Living room before and “after”

These photos might be nominally referred to as “before and after,” but “after” is not an accurate description of where we are.  Let’s go with “in progress.”  

Fireplace Before:

Fireplace in progress:

Other living room Before:

Living room in progress:

Apologies for the bad lighting and overall messiness.  If you can overlook those, I think you’ll agree that the new floor plan (which we’ve been anticipating for well over a year) is much more open and makes the new fireplace the focal point of the room.

New features: 

  • Mantis fireplace insert (with new hearth).
  • Wall-mounted TV over the fireplace.  Also got cable after not having it for the past 2.5 years.  Which is proving to be a bit overwhelming for me.
  • New Ikea Manstad corner sofa (yes, both sofas would look better without blankets draped over them, and I have a solution in mind for that, but for now this is how we roll because we enjoy having dogs on the furniture)
  • Rearranged most of the furniture in the room and gave away or sold several items including the TV stand.
  • When guests enter through the front door, they are no longer funneled into an awkward area behind the couch.
  • More room to do workouts in the living room.
  • New yellow shelf above and to the left of the fireplace - our friend and former (sniff!) next door neighbor Robert built this for his house, which is identical to ours, and since it’s a custom shelf for a space that only exists in the houses on our street, he had no use for it when he moved.  It was black until Matt painted it yellow.
  • Dog crates are now under the wood table, where they fit perfectly.  We gave the chairs away, which was a little bit sad for me.  I got the table and set of 4 chairs at the Salvation Army in my hometown almost 10 years ago right before I moved into my first apartment after college.  I’ve used them in every home I’ve lived in as an adult.  The table was my desk for the past two years, but now that’s not possible with the dog crates underneath, so I’m using a folding table which you might catch a glimpse of (see my laptop in the last photo?)  Also note to self: get some folding chairs so people can sit down if we have a dinner party.
  • New Ikea Ektorp Bromma footstool with a tray on top replaced our coffee table.

Many more improvements are still on the To Do list, but we are feeling mighty fine about this batch of changes.  We are ready for fall and winter: we will be so cozy snuggled up on our couches with dogs and our fireplace keeping us warm.


Hearth tiling project recap

As if you haven’t heard enough about my hearth tiling project!  This may be of interest if you are embarking on a similar project of your own, or you are just abnormally interested in other people’s home improvement adventures (you are not alone, maybe we can start a support group).

Maybe the one perk of DIYing on the weekends only (as opposed to every day, which is what I would prefer to be doing instead of my regular job) is that it allows plenty of time between steps in a process.  Time for thinset to dry and cure before grouting.  Time to do more internet research on materials and methods.  Time to think about what went wrong, what could go wrong, and how to do it right.  Time to stop by the hardware store for that one extra supply.  Time for my back and knees to recover after spending hours on the floor.

The posts in the hearth project series correlate pretty well with how much time it actually took me to do each part. 

1. Demo

2. Prep phase one

3. Prep phase two including failure setback / learning experience

4. Set tile and grout

I find it interesting to note that what I originally thought of as being the whole process (part 4) only turned out to be about 25% of the process.

Materials used and cost (approximate):

  • K-rust slate tile (Brazilian), nominally 12x12 but actually a little smaller $5.88/tile x 10 tiles x 1.1 [10% extra for breakage] = $65
  • Schluter edging in antique bronze $22.10/piece x 2 pieces = $44 (with some left over for entryway project)
  • Schluter Ditra underlayment $83.70/roll x let’s say 20% of roll used = $17 (rest will be used for entryway)
  • concrete (left over from previous projects) $10
  • unmodified gray thinset (unmodified is a requirement when using Ditra) $5
  • natural gray sanded grout $6
  • sanded caulk $7
  • mallet $12
  • tile spacers $3
  • mixing paddle $13
  • 1/4” notched trowel $7
  • grout and tile sealer $11
  • sundry supplies & tools, some from garage/estate sales $6
  • wet saw $0 (gift)
  • other tools already owned

Total = $205

Let’s not factor in how much time I spent on this.  In reality, there is also some overhead in other tools that we have on hand, gloves, knee pads and the like, but I don’t want to get too crazy.

Last week I received an email from a reader who recently bought a house with a similar hearth.  She wasn’t sure about replacing her own hearth until she read about our project, and now she is doing it!  This is a scenario I had hoped for in writing this blog - that maybe sharing our experiences will help a few DIYers out there.  Hearing from someone who is finding this useful really made my day.  Thanks for sending me that email!


Max seems to like the new hearth.  He often lies on it when the weather is warm.  The slate is probably the coolest (temperature wise) flooring we have in the house.

Max seems to like the new hearth.  He often lies on it when the weather is warm.  The slate is probably the coolest (temperature wise) flooring we have in the house.

