Q: We are getting ready to remodel our fireplace. It is covered with faux-rock material – very common during the late 1960s.

This material is cemented to the front of the fireplace. We’re not sure what’s behind the faux rock, but it could possibly be brick. How should we go about removing this material, and is there anything we should be cautious of?

A: How well we remember. Faux rock was all the rage in the ’60s. The back-to-the-land movement was in full swing; being “natural” was fashionable; and the rustic look was in vogue.

One of the ways to achieve the rustic look was to change the look of fireplace faces. In one of Kevin’s earlier houses he installed a zero-clearance firebox and faced it with rough redwood. His living room had that mountain cabin look. Only trouble was he lived on the shores of San Francisco Bay. Go figure.

Now we’re in a new century, and the rustic look is out of date — by about 40 years.

Faux rock is made of composite material and can be ultra-light or relatively heavy. There is also material made of actual rock that is milled with a flat back to make installation easier.

Removing the faux rock is going to require work whether the material is synthetic or natural. The question is just how much work.

Be gentle around the firebox and be very careful around any gas valves or electrical switches that may be embedded in the rock face. And above all take the appropriate safety precautions.

Faux rock is applied in one of two ways. The first way, most often used in remodels of existing fireplaces, was to spread a thick layer of mastic over the substrate and stick the faux material to the wall. The mastic has the texture of mortar and comes in a variety of colors that are complementary with the faux rock.

The second method is to apply a base of building paper and metal lathe to the wall, then apply a conventional mortar base to adhere the rock to the wall.

This method requires that grout be applied between the joints after the rock has been installed. Obviously this is the more upscale method and was likely to be done by a mason as part of the original construction or a professional remodel.

If you’re lucky, the rock finish is original to the house. If it is, that probably means that the backing is Sheetrock. If this is the case, demolition should be comparatively easy.

The tools you’ll need are a fairly heavy hammer and a crowbar. A 24-ounce framing hammer should do the trick. Start at the top of the wall, preferably in a corner, and remove a piece of rock. If the rock is glued to the wallboard, continue removing the rock one piece at a time until you have removed all of it. 

If the rock is mortared onto lathe, use the crowbar to get to the substrate and take the paper, lathe and rock off in small pieces.

Be careful with this part of the process. Move belongings and furnishings away from the work area, wear gloves and safety glasses and go slow to avoid injury. No broken toes allowed.

Once you’ve removed the rock, evaluate the condition of the Sheetrock.

If you are planning a heavy texture or if you are covering it with another material, wood paneling, for example, a few dings won’t make a difference. Just apply a skim coat of mud and try to get it as smooth as possible.

If the finished wall is going to be painted or papered drywall, you’re probably better off replacing the Sheetrock with new material.

If, as you suspect, the substrate is brick, removal and preparation for a new finished surface is more problematic. The rock will come off with the same effort, but if it is glued or mortared without building paper, you’ll have glue or residue on the bricks.

If you were hoping to restore the brick front, that probably means sandblasting. That is one messy job, better left to the pros.

We’ll leave you with a word of warning. Please make safety your first priority on this project. Faux rock can be heavy and awkward to work with. Do not allow children around the work site and wear appropriate safety garb.


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