someone there is who does not love her wall
April 28, 2013 5:07 PM   Subscribe

How can I make my river-rock-covered fireplace less ugly?

My house has an extraordinarily ugly wall covered in river rock that surrounds the fireplace, includes a bumpy uneven hearth, and extends right and left to the corners of the room. It looks a lot like this fireplace* but more brown than grey. My room is bigger and there are windows above the stone at right & left.

This is so unattractive and sloppy looking to me. It's not rustic stacked stone, it's random shapes forced into thick mortar and it looks very unnatural and unsteady to me (it is sturdy though). Also the hearth doesn't have the same slate top as in the picture, it's bumpy and uneven (so I can't even put candlesticks or anything else on it, they tilt). It's our favorite room in the house, we're in here all the time and this huge ugly wall of stone is cold and heavy looking.

Any ideas for cosmetic solutions? Also on how to make the hearth usable? I can't afford to tear it down and redo the wall. No built-in shelves on the sides due to the windows. I have no problem painting the rock, slathering stucco or something over it, drawing emoticons on each rock, etc. The fireplace is gas with a sealed chimney if that makes a difference.

Open to any ideas, bonus for those with images (most images I've found are of tidy stacked flat stone or brick, or of projects that actually want the ugly river rock that I'm trying to get rid of).

*My apologies to the blog owner that I linked to, but that before/after just looks like an ugly stone fireplace that's now clean.
posted by headnsouth to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You frame out over the stone--like they are doing here. You can use regular drywall once you get away from the opening of the fireplace but you must use metal studs and cement board when you are within say, 19 inches (the code for my area) of the opening. I've been looking at doing this for my ugly brick fireplace.
posted by agatha_magatha at 5:22 PM on April 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

You know, the wall in the photo you link to isn't actually made of stone? If your wall looks much like that, it's probably just a fake (as in not real stone as well as not actually masonry) veneer, maybe 1" of actual thickness, put up over a wood framed wall. I don't know if that changes your budget concerns at all - you wouldn't actually have to rebuild anything, you'd just be taking down one finish and putting up another. You probably want to make absolutely sure of that before doing anything, but I don't think removal is as huge a project as you think.
posted by LionIndex at 5:25 PM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ooh LionIndex you're right, the linked image is not real stone. That explains why they have that level hearth. Mine is real stone. Real, round, uneven, cold, obtrusive, varying 2-5 inches or so out from the wall, stone.
posted by headnsouth at 5:29 PM on April 28, 2013

Well, that may be more of an issue. It could still be a veneer over a framed wall though. Some of the manufactured stone things can get pretty thick, depending on how real they're supposed to look. Is the other side of the wall also stone (like, outside, or in the adjacent room)?
posted by LionIndex at 5:34 PM on April 28, 2013

Unless it is so rough it rivals yosemite, get a mason to lay a slate hearth right on top of the mantle.
posted by leafwoman at 5:41 PM on April 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm unsure if it would work for your fireplace, but on a recent This Old House they smoothed out an old brick fireplace with a fancy structural stucco. Link to episode video here, if I did it right on my phone. If I didn't, it was season 32, episode 24, the Essex project.
posted by ftm at 5:57 PM on April 28, 2013

I think it might help if you could link to a photo of the actual fireplace in question -- there are a lot of variables.
posted by trip and a half at 6:06 PM on April 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

"Our house was built in 1964 and I’m pretty sure it had never been remodeled until we moved in" says the above-referenced blog owner. I bet they committed horrible decor crimes renovating anything so untouched. My suggestion would be to clean it up if it needs cleaning up like the linked one, and browse through "Retro Renovation" until you've made peace with it. Decorating a fireplace — 180+ photos from readers’ homes. (That, and post a photo of the actual fireplace)

Alternatively: look through the fireplaces on -- no matter how bad yours is, there's worse. At least you can see what not to do...
posted by kmennie at 6:32 PM on April 28, 2013

Link to fugly fireplace photos (with bonus puppy & "volunteer" help pic).
posted by headnsouth at 6:37 PM on April 28, 2013

I'd be leery of painting the rock wall; maybe it's just me, but that doesn't sound very attactive, and it'd be really difficult to reverse or change.