Tiling the hearth: setting the tile and grouting

After my previous tile setting attempt, which failed became a preparatory step / learning experience, I felt I had a much better understanding of the materials I was working with and how to achieve the desired spatial relationship between the tile, edging, and surrounding wood floor.

I laid out all my materials and tools so I was ready to go.


Setting the tile

I mixed the thinset much thicker this time, to a nice sticky peanut butter consistency. I applied the thinset to the floor with a 1/4 inch square notched trowel along two of the edges first and set the edging in it.  I pressed it down as far as it would go because I knew from drysetting everything over and over again that’s where it needed to sit.  Normally, one lays tile starting in the middle of the field and working out to the edges, but I needed to start at the corners and work inward to make my edges line up perfectly.  From my numerous dry runs, I already knew the spacing would work with 1/4 grout lines.  In the field, I troweled notches perpendicular to the previous (hardened) notches.  By holding the trowel at a shallower or steeper angle, I made the notches shorter or taller according to the little map I had made.  (See previous post if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)


It was pretty smooth sailing.  I used shims to keep my edges even, and I pushed the mitered ends of the edging together until I had perfect corners.  When I had all the tiles set, I started tapping on the tiles to make sure there was enough thinset under all areas of each tile.  The very right front corner sounded hollow.  I pushed the tile away from the corner as much as I could and saw that the thinset hadn’t squished over to the edges on that tile as much as I’d hoped.  My first thought was to put some thinset in a ziploc bag with the corner cut off (like a pastry bag) and apply a bead of thinset around the edge and push the tile onto it. 


I did that, but I wasn’t satisfied with the result.  Although the hearth won’t be walked on as much as if it was some other section of flooring, I worried that this particular tile being in the imagefront corner of the hearth could see some traffic over time, and I didn’t want to risk the tile getting broken due to not having enough thinset under it in the corner.  So I lifted the tile using a concrete edger (similar to  pictured, but obtained for $1 at a garage sale) to get under the edge and pull it up.  That worked well.  I scraped the thinset off the tile and the floor, rinsed the tile and let it dry while I troweled new thinset onto the floor, making sure my coverage was good all the way to the edges.  I reset the tile and was happy with the result.  You can see in the photo the piles of thinset I scraped off onto paper towels. 


I had all my tiles set.  Woohoo!  I used my straight board again to make sure the tiles were all even with each other and the floor.  Then I cleaned up any excess thinset from between the tiles, cleaned the surface of the tiles and edging, and cleaned all my tools.  To keep the dogs from stepping on the tile for at least a day, I put the big piece of plywood over the hearth, raised up on some pieces of 2x4 set around the hearth.

Things I did differently (i.e., better) this time:

  • taped the dropcloth to the floor so it wouldn’t slide around
  • mixed thinset thick like sticky peanut butter
  • knew that I would have a couple hours to work with the thinset and that it would easily clean off the tile and edging when I was done, so didn’t panic if a tile needed to be reset or I got some thinset on surfaces
  • started with a base at the exact right height - key to success in this case


I waited almost a week to grout, not because the thinset needs that long to cure, but because I was working on weekends.  On the advice of several people, before grouting I applied a sealant to my tiles to help keep the grout from sticking to them.  This is unnecessary when working with glazed tiles, but with stone, the grout can get worked into the surface and be very hard to clean up unless it has been sealed.  We like the look of the natural stone, so I made sure to use sealant that is not an enhancer (enhancer sort of makes it look wet all the time and emphasizes variations in the stone).  I mixed up the grout according to directions, just mixing it by hand in a large yogurt container since I didn’t need a lot.  I liked the ziploc bag as pastry bag method, so I dumped all of the grout into a bag and cut the corner off.


I applied a thick bead of grout to all the spaces between tiles and to the small space between the Schluter edging and the tile.  Then I pushed the grout into the cracks with my float, worked it all the way in, and scraped off the extra.  I did not grout between the edging and the wood floor nor between the tile and the brick facade of the fireplace (grouting between different materials such as tile to wood or floor to wall is a big tiling no-no as this will crack and cause problems over time, but the space between the edging and tile is meant to be grouted).  To prevent any grout from accidentally getting in the space between the wood floor and the Schluter edging, I had applied blue painter’s tape.  These spaces will be filled later with sanded caulk. [Edit: Two years later, I never did take the step of filling that gap with sanded caulk. It looks fine. The only time I regretted not doing it was when someone spilled a drink on the floor and I was a little bit worried about moisture in the crack. I may still do it sometime.]  After letting the grout set up for about 15 minutes, I cleaned the tile surface repeatedly with a grout sponge (which apparently has magical properties and should not be replaced with a regular sponge) and clean water which I had to change a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t just smearing the grout around.


