Red Barn Renovation: Laying A Herringbone Hearth

# Red Barn Renovation: Laying A Herringbone Hearth

Johnny Williams
Apr 12, 2010

Okay, I'll admit it: recently, my little woodworking column has veered slightly off topic. But until renovations on my barn workshop wrap up, furniture making will have to wait. In the meantime, I've learned to build with new materials — the latest being brick.

Late last year, I purchased a wood-burning stove to heat my shop in the wintertime. Though we could have simply installed the unit atop the barn's concrete floor, I was set on building a small hearth. Not only would the brick area add a bit of soul to the shop, it would serve as a place to neatly stack firewood and kindling. Now all I had to do was figure out how to build the thing!

After a lengthy doodle session, I settled on the hearth's shape: a quarter circle with an adjacent rectangle. I then began determining its exact dimensions. A standard red brick measures 8'' by 4'', so the radius of the quarter circle would be 8 bricks long or 64'', while the rectangular length added another 32''. A quick Google Image Search of "brick patterns" revealed a range of options, which I gleefully perused. In the end, few offered the geometric charm of diagonal herringbone.

In high school, I was the smart alecky kid demanding to know when we were going to use math in "real life." Now I'm oh-so-grateful for Mrs. Aucterlonie's riveting lessons. To determine the square footage of the hearth, I added the area of my quarter circle [(pi r2)/4] to the area of my rectangle (LxW). Since there are 4.5 red bricks to a square foot, and my hearth measured roughly 30 square feet, I would need 135 bricks. I purchased 147 bricks from a local mason to account for cuts and breaks and ended up using 143. In case you were wondering, that's 97% of the bricks purchased — okay, now I'll stop with the math!

To make the many cuts a herringbone pattern requires, I rented a 10'' tile saw from Home Cheap-O. Tile saws sit atop a tray of water, which cools the blade and catches dust. Make no mistake, a tile saw can injure you, but they're nowhere near as dangerous as a table saw. Instead of using sharpened teeth to cut, a tile saw's abrasive "diamond blade" grinds through material. Other than the saw, all I needed was a notched trowel, a 3.5 gallon tub of thinset mortar, kneepads, a Sharpie and a length of string.

To determine an accurate radius, I tied the string to the Sharpie, measured out 64'' from the corner and marked the circumference. Before "buttering up" the concrete with thinset, we cleaned the floor and did a dry run of my (somewhat befuddling) herringbone pattern. Happy with the layout, I began laying brick. Holding the trowel at a 45-degree angle, I spread a thin layer of thinset and laid the two inner edges. From there, I began laying the interior herringbone pattern, making sure to push the brick down into the mortar. Since kneeling on the concrete floor would have wrecked my knees, I wore a pair of protective kneepads. I may be a bad-ass, but I'm not a dumb-ass!

When it came time to fill the gaps, our resident tile expert Steve showed me how to size and cut the brick. To determine the size of your cut, hold the brick above the space you need to fill. Use a Sharpie to mark the size on the sides of the brick, then use a straight edge to carry the lines to the top face. Line up the brick on the tile saw's sliding tray and slowly push it into the diamond blade. Depending on the type of brick or tile, you may have to use a fair amount of pressure to push the brick through the blade. To cut the quarter circle's circumference, we cut a small sliver from one edge of each brick and made sure it lined up. While the thinset was still wet — it takes a day or so to completely dry — I used a level to ensure the surface was relatively flat. Any small gaps were filled with leftover brick dust. Now, with the herringbone hearth laid down, all that's left to do is install the wood stove atop the brick. And I don't care if it's 70 degrees outside, I'm lighting a fire!