Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How to Update an Ugly Fireplace on a Budget

One of the biggest eyesores in our house was the fireplace in the main living room. Some artistically-challenged previous owner decided to paint the stones with red semi-gloss. The tacky color scheme screamed, "Look at me -- I'm hideous!" When we bought the house almost two years ago, I wasn't sure what I could do about this problem, but I vowed to do something eventually.

Lamenting that the underlying stone probably looked much nicer, I inwardly (and occasionally outwardly) cursed the previous occupants for painting it. (I want to scream: "No amount of shiny bright red paint will make stone look like brick, dumbo!") As my husband and I were discussing how to update the fireplace without spending a lot of money, it dawned on me that I could probably create a natural stone look again. I spent some time browsing home improvement blogs and DIY forums, and finally decided to give faux painting techniques a try. I figured I could fall back on a simple monochromatic look if my art project turned into a misadventure.

My husband removed the glass doors and found that the surrounding metal cover was full of old insulation (probably asbestos) . We decided to throw away the doors and install some other kind of cover later. In the meantime, I had to do something about the unpainted bits of stone that had been hidden beneath the old cover. I used coarse-grit sandpaper and a scraper to smooth out the edges and remove drips, then applied white primer over the entire fireplace. I like Zinsser primer the best. It is a good multipurpose primer that is compatible with masonry. (Without primer, porous stone or brick will soak up a huge amount of paint.)

Following the primer, I painted a light base color on the whole fireplace. This base coat serves two purposes: it creates realistic-looking mortar between the stones, and a consistent base color for the "glaze" colors applied over the top with a sponge. I bought a gallon of Behr "classic taupe" in flat finish -- the kind without primer mixed in. (For the record, the Behr "ultra" with primer mixed in is not worth the extra money. It's thick and hard to use, and still doesn't cover as well as separate primer + regular paint.) One coat and a few local touch ups of the taupe were all I needed for full coverage. (Note: other light colors like grey could be used as the base color. Pick a color that compliments the rest of the color scheme you choose, and also one that is convincing as mortar.)

Looking at real stones and many fireplace pictures helped me select colors for the glaze coats, which are painted on top of the base color. I wanted a natural, subtly earthy look. I also wanted to compliment the oak floor and warm-tone cream walls. With this in mind, I avoided cold-tone blues and greys. I settled on five glaze colors: earthy brown, burnt orange, fossil green, coral pink, and light sandstone. Sample-sized paints were sufficient for this part of the project. I got two colors from the discount "oops" paint section at Home Depot for $0.50 each, and the other three samples for $3 each. I also picked up a multi-textured art sponge and some cheesecloth for about $5.

I channeled my inner 3 year old for this next part of the project. I smeared paint on the stones with the sponge and my fingers, and blended haphazardly with the cheesecloth. I wanted to create the natural color variations, veins, and imperfections that characterize real stone. I applied the darker colors first, careful to use a similar balance of colors on the left and right sides of the fireplace. The goal was to create a general feeling of balance without perfect symmetry. Real stones are never totally identical. When the darker colors were dry, I lightly dabbed the sandstone color over the top of all stones with a sponge to create a calcified, weathered look, using the cheesecloth to remove excess paint.

Later, I used Q-tips to touch up the mortar, and a paint brush to touch up areas of the (freshly painted) wall that I nailed with the sponge. I only used one strip of tape on each side, but that was not enough. It is very hard to control a big puffy sponge that is covered in paint. In retrospect, I recommend generous use of blue painter's tape and/or butcher paper on the nearby walls.

I painted all the stones and the mantle piece before tackling the big lower ledge. That ledge was the most difficult part of the whole project because of its size. After trying a few different techniques, I realized that I needed large "features" on this stone to make it look real:  long veins, large blots of color, and sizable imperfections. A real stone of that size would not look symmetric and perfect.

Elegant in a slightly rustic way, this folding screen from Overstock.com added a touch of Old World sophistication to our living room, and was a much better fit for our style than the old contemporary black doors:

Project costs totaled $150: $20 for primer, $30 for base paint, $10 for glaze paints, $5 for a sponge and cheesecloth, and $85 for the screen. (A roll of painter's tape, drop cloth, paint tray, and a couple brushes would add about $50 of expense if you don't already have those items.) The work took about 3 weekend days to complete. I couldn't be happier with the results. The restyled fireplace looks classic and natural with a touch of Old World charm. It is deeply gratifying that a piece of my art is the centerpiece in our shared family space. As fall approaches, I am looking forward to wood fires in our newly updated fireplace.


