"x1" or any number of sized tile. Most fireplace surrounds leave a 6" space of brick between the opening and the mantle as it's a code requirement. Measure first, but if you have a space of 6", a tile with a width a factor of 6 is going to reduce the amount of cutting. If you had an 8" tile, you'd have to trim 2" lengthwise off every tile. The space around the opening on my fireplace was 6" on 2 sides and 5 7/8" on the third. It doesn't really matter if the dimension is off by even a 1/4". If the tile is wider it will cover and if the tile is shorter, caulk with smooth that transition. I transferred the dimension to Google Sketchup and determined how long to make the tile.
This was a $25 project for me as I only had to buy six tile and the caulk. I already had all other supplies and tools. The project gets more expensive if you have to buy everything. Buying all the supplies will be about $70 and the tools will be $155 on top of that.
• (6) 6x24 tile cut to length
• Paper towels - you always need paper towels with caulk
• Gloves if you don't want to get your hands messy (and I don't!)
• Vacuum to clean the brick
• (2) Bar clamps and 1x4 to create a ledge across the top
• Scale to weigh mortar
• 5 gallon bucket for mixing mortar
• Old credit/gift card - not to pay someone to do the job, it's a cheap spreader/scraper
• The biggest concern is getting mortar and caulk on the wall, floor, etc. Put down drop cloths.
• When mixing mortar I wear a respirator as mortar generates a lot of dust.
Step 1: Cutting, Applying, & Finishing Tile
Tile is something you'll want to buy in person. Shipping would be ridiculous and most people want to see it anyway.
First I cleaned the brick by vacuuming. I measured the space and cut the tile to length with a tile saw, and then double checked that my dimensions were correct. The tile saw linked is the exact one I own. I've used it through multiple tile jobs and even a concrete paver sidewalk job. It's been great.
A wet tile saw is messy. Don't expect to do this inside unless you want to make a huge mess. Even with the blade cover, water ends up everywhere.
I used bar clamps to hold a board in place for the ledge. Screw the clamp handle all the way in. then put the other end of the clamp on the hearth/fireplace. Expand the clamp handle until it contacts the board and then unscrew the handle to tension fit a board for the ledge. You could always wedge a board, but this gives a bit more control/ precision. The tile needs a base to rest on otherwise it will just slide down while the mortar is wet. Again test fit everything before you start to apply mortar to ensure good gaps. It's easier to do this than to re-cut tile with mortar on the back. I know because I've had to do just that on other tile jobs.
Since brick is porous I could mix mortar with just water, but I used a latex additive since I had it on hand. The latex additive provides a stronger bond. It's typically needed if you're applying tile to drywall.
Check the mortar bag for mixing ratio. Since I don't need 25 pounds, I did some calculations for mortar mix ratio. I used a scale to measure out 2 pounds of mortar which would need 1 cup of water or additive. I marked a line on a bowl for exactly 1 cup of water and wrote 2 pounds beside it. When I do another tile job, I know what that mark means. I'll keep the cup with my tile supplies. This job ended up taking 4 pounds total.
This makes small batches much easier to mix since I know how much I need. If you want to eye ball it, the mortar should be a mashed potatoes consistency. Mix a little bit of additive at time and stir well. With such a small amount of mortar you can use a paint stirrer to mix it. I wear a respirator when I mix mortar just because of the dust. That kind of dust can't be good for you.
If you get the mortar too wet, let it sit for ten minutes and then remix it. Or you could add a bit more mortar.
Mortar comes in 25 pound bags, so if you don't have some from a previous job, you'll have a fair amount left over.
Butter the tile with your trowel. The notches ensure you get enough mortar on the tile. Test fit, and then pull it off and make sure the mortar is contacting the brick thoroughly. If the brick is slightly uneven, like mine, you'll want to add mortar to the low spots to get good contact on every brick. You'll be able to see the imprint, or lack of imprint in the mortar.
I used plastic spacers between the tile. Building materials expand, so the gaps are needed for expansion and will be filled in with caulk.
Let the mortar dry for at least 24 hours before caulking or removing the clamps. I used caulk instead of grout because with such a small job there is no reason to mix up grout. It's too much trouble.
I try to select a grout/caulk color that matches the tile color so that if there are any uneven gaps between tile, the similar color hides them. You will need a caulking gun to apply. Rule of thumb is to use sanded caulk if the space between tiles is 1/8" or larger and unsanded if the space is less than 1/8".
If you were mixing up grout, you'd still need to caulk between the tile and wood mantle and tile and granite hearth. Caulk is more elastic than grout and should be used when adjacent materials differ due to different expansion rates. If you are mixing grout, it should be a mayonnaise consistency. A little bit of water goes a long way.
A bucket of water helps speed up the caulking as you can wipe away excess caulk with your finger and then clean your finger in the bucket of water. I use an old credit card to scrape away extra caulk and then a gloved finger to make a nice concave shape between tiles.
After 24 hours your caulk will be dry and your fireplace will have a new look.
Step 2: The Moving Pictures Version
If you'd rather watch than read, this is the video explanation.