When I was a kid my grandparents and aunt owned a house together in Vermont. It was in a rural setting about 30 minutes from Stowe. In the winter, it was a house out of the movies. Surrounded by towering pine trees that had branches heavy with snow. The house had vertical rough-cut pine boards for siding discolored with a slight greyish hue from age. Animals going about their daily activity left tracks all around the house in the snow. And my favorite was the chimney billowing with smoke as the electric heat was expensive to maintain.
My aunt used the house partial for work as she had a summer job nearby. But, mostly my immediate family used it for vacation. I had fond memories of spending winter recess up there. The television had poor reception only getting 2 or 3 fuzzy channels, so we mostly read books, worked on puzzles, or played cards as a family. Feeding the fire was a constant chore and after spending a few hours out in the snow, toasting your buns was a highlight of the day. It was a playful way to warm up. To turn your backside towards the wood burning stove until you couldn’t take the heat anymore. Also, don’t forget the hot chocolate that followed!
Building a Fire
I also grew with a wood burning fireplace at home with my parents. I have fond memories of feeding a fire all throughout my childhood. It suited me as with the methodical way that you must build a fire. Some old newspaper (only black and white – no glossy color print) crumbled in the center, followed by the smallest twigs that you can find. Next came the bigger twigs the size of your fingers, followed by small kindling wood and then logs the size of your forearm built in a teepee shape. My rule was to use only one match. If you prepared properly, one match is enough to build a roaring fire. My minimalist and efficient nature goes back to my earliest days as a kid.
I wanted to recreate this experience for my own kids and admittingly for myself. My current house has an original fireplace that the chimney inspection when we purchased the home said showed some minor cracks in the mortar and advised a steal liner. Also, I never burned a fire in a fireplace growing up, it was always in a wood burning stove. The thought of going to bed and having a log roll out, knocking over the steal grate made me nervous. Not to mention how terribly inefficient a fireplace is. A lot of the heat escapes through the chimney. Thus, I decided on a wood burning fireplace insert that is up to 86% efficient, can heat the entire house, and has a door that can contain the fire for peace of mind.
Why not hire someone?
In order to put an insert in I had to extend the hearth, the horizontal tile, brick, or stone surface in front of the fireplace. It was too narrow and not up code. After some research and many youtube videos I took on the project myself. While I am handy and can generally figure things out, I have done little to no masonry work in my life, so this was a big undertaken although it was a small job. I decided to do the job, with the help of my father for a variety of reasons:
- To save money. I estimate the labor would have been at least $500 dollars for someone else to come in and do it.
- Pride of doing it yourself. It’s hard to put a price talk on the joy this will bring.
- Spending time with my father. My Dad and I are not ones to sit around for an hour and talk, but we will spend an entire weekend together working on a project.
- Having your kids watch you in action. Noting is more fun than having your 4 and 7-year-old take their tool bag with plastic tools and start working on scraps of wood right next to you. As a note, make sure to keep an eye on them as my son would pick my real screw gun and use it on the floor. Luckily there was no damage.
- The one negative is that overall I spent less time with my kids for the two days it took be to do the job as their attention span is only so long and they would run off, but it was offset with spending time with my father.
I was excited yet nervous to begin the work. When I first took the chopping gun to the 70-year-old slate laid in concrete I gulped, there was no turning back now. I was shocked to see what I uncovered after just a few minutes of demoing the old hearth.
Things will go wrong
As a metaphor to life, no matter how carefully you plan things, something will come up unexpected. Prior to removing the slate, I carefully removed one of the moldings around the hearth to gauge the debt of the concrete under the slate. When I saw the subfloor I thought no problem, the concrete slab that the slate was in was only two inches thick. I can pry that up, lay down some new plywood and overlay it with cement board. Just like the pros on youtube. Well once I started working and reached a point of no return, there was no subfloor.
What I had seen before was the subfloor butting up to the concrete. In the 1940s the builders had poured concrete to the bottom of the floor joist below. It was eight inches thick! WtF! On one hand, my house was built well, on the other hand how was I supposed to get a smooth surface to tile on? Removing 8 inches of concrete would be a major undertaking.
I called my father in a panic. He came over and we started troubleshooting. It was nice to work through a problem together, each suggesting ideas and getting to the best conclusion. It’s always great to have a sounding board, especially when your sounding board knows more than you. We decided to lay a half inch thick piece of plywood in front right over the hardwood to get close to the height of the concrete, then smooth out the cement with the chisel gun as best as I could and fill in any holes and gaps with concrete. While this is a small job in the big picture of a home, it is still a big undertaking for a guy who works in an office all day. But as my favorite saying goes…How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.
Now came the fun part. Renting a wet saw! I have never used one before and did not know what to expect. But after watching some videos I gave it a try. I had to rent the biggest one they had as the tiles I was using were large format tiles measuring 12 by 22 inches. If you have any fears of using a wet saw, stop right now. It’s the easiest saw I have ever used. As always, use caution when using but it’s fairly safe as the blade is dull and grinds rather than cuts its way through tile. Also, the slower you move the tile through the blade the cleaner the cut.
Prior to renting the saw I premeasured all the tile to save some money. I even laid out the tile so the grains would match, then numbered the tiles with some blue painters’ tape to keep track. There is usually a four and twenty-four hour rental rate. I prepped before hand so that I could get the job done in four hours. It helps to have an extra set of hands to mix the next bucket of thin set as you are finishing up your first. Thin set will begin to get difficult to work with after 30 minutes or so, thus you have to mix it in batches. We mixed a third of a 25-pound bag at a time. Make sure you get the correct thin set (mortar mix) for the job. I used a medium weight because of the large format tile rated for both concrete and plywood. The bag said it can be applied up to ¾ inches thick.
Now, every video, website, and advice you’ll get is to make sure your surface is flat before tiling. Most things I read/watched said it was critical. In my case it was less of an option as I couldn’t take up the concrete and I wanted my ¼ inch tile to be level with the fireplace opening. I asked a few friends who have tiled before and they said you can use the mortar to help level certain areas. Which I did. Plus, I was working with a small area that was 30 by 62 inches. It was more time consuming with the trial and error of laying a piece of tile at a time, then lifting it up right away to adjust the varying amount of mortar underneath to get to the correct height. I found it helpful to have trowels with different teeth sizes ranging from 3/8 to 1/8 of an inch to use for the various areas.
All said I got the tiling done in my 4-hour rental window saving the 25 bucks extra it would cost to go to 24 hours. The whole job took about two days with demo, a trip to the hardware store, a trip for the tool rental, and clean up. I still need to grout and install the border molding (I put the old molding in place temporarily) but that’s the easy part. All said the job was a success and I couldn’t be happier that I did it myself. Saving the $500 in labor was of course nice, but the real benefit was spending time with my father and the pride and memories I will have every time I look at the hearth. This is just a small example of how doing something creative and challenging can bring you happiness.