Stone Fireplace 101: The Hearth
The fireplace hearth, while normally associated with a more classically styled fireplace, is really just an extension of the floor of the firebox. It started out, especially with wood burning fireplaces, as a functional and needed space, protecting the floor against sparks and embers that might fly out of the fireplace. Fireplace tools and even cooking instruments were stored and used on the hearth. In most homes built over the past half century, the majority of fireboxes are raised off the floor so you don’t have to bend down as much to tend the flame, which also raised the hearth and created a “hearth step”, where the hearth gets raised up as well and then typically extends out at least 12 inches from the face of the fireplace. A vast majority of these fireplaces, particularly with the explosion of regional and national home builders, were faced with some variety of brick.
With the introduction of natural stone panel systems and thin veneer products in the last 15 or so years, fireplaces started to get renovated at a pace never seen before. These products made it possible to cover up that old worn out brick and really change the look of an entire room. And since the new stone products were veneers, in most cases they could be applied directly to the existing brick fireplace resulting in a complete transformation with just a few hours of work.
Another fundamental change in the fireplace industry was the increasing popularity of gas fireplace units over the last 2-3 decades. Homeowners loves these units because they don’t require wood fuel to burn and then clean up after. From a practical design standpoint, gas fireplace units also eliminated the need for a hearth, so while many gas fireplaces still get built with a hearth, a new wave of fireplace design was also ushered in where the hearth was removed completely, creating a sleeker, and in many cases more contemporary look. Gas fireplace units have also played a big role in changing the vertical position of where a fireplace gets installed on a wall. Most commonly, the fireplaces were either on the floor or maybe set 12” up the wall, forming the aforementioned hearth step. With the gas units not requiring a hearth, positioning them anywhere on the wall, especially at eye level is now possible, opening up more design possibilities within a space.
When renovating or building a new fireplace with a traditional hearth step, natural stone veneer products typically are going to get used on the face of the step as well as the returns to the wall. The outside corners that most hearth steps form are an important part of the installation, which is why having great looking stone corner units is an important consideration when looking at products. The horizontal top of the hearth is another area where design can really shine through. The main requirement is that the product used must be non combustible, which makes stone and tile a popular choice. Cut field and flag stone, slate, and marble are all popular materials that work well with our natural stone products and that we see get used for the hearth step topper.
One of the things we’ve come to appreciate after working on hundreds, maybe thousands of natural stone veneer fireplace projects over the years with our clients is that no two fireplaces are really the same. Whether it’s the material they choose for the face, the design of fireplace on the wall, and how functional accessories like hearth steps and mantles get used, the combinations are endless, allowing you to put your own unique stamp on each project. Our sales reps and technical services team have lots of experience with fireplaces so don’t hesitate to reach out if you are just starting to plan for a fireplace renovation or have already selected materials – we’re here to share our knowledge!