A Guide to Choosing Fireplace Tiles

Quickly and Inexpensively Upgrade Your Living Room

Fireplace tile

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If your fireplace is more background noise than centerpiece, you may want to install fireplace tiles. Like many other vertical tiling projects—kitchen backsplashes are one example—fireplace tiles go on easily, require little mortaring, and give you a lot of visual punch.

Why Upgrade Your Fireplace Tiles?

Look around you. Most newer homes, if they have a fireplace at all, have the typical white MDF build-out mantle. If that doesn't ring a bell, just imagine a sculpted-looking, too-fancy-for-words mantle that sounds hollow when you tap it with your finger. Yes, that's modern building techniques for you.

But one way to infuse your home with an elegant, traditional look is to add fireplace tiles. Fireplace tiled mantles stand apart from the crowd of white-on-white mantles. Not only do fireplace tiles look traditional, but they actually are: in the past, there would be a frame of fireplace tiles to draw your eye on what should remain a showcase in anyone's home. Fireplace tiles are an easy upgrade for the ordinary fireplace and one of the easiest installation projects for DIY homeowners.

If you don't feel comfortable doing it yourself, or would rather save the hassle, there are plenty of tile setters that can install your fireplace tiles with more ease then your floor tiles. For a professional, this would be a simple two-day project. For a DIY homeowner, it would be wise to allot two full weekends to the project.

Varieties of Fireplace Tiles

Selecting fireplace tiles can be as daunting as twenty trips to the local tile shop or big box store or as simple as one click to an online store. Keep in mind that, due to the vertical installation, these tiles will be very visible. So, make this purchase count. Here are some tips for purchasing fireplace tile:

  • Price - Why should the price be a factor? You're only installing a few square feet, so you can likely afford high-end tile if that's what you want. Cheap tile is fine, too. Just make sure this is exactly what you want.
  • Man-Made vs. Natural Tile - There are natural and man-made products on the market, and neither can be said to be "best." Both are equally valid fireplace tiles. If you want to go a little more high-end, you can go with a natural product, such as terrazzo or marble tiles.
  • Profiles - Some fireplace tiles have a chair rail or crown molding look. These build-out tiles require the care of an expert, so if you go with the three-dimensional (3D) fireplace tiles and want things to look right, your best bet is to hire a professional. There are miter cuts and such that get difficult when you choose the more dimensional tiles.
  • Flat Tiles - If you stick with the two dimensional (2D) varieties, such as 4" x 4" or subway tiles, then you can frame your fireplace tiles with wood trim. If you go with these flat, 2D tiles, I recommend some kind of prominent feature, and the wood trim is one way to achieve this.
  • Art Tiles - Art tiles are highly sculpted, hand-fashioned tiles whose designs are often lifted from historical homes and established architectural styles, particularly the early 20th century Craftsman and Arts & Crafts styles. Art tiles are used sparingly, limited to key spots around the fireplace.

Tiles may be glass, ceramic, natural stone, or something more dramatic, such as embossed copper or tin fireplace tiles. The options are truly limited only by your color choice, the level of care you would care to extend, and especially by the grout color.

Research various genres and textures online and in person before you place an online order. Most tile distributors carry a variety of tile but often wind up needing to order a few boxes of the design of your choice. Allowing some time to place these orders will ensure that your project remains on schedule.

Take Home Samples

Don't be afraid to ask your dealer if you can take some samples of fireplace tiles home. There may be a small charge or deposit for this, but it is well worth it. Play with various combinations of style and color between the field tile (the largest sections of tile) and the border.

Tip: Try four different corner tiles in the corners of your fireplace, just to see what that would look like. You can even investigate having a local potter create custom-made fireplace art tiles for you.

When you look in many catalogs, notice that fireplace tiles designs usually are not limited to one color and one size. Most integrate smaller tiles or mosaics in their installations. Be imaginative and play with the design.

Be sure that you are absolutely settled on the tile design before you start mixing mortar.

Grout Choices

Grout makes the tile.

Too many DIYers and even professional tile installers treat tile grout as an afterthought. But when you consider that, depending on width, grout can comprise up to 10-20% of the tile area, you begin to see how important it is.

There are as many grout choices as there are fireplace tiles. If you want your pattern of the tile to be emphasized, then choose a darker grout. If you want the tile emphasized, use a lighter color.

If you don't find a color choice you like, then consider mixing your own. The only trouble with mixing various colors is that you have to keep your ratios consistent. Writing the ratio down will help you with any future repairs or additions. Keep in mind that grout looks different in color as a dry powder versus a fully cured application, similar to paint. It's often difficult to tell what it looks like until it's fully cured.

Another important note about grout is that it will come either with sand in it or not. If you decide to grout yourself, then be sure that you get the proper grout for your application. Sanded grout is typical with grout lines 1/4" or greater, whereas sand-free varieties work best with tile surfaces that will scratch easily (such as polished marble) or with finer grout lines.