Dealing with Damaged Vintage Fireplace Tile

Unlike original kitchens and bathrooms in vintage homes, vintage fireplace fronts are less commonly remuddled (although it does happen). However, homeowners do confront the issue of how to properly restore something that has been inappropriately altered or address other types of damage to vintage fireplace fronts.

It is challenging to find a craftsperson who has an in-depth knowledge of how to approach damaged tile fireplace fronts.

But never fear, there is indeed an expert who can make expert repairs and restorations of lovely tile fireplace surrounds. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Moon from the Tile Restoration Center, Seattle, WA, who is a truly knowledgeable source on the subject of vintage fireplace tile work. Here are Steve’s responses to my questions.

An Interview with Steve Moon from the Tile Restoration Center

Karla: What are the most frequent problems you encounter when contacted to restore fireplace tile?

Steve: The most common issues that people bring to us are efflorescence, painted tiles, cracks, chips, and gouged or missing tiles.

What do you recommend for people who have fireplace tiles that have been darkened by smoke?

Smoke and soot staining is actually one of the hardest things to remove. The problem with soot staining on vintage tiles is that it frequently penetrates into the pores of the material. A mixture of baking soda and water, mild detergent, and water, or even a Soft Scrub with bleach-type product can often lighten sooty areas up by some amount. It’s important to never clean old ceramic tiles with anything acidic, and if that does happen, you can often neutralize that somewhat by cleaning with baking soda and water.

Paint can often be removed with a commercial (but non-acidic) paint stripper, but you should follow all the standard warnings: Use ventilation (they are often petroleum-based); test in a small area first and allow to dry for a few days; try to figure out if the paint is lead-based to protect yourself and the environment.

Efflorescence can be removed with baking soda and water, but it will often return. It is commonly caused by water evaporating from the surface of the tiles, bringing with it the mineral salts that form the fuzzy substance. It’s important to address the cause of that water infiltration, which is commonly a leaky chimney cap, bad mortar in the chimney, or very damp soil around the house.

Do you have recommendations for fireplace fronts that have some damaged tile, but with the majority of the tile still intact? Can the damaged tile be carefully removed, matched, and replaced?

For smaller tile-repair jobs, the best approach is usually to do in-place repairs. If the damaged tiles are attached well and not crumbling from some sort of degradation or weathering, we would suggest filling and patching the damaged areas. The patch would then be carefully painted to blend with the surrounding materials. Keep in mind that such an on-site repair is really a “faux paint” sort of approach, as there is no reliable way to refire those vintage ceramic materials.

If a tile is missing or beyond repair, then you would need to remove and replace the damaged material. We do more reproductions than replacements these days, and that involves making a new tile piece that replicates both the image and color of the original sample. This is of course more invasive and costly than a surface repair, but it is sometimes the best way to fill in or replace missing pieces. It is also possible to find suitable vintage tiles to use as replacements, especially if you are somewhat flexible on the particular tile image or color. Many building salvage companies will have some vintage tiles, and you can search online. You may just get lucky!

What recommendations do you have for those who have had their vintage fireplace fronts totally remuddled? Does your company assist with design work for tile surrounds?

For the last 15 years or so, our primary business has evolved into producing entirely new tile surrounds in the vintage Arts & Crafts style. These are done to augment or expand existing vintage installations, to replace or replicate entirely destroyed tile surrounds, or to create a new fireplace that looks like it’s been there for 80 years.

We do a lot of design work for installations, which usually starts with a client who is inspired by a particular look, whether from a historical source, a childhood home, or one of our other installations.

The design is made to fit the particular dimensions and feel of the setting, and every piece is made to order. We also get a lot of orders from designers and from our tile dealers, many of whom have designers on staff to help clients develop an installation.

What do you recommend with regard to grout colors, spaces between tiles, and the type of grout used (does it need to have heat-resistant qualities)?

In most cases, a natural-colored grout that complements but slightly contrasts the tile is perfect. It’s usually chosen last by bringing grout sample colors into the same room with the tiles and surrounding décor. We recommend a sanded (the texture is sandy from sand in the grout, which also makes it stronger for larger grout joints), cement-based grout.

The grout joints for vintage or handmade tiles are usually wider than you might expect. We usually plan for ¼” grout lines, and some vintage installations feature joints as wide as ½”. A good tile setter is invaluable in knowing and recommending the appropriate materials too, but luckily the tile grout used outside the fireplace doesn’t usually get extremely hot.

Any other words of wisdom that you might have to offer? Do you strictly work in the Seattle area, or do you sometimes travel to Portland? Do you offer consulting services that could assist with work being done outside your general service area?

Perhaps the most important aspect of tile restoration is patience. If you are considering repairing or replacing vintage tiles, or even considering a new installation, there are many steps along the way. The substrate must be sound and stable. (A repaired crack would be short-lived if a house’s foundation is still shifting.) You may need masonry work to stabilize the substrate or stop any water infiltration. For new tile work, you will need good measurements of the installation area and some ideas about style and color that will work for you and for the setting.

We have done restoration work in several states, and we can do a lot of preliminary footwork with digital photos. For on-site repairs, clients in other locations can often retain the services of a good art restorer, especially if they find one with experience in ceramics. For new or reproduction tiles, we ship all over the country. We sell through more than 40 tile dealers around the country.

In conclusion, the Tile Restoration Center is one of the best resources in the Pacific Northwest for the restoration or replication of vintage tile fireplace surrounds. They can help you make your vintage tile fireplace surround whole again, or help you create a period-inspired new fireplace front. They truly are masters of their craft.

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