As the grout dried, I cleaned the tile again with my grout sponge, making sure to squeeze out as much water as possible.  I checked every couple of hours to see if a haze was forming.  I’ve read that this haze, if present, must be cleaned off before the grout cures or it may become extremely difficult to remove, so even though I didn’t see any haze, I buffed the tile again.  And here it is all done. 




We think it looks great.  It’s almost perfectly flush with the wood floor; you can’t feel any height difference if you step on the edge.  I really couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out!


p.s.  For those out there who might be planning their own hearth tiling project, I will provide a materials/tools/cost breakdown in another post along with some tips I have learned.  [Update: the full Hearth tiling project recap is available.]

p.p.s.  Now we can finally have the installers return to make the final hookups on our Mantis fireplace insert and install our new tankless water heater!

Tiling the hearth: prep part 2

Ok.  When we left off, we had demoed the old tile and started preparing for the new slate tile by pouring some concrete, selecting our tile, and cutting both the tile and edging.  We were a bit conservative pouring the concrete, so our pad was still a bit low.  After doing some more research online, I decided that using the Schluter Ditra underlayment would be a good way to bring up the height of the tile while also protecting against any cracks due to expansion and contraction of the wood floor.  Given the previous issue with the tile getting so jammed up against the wood that it created hideous cracks in the floor, taking the extra precaution against any problems seemed like a good idea.  I also figured we should use the underlayment when we do our entrance in the same tile, so why not buy it now and use it both places.  Note: using this for the hearth of a wood burning fireplace may be questionable due to heat issues, but it is fine for a gas insert. 

I installed the Ditra according to instructions (thinset mixed loose but still able to hold a notch, press Ditra fleece backing firmly into it, making sure to add enough thinset for complete coverage).

I attempted to install the tile right afterward.  Yes, attempted.  Did not succeed.  Here’s what happened.  I had everything all laid out and ready to go.  I’d read about how to do it.  I knew I still needed to come up about a quarter of an inch to make my tile flush with the wood floor, so I used extra thinset.  But I had mixed it too thin, and my Schluter edging kept sinking into it. 

I tried letting the thinset set up a little bit, but it was still not working.  I realized that I really needed two things to be different: mix the thinset to the proper consistency (duh) like peanut butter (it actually looks even oozier in the picture than it really was, but it was too thin for sure) and start at the right level so my edging could sit on it and not sink down.  My real problem was that I was trying to make a seamless transition between the hardwood and the tile so it would be level and flush, and I hadn’t created the ideal situation to achieve that.  So I decided to scratch the operation for the day and use what I’d learned to make it work on the next attempt.  Aside from the learning experience, I also got some use out of the thinset by combing it out to a level that would put me at the right height for installing the tile later.  This is my semi-defeated-but-also-semi-relieved-that-I-didn’t-completely-ruin-everything face:

And fortunately, dry (but not cured) thinset easily washes off of tile, edging, wood floors, arms, and tools. 

I put a piece of plywood over it with some random objects to keep dogs from stepping on it.  It did take longer to dry that way, but I don’t think that hurts anything. 

The next day, it was dryish.  I took that opportunity to level it a bit more using our screed from earlier with shims taped to the ends.  I pulled it from back to front, scraping off any high areas.  It worked quite well.

When the thinset was completely dry, I dry set my tile for probably the 7th of 12 times and checked the height.  It was still just a touch high in some areas, but the notches and the fact that it wasn’t cured yet made it easy to scrape down in high areas with the flat side of a trowel.  Here’s what it looked like after the scraping:

… and then I dry set my tile again.  Maybe I was paranoid cautious at this point, but I wanted to get it as close to perfect as I could so my next and hopefully final attempt at setting the tile would go smoothly.  So I taped some string across it and noted any high or low points (these variations were very small at this point).

When I felt that there were no points that were too high, the last thing I did was to lay a straight board across the tile. 

At various points, I measured how much space was between the board and the tile by slipping a shim underneath it and noting how much of the shim would fit.  I made a chart to remind myself where the tile should fit as tight as possible against the base and where I should put the thinset down a little thicker.

Was this all a bit much?  Maybe.  Do I think any of it was wasted time?  No.  I learned my lesson and I was going to set myself up for success in round two.  And I did; it went really smoothly.  I will tell you about it in the next - and final!!! - post in the hearth project series. 


Tiling the hearth: prep part 1

That’s right, this is going to be in parts.  Because I did it in parts due to some delays and well, let’s just say it, mistakes.  But that’s OK, because I learned some things and it is turning out well.

When we left off last time in the story, Matt and I had demoed the old tile and mastic.  My wood floor issue had mostly gone away.  I’m happy to report that after purchasing a rubber mallet and using said mallet to tap the errant floorboards into place, the cracks are gone.  Woohoo!

Now our concrete pad was too low and we needed to bring it up.  We again followed the advice of This Old House.  Adding my own flare to the process, I taped some cardboard around the edges so the concrete wouldn’t be right up against the wood floorboards.

