How to update a fireplace – 6 ways to refresh this focal point

Fireplace looking passé? Give it a style boost with this expert advice

How to update a fireplace
(Image credit: Naomi Astley Clarke/Paul Massey/Future/Farrow & Ball)

A fireplace is a focal point for a room, so one that’s old fashioned, ugly, or simply dull does the space no favors. But know how to update a fireplace and replacement isn’t necessary to rescue this feature and make it worth the attention it commands. 

Fireplace ideas make a room cozy and welcoming and invite family and friends to gather around it. While flickering flames draw attention when it’s lit, important all the time are each of its elements including the mantel, surround and hearth, which all contribute to its look.

Here, we’ve put together a guide to updating a fireplace that’s retro in all the wrong ways with advice from the experts.

A guide to updating a fireplace

A fireplace that’s bland or one that’s a blast from the past when the rest of the decor is modern definitely doesn’t mean total replacement is the only answer. Discover how to update a fireplace and you can DIY (or call in a pro) and make it a worthy centerpiece for the room. 

These are the changes that will transform a fireplace from boring to beautiful.

1. Paint it

winter decor ideas, living with neutral stone walls, panels with artwork, pink fire surround, rug, retro couch with faux fur throw, sculptural glass pendant

(Image credit: Farrow & Ball)

Painting the fireplace is a simple solution for a fresh appearance. Painting bricks, for example, can be transformational, according to realtor Erin Hybart. ‘Full brick painting is a popular option, especially if you have to replace damaged bricks and the brick color doesn't match well, or the brick color is not the desired one,’ she says. ‘I have seen many fireplaces with a vanilla brick color get a full paint job.’

Alternatively, paint just some of the bricks, she suggests. ‘Another updating technique great for very plain and similar bricks is strategically painting random bricks with a white or similar color to give them a less uniform look,’ she explains. ‘Some bricks have more paint, and some have less but none are completely covered. This look seems to mimic the appearance of more expensive bricks.’

But don’t just think bricks. The mantel or hearth can equally benefit from painting – but what’s crucial is to choose the right paint. ‘When painting any part of an active fireplace, including the mantel, surround or hearth, you should use heat-resistant paint for safety,’ says Mike Monaghan, owner of Woodstove Fireplace Glass. ‘You’ll also need to choose the correct paint for the material and use a primer to keep it clean for longer.’

Choose color carefully as well. ‘If you have a log-burning fireplace, light colors will show up soot and ash more distinctly than darker colors,’ explains Mike. ‘While most often, fire and soot stains will wash off, fire can sometimes leave stubborn marks that will affect the look of your fireplace.’

2. Refit glass

Living room by Aspen & Ivy with cosy seating, fireplace and rug

(Image credit: Aspen & Ivy / Nat Kay photography)

If the glass of a fireplace is what’s letting it down, this can be replaced, but be sure to do so carefully. 

‘If you’re updating your fireplace with new glass, fitting it properly ensures energy efficiency and safety,’ explains Mike Monaghan. ‘For example, you’ll need to know the exact dimensions of the glass and take into account any curves. You’ll also need to replace the gasket tape which goes around the outside of the glass, creating an airtight seal that ensures energy efficiency of your fireplace or stove.’

Consider cleaning the fireplace, too, so it looks as pristine as the new glass.

3. Swap tiles

Blue living room with pink chair

(Image credit: Boz Gagovski)

Think about changing the surround or hearth with fireplace tile ideas to give a fireplace a makeover. ‘Go for modern look by using geometric tiles,’ suggests interior designer Artem Kropovinsky. ‘Select complex patterns for boldness or plainer designs to achieve subtleness.’

If you’re taking the option of tiling a fireplace, be aware of federal and local codes regarding the installation of fireplace tile. Any tile used also needs to be suitable for the high temperature of a fireplace; check before buying. However, this still allows plenty of choice of tile from ceramic and porcelain to natural stone and even glass and metal. 

Artem Kropovinsky
Artem Kropovinsky

Based in New York, Artem Kropovinsky boasts extensive global design experience spanning a decade. With a commitment to sustainability and authenticity, Artem, alongside his dedicated team, undertakes projects both in the US and internationally, earning recognition through prestigious design awards. Artem is the founder of Arsight, an esteemed global design firm known for its expertise in residential and commercial interior design.

