fieldstone fireplace makeover with German smear and light wood mantel

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Hi friends! Got a new before and after to share with you today: I finally made some moves with the fireplace remodel in my living room, and I did the entire thing — new mantel and all — on a budget that cost me less than our average trip to the grocery store.

Have you ever struggled to make up your mind about a remodeling project? Was it because you were afraid you’d make a mistake or that you’d hate the results? That’s exactly where I found myself with my old stone fireplace. I remember when I first started this blog that I thought I’d live with it for just a little while before giving it a fabulous transformation. Ha. hahahahaha.

And then ten years went by. I graduated from grad school, met a guy, had a baby, and still: the old fireplace remained the same. Same dark and chunky fireplace mantel with supports that made it look too heavy. Same gray and orange fieldstone that I wasn’t thrilled about, yet was the focal point of the room.

fieldstone fireplace before makeover

But I’ve got good news (and you might assume already because of the title of this post): I finally did the damn thing and gave my living space a more modern look!

Ready for the after?

BOOM:

fieldstone fireplace makeover with German smear and light wood mantel

I also created a quick video for you to see the whole process!

How I transformed my outdated fireplace

I think my biggest hurdle in this whole thing was that I didn’t feel like I yet had my big great idea. Everything I saw on Pinterest about making over a natural stone fireplace sparked little more than a “meh” and none of it looked easy. Some of it looked simple enough, but permanent, and I struggled for a long time with not recognizing any of them as what I really wanted. I guess it’s a gut thing; I would know it when I saw it, maybe? Almost everything I did see gave me more and more info on what I didn’t want, not what I did!

That went on long enough to where I got incredibly frustrated with my indecision. Perhaps painting the house (another 10+ year project I kept putting off but completed earlier this year) pushed me to start putting more effort into figuring out the best way to get a contemporary look and finally commit. I did lots of scrolling through Pinterest and it helped me realize that I wanted to cover over the natural stones (somewhat, but not entirely) to achieve a more modern fireplace look. I researched and considered my options, each with their pros and cons:

German Smear vs Limewash vs Whitewash

  • German smear with tile mortar or grout — German smear or schmear is a technique that has been around for centuries by partially covering a stone or brick fireplace with white wet mortar. It really softens the look of irregular stones and adds a rough texture. I like the look, but I worried about accidentally covering too much or not getting the tint right (if the white was too stark) and regretting those choices. There would be a slim window to make any changes and it’s likely I would have to find a way to dedicate a large block of time instead of accomplishing it in a few nights (which works better for me with the little one around). I learned through Emily Henderson’s post that “German smear” may really be more of a technique than a specific material (some have used plaster mixed in with the mortar?). Even though Chris Loves Julia referred to theirs as an “over-grouted fireplace”, it looks like a similar application and I picked up a lot of good tips!
  • Limewash — Limewash is a textured product made from lime/sandstone and gives an “old world” look to stone and brick (mainly because it’s an application that has been around so long that it is quickly associated with a classic look). It doesn’t cover the surface completely, so it allows the stone or brick to peek out and also patinas over time. A product like this would be removable and changeable for a little while (per the Romabio website, it can be applied and then removed within 2 days as a test to see if you like it), but eventually would be permanent. I liked the look OK, but I wasn’t 100% sold because I kind of wanted to create a new thicker texture like the over-grouted or German schmear would do. I actually like this look a lot on old brick, but I wasn’t convinced my stone would look right. Maybe a combo of this and the German smear would be perfect (and if so, I wanted to see the German smear first and then possibly apply this over).
  • Whitewash or graywash — This could be accomplished by thinning down gray or white paint and washing over the stone just like the limewash. Out of the options, this was probably the most budget-friendly way to achieve a new look since I already have plenty of paint lying around, so my supply cost would basically be free. But again, no significant texture change.

So: something flexible, not a lot of money, something that I could accomplish over many days with breaks in between, a brighter overall appearance, and something that impacted the texture. Then, I thought: could I maybe do this with joint compound? I know it sounds a little crazy, but hear me out:

  • I can add tint to it with paint (I assume other types of tints like powdered pigment could also work)
  • It can be added to in layers or scrubbed off with water if I put on too much (not entirely since the mud would get down into the texture of the stone, but enough to make a visible difference)
  • I had plenty of it in the garage already from trying to finish the drywall in there. My only cost would be time!

It sounded plausible. At the very least, it sounded like it was worth asking a home inspector about. As with any project like this (ahem, this one involves literal fire), I felt better to check with someone that I wasn’t messing with the function of my gas fireplace; they basically said that since the stone was decorative and not structural, I could proceed. Given that the house was built in the 80s and the back of the fireplace was brick and not stone, we both agreed that the stone served little more than to provide a rustic look. This wouldn’t be the best option for a restoration project, but mine is far from that!

I also came up with two backup plans just in case this one didn’t work out:

  1. Cover the covered-up stone with concrete (go really modern)
  2. Demo completely, cover it all with new framing and cement board and redesign a new look entirely (new tile, etc.)

