Mountain Fixer-Upper: Our Stone Fireplace Makeover
As you may have seen, we were back at the mountain fixer last week, designing away while our plaster guy gave our bubble rock fireplace a makeover. You voted for us to ‘work’ with the fireplace rock instead of demo-ing it out and starting fresh, perhaps opting for our dream stone or a totally new design (see this post for reference). We liked the idea of stone – it’s a mountain house after all – and Brian’s masculinity is highly attached to the amount of wood and rock in this house. 🙂 I like a good rock, too, but I wanted ours to feel either more aged and organic OR new and fresh. When we bought this house, it just didn’t feel right for the style that we were going for.
But, it took us a while to realize why. The tone of the stone isn’t bad – it’s gray, not too brown. The shape of those rocks are more round than I like, but I like circles so why is that a problem? It was built with real stones, not fake, in a fairly random pattern, not looking too forced. Nothing objectionable there. Well, eventually, we realized that it was the darkness of the grout and the depth of the rock that was the problem.
Nothing some schmear can’t fix. Now, after doing a little research and not really being able to come up with a clear answer, we realized (or so we think) the schmear is just how someone applies plaster. It looks rough, messy, organic and shallow. It doesn’t fully cover the stone but it comes close. (Is this the correct definition for a schmear? If anyone actually knows the answer, please leave it in the comments and we’ll update the post.)
It could be that for months, we were saying the exciting phrase “German Schmear” all day, every day when we could have been just saying “plaster”, but where’s the fun in that. For this, I will never repent.
Here’s a quick reminder of the pre-schmear “before”:
It’s hard to live with the above fireplace when all you want is the below.
That would be our dream stone fireplace, if we had old stones. But ours aren’t as flat or jagged and are a lot newer (from the ’80s or ’90s). We liked that the mortar was less deep and not as strong of a dark line. It was more monochromatic and natural, less “rock, grout, rock, grout.”
This fireplace is one that we also liked that seemed more achievable. Sure, our rocks were rounder, but maybe we could add so much plaster in a “shmear- like” fashion to just have it be a really pretty white-ish texture with the stones just peeking out, desperate to breathe under that schmear.
We sourced a faux finisher from LA but didn’t find anyone who had this in their portfolio who was affordable. Lots of people said they could do it, but when our GC said he had someone up there for $1k, we went for it because anyone in LA would have charged more. The project has to keep moving and frankly I was skeptical that ANYONE could give me the fireplace that I loved, so what did I have to lose? Worst case was that we would plaster it over, dislike the color and then paint it white.
At first, he mixed some gray in the white plaster, but it must have been a fairly warm gray so it looked kinda brown (on the left). It just wasn’t as fresh as I was thinking. Next, they mixed cement with the plaster and it looked mostly like cement (right). Too cold and concrete like. Here, you can see them both together:
They removed both of those before they hardened. It was 11:30 am at this point and we had to leave by 4 pm. I probed my contractor, asking him “Are these the only options?” and he said no but that he thought this was what we wanted so they were going to have to go get other options and it couldn’t be done today. And then I asked him if this was definitely how you schmear and he acted as if he had never heard the phrase before. It’s then that we were told that German schmear was just a technique, not a material (we think…again, we welcome any information or suggestions).
When we didn’t like option #1 or #2, he said that we could just try it in white and I thought…wait, maybe that’s what we wanted anyway? No time to get more options and again, I had very little hope that changing the slight tone of it would make it better. They said it would be REALLY white, and so I figured, why not?
He went for it. Here’s the step by step:
I wanted to title this “DIY Plaster Fireplace,” but obviously couldn’t because I didn’t DIY it. George did. I know like anything that looks easy, it requires skill, practice, mistakes and troubleshooting, but I figured I’d give you the steps in case you wanted to give it a whirl. It’s my totally inexperienced opinion that when it comes to schmear, you can be messier than you would be with other types of plaster. If I had more time, I would have liked to try my hand at the technique and give it a whirl.
We gave George the direction to even out the rocks, but in a natural way. Some spaces would be deeper than others and then with the trowel and sponge he would make them even less even. The whole process took from 9 am to 4 pm – which I think is pretty darn fast. Watch for yourself 🙂
That’s George. My plaster dude. He humored me all day and was lovely to work with. He didn’t like it when I said ‘schmear’ and I reminded it him the importance of recognizing Old World European phrases that make us kind of uncomfortable, while still being pretentious.
Here is how it looked before it dried completely when we left last Friday:
DEFINITELY better than the before. Brian and I (and all of us) were pretty happy already.
Yesterday my contractor sent me the below photo now that it’s dried:
Even better! I’m pretty into it!! My apologies for it being blown-out and pixelated. We’ll replace this as soon as we take a better one. Meanwhile, he’s suspended from being an SBEH freelance camera phone photographer.
