Since its invention millions of years ago, the domestic fireplace has undergone a major design evolution: From a simple, dirt hole dug in the ground of caves, to cast-iron Franklin stoves, ornate Victorian mosaic surrounds, and the ever-popular, yellow-brown, buff brick of the 1970s.
But throughout the centuries, one style has withstood the vagaries of trend changes, striking a sophisticated, timeless look that elevates any fireplace from background accessory to focal point. And that style is natural stone.
Today, having your very own, customized stone fireplace has never been more achievable, and affordable. Total cost of materials and installation ranges between $2,000-$5000 to a higher end $10,000 and up, depending on a wide array of factors. These include:
Choice of Stone
From lowest to highest: natural mountain rock, river rock, slate, granite, travertine, limestone, marble. Followed by cultured, or manufactured stone.
There are two methods for assembling stones inset a fireplace surround:
Stacked stone, also called “dry laid stone”: involves cutting each stone to fit exactly into an airtight, interlocking puzzle without the use of mortar. This is the more expensive, and labor intensive method, but pays off in unmatched structural integrity, and the absence of issues associated with grout, such as: retaining dirt, mildew and mold.
Grouted stone: A fingers-width gap is left between each stone and filled with grout to bind the pieces together. Classic look: The grout sits just below the face of the stone. Rustic look: Grout sits flush with stones.
Whether you choose an intricate design for your stone face, or a simple uniform look will affect the overall cost:
Ledgestone: Dry or grout-laid, rectangular stones in narrow horizontal rows. Contemporary, seamless, and modern look
Square-stacked: Dry or grout-laid, mixture of rectangular and square-stones which vary considerably in size, placed in wider horizontal rows.
Ashlar: Like square-stacked only the stones are more uniform in size
Rubble: Grout-laid, variegated squares and rectangles, irregular in size and made to resemble vintage masonry.
River rock: Irregular pattern of rounded rocks, grouted wide apart, made to resemble naturally occurring cobbles
Mosaic: Intricately fitted flat stones arranged in a customized design
There’s at least a 25% price markup between doing-it-yourself versus hiring a professional. Whether the cost-convenience ratio falls in your favor hinges on if you can answer “yes” to the following questions:
Have you ever used a prybar to wrest a mantel from a plywood wall?
Do you know the meaning of the terms “metal lath,” “builder’s felt,” and “scratch coat”?
If I said “comb” the grout, would you reach for a hairbrush?
Have you ever donned a face mask while scoring stone with an electric grinder?
Consider the reality: re-facing a fireplace surround with stone is a labor-intensive, meticulous project with zero room for error.
Real or Imitation?
The single-largest contribution to the overall cost is whether you use natural or manufactured stone. Here is a list of the pros and cons of each:
Manufactured, a.k.a. faux, cultured, man-made stone: Created by pouring concrete into molds, and then dyed to resemble the genuine article
Affordable: Average cost $3-12 per square foot. And thanks to the advent of new saw-blade technologies, the shift into hand-dying, and the creation of natural rock molds, the gap between imitation and real stone has been significantly closed.
Environmentally friendly: Doesn’t require nature-stripping quarries.
Easier installation: Doesn’t require additional support structures thanks to flat backs and lightness. Cultured stone is one-third the weight of natural stone
Endless variety of styles and colors
Ubiquitous: Don’t have to absorb the cost of shipping cross-country
Accept as Is: You can’t customize cultured stone because they’re only painted on the outside. Cutting them exposes the aggregate interior, which is a different color than the face
Repetitive Shapes: Cultured stone molds duplicate in the installation, a dead-giveaway to the discerning eye that it isn’t natural stone
High-maintenance: Susceptible to fading, one chip and the concrete under-dermis is exposed. Also, prone to scarring, staining and discoloration if not treated with care
Natural stone: Quarried and extracted from nature. The most popular option is what’s known as stone veneer, large natural rocks sliced into thinner facings. Veneer is 1-2-inches thick versus natural stone, at 4-6” thick
Added value: Natural stone provides a timeless, sophisticated look that will be appreciated for generations
Customizable: Each piece of stone is unique in appearance and texture. No two stones are alike
Durable: Last a lifetime
Natural heat and moisture barrier
Cost: $10-30 per square foot, at least 25% more than cultured stone
Limited Use: Natural stone, versus veneer, can only be affixed to a masonry block fireplace due to its massive heft.
Labor-intensive: Requires additional support structures, special footings, and expansion joints to be affixed to fireplace wall
Not readily available in some areas of the country, and its mass-production takes an environmental toll
Bonus Section: We’ve consulted the experts and asked them for their top FIVE insider tips for the stone fireplace renovation:
1: If you’re using river rock, place rocks in the middle of a bonfire to see if they pop open. Some can retain moisture for years and explode from water-pressure expansion
2: Don’t rely on pictures or sample boards. See your stone selection on an actual fireplace vignette, especially when using manufactured stone
3: If you want an arch-shaped entry, place an old tire atop a platform in the fireplace opening, set in place by two wheel chocks on either side. Build your arch on top of it.
4: If wet mortar drips onto the face of stones, do not wipe it away. You’ll end up pushing it deeper into surface pores where it will cure and create impossible stains. Let mortar dry first, and brush off with a whisk broom.
5: Add stones from the top-down; this will mitigate the chances of mortar spilling onto the face of the stones below.