ONE WOOD FURNITURE
HOW TO RESTORE AND RENOVATE A FIREPLACE
Many Victorian and Georgian fire surrounds were removed and the fireplaces crudely boarded up during the mania for modernization in the 1950s. These properties generally have wide chimney breasts so it is easy to work out where the fireplace would have been; you will probably have to do a bit more detective work in houses that have been substantially altered over the years.
In better conversions, the opening will have been bricked up and plastered over, with an air brick installed to ventilate the chimney. By removing this you can access the size of the opening; if there is no air brick, remove a few bricks from the center of the chimney breast about 35 cm from the floor. However, as a chimney breast in an integral structural element of the house, ask for specialist help if major work seems likely.
The hearth should be made of stone or concrete faced with tiles and extend into the room by 50 cm to prevent flooring catching alight - a broken hearth is a serious fire risk. You must also ensure that the recess is properly fireproofed - cracked firebricks need to be filled with fire cement.
Essentially, a fireplace doesn't actually need a surround but apart from performing a decorative function, it also helps protect the adjacent walls from dirt and damage. If you are planning to renovate an existing surround by stripping off the paint, remember that many pipe or plaster surrounds were meant to be painted (often to imitate expensive materials such as marble or hardwood) so you may uncover a surface that doesn't bear close scrutiny. To remove paint from a wooden surround, work by hand using a chemical stripper; burning off the paint may damage precious details. Test a small area first, working into corners with a toothbrush.
Marble fireplaces stain and discolor easily, which is why many were give a coat of paint. This can be removed with a chemical paint stripper and marble cleaner. Cast-iron fireplaces, too, will often have been painted. The best way to strip off the paint is by sandblasting. This is a professional task, so ask a fireplace shop to recommend a tradesman.
If the surround is missing or you wish to change it, architectural salvage yards have a good choice of original styles. Reproductions of fireplaces from different historical periods are also widely available.
When choosing a surround, consider the age of your property, and the proportions and style of the room. To gauge the size and style of the original surround, check out similar properties in your area.
Wooden and cast-iron fireplaces are often made as a single unit, screwed in place by special fixings. Marble fireplaces come in pieces (the side supports, the frieze or lintel, and the shelf), so check everything is there if buying second hand. As marble is heavy, the pieces need to be professionally fixed together, and to the wall, with fine casting plaster and metal ties and hooks.
If you plan to light a fire, you must check the condition of the flue and chimney first. No fire will draw successfully unless fixed to a sound, correctly sized chimney.
When a fireplace has been blocked-off, the flue may have been plugged to prevent draughts and falling soot - all you may need to do is reach into the throat of the flue and remove the board. If it is unobstructed, check the draw of the flue by lighting rolled-up newspaper and holding it in the fireplace - if the smoke goes straight up, the draw is good, but if smoke fills the room, the chimney may be blocked higher up. If the chimney hasn't been used recently, it should be professionally swept and inspected. A smoke test will reveal if the flue is cracked, and defective flue must be relined (a fairly costly process). If the chimney is sound but the the fireplace is smoking, a chimney terminal, such as a cowl, may prevent down draughts.