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All About Fireplaces

Everything you need to know to understand this iconic home feature.

Fireplace Laura Moss

Nothing beats relaxing on a chilly evening with a cup of something warm and a fire in the hearth. Traditionally a place to cook and a way to heat a home, today’s fireplace serves more as an accessory than a necessity—but a coveted one at that.

A fireplace is a safe place for a fire, lit to give off light and heat. Generally made of brick or stone, a fireplace includes a firebox to contain the fire, a chimney to channel smoke and toxic gas out of the space, and several other key elements.

Key Elements of a Fireplace

Here are the main parts of your fireplace that you should know:

  • Ash pit—a cellar under the fireplace grate where ashes collect. It’s accessed through a cleanout door in the basement or on the outside of the chimney
  • Ash pit cover—a grate in the floor of the firebox that allows ashes, but not wood, to fall into the ash pit below
  • Chimney—an architectural structure made of masonry, stone, or brick that channels the exhaust gases and smoke produced by the fire out of the home
  • Chimney cap—an elevated cover that prevents moisture from snow or rain and animals, like birds, from entering the flue
  • Crown—the top of the chimney
  • Damper—a movable covering in the throat of the chimney that separates the firebox from the flue. In the closed position, it prevents cold outside air from coming into the home.
  • Firebox—the cavity where the fire burns
  • Flue—a duct or liner made of terracotta clay or stainless-steel pipe that runs through the chimney
  • Foundation—a concrete pad under the house that supports the weight of the fireplace and chimney
  • Hearth—the floor of a fireplace and the extension that protrudes into the room
  • Lintel—the horizontal architectural member that supports the weight of the chimney above the firebox
  • Mantel—a shelf that hangs over the top of the fireplace opening. If the mantel surrounds the entire opening of the fireplace, the vertical sides are called pilasters or legs with plinths at the bottom. The shelf brackets are corbels.
  • Surround—the fireproof wall covering that surrounds the fireplace
  • Smoke chamber—the area that connects the firebox and the flue. The bottom of this chamber is called the smoke shelf. It blocks rain or soot from dropping into the fire and helps to prevent downdrafts.
  • Spark arrester—a metal screen that covers the top of the flue to prevent burning ash from escaping.
  • Throat—a narrow passageway between the firebox and the smoke chamber

How a Fireplace Works

If you remember from middle school science, heat rises. You can observe this principle in a hot air balloon, where heat and gas from a burner fill the balloon causing it to rise. Similarly, a column of heated gas accumulates in a chimney’s smoke chamber, which then pulls, or draws, more heat from the fire below and channels it up the flue. This draw is the most important operation in a fireplace as it keeps smoke and gasses flowing out of your home.

Fireplace Safety for Homes, Old and New

The most important consideration when building, repairing, or using a fireplace is safety. Before using a fireplace in a newly purchased home, have it inspected. The inspector will look to see if the chimney meets current building codes. In older homes, inspectors frequently find chimneys that are too short or without liners. If the chimney has a liner, they’ll inspect it for cracks that could allow heat to escape and ignite combustible materials, like your roof trusses.

The inspector will also look for cracks in the mortar and bricks. Any cracks wider than ⅛ inch require repointing (the process of replacing the mortar). Finally, they’ll want to make sure the damper works properly and doesn’t show signs of corrosion. A corroded damper could freeze in the open or closed position making it inoperable, or even fall out.

Once your fireplace passes inspection, remember to maintain it. Every year before enjoying your first fire, clean your chimney or have it cleaned by a professional. Creosote, which builds up in the chimney, is highly combustible and a major cause of chimney fires. Also, hire a qualified chimney sweep to inspect your flue for cracks.

Repair or Repurpose a Fireplace

If you’re faced with the decision of whether to repair your chimney and fireplace or to repurpose the space, here are a few questions to consider:

  • Are you trying to preserve a historic home?
  • Do you want to use it to burn wood?
  • Can you afford the repairs?
  • Can you do the work yourself?