How is the decor of the room oriented? I mean, is the furniture, the couch and chairs, aimed towards that wall? Perhaps re-arranging the room so that that wall and the fireplace isn't the main focus would reduce the rock's impact. Turn things so that the rock wall is on one side, not directly in front of the seating, and have the TV --- another focus point --- on the new focus wall.
posted by easily confused at 6:59 PM on April 28, 2013

If you take easily confused's suggestion and just re-orient your decor to take the focus off the wall, you could also put plants on/around/in front of it. The plants would obscure the rock, and the rock would provide a "natural" backdrop for the plants.
posted by bunderful at 7:13 PM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was about to get all "don't touch the original decor leave the old house alone!" on you but that is some wall. Part of the problem is the coldness: cold grey stone, white trim, cool (temperature) paintings on the mantel. If I couldn't remove the stone, I'd clean it up and repaint the walls and nearby trim in warm colors and make sure that any nearby objects were warm and imposing as well. (Get a large psychedelic puppy.) That hearth is a pita. I'd look into the advice about getting something flat and warm toned (not slate) laid on top.
posted by firstdrop at 7:18 PM on April 28, 2013

My first thought was, "Aww, that's really nice and rustic!"

Then I started to snigger. Uhhh, what's that shit in front of the hearth?? Holyshit, is that awful! And hilarious! It looks like it was designed with seriousness and lots of care. Wow. Someone thought that feature was a good idea and clearly designed it to last. Pity.

I have some professional experience with stuff like this, and I wouldn't touch the stones except maybe to clean them, and maybe clean the ironwork, too. If you do anything, I fear it will look so much worse.

I would try to change out the mantel.

I would take my pics to a design store and ask for advice on how to accessorize the whole shebang such that it is minimized.

I would put a bottle of liquor next to that hearth stone business and take a deep swig every time it gets on my nerves:)

(BTW - cute family!)
posted by jbenben at 7:49 PM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I recently saw an episode of Property Brothers where they solved a similar problem by just drywalling over it, essentially creating a new fireplace surround and mantel on top of the old one underneath. That's what i'd do with your very ugly fireplace if i were you :)
posted by Kololo at 8:30 PM on April 28, 2013

Ok. Just took a better look at it on a much bigger screen.

It's very solidly built, and goes right up to the window sill. You really can't build over it without it looking odd, I think. This is the sort of thing you call in a professional to demo and rebuild because the windows are involved. The framing of the window is very particular to create a tight seal and keep the walls structurally sound - you really really don't want to tackle this without an experienced professional. This is not a DIY job.

Cleaning the stones will be a bit of a hassle, but will clearly go a long way towards making you hate it much less. I can't recommend a particular product or method, but google around.

It's really nice, tbh, and reminds me of something that might be in the home of someone I know with fantastic taste in that syle. Except for the built up part in front of the hearth, which is why I recommending taking pics into a design store and asking fir advice.

Structurally, I would only let a professional work on it. YMMV.
posted by jbenben at 8:33 PM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

The whole thing could probably be taken apart with a hammer and chisel and then be rebuilt but I'd have a pro look at it before I went mining in case some of that might be less veneery and more structural. This will of course be the most costly approach and make God's own mess in your living room.

Putting a nice flat slab on the built up part in front of the hearth (or removing and redoing just that bit) and replacing the mantel and grates with something that does a better job of blending with the river rock - a hewn beam with well executed timber frame joinery (or a torsion box that looks like a hewn beam from the outside) for example - would probably make the whole thing a lot more palatable.

As it is, it's like wearing stripes with plaid.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:54 PM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

This might not be what you're looking for, but the area in front reminds me of the natural history museum "lifelike displays" where Ogg the caveman and his friends tan hide and tear things with their teeth in front of mans first fire, so I would go with that theme.

Make it a super cheesy diorama with flint tools and goat hides and crude buckets. Put some old framed drawings of Neanderthals on the mantle next to a giant bison tooth. Make a spit too, for extra credit. Get big ferns and plants with wide leaves that look prehistoric and hide the grates with them.

I would find that hilarious and awesome, especially in an otherwise typical living room with a big couch and tv.

Ooh, you could even put the tv IN the hearth and then you and your friends old gather around and worship it like the hottest thing since sliced fire.
posted by rmless at 9:50 PM on April 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

A friend of mine had a brick fireplace that she hated. She ended up getting someone to concrete over it and it looks awesome. I don't know if it goes with the style of your house but it ended up making the living room feel more modern. Here are some examples. You'll definitely want a pro to handle it.
posted by biscuits at 9:55 PM on April 28, 2013

Ask a mason to come quote on the job and ask for more ideas about how to deal with it. Maybe they would suggest a new mantle or painting the mantel, cleaning the rock, rebuilding the hearth, etc. You could probably do some of that yourself. But getting some suggestions from a mason might help. Or you could ask a home stager too.

Me, I'd put a small bookcase on either side to hide part of the wall. I'd clean the rocks and paint the mantel. I don't know what I'd do about the hearth...that might be where I'd ask a mason about pouring concrete or something.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:38 PM on April 28, 2013

The solution for stone castle walls is tapestry over them.