*(P.S. as you can imagine, he thinks our whole social media experiment and how we create all this ridiculous on-camera Insta storyiPhonee content is HILARIOUS and is always like “Well, have you asked that audience yet”…SUCH a good sport. As soon as we are done with the project, I’ll tell you who he is if you want to remodel/build up here, but I can’t have anyone else hiring him right now. No distractions :)).
Back to the schmear results. We are pretty happy for now. I haven’t even seen the dried rock in person. I bet it’s even lighter than it looks in that photo.
The next thing up for debate is, of course, that mantel. While we were up there, we were playing with wood options for bedroom ceilings and kitchen cabinets. Before we left, I held them up to see if any of these could help guide our decision on what to do with the mantel. It’s a really dark orange stain that we don’t like and we don’t think it’s real wood anyway. Maybe in a perfect world, we would just get rid of it, but as you can see the stone juts in above the mantel so we can’t without altering the fireplace a ton.
To be clear – THESE ARE JUST PHOTOSHOPPED RENDERINGS OF THE WOOD ON THE MANTEL. Sara even put our flooring sample on the floor so we could see how that works with things (don’t judge the wood flooring; it’s BEAUTIFUL in person but we had to stretch a tiny sample to fill that triangle portion of the floor).
1. WHITE MANTEL. Now this is FAR more special than it looks in that rendering based on just a small piece. This is beautiful reclaimed cedar wood that we painted white gloss for a potential kitchen sample. We didn’t seal it so the grain seeped through (despite 3 coats). Obviously, we would seal it but I wanted to show you how pretty the grain is in person, even painted.
It’s EXTREMELY textured and I’m very excited about it for the kitchen (stay tuned…also could I possibly make life more complicated?). I thought after the plaster dried it would be my favorite but at least from the photo, I’m unsure. It feels very BRIGHT WHITE. But less-so in person. Sometimes Photoshop takes texture out of things and makes it look fake when it’s not.
2. BLACK MANTEL. This is the same reclaimed wood stained a matte black (SO PRETTY) also as a cabinet option. In person, it actually looks like this:
The white parts are the holes where the white paint leaked through because it was painted white. This is stunning, but in the Photoshopped image looks super JET BLACK.
3. GRAY MANTEL. This is the original reclaimed wood in its natural form. Also gorgeous. But up there, it looks kinda gray on gray on gray.
4. PINE TONGUE-AND-GROOVE MANTEL. We had it so we tried it. Too matchy with the ceiling.
5. CEDAR TONGUE-AND-GROOVE MANTEL. See #4. Too matchy.
6. MEDIUM WOOD TONE MANTEL. Just for fun, I threw up the wood flooring sample to see if a medium tone would be good, but it’s not right.
So now, I have a few things I want to do…1. Google “stone fireplace mantel” to see what the other options are. That is how we design, by the way. And 2. Darken the slate stone hearth. It could be a rich black, which would then perhaps make the black on the mantle really work.
There you have it. I think it’s WORLDS better. I can’t wait to see it in person and feel good about it.
*In case you are an ‘I design, You decide’ detective, you’ll probably notice that we didn’t end up raising the firebox. Nor did we create a taller bench and create wood storage underneath it like we originally planned in this post. The reason is that once we removed the original stove, we realized our box was completely intact. GOOD NEWS FOR ONCE. We had a perfectly functioning fireplace. To demo out some rocks to move up the box to then replace the rocks would have just been a waste of money because the ROI would have been very little. If I were to build it new, would I have designed it to be higher? Sure.
Overall, I’m pretty darn happy that in one day and with $1k (including materials), we transformed that very controversial fireplace into one that is super appropriate for our mountain house.
The only thing that I’m still considering is painting over the plaster. Not because I don’t like the stone but because I fear that medium tone of the stone with the medium tone of the ceiling is kinda competing. I just wish one were darker and lighter. We could do this:
Before you go, I have a couple of questions…now that Brian and I agree on one thing (the new fireplace):
1. Do you want me to consider painting the fireplace an all-over light tone like above? I haven’t seen the finished plasterwork dried so I may think it’s PERFECT in person and maybe the combo with the ceiling won’t bother me.
2. What is your gut feeling on the mantel finish? I’m not sold on any of those, so any inclinations or suggestions would be lovely before I comb the web and stone yards for 19 hours. Obviously, a rustic reclaimed beam is an option…
3. Who wants me to just explore the idea of using that gorgeous black stain on the…CEILING???? Listen, the chances are 2% that it’s something we would actually do out of sheer fear of permanence. I’m as shocked as you are that I, Emily-White-Ceiling-Henderson, would even consider staining that massive ceiling black. But in person, the black stain is so pretty and now that the ceiling is walnut blasted, the texture would scream “I’M STILL WOOD” but in a quiet, dark, moody, dramatic way. Brian wants cozy and masculine ( he’s dark, moody and dramatic!!) and I want the ceiling to have a more even tone while still definitely feeling like wood so the now-pretty fireplace becomes the feature. Perhaps this could be the answer? Brian is going to LOSE HIS SCHMEAR over even the suggestion of this one…and TBH, it’s likely not going to happen, but it’s fun to fantasize…