I tackled this in four basic parts:

1. Demo

Materials needed: hammer | small sledgehammer | scrap 2 x 4s | screws | ear and eye protection

For me, demo is by far the best part of any DIY; it’s full of potential and makes me feel totally badass, even when the rest of me feels like I had just been up all night with a toddler. I had taken a close look at each piece of the mantel surrounding the stone and saw that they appeared to be held in place by just a few nails. I figured that as long as I kept a tight control on my hammer-swinging, the easiest way would be to take things out piece by piece and figure out what I was dealing with from there.

demo-first-pieces of the fireplace

The first two pieces directly under the upper mantel came out first with just a few hammer swings. I wasn’t sure if the upper mantel would be independently connected to the wall or not (it was), so I was careful to confirm that before demoing the second side. Getting out that first piece also helped me confirm that this was stone veneer — see how you can spot the mesh sticking out underneath the stone?

closeup view of the stone veneer and mesh backing

The posts were a bit tougher, and I thought they might have been embedded slightly below the stone on the hearth. I first tried to hammer the post to the side; it got really loose, but I didn’t have enough leverage to lift the bottom out. So, I did a little brainstorming and created a triangular brace from 2×4 scrap and screwed it into each post. This let me then hammer up instead of out. I was totally surprised when the first one came out — I had no idea it went down that far! The second came out a lot easier since I knew better what I was doing (funny how experience works immediately like that, eh?). Check out the video to see it all in action.

After sharing this on Instagram, I got a few messages wondering why I hadn’t used a car jack to lift up the posts. The short answer is that I didn’t think of it at the time, but I’m also not sure I would have done that if I had. I was trying to be careful not to cause any major cracks in the stone (it’s in good shape, just ugly), and I think the jack would have increased the likelihood of getting something to break, especially with my lack of experience).

2. Fireplace Surround Makeover (Joint Compound)

Materials needed: joint compound | stiff brush | rags | latex paints or pigment | mud pan | spreading tools

To get a similar look to the German smear, I had a little bit of trial and error to get through. Luckily, this application is extremely flexible! I first rubbed the joint compound onto the stone with a rag. I quickly realized that a little goes a long way and I was getting way too much coverage. So I changed tactics to using a paint stick (my Very Professional Tool, ha!) to apply the mud in between the stones. It looked really sloppy at first, but I smoothed things out a little more as it began to dry and firm up. I left these two patches to dry overnight to see which I liked best in the daylight.

figuring-out-how-much-german-smear-to-apply-to-the-stone

The next day I realized that not only did I want to tweak the coverage a little more (more than the upper area but less than the lower section), the joint compound was also just way too bright. So I pivoted yet again. I took a few latex paint samples I had for a different project and mixed them into the mud, which gave me a color a few shades lighter than the wall color (it also happened to incorporate all the different tones in the stone). Even though it may not look super dramatic in the video at first glance, it made a huge difference!

As the drywall mud began to dry, I took a stiff brush and smoothed out all of the marks from the paint stick to look more like German smear.

brushing-the-joint-compound-to-smooth-the-stonework

If there was ever a spot where I thought had too much, it was easy to scrub down with a rag and remove enough mud to reveal the stone underneath. At first I also globbed on too thickly in certain areas (which would crack), so I removed these sections with a chiseling tool and reapplied. It wouldn’t of course be possible to remove all of the mud after applying (it gets down into the texture of the stone — perhaps if I used a pressure washer or something which would be far more trouble than it’s worth). But it made me very happy to be able to work on it over the course of a few nights after the baby was asleep and remove/add as needed to get the right balance. Days later after it had dried, I could still make changes, unlike I would be able to do with mortar or grout.

3. New Wood Mantel

Materials needed: 1×6 pine boards | clamps | miter saw | circular saw | safety gear | wood glue | pin nailer and nails | wood filler | pre-stain conditioner | stain | polycrilic

This is the design element that really made things click for me that this was a totally new fireplace and was basically the only part that cost me since I had to buy new wood. I could have possibly sanded down the old wood and stained over, but that would have been really messy and more time-consuming, so I opted to cover it. When I demoed the original legs and supports, the mantel itself seemed to be well secured to the wall, and I realized that it could be a lot easier to wrap it in new wood rather than demo the whole thing (I wanted a similar look anyway, but not as dark). The wider pieces were out of stock when I shopped and the lumber yard is about 40 minutes away, so I chose a few simple pine 1x6s to make my mantel. It was just wide enough to make the front completely cover the thickness of the top and bottom pieces while wrapping the entire front and sides together.

fitting-the-new-mantel-onto-the-old

Other than the front where the corners are visible, I wasn’t super concerned about seams (such as where the top meets the front). I don’t have a table saw, so I chose not to rip down a mitered edge on the top or bottom. It made for a much simpler glue up.

Mantel Stain

For the stain, I applied a pre-conditioner to prevent a blotchy application and then did two coats of Fruitwood for the color. I have never used all of a can of stain before — until now. I’ve used this color on enough projects now that it’s one of my favorites! I’ll have to do a post soon on my favorite stains so you guys have a good guide (so many colors to choose and some of them can look really bad depending on the wood used). For a topcoat, I used Polycrilic and kept the sheen flat.