  1. Simply amazing! You did such a wonderful job and it looks SO good. Probably even better than the original stone, I would venture. :) Well done!

  2. I just found your blog and this post and was wondering if I could feature you on www.itssoverycheri.com
    You did an amazing job.
    If you agree please send this link with your response since I am contacting several people.
    Thanks so much.

    Cheri from Its So Very Cheri

  3. Thanks for the kind words! Cheri, I am flattered that you would like to feature the work. Thank you for asking, and yes you certainly can. :)

  4. Just found your blog through centsationalgirl.com
    I'm loving the fireplace. I need to redo mine. The one at my home looks like something out of an early 90's Fresh Prince of Bellair sitcom episode.
    I do have it nicely decorated above the mantle though. I have Salvador Dali replicas and I keep a Scentsy warmer that gives off a nice glow.
    Keep up the great work!!!
    Rene at http://TrueWickless.com

  5. Haha, Rene, I love the sitcom description of your fireplace. Thanks for the comment. When I'm looking to add some fragrance and decor to my home, I'll make sure to check your site. We're still in the major overhaul phase, but I'm sure I'll get to decorating one of these days. :)

  6. Is it safe to use only masonry primer with the base coat and glaze being meant for regular walls?

  7. Hi shadow,

    The key is to pick a masonry primer that is specifically compatible with whatever type of paint you choose to put on top. Make sure to read the primer can to check what kind of paint may be used over the top (oil, latex, or acrylic). As long as you choose a compatible primer / paint combo, the base & glaze coats should adhere to the primer just fine.

  8. How did you settle on the glaze colors to attain the look that you wanted? I have been going on the Behr website and I can find "coordinating" colors for the "Classic taupe" that you used. To get a subtle look with "Classic taupe" as the main color, Behr recommends "mountain haze", "chamois cloth", and "cinnamon cake". I'm not very artistic and I have a large brick fireplace/wall to paint. I am currently painting the primer. I am worried that the technique will take forever. Did you paint the glaze brick by brick?
    Thank you

  9. First I spent a little time looking at pictures of fireplaces online to figure out what overall look I wanted to imitate. I printed out a closeup of some stones I liked, and took it to Home Depot with me to help me sort through color swatches. I found it helpful to compare physical color swatches to a picture. I noticed that there were veins of green, orange, and coral in the stone I liked. These colors looked somewhat subdued because of the weathering / calcification of the stones. So I picked a few colors that looked similar to the colors of the veins, and also picked a very light color ('light sandstone') that I could use on the very top to mimic that calcified, weathered look and tone down the boldness of the vein colors. As I applied the glazes, I tried to copy the natural veins & spots that occur in real stone, let the stones dry, and finally lightened everything up by glazing with the sandstone color on top. (It helped me to think about what real stones look like as I was glazing, especially as I remembered that stones become calcified and weathered looking *after* they sit outside for a while, so the lightest color should be used on the very top.)

    The entire process of glazing took about 4-5 hours total. As I applied the glaze paints, I did use a mostly one-by-one approach because my individual stones are quite big. (In my fireplace, a large stone measures 24" x 10".) Since you are working with bricks, you many not need to put as much emphasis on individuality as I did. You might like this post to help you with glaze:


    Let me know if I can answer any more questions for you! Good luck on your project.

  10. I went to Home Depot today to look at glaze colors and they only offered the gallon size glaze that you mix with colors. What was the name on the label of the glaze colors you chose? Did you mix any colors with glaze or did it already have glaze mixed in with the color?

  11. I can understand the confusion here. A "glaze" is usually a tint that gets added to a gallon of paint. I did not actually buy a thing called "glaze" from Home Depot. I just bought different colors of flat interior paint, and used the faux painting technique known as "glazing" to apply them over the base layer.

    Here is a detailed list of what I bought:

    1) 1 gallon of Zinsser 123 (masonry compatible) latex primer.

    2) 1 gallon Behr latex interior flat paint in color "classic taupe". This goes on after the primer.

    3) 5 sample-size (8 oz) Behr latex interior flat paints, with colors that I believe were called:

    "fossil stone"
    "khaki stone"
    "coral cream"
    "weathered sandstone"
    "falling leaves"

    (I threw out the empty sample containers, so I am not 100% sure on all those specific color names. I wouldn't expect you'd want to use most of these specific colors on a brick fireplace anyway.)

