Building a hearth for the wood stove

The wood stove is a backup heat source for us, since we are required to have “forced air” ventilation. We don’t want the stove to be the focus of the home – we want it to be more “a part of the kitchen”. The most important thing is that it is safe and functional.

I recently saw the aftermath of an improperly installed stove:

I do not want that to happen to us. Most of the time, a fire happens because of not allowing proper clearances between combustible (wood) items and a fireplace / wood stove.

A brick hearth

We always knew the hearth would be brick, but it is always overwhelming when you start to get into the details – what color of bricks? What kind of bricks? Should we set them on edge or lay them flat? Should we lay them flat on the floor and then turn them as they go up the wall, or just keep the same pattern going? Should we have a border? Should we finish the floor or just put the bricks on the subfloor? Do we need extra support under the subfloor to handle the weight of the stove?

We settled on using antique bricks and started looking in the classifieds for them. Less than $1 per brick seemed fair. I eventually found an ad that fit our ideals:

I contacted the seller and made the trip, and picked up all of them. They made an entire layer in the bottom of my trailer – they weighed a thousand pounds. I drove 40 mph all the way home, got there about 30 minutes after dark, with no lights on my trailer. I kept the flashers on and passed two Highway Patrolmen, who looked, but didn’t bother me. Apparently, I have (read: “need”) lots of guardian angels.

Once we had the stove placement set, my wife drew a chalk outline of where the hearth should go, and included all the measurements to make sure nothing gets too close to the stove. 18″ in front of the stove, 14″ behind the stove (a brick wall helps reduce the clearance needed to avoid “combustibles” by “1/3″, or 6″), and 12″ on each side. Normally, you would want 18″ on each side, but each side of ours will be a walkway, so there will never be combustibles on the sides. Since the stove is 28″ deep, and 26″ wide, our hearth needs to be about 58″ deep, and 50” wide. The plan was to have the bricks sit on top of a cement backer board with these dimensions.

I was going to install a piece of sheet metal underneath the whole thing, but I read some comments on a forum that said since the metal expands at a different rate than the bricks and backerboard, the metal will just get torn up. I decided to install two backerboards though. This, along with the thick bricks, and the 6″ of clearance under the stove, plus the firebricks inside the stove bottom should provide plenty of heat shielding for the floor underneath.

Laying out bricks

Once we knew the exact layout of the bricks, I carefully moved them out of the way so I could work on the cement backer board and decide how to set the island in place.

I looked up videos online and found out it was pretty easy to cut bricks in half. Here’s a video on how I did it.

Laying out the hearth

I started by finding where the chimney would be: I hung a plumb bob from the 2nd floor roof rafters and made a mark on the 2nd floor. Then I measured inside the kitchen to where the mark was to make sure it was centered between the ceiling joists. We double and triple checked pathways in the kitchen then I drilled a small hole in the 2nd floor and hung the plumb bob down through the hole. I moved the stove around until the stove flue pipe was centered under the plumb bob, and my wife traced the legs of the stove onto the floor with chalk. Then I extended lines out from that point according to code for the stove.

Once I had all my marks, I got the backer board installed:

Backer board installed. Creepy dog approves.

Julie looked ahead on the calendar to a couple of days where it would stay above freezing overnight and we made a plan to lay bricks. I showed her how to mix the cement and sand and add water – and it is so thin compared to the chinking mortar that it can be mixed with the paint mixing bit.

Setting the bricks in place required constant measuring and leveling. We leveled individual bricks as well as rows of bricks. Julie set the spacing with her fingers, then used a marker to mark on the backer board for the spacing between the bricks. She started off using a trowel, but ended up just stuffing the mortar in with her fingers. We were both surprised at how much mortar it took to set the bricks in place.

Setting the island

With the base of the hearth finished, I set about getting the island in place. I didn’t even know how to install the island, so I had to look it up online: “how to install a kitchen island”. I found there are two ways – either L brackets screwed to the cabinets and the floor, or 2×4 “cleats” that the island is set down on top of. L-brackets seemed like they would be in the way of the tile floor later on, so I went with the 2×4 cleat idea. I set the cabinets in place behind the hearth, marked the corners with a pencil, then moved the cabinets out of the way. I measured the area inside the bottom of each cabinet and made cleats that would fit exactly inside when the cabinets were set down on top. After checking the cleats for square, I screwed them to the floor and placed the cabinets over the top.

For the vertical backer board, Julie came up with adding the 2×4’s to the cabinets – between the cabinet and the bricks, and then screwing the backer board to the 2×4’s. This also has the benefit of providing a nice air gap for the hearth, which helps dissipate heat from the wood stove.

One other thing Julie thought of was how the wood floor will butt up against the hearth and the kitchen island. She had already laid the bricks with a 1/2″ overhang on the backerboard. The wood floor will slip under the overhang for a seamless look. Also, I cut a channel in the 2×4 on the island to accept the wood floor later on:

Bricks overhang the 1″ backer board so the wood floor fits underneath.

Brick Wall

With the base done and the island cabinets set in place, we could finally focus on laying bricks for the hearth wall.

Next Steps

There are some other parts of the stove installation, which turned out to be surprisingly complicated: restoring the stove, and installing chimney pipe (posted here). Once the stove installation is completely done, we’ll move onto electrical, plumbing, interior chinking, stairs, and floors.

September 2022 Update:

It’s been 9 months since we “finished” the brick hearth. We meant to make the bricks reach the top edge of the island, but we were wrong. There was a 1.5″ gap between the top row of bricks and the top edge of the cabinets. I tried using cutting disks to cut the bricks lengthwise, but couldn’t do it – I kept burning through cutting disks.

Another issue was that when we lit a fire in the stove, the bricks would get hot and pass that heat through to the inner area of the island – not burning hot, but over 100 degrees for sure – I felt like we should ventilate that area somehow before we put the soapstone counter over the top of it.

And Julie really hurt her wrist the first time building the hearth, and we needed time for her to heal all the way.

Fast forward to about a week ago – we are ready to get the soapstone countertops, and we need to get cracking on finishing the island before the counter tops show up. I looked up cutting bricks – and found out it’s not that hard – I only needed a diamond blade for my skilsaw.

Then we picked out some bricks, cut them into strips, and my wife mortared them into place:

Now we just need the soapstone!


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