Banish fireplace 'blahs' with ceramic tile

After the chimney was relined and the new fireplace insert had been installed , Ralph and Maggie Decker prepared to sit back and enjoy the radiating warmth provided by their latest investment.

The temperatures were, indeed, comforting but the view wasn't.

The metal surround, or flange, that covered most of the old brickwork and enabled the insert to fit tightly against the sides of the fireplace was pretty uninteresting to look at - a ''broad band of blah,'' the Deckers called it. The answer, they said, was to cover the flange with decorative ceramic tile. The couple chose Currier and Ives winter scenes, a delight to look at as flames dance in the background. ''Blah'' was banished in the short time it took to cement the tiles in place.

The use of ceramic tiles is growing again in North America, replacing plastic in the bathroom and kitchen, but nowhere is it proving more appealing than in the vicinity of the fireplace - not just as decorative pieces, the way the Deckers used them, but as functional ones as well.

In many respects the decade-long return to the hearth in the US has been matched by an upswing in the use of durable ceramic tile.

There are several advantages to using ceramic tile in conjunction with a fireplace. The tile is:

* Noncombustible. It also makes a perfect surface on which to stand a wood or coal stove.

* Durable. Ceramic tile under constant wear will last as long or longer than most other masonry products. It is not readily scratched when the stove or fireplace insert is moved around for cleaning.

* Stores heat readily. Tile in the vicinity of the stove actually improves its efficiency by absorbing excess heat while the fire is burning and releasing the heat gently back into the air after the fire has gone out. Despite its heat-absorbing qualities, it will never get so hot that it will burn anyone who touches it or walks over it barefoot.

* Readily cleaned. A mild detergent sponged over the tile quickly returns it to a like-new appearance.

* Attractive. Ceramic tiles are now available in a wide variety of textures, colors, thicknesses, and sizes. They come with paintings of birds, flowers, winter and summer scenes, seascapes, and mountains.

Like the Currier and Ives tiles, they are works of art.

If you're looking for ideas and advice on the use of tiles, go to a showroom of one of the members of the Ceramic Tile Distributors of America. Experienced distributors will answer questions about color and pattern selection, installation, and maintenance.

They will also help you with solar-heating design as well. The very factors that make ceramic tile a good form of thermal mass near a wood or coal stove also make it ideal in passive solar applications.

Ceramic tile can take the sun, absorb its heat, and never fade as do so many other materials.

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