Fireplace Remodel: A challenge worth taking.

Here in Colorado Springs, many people set off on the adventure of climbing Pike’s Peak, one of the many “14er’s” on the Front Range.  Some even run it! A 14er is a mountain peak with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet.

The reason I bring this up as an introduction to Mike’s and my adventure of remodeling our fireplace with stone is because although many people our age brave the climb of Pike’s Peak, I would never be inclined to do it because having limited energy, I like to see a result from extreme exertion. And, at least for us as newbies, remodeling to a stone fireplace, was indeed extreme exertion, but worth it. By the way, kudos to those who climb the mountain!

IMG_1931So here is our tile fireplace. These shiny, hard-to-clean terra-cotta tiles were everywhere in the home we bought 10 years ago…the floor, the bathrooms, the kitchen back splash, the fireplace…everywhere! And the fireplace is the last remodel to remove them all from the home.  Good riddance!

The estimates to transform this fireplace to a stone fireplace ranged from $6,000 and up. (This, I believe, was not counting the materials needed for the project.) We weren’t even looking for anything elaborate, such as an arched stone design to the ceiling, just a rather simple remodel. So Mike and I took on the challenge to do it ourselves.

I suppose you could call this a “tutorial,” but this is different from most tutorials in that anything learned will be just as much from our mistakes as from what we did right.

IMG_1936We decided to hire a couple of high school seniors (who incidentally were in my first-grade class when I was a teacher!), to do the demolition.  They did such a fabulous job, were hard workers, and fast too! These young men are just as delightful as they were in first grade, only now all grown up!

I actually was hoping we could use them for more of the work, but from here on out, there would be so much decision making during the job, that we knew it would be slow with a lot of changing our minds and back-and-forth discussion (commonly known as arguing!), and much re-evaluation mid-course, so alas, we had to forge ahead on our own.

IMG_1979One of our first adventures was to pick out the stone. We really wanted real stone, which we bought and had delivered, but when we got it, we felt that it was kind of mono with little color, so we added some fake stone. What you see here is a combination. The real stone is kind of blah on its own, and the fake stone looked just a little fake, but together, they look just right. See what I mean about a lot of decision making?!  We ended up using about 75% real stone.

The look for this fireplace will be “lodge.” Both Mike and I love to hang out in mountain lodges by the stone fireplace. I know some people would not choose the lodge look, but then again, I would not choose many of the fireplaces that I see! So as the song used to go, “Different strokes for different folks.”

Mike’s tendency toward meticulous work paid off in this stage of things where we had to do all the under-workings of the job just right so that the heavy stone would stay on the wall for a good long time! The estimated weight of a stone wall is 120 pounds per square foot, so things must be done right!

First, he applied concrete backer board; then black felt paper for a vapor barrier since mortar tends to attract moisture; next, the metal lath to give a good hold to the mortar which is soon to come.

And finally, we applied the first coat of mortar, which is the “scratch coat” so that the final application of mortar has something to get a grip on.


In between all this, I had been organizing rock so that it wouldn’t just be in a big pile when it came time to apply it. Trust me, in moving that stone from here to there, I have taken lots of hot baths in an attempt to soothe my achin’ muscles! And I hate to think of how Mike’s muscles must have felt as he did the heavier lifting.

Meanwhile, I tried different creative ideas to place over the fireplace unit. I tried wood burning some designs. I tried some beautiful tiles I got from an etsy seller (

SONY DSCStill, the whole thing was just not striking us right, and after all, whatever we decide will be “in cement” literally!  So the tiles with wood burning now have a wonderful home…in the guest bathroom! The colors coordinate perfectly.

I take time to share this, to show that it involves lots of experimenting and thinking to hit on just the right thing. And in the process, though plans change, good can come from the experimenting, but be completely different from what we first had in mind!

IMG_2030edIt’s amazing what a big job can be done with such relatively small, regular tools. This is Mike cutting the flagstone for the hearth with his angle grinder, the only adjustment he made is that he purchased a diamond blade…cuts right through thick stone! When we bought the stone and the person behind the counter found out we were cutting our own, she told us we could make lots of money shaping stone because people and landscaping companies come in all the time asking for that service. But Mike was quick to say, no thanks! (He much prefers his woodworking that we do for our shop


And the hearth is laid, but not yet mortared on. Our achin’ backs tell us…quit for today. It will be there tomorrow!  After lifting the heavy flagstone much of the day, the rocks are going to seem feather-light for the next part of the job!


A day or two later, finished! With the hearth, that is. We get to sit on it…how exciting 🙂

IMG_2041So the first rocks went up. We loved the look. But one problem, the lovely reddish-brown mortar we chose absolutely stained all the rocks. Nice color, even on the rocks, but we didn’t want all the rocks to be the same color! So we pried them off while there was still time, and decided to use good ol’ grey non-colored mortar to proceed. It too gets all over the rocks, and is hard to clean, but doesn’t stain. These are the kinds of setbacks that newbies have. Problem is, once we learn the ropes, it won’t help us, because I’m quite sure that we will never do a stone fireplace again!

