As I mentioned in a post about the semi-installation of our new gas fireplace insert (aka our new furnace disguised as a fireplace), we recently realized that if we wanted to re-tile the hearth, it would be best if we did it before the insert gets installed on top of it (duh). On a recommendation from a friend, we visited a local tile store called Art Tile. They had a great selection, knowledgeable people to talk with, and let us take home samples to look at in different lights next to our wood floor. Once we chose the tile we wanted, we decided that before we ordered the tile, it would be a good idea to pull out the old tile and see what was underneath. We pulled the fireplace insert out of the firebox, slid it (on a dog blanket) to the other side of the living room, and threw a blanket over it.
The “before” (note the gas line and the in- and out- flexible venting pipes are installed, so the insert can be hooked up when our installers return to do the water heater):
I had done a little internet research, and my go-to source This Old House recommended using a demolition hammer, which is like a small hand-held jackhammer. Other sites said a hammer and chisel might work. A demolition hammer is not in our tool arsenal, so I was hoping we would be able to remove the tile with plain old pry bars, hammers, and chisels.
Matt started by hammering a pry bar into the grout near the center in the back row of tiles. It took some work to get started, but once he got under the first tile, it was pretty smooth sailing. The tiles, which were surprisingly thick, came up one after another. I ran the shop vac (with HEPA filter - a must in our opinion) and tried to capture all the dust as Matt worked. When he was done, it looked like this:
We were left with the old tile mastic. We want the new tile to be flush with the level of the floor, and the old mastic was a bit too high to allow that. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to tile over old mastic anyway. So we removed that too, and it was even easier than the tile, if a bit dustier (but no worries, I was still hovering over Matt’s every move with the vacuum, except when I took the photo below). Now we were down to the concrete pad under the hearth. Success!
There was actually a third reason we wanted to remove the old mastic. We were hoping that doing so would solve a problem with the adjacent wood floor. Every day for the last two years, I’ve been looking at these ugly cracks where the wood boards were offset vertically at both front corners of the hearth by over 1/4 inch.
It had been my suspicion that when the floor was originally installed, it was all good and level, and then over time as the house settled, some layer(s) of the hearth pushed against the wood and jacked it up. When we pulled the tile out, the first thing I looked at was that front edge where the hearth meets the wood. And sure enough, the thick layer of mastic was pushed under the edge of the wood.
Now the big question was would the wood go back down after we removed the mastic? We vacuumed and then made sure there weren’t any little bits of mastic or other debris stuck between the floorboard and the subfloor by running a straightened paperclip along the gap.
Then we stepped on it and it moved a little. I was maybe a little too excited about the prospect of the floor finally being level, and Matt had to stop me from jumping on the board like a maniac. But we did step on it a little, and it did go down some. The cracks got smaller.
Over the next couple days, the floorboard went down a little more. I admit I stomped on it a few times, but by then I was confident it wasn’t going to do anything terrible like crack the board. Now we are very close to level. On one side, the mitered joint where the two trim pieces meet is level, but the adjacent floorboards are still offset by about a millimeter. On the other side, the floorboards are flush but the trim pieces are slightly offset. It is so much better than it was. Compare this to the before photo above:
We’ll try hitting that corner with a rubber mallet, or maybe place a board covered in some cloth over it and hit that with a hammer. If that doesn’t work, maybe it will level out completely on its own as the boards expand and contract over time, with the added benefit of being walked on. And if that doesn’t happen, the difference at this point is so small that it’s not very noticeable, and it could be sanded to make the offset disappear. Speaking of sanding, check out the thickness of these floorboards - 3/4 inch. You don’t see that everywhere these days.
This is the first time I can think of that we’ve demoed something in the house and what we found underneath is easier to deal with than we anticipated. Usually there is an unexpected stud in the wall blocking our way, or difficulty accessing something, or an extra layer of bathroom flooring that I’d rather not disturb without first testing for asbestos. I’m still pinching myself about the wood floor basically leveling itself. Here’s hoping the installation of the new tile goes just as well! I always hope for the best, but expect surprises. We ordered our tile, we picked it up yesterday, and we’ll be installing it this weekend. Wish us luck and check back next week for an update.
p.s. Check out the full Hearth tiling project recap.