When to Hire a Professional

The following projects pose safety issues and require strict adherence to building codes: replacing a cracked flue, repointing broken mortar, replacing or resetting loose or broken bricks, and adding courses of brick to a chimney that’s too short. If you choose to tackle one of these projects yourself, make sure to have your work inspected before you use the fireplace.

Easy DIY Fireplace Projects

If you find the repairs too costly or impractical, or simply don’t wish to use the fireplace for its intended purpose, consider turning it into a design element in your home. A few ideas include:

  • Filling the kitchen fireplace with cookbooks or old canning jars containing dry goods
  • Filling the library fireplace with books
  • Arranging candles in the living room or master bedroom fireplace for the warm glow a fire brings
  • Creating a toy nook in a fireplace that’s in a playroom or child’s room

Otherwise, your fireplace may need a few improvements well within your skill set: painting or staining the brick, refinishing or adding a mantel, and repairing tile-work, to name a few.

How to Paint or Stain a Brick Fireplace

To paint a brick fireplace, first prep the surface. Give the brick a good scrubbing with soap and water and a stiff brush. If you’re working outside, consider using a pressure washer. To kill mildew, apply a mixture of one part bleach to three parts water and let it soak for half an hour before scrubbing.

While scrubbing, inspect the mortar for signs of damage or deterioration. You can use silicone caulk to repair small cracks, but more extensive damage will require repointing the brick.

After scrubbing, apply a latex primer. For fireplaces situated outside the home, you may choose to use a paint sprayer. Inside, use a brush or roller. Allow the primer to dry thoroughly between coats and before applying paint.

The best choice of paint for bricks is an elastodynamic formula because its elasticity fills cracks and prevents new ones from developing. If you can’t find elastodynamic paint, acrylic latex exterior paint is the next best choice.

To paint brick that’s inside a home, use rollers and brushes. Choose a roller with a thick nap to get into all the nooks and crannies. Outside, feel free to use a sprayer.

Staining the brick requires the same prep work, except that you might also choose to cover the mortar with painters tape. After the brick is cleaned and dry, apply the stain in an inconspicuous location to check the color. You can lighten or darken it by adding pigment.

Once you’re happy with the color, apply the stain in thin coats using a brush or clean rag. Wait 24 hours between coats and always wear gloves to protect your skin.

How to Refinish a Mantel

Refinishing a fireplace mantel is much like refinishing a piece of wood furniture. You strip the paint and repaint it. However, there are a few finer points experts agree on.

If you want to preserve the historical feel of the room by matching its original color, in a small, inconspicuous area, apply paint stripper to the painted wall and wipe it off before the full time suggested. This should remove one to two layers of paint at a time. If matching the original color doesn’t matter to you, proceed as follows.

In an older home, always assume there’s lead paint there somewhere. Wear protective gear and never refinish woodwork with children or young adults nearby. Isolate the room you’re working in and provide for adequate ventilation.

Never sand the old paint. Sanding produces dust that drifts and falls into all the crevices of your home. When inhaled or ingested, the dust causes lead poisoning. Not only will sanding spread toxic lead throughout your home, if not done gently it could ruin the intricate details in the architecture you’re trying to preserve. Only use chemical strippers and dispose of the waste properly.

Follow the stripper manufacturer’s directions. Always wear gloves, long sleeves, and protective eyewear. When clean, paint or stain mantel as desired.

How to Replace Missing or Broken Tile

Luxury homes of old often included elaborate architectural elements that are hard to replace. If tiles or any other ornate components that surround your fireplace need repairing, you have a treasure hunt on your hands.

Start the hunt by taking measurements and photographing the tile. Upload the photo into your web browser and perform a Google image search to see if a match turns up for sale. Otherwise, haunt salvage retailers and antique stores, or commission someone to make a replica.

When resetting a tile, try to visually match what the builder originally used. Most tiles are attached using thinset mortar.

Hopefully, a thorough knowledge of fireplaces will help you to stay safe and enjoy the beauty this iconic design element brings to your home.