IMG_2071edMost masons recommend working bottom-up rather than top-down due to the stabilizing effect it has on the higher stones. The ones who prefer starting at the top give these two reasons: You can choose and arrange your stone lines rather than just ending up with whatever you end up with working from the bottom up. The other advantage is that when the wet mortar falls, it doesn’t mess up the rocks below and there is less clean up. All things considered, it’s probably safest to work bottom-up, which is what we did for most of the project.

IMG_2074edSo we have finished the upper part of the rock work. We have textured the side walls and still need to decide on what paint to use. We still have the bottom part of the long hearth bench to do, but you know what? We’re tired! So remember the young men I mentioned who took out the tiles? We have hired them to help us with the rock work on that area close to the floor. It will be good experience for them perhaps for the future, and Mike and I will have a much needed break from doing it completely alone. Plus lifting rock from that low position? Nope. That is for young bodies!

IMG_2084edWe have a week before we begin the last leg of the journey, the bottom of the hearth, so we are doing some things while we wait, like painting the side walls. Earlier, we textured the walls with a technique called “skip trowel,” which gives a little bit of a Sante Fe look. Mike textured one side of the fireplace and I did the other. In this picture, he is painting the base color over his texturing, which is different from the texturing I did. In fact, no two persons can ever texture exactly like the other. It is, as they say, an expression of the soul. I like them both, and it will make a conversation piece that our two sides look different from each other…expressing our personalities.

IMG_2098edThe other thing we are doing while we wait is to condition and seal the flagstones, as well as the rock around the fireplace.  This product (511 Seal and Enhance) is really good, and although it is pricey, I did one whole side of the fireplace and a couple flagstones with just about 1 1/2″ of product in a plastic cup. So it goes a long way. It conditions, protects and takes away the chalky look of the stones. With just a one quart bottle, we should have enough left when we finish to treat the stamped concrete sidewalk outside.

Back to the paint for a moment. We decided to flip-flop the paint we had above the mantel shelf, where we used a darker brown paint for the base and then added a lighter brown faux finish with a feather duster! We did that about 10 years ago and it still looks good.

SONY DSCSo on our current project, we took the same paints but used the lighter paint for the base and the darker paint to feather dust the faux finish. This is my side of the texturing. The wall above the mantel does not have the skip-trowel texturing as this does, just a regular orange peel texture.

If you have hung in there this long in your reading, I am happy to inform you that this fireplace “journey” will soon be over (this weekend) and this blog will come to an end too!

However, there is the bottom part of the hearth bench to finish. Above are pictures showing what I hope will be an interesting part of the rock hearth. In our home, not only are we blessed to have a full view of Pike’s Peak from our windows and deck, but we also see our very own bluff, Pulpit Rock, which is pictured above. And also pictured above in front are some rocks that we gathered from this bluff on Easter morning. So we plan to use them in the hearth to kind of bring the out of doors right into our house. I only wish we had thought to gather stones from the top of Pike’s Peak when we were there, but too late now! The show must go on.

After a short briefing on laying stone, we let Jonathan and Luke do the lion’s share of the work of actually getting the stones onto the wall. By the way, real stones are considerably more difficult to adhere than lighter fake stone. Meanwhile, Mike cut stones outside (stone laying is a lot like fitting a puzzle together). I followed along with the work inside and applied mortar to the joint lines and washed the stones, because, obviously, it is easier to remove unwanted mortar when it’s wet than when it’s dry.

And just in case you really are reading this as a tutorial, earlier I said that we used some (about 25%) manufactured stone to add color. Shows you what we know! After we treated the stones, the real stone was much more vibrant and the fake stone faded when it was washed and looked blah. Just the opposite of what I thought would happen. So on the bottom part of the hearth, we used zero manufactured stone.

IMG_1931IMG_2139So here you have it, before and after!

I haven’t yet cleaned and conditioned the bottom rocks, and when I do they will be much more vibrant. But I’m going to send this picture because I am so ready to be done with the fireplace and with writing this blog (although I have enjoyed it!), and now…I just want to relax by my fireplace for a while!

PS  We didn’t expect to move from this home soon, but before the year was out, we had to leave our masterpiece, because we moved from Colorado Springs to the mountains. Now, instead of looking at the mountains, we are in the mountains!  But we do miss our fireplace, and are working on other “masterpiece” adventures in our new home (which we love). Stay tuned 🙂

7 thoughts on “Fireplace Remodel: A challenge worth taking.”

  1. An amazing feat of vision, cooperation and perseverance!!!! Hats off to the two of you! It looks like a lodge fireplace I’d want to warm up next to.


  2. Bev,
    That is really incredible. It looks amazing. I love how you blogged about this adventure. Well done you two!
    Katie Garvert

  3. Amazing work! You guys are so creative these days! Enjoy a cup of tea or coffee. What a great atmosphere you’ve created.

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