If it were my place, I'd probably start with tapestry in front of the fireplace (in summer, when I'm not using it), and put wooden bookshelves under the windows and a custom-made table over the pit. A big table/platform thing.
posted by amtho at 11:20 PM on April 28, 2013

I had and area like that, stuccoed it over and it looks great 10 years later. Go for the curved southwest style, maybe with a border of tile around the fireplace opening. If you want a shelf, use tiles tipped back an imperceptible amount.
posted by yohko at 12:23 AM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

There seem to be metal vents in the stone. Do you have a Ventilator fireplace? Check Google for how that type of fireplace works.
posted by Cranberry at 12:52 AM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would clean it, and then there's a product in hardware stores that you can buy that makes it look kind of like it's wet, all the time. It's used for stone walkways and such. That would make the colors richer and less "blah".
And personally, I would play up the natural-looking aspect of the front area. Lots of plants, and encourage your cat to hang out there. (Since you're on Metafilter, I'm assuming you have a cat. It's mandatory now, along with the $5 fee, isn't it?) If you could find a really nice (not cheesy) indoor fountain, that would be the place for it, as well.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:45 AM on April 29, 2013

I think that the stone overall is pretty nice, but that hearth in front was added afterwards -- stone doesn't match, obviously poor workmanship, probably a home project, generally nasty. You might do best to just torpedo that and replace it with something more liveable, or even something with a pebble mosaic that changed the feel of the stone above. However, most obvious would be to grind it down a couple of inches and put in a substance that matches the flat mantel above the fireplace -- would class it all up and also give you a surface you could actually use. You might be amazed how that one change would alter your outlook on the entire wall.

Also agree on cleaning the stone, which was clearly discolored back in the days when this was a wood-burning fireplace. Neat that it had vents -- might have really heated the room once!
posted by acm at 7:09 AM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Adding a thick wooden mantle would help warm up the stone.
posted by natasha_k at 9:33 AM on April 29, 2013

Plaster of some sort over the wall. I lived in a house made of irregular stone blocks or field stones and the walls were all finished to look smooth with render and plaster, now this was built 150+ years ago so I am sure there are modern alternatives that would do the job. You'd still have a big ass fireplace in your room but it would be a smoother finish which you could repaint as you saw fit. Don't use plain concrete for it though speak to people in the know and get the right products, or for a job that small it might not cost too much to get someone in to do it for you.

This blog has a nice before and after pictures of something similar.

The hearth in front looks like a separate piece and I think attacking it with a crow bar and making a huge mess could break it up into chunks you could carry out, getting rid of that part sticking out would help cut but the visual bulk of it a little.

Good luck with it all and that is a cute puppy.
posted by wwax at 10:56 AM on April 29, 2013

I think stone fireplaces can look very inviting, but yours has some bad stuff going on. The mantle and the hearth are horrible, the rest needs a good acid wash. I think a visually heavier and more formal mantle would be nice, and demo the ugly hearth. Match the mantle to the hearth, or choose something of similar heft and texture. Do not paint the river stone, because that always looks like crap. Or maybe go for a formal surround and hearth in concrete, or concrete the whole thing. You could also go without a mantle, like in my first link. That photo shows a lot of warm, neutral furnishings picking up the warm tones of the stones. I think that would help in your case if you keep the stone.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:26 PM on April 29, 2013

I think the stone fireplace part of that is really pretty, it's the hearth that's the eyesore.

I'd get a nice fireplace screen and some andirons and some tools. Perhaps a nice basket for extra wood?

The idea being to detract from the clumsy hearth.

If you have a few bucks to spend, perhaps get a mason to bust up the hearth and re-do it in a pretty way, perhaps a couple of steps up rather than a giant ledge between the floor and the actual fireplace.

Or, since you have room to play with, frame the portion from the floor to the hearth in beadboard, and then tile over the flat part of the hearth with slate. That would set off the pretty river rock. and give you a bit more "white space" in the room.

Honestly though, it's not that bad. Especially if you have a puppy sleeping in front of it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:15 PM on April 29, 2013

Actually, I wouldn't mind having that in my living room (along with 5 foot more length of room), but right now I agree that it's kinda ugly.

If it were mine, I'd scrub the stones and put on the stone finish recommended above. Then I'd move my current massive "jungle" in front of it to make a natural backdrop for all the plants. It would be a great focal point. Vines and hanging plants to obscure the front, potted plants all across the top, more potted plants on the hearth, maybe even an indoor fountain. I'd love to have your antique jugs, and I'd leave them for contrast. Use it as a backdrop for your furniture, and I'll bet it would be lovely. My floor to ceiling wall o'plants garners complements against the boring plain white wall--it would be awesome against that rock! It helps if you like to do indoor gardening. Exotics are fun, but the plain old standbys work just fine.

Post a picture or let us know what you decide to do--I'd love to see how you resolve this.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:34 AM on April 30, 2013

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