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Installing The Stone Fireplace

Considering Real Stone Vs. Faux Stone

Part 15 Of Our Real Life Remodeling Journey

Publisher's Comments

The following story is part of a series of articles about my family's experience with our home's remodel. Links to the other stories are found at the bottom of the page.

We always knew we would have a stone fireplace in the addition. A warm fire is not only good for the soul but it does a good job treating the goose bumps during those long Minnesota winters.

When my wife and I originally conceived the idea of the new family room the concept of exactly what kind of fireplace we'd have was still percolating. Some of those questions were quickly taken care of but others, particularly regarding the stone, went right down to the wire.

Giving It The Gas

The fireplace in the old family room was the wood-burning variety and I always thought I'd never do anything different. The smells, the cracking and hissing all added to the ambiance. Hauling the wood and lighting the fire satisfied my primitive male hunter-gatherer instincts. Keeping the fire lit and constantly having to tend to it was another story however.

A few years ago we "fixed" our basement fireplace (which we never used because it was always to cold and drafty) by installing a gas fireplace insert. The unit came complete with a thermostat and remote control. That's when I became a convert. My lazy-man instincts took over and reveled in the fact that I could just simply press a button and "voila!" -- instant fire and heat.

So that was the easy decision -- the new fireplace would be gas. It was made easier by the existence of newer gas fireplace models that showcase a much larger and realistic flame, not to mention better heating efficiency than older models and traditional masonry fireplaces.

Checking Out Faux Stone

The other main design question beyond which specific brand and model of fireplace to choose was what kind of stone to use for the surround. Our thought was that it would be a faux stone and that's ultimately what our contract specified. However the type, brand or color of manufactured stone we wanted was still to be determined.

If you're not familiar with it, faux stone is a product that looks like stone but it's made from concrete that's been poured into molds made from real stone. The faux stone is colored to resemble the various types of stone that occur in nature.

There's a variety of manufactured stone makers but I've always had an inclination toward the Owens Corning brand called Cultured Stone. You'll hear the term "cultured stone" used for just about any type of manufactured stone but it's name really belongs to Owens Corning.

There really are differences in the visual appearance among the various brands of manufactured stone. In my opinion, some just do it better than others. Some faux stone looks better from a distance, for example, on the side of a house or building but doesn't stand up to close scrutiny (meaning it looks like fake stone).

As we got toward the tail end of our remodeling project we reached the point when we had to choose the specific type of stone we wanted. After doing a bit of research we settled on a faux ledgestone from Owens Corning.

But that's until I had second thoughts.

Real Stone Wins Out

The lazy man in me could put up with a fake fire but I was struggling with the concept of fake stone. Mind you, manufactured stone is very prevalent these days and a lot of it looks great.

stone fireplace installationDay 1 - Prepped With Mortar Basecoat

But to be truthful, I've always loved natural products like wood and stone in a home. The fireplace was going to be a focal point in the new family room and I just couldn't reconcile the fact that I'd be staring at fake stone for the next umpteen years.

After pleading my case with my spouse we switched gears and decided to install real stone. I had already run the numbers and while it would be a bit more expensive, it wasn't that much more than what we would have paid for the faux stone. This generated a change order to the remodeling contract but it was one I was glad to sign.

stone veneer fireplaceThe Selection Of Stone Veneer Pieces

The stone we chose was a version of limestone, quarried not too far away in Wisconsin. The stone was also a thin veneer product, sliced from larger pieces of rock into thinner facings and corner pieces. Using stone veneer doesn't require special footings and structural needs like a "real" full-block stone fireplace would.

The interesting part about choosing real stone is that you can try and dial in a particular color but you essentially get what nature gives you. We ordered a 70/30 mix of stones that varied from very neutral to a medium color intensity. We ended up having to buy another box of the more colorful stones because the original allotment didn't have enough color.

stone fireplaceThe Stone Goes Into Place

Installation of the stone was one of the last major pieces of the remodel but thankfully it happened before the carpet was laid. The stone masons were good but the process still made a mess in the family room. Even though all the stone cutting was done outside there was still a fine layer of dust on everything in the area including the kitchen countertops when the job was done.

A Few Recommendations

In the end we were extremely happy with the results. The stone looked great and although we paid a bit more than we would have with faux stone, it's a choice we're glad we made.

This is one of those purely emotional decisions that come along in a remodel. Faux stone would have probably looked just fine (even though I still know I'd be able to tell the difference) and no one would have cared otherwise. But there are certain things in every remodel that go beyond reason or practical judgment. My wife definitely wanted granite countertops; I really wanted a real stone fireplace.

If you're thinking of installing a stone fireplace or maybe re-facing an existing fireplace with stone or faux stone, here are a few tips.

stone fireplaceBrushing The Mortar Joints

When choosing the stone, regardless of whether it's real or manufactured, look at examples of actual fireplaces. Don't depend simply on pictures or the small sample boards you can check out from home centers or masonry showrooms. I was surprised at the difference between the colors of faux stone in the brochures and how it actually looked in real life.

A good place to view fireplaces with stone surrounds are at businesses that sell gas fireplaces and hearth products like Fireside Hearth & Home. A good masonry business will usually have some fireplace vignettes set up so you can see how various types of stone will look. The local company we bought the stone from had a showroom with large 4-foot square display boards in addition to some fireplaces.

Be careful with colors too. There are some interesting and varied colors that are available, particularly in faux stone. However you'll want to be sure that a particular color is going to work long term with both your decor and your tastes. I found that some of the manufactured stone colors also bordered on the unrealistic. I'm no geologist but there are some colors that just don't look natural to me.

Putting up a stone hearth with thin veneer or manufactured stone can be a do-it-yourself project. But after watching the masons install our stone, I'm glad I had them do it. The biggest challenge that I saw was establishing a balanced and pleasing stone pattern. Their experience enabled them to choose the right size and shape of stone and when they didn't have just the right piece, they cut the stone to make it blend into the pattern.

stone fireplaceReady For A Fire

It's a job I might want to consider trying someday, but I didn't want to do it on the fireplace that everyone sees as they walk in the house. I'll save that job for the basement fireplace.

Next Up In This Series . . . It's Finished

Our remodel is finally finished and as the before-and-after pictures show, the space is a lot different than it used to be. See how it looks in part 16.


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