    These 5 additional paints got applied with a sponge and blended with a cheesecloth to create color variations and mimic the way real stone would look.

  12. Ahhh, ok. Thank you for clearing it up. I was at Michael's and wasn't sure if I should buy "glaze" paints there. I'm still working on painting all the little cracks with the primer. Hopefully once that is taken care of. The flat interior paint won't be as time consuming.

  13. Excellent post. Homemade version of what is being sold as the Brick Anew method. I am just wondering if a step could be saved by tinting the primer taupe and skipping the taupe paint coat. Any comments on that?

    1. Sorry for this very late reply! I haven't been keeping up on my blog very well recently. Honestly, I wouldn't try to skip the base coat by just tinting the primer. The glaze coat is fairly light, not intended to provide 100% full coverage of the base layer, but rather, to create some depth and character over the top of your base layer. If your base layer is primer, the end result may look a little shinier than you'd want for a faux stone appearance. (Do note that I am recommending a flat paint for the base.) Hope this reply wasn't too late to be helpful! Good luck.

  14. Your directions and photos were some of the best I've found online! I do appreciate the added paint color names, etc., and clarification about "glaze". I wondered if you had thinned your top colors at all with either glaze or water, but it sounds like you used them straight out of the container? and they were all flat finish as well?

    I love Louise's comment...I spent a good bit of time yesterday looking at the B-A website and trying to find reviews or experiences with that product elsewhere. Not finiding much, I knew I could probably do my own "kit" anyway...this tutorial has been a great boost to my confidence! (still have to convince DH that painted brick CAN look good!)

    1. You are correct, I did not thin out the glaze layers at all. To get a very light application of the glaze layer, I used cheesecloth instead of a sponge or paintbrush. This way you can dab on just a little bit at a time, and smear it around to achieve a lighter effect. Using a paintbrush or sponge to glaze is hard, because you end up with too much paint on the bricks. Using the paints at full strength helps them be more durable, which is especially important if this is a working fireplace (not just a decorative piece). And yes, all the glazes were flat finish too. Good luck!

  15. Thank you so much for posting this. My husband works for one of the big paint companies, so we get a good discount. The idea of paying $200 for small things of paint (which likely wouldn't cover the area I need) was almost killing me. Plus, I wasn't crazy with how light all of their choices are, and wanted something about like you have here. You've given me the confidence to try to pick my own colors and give this a go.

    I wonder if I could prime/basecoat with my paint sprayer? Hmm.

  16. Would you please tell me - in the third picture down has the fireplace been painted yet or is that the primer coat. Did it really look that matte and stone like at that point? Were you tempted to stop at that point? I think it looks great and would like to reproduce the look. It's unbelievable how good it look compared to the shiny red. Did

    1. In the third picture, the fireplace has been painted with the base coat, which was flat paint, color "taupe." (I didn't post a picture of just the primer.) I decided that if my faux painting attempt looked really bad, I might just paint it back to the taupe. I agree, it was a huge improvement over the red.

  17. I have been looking for an idea similar to this and was so excited to find your web page. I remodeled my kitchen six years ago and had a travertine backsplash installed along with brushed nickel appliances. The fireplace (in the same great room) is still white with a gold grate. I didn't want to spend the money on putting veneer on it, so I just left it like that. I am now in the process of getting around to updating the fireplace and am going to try this. Hope it turns out as nice as yours!

    In your 4th picture, with the lighter color sponged on, it that your last step? It doesn't look the same as the last two finished pictures.

    Also, what colors did you use as this is the exact color I am going for to tie in to the travertine in the kitchen?

  18. I reread your post and found the glaze colors you used, so I don't need that info anymore. I would still like to know if you put a final coat of anything over the top of your glazed layers though.


    1. Hi Julie,

      Sorry it took me awhile to get back with you. Sponging the lighter color over all the stones was indeed my last major step (other than minor touchups at the very end). There is no final coat on top of that light color. The closeup picture has a color cast from me using a flash. The use of flash in a closeup made the colors appear slightly whiter / harsher than they really look. The final two pictures show the colors true to life.

      I did the update about 2.5 years ago and ours is a working wood fireplace (not purely cosmetic). I haven't had any problems with smoke staining, cracking, or other things; it still looks great. Good luck with your project!!

  19. Thank you for sharing such valuable and helpful information and knowledge. This can give us more insights! Keep it up. I would love to see your next update.

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