4. Apply a wash to brick

brick and tiled fireplace filled with logs in rustic inspired living room

(Image credit: Cortney Bishop)

There are techniques that will transform fireplace brick in a different way from painting it. ‘My favorite technique is the German schmear,’ says Erin Hybart. ‘This technique involves adding mortar to the brick in an unplanned pattern. This effect gives the brick an old-world feel similar to that of 100-year-old homes. This effect adds texture and character to the brick and fireplace. It is gorgeous when done well.’ 

While you can DIY German smear (as it’s also written) aka mortar wash to give fireplace brick this textured and whitewashed finish, since it’s pretty much permanent, calling in pros to update the fireplace this way might be preferable.

An alternative treatment, and one that’s easier but equally good for farmhouse fireplace ideas, is whitewash. ‘Whitewashing is a technique that can have a similar effect to German schmear but may take several coats to achieve the desired coverage and effect,’ says Erin. Apply a watered-down water-based paint to the brick, creating a translucent effect where some brick color shows through the paint.

Or there’s limewashing instead. ‘Limewashing is another favorite technique to update a fireplace,’ says Erin. ‘I find limewashing gives a more chalky finish to the brick versus whitewashing.’ You could make up your own limewash using powder or putty but note that lime is caustic and it’s therefore vital to take safety precautions. Easiest is to opt for is a limewash paint like that in the Romabio Fireplace Kit from Amazon, which just has to be mixed with water before application.

5. Opt for sheets of stone

White living room with grey marble fireplace

(Image credit: Future)

Using stone can be a way to update a fireplace. ‘My favorite update right now is the use of sheets of stone,’ says Lucy Small, founder and lead designer of State and Season. ‘Different companies call it different things, whether thin slate or air slate, but I’m a big fan of this option for renos because unlike real stone, these sheets are light and super easy to install but give you the look of a real slab of stone for a fraction of the price.’

6. Blend old and new

traditional fireplace ideas William Waldron living room bookshelves period home

(Image credit: Brockschmidt & Coleman/William Waldron)

An update can complement traditional fireplace ideas while giving them a contemporary twist. 

‘If your fireplace has traditional features, you can use this to your advantage to create a modern style,’ says Mike Monaghan. ‘Combine the traditional features of the hearth with modern materials on the mantel to create something that feels new without having to spend huge amounts to replace your fireplace.’

Alternatively, you might opt for a more contemporary take on color for the mantel and surround. The best combination, according to Artem Kropovinsky? ‘The fireplace should bring together different materials such as wood and stone making it touchable and dramatic,’ he says.


What do you put on the wall above a fireplace?

A mirror is a classic choice for the wall above a fireplace. When decorating with mirrors typically it should be the same width as the mantel or just a few inches smaller. A tall mirror, meanwhile, can make the ceiling feel higher than it really is, leading the eye upwards. You could create Regency-core style with a large mirror with an intricate gilded frame, or opt for contemporary lines with a clean minimal frame. Alternatively, hang art above the fireplace. In family room ideas with fireplaces, this can strike a less formal note than a mirror often does, and individualizes the space as well as adding color and detail.

Complete updated living room fireplaces with mantel decor ideas that will complement its refreshed appearance and dress it beautifully. And if it’s a feature rather than a functional part of the room be sure to decorate an empty fireplace. Bear in mind your home’s energy efficiency, too, by understanding how to draftproof a fireplace.

Sarah Warwick
Contributing Editor

Sarah is a freelance journalist and editor. Previously executive editor of Ideal Home, she’s specialized in interiors, property and gardens for over 20 years, and covers interior design, house design, gardens, and cleaning and organizing a home for H&G. She’s written for websites, including Houzz, Channel 4’s flagship website, 4Homes, and Future’s T3; national newspapers, including The Guardian; and magazines including Future’s Country Homes & Interiors, Homebuilding & Renovating, Period Living, and Style at Home, as well as House Beautiful, Good Homes, Grand Designs, Homes & Antiques, LandLove and The English Home among others. It’s no big surprise that she likes to put what she writes about into practice, and is a serial house renovator.