An ugly fireplace and what lies beneath

old fireplace

As soon as we bought our house, I told my dad to get the crowbar ready; the first thing to go was the fireplace. The maroon tiles and pink faux finishing looked more suited for a bathroom from the mid ’80s.

I just knew there was something good hiding behind all that pinkish nonsense, and a conversation with our inspector confirmed that there was an excellent chance of either original stone or brick being suffocated just beneath the surface.

red fireplace

So with guidance from our general contractor, my dad and I popped off that façade and found lovely gray brick. Further work revealed a matching gray hearth. Yes, the brick was a little banged up from the previous owner’s “facelift,” but with a little TLC, things were looking so much better—and more like the rest of the home, of course, because this fireplace was built when the house was.

And here’s what our fireplace looks like today. Getting back to the original and enhancing it with appropriate millwork made a huge difference in the appearance of our home.

fireplace after

Tearing out an existing fireplace is not a job for the inexperienced DIYer, so here are some tips from our contractor before you start tearing things apart:

> Talk to a pro before you give it a go. If you have a gas insert, you’ve got to know where the shutoff valve is very first. So call a pro—and we’re not just talking about your general contractor. An HVAC contractor is the way to go, and it’s best to get more than one reference before hiring someone for the job.

A quality HVAC contractor will have a better understanding of what size insert you need if you are replacing the insert, what type of replacement parts are necessary, and how to cap off the gas in the interim—because you do not want a gas leak in your house. An HVAC expert is likely preferable to a fireplace retailer because lots of times the latter will just sub out the gas disconnect and hookup anyway.

fireplace with red paint

> If you’re removing trim, do it the right way. Our fireplace surround was basically a big wooden box built and trimmed out over top of the original. So before we could remove anything, we needed to do some prep. Score the edges of trim—where the wood meets the wall—with a razorblade before starting any prying; this will reduce damage to paint you want to preserve. Also, use a stud finder because when you remove trim, you want to pry against the drywall and a stud if possible, or you might pop big holes in your wall.

red fireplace close-up

> Don’t be intimidated by tile. Tiles often pop right off unless laid by a professional. For residue that remains (see photo above), try Goof Off, but be aware that it can remove finishes. Opt for water based rather than solvent based because it will not be as abrasive. We used Goof Off to clean up our brick surround and tile hearth, and it took some time, but it looks good.

> Have a plan in mind. If you’re going to have an insert, you’ll need to plug into a power source. And while an electrician can pull in a separate line, this will add an extra cost. Also, when you install something new, you have to have a permit for it. It’s important to remember, though, that even if city officials issue a permit, they have no liability if you do a lousy installation job yourself. So get a few different eyes on the project and use a pro for installation; he or she will better understand appropriate clearances and safety considerations too. Although inserts come with instruction manuals, you’ll rest a lot easier knowing a professional did things the right way.

> Don’t assume that just because you’ve removed a gas insert, you can burn a real fire in the fireplace. Before doing so, get a fireplace pro to take a look and tell you what needs to be done first to keep things safe in your home.

fireplace trimmed out

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