Home & Garden Columns
I was inspecting a house out beyond the Naugahyde Curtain the other day (Walnut Creek, if memory serves; landing strip for white flight). The house was unillustrious but amongst the artifacts that brought me sufficient intrigue to set the day aglow was a brand new fireplace.
Actually, it wasn’t really new, but it may as well have been, because it was clear that it had never been used. The house was at least 30 years old and this fireplace had never once been used. I’m not sure if it was fear of fire, religious prohibition, lack of clarity on local restrictions or a general absence of romantic spirit on the part of the occupants; but there it was, all clean and shiny and boring.
Actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this. Maybe once every couple of years I find a fireplace that has never been used. After all, we ARE in sunny Cah-li-fah-ne-ah (no matter how many times Ah-nold says it, my glee refuses to evaporate). California does get cold, but fires in fireplaces don’t really do all that much to abate the chill anyway. And although they’re fun, cozy and perfect for gatherings, they’re also time-consuming, expensive and dirty. In short, it’s far easier on the coldest of nights to leave the damper shut (is YOUR damper shut?) turn up the furnace and put on that ugly cable-knit sweater your girlfriend’s parents gave you last year.
The fact that so few fires get built around here is due to several factors:
1. Most people don’t know how to build a proper fire.
2. Most people don’t know how to maintain their chimney.
3. Most people don’t know when it’s time to call for professional maintenance or repairs, or even how to make that call.
So let’s take a look at each of these in some detail.
We don’t build fires to get them over with as soon as possible. We build them to last for a few hours or until we’ve managed to finish reading Rilke’s entire elegy cycle to the object of our affections. Therefore, the way we build a fire is of some importance. Those heavy welded log-holders are better suited to murder than to building a fire. Building our fires up that high allows far too much oxygen to get to the bottom of the wood, causing those hard grained logs to burn hot and fast. This also destroys fireplaces over time. A fire of lower temperature not only lasts longer but preserves the brick firebox. Although fireboxes are built using special firebrick (they’re yellow rather than red and a little larger than regular brick), these, as well as their mortars, become damaged over time as a result of very hot fires.
To build a fire without a fire-grate or rack, just build it as one would a campfire. Stack logs against one another so that there are small air spaces created in the process. Starting a fire usually requires some tinder or small pieces, newspaper or finely split wood (kindling), but one can also use those newfangled fire starting materials such as Hot-Wood or somesuch. Mostly they’re paraffin-soaked sawdust and they burn quite well. It’s up to you.
Be sure to open your damper (that little door above the fireplace that leads to the flue) at least 10-20 minutes before building a fire. As my friend Paul Mickiewicz, a master of chimneys and fires, explains, this allows a draft to begin flowing long before there’s any fire. This is a simple function of convection and occurs between any warmer and colder spaces that are put in contact with one another. It’s colder outside on the roof than inside the house (one hopes) so this induces a slow flow upward through the flue. This can be amplified by the use of a lit piece of newspaper (not this piece, please) held upward into the “throat” of the fireplace. This works in the same was as natural convection, only faster. Be sure to avoid burning one’s self.
Having built a few fires, you’ll end up with a heap of ash in the fireplace. Don’t toss the ash. According to Paul, this makes a great insulating bed that improves the operation of the fireplace. Tamp the ash down in a slightly wedge-shaped plane that is higher at the back. This will force heat to flow backward and continue to warm the rear wall, which, in turn, will drive the plume of smoke and heat up the flue shaft, lessening the propensity for smoke to enter the room. The bed also keeps the fire warm.
When you clean the excess ash away, take it to the garden. Plants love potassium. “Pot Ash” is so called because they used to hang cooking pots in fireplaces afore y’all were young’ns.
Although most fireplaces come with ash-pit cleanout doors of metal in the floor of the firebox, these don’t have to be used at all. They often become rodent entry points and you need to be sure that they’re really closed or covered over with a metal surrogate if they’re broken. Sometimes replacements can be found, but often not.
If you look on the outside of the chimney, you’ll find a matching door that’s also too-often out of commission. I like to think of these silly cleanout doors as elements of a time when servants would service the fireplace and keeping the master’s chamber tidy was imperative so we had a method by which we can remove the soot from the outside; a sort of servant’s chute. I’m not sure how accurate my imagined history is but it works for me!
Once the fire is going well, you want to continue to push it toward the back wall. Logs tend to roll forward and should be moved back toward the rear-canted wall periodically. Be sure to feed new logs into the fire in the same way. The object is to keep this rear “firewall” as hot as can be, thus maintaining the draft and minimizing smoking.
Here are a couple of reasons that fireplaces smoke and things you can think about if my recipe for firebuilding still proves insufficient:
The ratio between the opening of the fireplace and the size of the flue shaft should be roughly 1/10. If your fireplace opening is, say, 30 inches wide and 25 inches high then you have 750 square inches of space. The flue should then be about 75 square inches of space or, roughly eight inches by nine inches. If the fireplace opening (where you load the wood) is much larger than this, the air supply is too large and the flue will not be able to pull air fast enough. In such cases a shield can be installed at the top of the opening to reduce the size. I’ll be you’ve seen at least one. (Aha, you say, that’s what that thing was!)
Another thing that causes smoking is flue length. If the flue is too short, it won’t create enough draft. Extending the flue upward into the sky can often improve drafting and put that useless fireplace back into happy employment.
I’ll don my inspector goggles for a few parental admonitions to close with since no day is complete for me without uttering something harsh.
If you want to use your fireplace, spend the small amount of money necessary to have a good local fireplace inspector come by and check things out. Fireplace flues get dirty and the soot and creosote (a shiny, tar encrustation) can catch fire if there’s enough if it and the fire is hot enough. A chimney fire is too hot to put out and is usually allowed to run its course, after which a chimney may need to be replaced at some serious expense. It can also burn a house down in cases where an old flue has gaps that lead to framing.
Cleaning a fireplace is cheap and prudent. The inspector will also have the chance to check out the other aspects including dampers, spark arrestors, covers and overall configuration.
In another 20-30 years, I believe that our fireplaces will have largely gone to the salvage-yard of history. They are, after all, a lapel that we no longer need but continue to wear for their fun and familiarity. For these last days, let’s sit with them, record their beauty for when they’re gone, keeping their important purpose in mind, that being to draw us together around the fire.