4. Painting the Firebox

Materials needed: drop cloth | painter’s tape | recycled plastic bags or plastic sheeting | spray shield | eye protection | breathing mask | box fans

Between regular use and age, the firebox showed signs of wear and tear, mainly scratches and discoloration through fireplace burns. I had already had it serviced so I knew the chimney itself was in good condition as well as the gas unit, so I just wanted to refresh the look of the brick, metal face, and curtain screen. For this, I chose high heat spray paint in black. I opted for the highest heat resistance I could find and it dries in 10 minutes, so all I had to do was mask off everything I didn’t want to paint, spray, and wait for the smell to dissipate. To help keep overspray from the air off the walls, I used scrap plywood as a handheld shield as I worked. In hindsight, I would have used a drop cloth on the floor (it was an easy cleanup because I worked fast, but there was still some slight overspray). It is VERY important to wear a mask and use fans for this since the paint will be very heavy in the air when working in such a tight space! I also think I may go over just the front metal face with a flat paint because the 1200-degree stuff is a higher gloss (the 600-temp stuff is flat). The 600-degree paint also comes in a roll-on form, but I couldn’t find it in stock near me.

spray-painting-the-firebox

There you have it! I hope you love the new fireplace as much as I do. Because Holy Hannah* do I love it now! I think it brightens and gives the entire room new life. We’ve already had a toasty fire or two to celebrate the whole new look. As with most DIY projects that take me a while to accomplish (and especially in rooms we spent a ton of time), I’m so glad I finally overcame my inner voice convincing me to procrastinate. It was SO WORTH IT!

I wasn’t able to enjoy a completely unobstructed view for long. Just a few hours after snapping the after pics, I had to put up a baby gate to keep Ellis out. Still, though.

Ellis enjoying a movie in front of the newly made over fireplace

I haven’t yet sealed it because I’m still making a few more tweaks and want to add a few more elements in the near future (one big one will be finding a way to hide the TV wires). But I have a plan. Once I know I won’t make any more changes, I’ll try to find a sealer that keeps the matte finish of the stone/mud and doesn’t change the color. I’ll be sure to update this post when that happens! So, waddya think of my refreshed fireplace?

*(I read a blog post once using this phrase and it tickles me to use it.)

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23 Comments

  1. I love it……. I made built a mantle just like it..And your story sounds like mine I also love to tear my home up… to rebuild as well lol
    Keep up the great diying!!!!!!!!!!!
    Courtney

  2. For sealer, check out Domestic Imperfection. She used a matte sealer on her brick laundry room flooring and you legitimately can’t tell it’s there. StoneTec Bullet Proof I think? Something like that.
    Looks amazing and I love the idea of using joint compound!

  3. This looks just right. The fireplace still has that great stone texture, but the color is so much better. The mantel is a great size and color. What a nice job! Thanks for all the tips on how to tone down the stone.

  4. Love it!! Paint stir sticks aren’t given enough credit. But damn girl, you’re crafty!

  5. I have a 8×4 faux brick paneling in my laundry room, still painted a whitewash, that I was looking to improve the looks, the sheetrock mud is a great idea I could work with… Thanks for sharing
    JimBo

  6. I. LOVE. IT!!! She went from old and stodgy to young and fresh!! What a difference and you did a beautiful job on it! You certainly should be proud of yourself….now you can relax and ENJOY!!

    1. Thank you Karolyn! I am KICKING myself for not thinking to do this sooner but I’m SOOOO happy with it and I’m so glad you like it too!

  7. Love the fireplace, it does seem to focus the attention in the living room more now, and the little fuzzy head there! Looks like you might have a leftie too, if what I heard about the direction of the swirls in the hair on the crown of the head are true. My oldest grandson’s hair did that and he is a leftie, one of many we seem to have. I suspect the newest granddaughter will be one too.

    1. We haven’t quite yet figured out leftie or righty (we have our suspicions as well, but for now he seems to use both without a preference). But so interesting that you noticed that!

      1. It’ll be a couple of years before you know for sure, at least. Be sure to keep links to left handed Items, there seem to be a lot of them now.

  8. I love it, you did such a good job! Back when my husband and I were engaged we lived in a house with a similar fireplace and we, too, hated it. I wish we thought of this though because it is honestly amazing. Now that we’re in Colorado our house has a fireplace that is oddly understated, and of course I want to redo it after reading this!

    As far as the baby gates- so necessary but rarely a good aesthetic, lol.

    1. Haha, yes! And thank you. That baby gate is like “oh you did all this work and want to show it off? NOT SO FAST!”

  9. I think that a great job! I was trying to get some prices, on remodeling my old fireplaces and believe me you wouldn’t believe what some of the quote were, but you took on the changellage yourself you go girl , I no you save buy doing it yourself self .

    1. One of the best things about DIY is not just the sense of accomplishment, but making my remodeling goals an actual reality because I can afford them when I do the labor myself! Thank you for the support!