Dear James: It’s a mess carrying firewood indoors, so I want to modernize my old brick fireplace with one that uses gas logs. Are there any tips on how to do this project myself? — Kathy H.

Dear Kathy: Replacing an old brick fireplace surround and hearth with newer modern designs and a fresh coat of paint on the walls can completely transform the decor of your living room. Gas logs are convenient to use, but if your chimney is in good condition, you might consider staying with a wood-burning fireplace for the ambiance of a real wood fire.

Whether you choose to stay with wood or switch to gas logs, have your chimney cleaned and inspected by a professional chimney sweep. Deteriorating chimneys are a common cause of house fires. Another option is vent-free gas logs, but check your local codes to make sure they are allowed in your area.

You should be able to save more than just a few dollars by doing most of the work yourself. Although this job is not difficult to accomplish yourself, it is time intensive and the labor costs are the great expense. You should be able to find complete fireplace surrounds, decorative back panels and other materials needed at most home center stores.

Unless you have biceps like California’s Governor “Terminator”, you will need a helper when removing the old surround and hearth. These items can be quite heavy. If you just want a style change and the old surround and hearth are in good condition, remove them carefully. You can probably find people who like the older styles and you can sell the old surround and hearth.

This job is going to be dusty, so roll back any carpeting and spread out ample drop clothes. The hearth is usually laid after the surround was installed, so remove the hearth first. Chisel away some of the mortar in a few spots to get the crowbar under it and pry it up.

The surround is usually attached to the wall around the fireplace with two or four screws through metal straps. The screws are hidden under the plaster or drywall compound, so you will have to chisel around the edge of the surround to find them. Once they are removed, have a helper assist you with separating the old surround from the wall.

You will probably find a bed of concrete under the hearth which supported it. Clean it off and spread a thin layer of leveling compound over it with a trowel. Let it dry before you proceed with installing the new surround.

Select a decorative type of back panel and surround for your fireplace. Measure carefully and have the home center store cut the fireplace opening in it or you can do it yourself. Screw it securely to the wall.

Next, install the hearth on the floor because the sides of the surround will rest on it. Assemble the sides to the mantel and screw it to the wall. Install a metal (usually brass) trim frame around the fireplace opening. This trim frame will overlap the edge of the back board for a finished look.

— Send your questions to Here’s How, 6906 Royalgreen Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit www.dulley.com. To find out more about James Dulley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at