When we were searching for a house roughly a year and a half ago, there were a few “must haves” Karyn and I each had. One of Karyn’s was a fireplace. Spending most of my life in upstate NY, I was both in favor of a fireplace and also knew that many homes would actually not have one so I prepared Karyn for such discoveries and encouraged her to also consider woodstoves or coal stoves as an acceptable alternative to which she approved.


When we first looked at our house, we quickly noticed there was a large brick chimney. Our first few steps into the main hallway, glancing into the living room, we saw that there was in fact a hearth. Much of the original tile work was intact however some tiles were broken or missing. The mantle had been “updated” unfortunately. No telling where the original mantle went, but the mantle here was likely installed 30-50 years ago.

Original Coal Fireplace

Upon closer inspection we quickly learned that the old coal fireplace insert appeared to be unsafe and likely not usable in its found condition. Worse so, the current tenants renting the house had used the fireplace with wood, which many would not know, is not smart. Chimneys designed for use with coal appliances like ours, are unlined and not suitable for wood fires which are high in creosote. The unlined brick can be permeable to creosote. A few wood fires will likely cause no harm however a heating season full of wood fires in an unlined chimney could be very dangerous. Luckily, it appeared there were only occasional wood fires burned here.

After purchasing the home, we had major choices considering the fireplace: 1. Try to locate replacement parts and fix the original coal fireplace or 2. Consider an alternative replacement such as a gas or pellet stove insert.

I researched replacement parts which was a bit like trying to find Jimmy Hoffa. I knew it was out there but finding the right parts was going to be difficult. I was able to find many parts, but not the two I needed. I had learned that the covers (of which I needed one) were often taken for their metal during WWII, leaving behind a fireplace that was usable. So finding a cover was going to be difficult and finding the exact type I needed only made the search more difficult.

In my research I found where I could purchase entire coal fireplace replacements, both original and remanufactured from original designs. Most popular were British companies offering such products. By the time I added the cost of the unit and shipping a very heavy, all cast iron fireplace from England to NY I figured out that I could build a new chimney and fireplace hearth, buy a new insert and buy enough wood to last several seasons worth of heat and still not be ahead so I quickly turned to alternatives.

Since we do not have gas lines in our village, considering a gas fireplace meant we would have to have bottled gas on site. Not being strictly opposed to this, I researched this option. While gas is much cleaner than wood, pellets or coal it is also the least efficient considering the dollar to BTU ratio. Coal being the most efficient (and the dirtiest) buys you more BTUs per unit followed by pellets and then wood. Oil comes in next and then gas according to the data I could find. Not feeling great about the dirtiness of coal, and after talking to several people who I know burn coal, I took a closer look at pellet fireplace inserts.

Karyn and I try to be reasonable and practical while also being conscious of aesthetics. Pellet stoves and fireplace inserts are notorious for being safe, economical and very plain or downright ugly in appearance. Our hearth is in our living room, a centerpiece of the house so we were only interested in something that looked authentic for the house.

Out With the Old

We found that in a Harman pellet fireplace insert, so out came the old fireplace insert to begin the needed hearth repair.

New tiles were needed so off to the tile store!

Choices became much more difficult however for those of you that have either done tile work yourselves or had the task of picking out tiles for a project and had the limitations of a realistic budget, you know that price starts to reduce your options. In other words: tiles are not cheap!

Our first tile choices by aesthetics alone would have caused us to sell one of our cars and one of my kidneys to afford so we regrouped and found tiles we liked, looked somewhat like the originals and at the same time, updated the hearth but maintained a neutral and authentic appearance for the room.

We did all the tile work ourselves. From leveling the substrate to sealing, all the tile work was handled by B&K Sweat Equity, Inc.

New Cement for Hearth

We started by adding a layer of cement board to the already present cement slab suspended by the floor joists and chimney which goes all the way to the basement floor. The cement board was then topped with a cement mixture allowing me to perfectly level the surface. I had to build mini forms around the hearth to contain the cement as it dried and cured.

Poured Cement Hearth

Once the cement was cured we were able to lay the tiles out and mortar them in place. Karyn measured and laid the pattern, a very nice harlequin diamond pattern with an antiqued glazed off-white boarder.

Karyn Carefully Measures for Tiles

Once all of her measurements were set and chalk lines were drawn I cut the tiles that needed cutting on my tile saw. We “dry fit” each piece before committing to mortar.

I had done many tile projects in the past including whole room floors, walls and countertops. I had done one other fireplace and hearth so I felt totally confident however knew from my experience that every project provides lessons as well. Our major lesson this project was around sealing and timing. The insert delivery and installation did not go smoothly. That is a story unto itself. However, because of the delivery and installation going less than well, it affected our timing of sealing. I decided to seal the tiles knowing the delivery and installation would happen shortly after so long story short, the sealer was not fully dry and got… well, effected by the work needed to install the insert. I had to clean and reseal the tiles later. Lesson learned: don’t rush things, there’s usually enough time later to do it right.

Tiles Cut and Set

Still not finished, our next tasks considering the fireplace will be to refinish and reset the mantle. The mantle width works perfectly with the new fireplace however the depth does not. The mantle is too shallow and will need to be extended towards the wall by about 6 inches. This will pose a nice little woodworking project for us soon!

Pellet stove inserted and toasting our home