If you have an older house with a fireplace, chances are it is made of clay brick. The abundance of brick veneers is no accident: it is a very inexpensive material which can be installed quickly (ie. cheaply), and like the sub-par lawns that get slapped down in front of new houses, it is often chosen as a way for builders to cut corners on their projects. But most people are not too crazy about the look of it, especially for a fireplace surround where it will be viewed up-close, day after day.
There is a great solution to that problem which I have utilized many times: cover the brick with natural stone.
First, we attach a steel lathe to the brick using anchor bolts. Then the lathe is covered with a scratch coat of mortar. The combination of these two layers makes for a seriously strong bond once the stones are mortared onto the base coat, and in most cases it even adds to the structural integrity of the original structure.
Types of Stone Veneers
What kind of look do you want for your fireplace? That can be a daunting question if you haven’t put a lot of thought into what you like or what is available. The first question to ask yourself is: what style of veneer would look right with my architecture and décor?
Well, the first two categories to choose from are rustic and formal. Rustic refers to styles that utilize stones that are more or less in their original state, often being random in shape but not always, and which suggest something that is pastoral or hand-made. Round river-rock, flagstone, hand-split stone block, and ledgestone are the most common versions of this.
Formal stone designs are made with pieces that are flat, relatively smooth, textured, and otherwise fabricated to meet certain dimensional requirements. A common take on this is something called ashlar which is a mixture of split-faced pieces sawed to specific heights that are commonly divisible, eg. 2”, 4”, and 8”. Everyone has seen this in use on the prolific Rambler-style houses from the 50′s and 60′s. Other types of formal styles would be stone tile, marble/granite slab, and some of the more modern sawed/textured mosaics.
Natural or Faux?
Since we are focusing on covering an existing brick veneer, I will skip over the traditional, full-thickness stone veneer and focus on the the thin veneers.
Most people are familiar by now with what’s usually called cultured stone, or manufactured stone veneer systems. There are certain advantages to using it: it’s especially light-weight which doesn’t require structural reinforcement, it cuts easily being made of air-entrained cement and gypsum, and it comes ready to install with a minimum of cutting. But some people complain about the look of it, and it’s surface is prone to scuffing and scratching, not to mention unsightly efflorescence (calcium deposits on the surface). In terms of fireplaces, I usually recommend a natural stone since it is so closely viewed.
Luckily, there are many manufacturers of natural thin stone veneer. This is made by taking carefully selected pieces of wall stone(in a variety of types and styles) and sawing them down to a thickness of around 1½”. The stones which naturally make a nice 90-degree corner are sawed with a matching right-angle cut to give the illusion that the fireplace is made of solid stone. This “natural thin” material performs much better than the manufactured variety because its grain, being much more complex, is pleasing to the eye, and it can be split without revealing a false interior.
Hearth and Mantel
Other things to consider are what to do with the hearth (the horizontal surface in front of the firebox) and the mantel. Building code requires a non-combustible surface that extends 20” in front of the firebox opening, whether it sits at floor level or is raised bench-style. The best option for a bench hearth is to use a fabricated 2” material like Pennsylvania Bluestone, Granite, or Sandstone. However, another way to go, especially if you’re going with a rustic stacked-stone look, is to fit together flat pieces of the same material as the veneer to further the illusion of solid-stone construction. If your hearth is on the floor, you’ll want to choose a material that has a smooth enough surface to step across, but which also matches or complements your veneer.
A mantel can be made of wood or stone, but more importantly, how large do you want it? Should it have a relatively shallow profile to conserve space, or would you rather have a nice deep shelf to place things like decorations and mementos? Are you going to display artwork on the wall above it, and if so, do you want a recessed nook built in to accommodate it? Also, keep in mind that there are many excellent carved (and cast) mantel inserts available if you want something really elegant.
As summer is approaching and temperatures rise, consider that right now is an ideal time to begin planning your fireplace remodel. By having the work done in the summertime, you can take advantage of warm weather to get outdoors and avoid the commotion, and then by next fall you’ll be able to enjoy your brand-new, customized stone fireplace with your friends and family.
Mark Shepherd - ShepherdStoneworks.com
Bringing the finest in Stone Masonry to the Greater Seattle Area.
Natural stone walls, patios, steps and rockery of all sizes.
Mortared stone veneers, fireplace surrounds, and interiors.
Integrated landscape design and installation.