Photography by Christine Higgs

Published on April 25, 2020

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In early 2019, Cleveland-based content creator Christine Higgs and her husband took a crowbar to the old built-ins flanking their new home’s living room fireplace—and promptly watched the hearth crumble to pieces. It turns out everything had been (improperly) anchored together by a previous owner. Even so, the couple dreamed of a cozy centerpiece for their space, and they had some wiggle room when it came to the design: They didn’t care if the fireplace actually worked. “We have a lot of animals, so I’m not into fire,” says Higgs. 

What she is into is texture and depth, which some research revealed plaster Spanish-style fireplaces and concrete surrounds had in spades. Never one to say no to a DIY, Higgs figured she could re-create the highs and lows of those materials with paint. And because the structure didn’t need to be fireproof, she could simply ask her contractor to build it out of drywall.

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Since the couple was renovating other parts of the house, they had a bunch of boxes lying around. Cue Higgs’s lightbulb moment. She realized she could construct a 3-D model out of cardboard to give her drywaller an exact framework to follow. So exact, “he just sent me a picture of the finished fireplace on vacation; that’s how I approved it,” says Higgs. “I started doing mock-ups for everything after that: my kitchen shelves, the placement of a cabinet. There’s less miscommunication.” 

Armed with two quarts of paint—one Greenblack, one Urban Bronze, both by Sherwin-Williams—a roller, and a brush, Higgs managed to mimic the look of a timeworn concrete fireplace in a day’s work and for just $800, including the drywall installation. Here’s how you can tackle the project from start to finish:

The Supplies

For the mock-up:

  • Painter’s tape
  • Scrap cardboard (broken-down boxes work great)
  • Pencil or marker
  • Box cutter or scissors
  • Ruler
  • Tape measure
  • Clear packing tape or duct tape

For the paint treatment:

Step 1: Tape the Design to the Wall

Rather than jump right into your 3-D creation, start with a 2-D outline you can follow. Use a tape measure and painter’s tape to demarcate the width and length of the base, mantel, and chimney. For reference, here are Higgs’s measurements—follow them exactly or adjust as needed to fit the proportions of your space:

  • Fireplace base: 55″ w x 41″ h x 10″ d
  • Fireplace mantel: 59″ w x 2 1/4″ h x 12″ d
  • Fireplace chimney: 56″ w (bottom), 39″ w (top) x 57″ h x  6″ d (at bottom; taper shape as you go up)

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Step 2: Build Your Cardboard Mock-up

The silhouette is less complicated than it appears: “It’s essentially three shapes on top of one another: one square, one rectangle, and one triangle,” explains Higgs. Break down your boxes and tape them together with packing tape into one big surface. Then using a writing utensil and a ruler, draw out the front side of the base according to those same measurements. (Don’t forget to mark the faux firebox opening.) Cut it out with a box cutter or scissors. Follow suit with the left and right sides of the base, then tape the pieces together into a 3-D shape. Repeat for the mantel and the chimney. Tape the three pieces together, then adhere them to the wall with more tape.

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Step 3: Hand It Off

Arrange for your contractor to bring your cardboard masterpiece to life in drywall form. Wait patiently.

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Step 4: Paint the Base Layers

Once you’ve taped off the walls and ceiling with painter’s tape and laid down the drop cloth, use the roller to paint your new drywall fireplace in Greenblack. While that coat is still wet, dip the same roller in Urban Bronze and lightly roll it over the fireplace in different directions to imitate concrete’s natural variations, starting with the top right-hand corner and making your way over and down to the base bit by bit. “The key is to not over-roll and to only use a little paint!” says Higgs. Otherwise you’ll just end up blending the two hues together.

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Step 5: Add Dimension

If you look closely at concrete countertops, you’ll notice the joints are often darker than the rest of the surface. While the coat of Urban Bronze is still wet, go in again with the Greenblack, this time using the paintbrush along the edges to create similar “seams.” Then grab the roller again to apply a third layer of Greenblack to the firebox opening so it appears sooty, just like a real one would. Let the whole thing dry for a day or two before piling in the pillar candles and promptly basking in their soothing glow.

It’s hammer time: Follow @reno_notebook for easy rental updates, clever DIYs, and tips to nail your next project.

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