DIY Home Improvement

The Final Home Improvement Project.

slate tile fireplace surroundMy wife and I bought our first house in Portland, Oregon, about ten and a half years ago. We bought a distressed fixer-upper with the thought of putting in some sweat equity and selling it within five years to cash in on the equity.

What took so long, you may ask? Life got busy. That first year, my wife gave birth to our first child, which, of course, was a life-changing event. The money and time we had budgeted to fix the house went to diapers and daycare. Three years later, we had our second kid, and by the time she was walking, we realized that the large backyard made it worth staying a while longer. There are just not that many houses that sit on a quarter-acre lot or more in the Portland area. So we stayed to enjoy playing with our kids in the backyard and slowly fixed up the house as time and money allowed.

Now, it has come time to sell this house and move on to a new adventure. There is that one last remaining home improvement project to take care of. That is retiling the fireplace. When we moved in, the fireplace had a woodstove insert installed that was not the correct size for the firebox. It was too small for the firebox but extremely heavy. It took three of us to pull it out of the fireplace, Slide it onto a blanket so it would not scratch the hardwood floor, and push it out the door onto the deck. That is where it sat for a year or two. It became a decoration for our deck and an ashtray for when people came over to hang out and BBQ.

My plan was to take it down to the scrapyard for some cash, as heavy as it was I figured it would pay out a fair amount. However, when trying to bribe my friends with beer, no amount of beer was worth it for them to break their backs to help me drag it around to the front yard and hoist it into the back of my truck. So it sat as our deck decoration for the next summer until a truck drove down my street that said free scrap metal removal. I flagged him down and showed him my situation; he left and came back with six guys. I wish I spoke Spanish so I could understand what they were saying, but I can only imagine what cuss words sound like in Spanish as they did a test lift to see what weight they were up against. After a few minutes of discussion, they had their plan and skilfully pushed, shoved, pulled, rolled, and lifted the beast into the back of their truck. I gave them the rest of the scrap metal I had been saving to cash in with the stove in hopes it would make it worth their while for having to split their cache six ways.

Fireplace demolitionThe previous owner had built an ugly box with dark green paneling around the fireplace and glued white “decorative” rock to the brick. It must have been done in the ’70s; It just had that 1970s feel to it. I tore the paneling down and chiseled off the rock down to the brick, and that is where I left the condition of the fireplace for the next ten years.

Now I`m out of time, and it is time to sell the house, so I have to finish this fireplace. When I tiled the adjacent entryway to the back deck, I bought enough 12×12 slate to do the hearth area of the fireplace. To cover up the brick surround, I used a stacking slate. I fiddled around with the top, trying to make it look good, but I didn’t like the edge of the slate showing along the top of the surround. It just looked like an end grain, showing as if it was wood.

Woodworking courses taught by master craftsman Brain Benham

Mitering slate tileTo solve this, I did what any good woodworker would do when working with slate. I mitered the joint. Now, the slate has an irregular edge, so the miters aren’t tight, but once I rub some grout in the crack, I think it will look awesome.

The slate on the hearth had its end grain showing as well, so I used some homemade oak quarter-round to trim it out. I made the quarter round from some unfinished oak flooring I had left over from another project. Basically, I ripped the tongue and grove off with my table saw and ran the edge over a round-over bit in my router. I then ripped the rounded-over section off the board on the table saw to create the final width of the quarter round. The freshly cut wood did not match the existing oak because the existing oak has aged over the years. To get the new oak to match the old I used some amber shellac and mixed it down with some clear shellac until I got it close to the color of the floor, I then used it to stain the new wood to match.

slate tile fireplace surroundAll in all, it turned out pretty well, a kind of bittersweet as a ten-year project winds down to an end. I can only hope the new owner will enjoy all the work my wife and I have put into this house.

I’m the owner of Benham Design Concepts, a mixed media art studio where I design and build custom furniture and other works of art using wood, glass, stone, and various metals.
In this blog, I talk about the art I create, my journey, and the things I learn along the way.


  1. What you did with the fireplace is quite impressive. Your hardwood floor is very nice, too. Oak?

  2. Great work with the fireplace my husband took him about 2 months to finish ours because our outer wall was in real bad shape and we need to bring it down and re-build the whole wall and the fireplace with it.

  3. Waw good read. You can tell a lot of work went into this project. It also gave me some ideas thanks for doing this 🙂

  4. You did a great job, man! Well done! I love the fireplace and everything! Such an inspirational article. Love it! 😉

  5. Nice article! Amazing job i was really impressed by the hardwood floor and the fireplace is awesome!

Leave a Reply