Matt made a screed (just like in the TOH article linked above - see that for instructions on screed usage for this particular purpose).  It worked well.

Used some tools we scored for $1 each at an estate sale a while back (except the mixer attachment for the drill, which we bought at HD) to smooth everything out.

And could have done a better job of smoothing it, but it was OK.  My main concern was that it not be too high, because you can always add more but it’s not so easy to remove material.

Meanwhile, the boys were doing their part by napping just a few feet away in their crates, where they could not step in any wet concrete or get into dirty tools before we could clean them.  What good doggies.  They really make it easy on us.

Earlier that week we had ordered and received our tile.  We decided on a 12-inch slate called K-rust.  The sample had some rust colored speckles on it, but what we received was a bit different, as can often happen with natural stone.  A little bit of rust, some yellows, some gold, blue-grays, and one with tons of red.  Eventually we decided we liked the variety even better than if it had all looked like the sample.  We ordered 40 square feet, knowing we needed 7.5 for the hearth and probably 25 for the entry pad (did anyone guess that was the additional project we wanted to do with the same tile - kinda like this?) plus some extras.  After pouring the concrete pad for the hearth, we laid out every tile on the floor to decide which ones would go in the hearth and which ones would be saved for the entry pad at a later date. 

With some cardboard underneath representing thinset, we dry set the tiles in the hearth, overlapping the front row on top of the back row to get a sense of what it would look like.  We left the back middle spot open because that will be fully covered by the fireplace insert, so we didn’t care as much about which tile goes there. 

Later I did it with the tiles leaned up against the brick so we could see the real orientation of the tiles.  We wanted to use the factory edge up front and cut the back edge, which will be hidden once we put a wooden facade over the brick.  I also numbered the tiles so we would know where each one went and in what orientation.

Matt cut the back row tiles using a wet saw. I had to make a special trip to the hardware store for a grease pencil to mark the cut lines.

Later, Matt also cut the Schluter edging we bought using a hacksaw and a miter box.  And lots of clamps.  This edging was recommended by several online discussion forums and the tile store person.  It makes a nicer transition between the tile and wood floor, protects the edge of the tile, and allows some room for expansion.

This all happened a week after the concrete, which was a week later than we intended.  Here’s why.  The day after the concrete was Saturday, and I was supposed to go pick up that Schluter edging from the tile store.  We didn’t want the standard gray metal one that they have in stock, so I had the tile guy order the “brushed antique bronze” finish that I thought would best fade into the background.  I called on Friday, and by good fortune the truck driver wasn’t yet past the place that had the edging, so it would be in Friday afternoon instead of Monday.  That was great, because then we could tile on the weekend.  But somehow I forgot all about picking up the edging until 4:01 pm on Saturday, and they close at 4.  Plus all day Sunday.  I don’t know how I could have been so excited about this piece of metal one day and then completely forget to pick it up the next day.  Yet that is what happened.  We shrugged and proceeded to go play at the dog park instead of tiling.

Our saga will continue soon.  I’m sure you’re right on the edge of your seat.


p.s. Check out the full Hearth tiling project recap.

Tiling the hearth: Demolition

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.

Fireplace installed! Mostly!

Our new Mantis fireplace insert is mostly installed (by pros -see why here) and has passed the mechanical inspection.  They’ll finish it up when they come back to install the tankless water heater.  Next week we’ll have our DIY electrical work for the fireplace and water heater inspected.  Once our water heater is installed, we’ll have to have the plumbing and gas piping inspected (for some reason this is at the county level, while electrical and mechanical are at the city level) and then have the gas company unlock our meter so we can start using our new appliances.  Exciting!

Matt has already given some info on the plumbing updates he’s doing

I will fill in some more info about the electrical work later, but here’s a little preview of the process to put in an electrical outlet in the fireplace:

See that generic tile hearth that so common in houses of the 1950’s?  I really do not care for it.  It’s so blah.  We were planning to replace the hearth someday.  Like, not right now, because there’s a ton of other stuff we’re trying to get done.  Apparently due to our fireplace’s geometry and the shape of the insert, it has to stick out somewhat and sit on the hearth (as seen in the top photo).  That means we either need to replace the hearth now (i.e., before the fireplace installation is finalized), or wait and do it later but pull out the insert which would mean disconnecting the gas and vent pipes and then having to reconnect them (ourselves or bring our installers back?), which would be kind of a pain and just not ideal.  So we need to think about that.  I’ve already mostly settled on using slate tile, but color/pattern/sizing would still need to be picked out not to mention doing the work.  Ack.  These projects are like dominoes.  We start one, and that one forces us to do three related projects… 


p.s. See previous posts in the fireplace saga: I first floated the idea of replacing our furnace with a fireplace almost a year ago, convinced others the idea could work, discovered we’d have to wait out the winter, and finally took the plunge.