A fireplace hearth is literally the beginning of a fireplace. It sits in the front for all to see and provides a warm place to relax and enjoy the fire. You can use many methods and different types of materials to build your hearth, each with their own benefits and draw-backs.
A prefab hearth comes with the surface that will be the most visible; you will still need to construct the underside yourself. This is usually comprised of two layers: plywood and cement board. Once you have these in place, you're ready to install the top layer. This will come with installation instructions, as well as all the materials you will need to get it in place. You can purchase prefab hearths with almost any appearance you want, from marble and stone to various types of wood. These are the easiest hearths to install.
Hearths from Scratch
Building a hearth from scratch is a much more complicated, involved process. The bottom two layers remain the same plywood and concrete board, however you will need an additional thin layer of concrete to set your materials in. How complicated the material gathering is depends on how involved and customized you want your hearth to be. You can find materials like granite or ceramic tile in hardware stores, primarily, however others, such as slate or other various types of rock, can be found in quarries, river beds, or any other place that rock can be found. If you do choose to go this route, you will need to make sure the rock you get will fit together in the space you require, and also that it has good integrity. The last thing you want is to complete the installation, light up your fireplace, and then watch your hearth crack into pieces from the heat.
Granite is the choice for more upscale looking fireplaces. It has a classy feel to it and is easy to work with and is very durable, however it is one of the most expensive materials you can buy.
Tile, depending on the type you use, can be cheap or expensive. Out of all the possible materials you can use for your hearth, tile has the most versatile appearance; you can find tile to match the color scheme of any room in any house. It is relatively easy to work with, however it can be fragile once installed. Be careful not to drop your fireplace poker on it.
Slate is tricky to work with. It's hard to judge the integrity just by looking at the surface. A slab that looks fine outdoors may easily crack in half when exposed to heat. Your best bet when using slate is to purchase pieces from a hardware store, rather than picking pieces from outside.
Brick is one of the slower, more tedious materials to install, but it's also one of the cheapest and most durable.