When the temps turn cold, the fireplace springs into action again to keep us warm and cozy as we stare transfixed at the dancing flames. There is something magical about a wood burning fireplace that can quiet rowdy children and encourage those conversations that only happen when the television is off.
So every fall it’s important to inspect and ready your fireplace for the winter ahead. In this article I’ll give you a few steps you should do every year to maintain a fireplace and keep you safe this winter so we can all enjoy one of the great parts of living in an old house.
Inspect the Firebox
The firebox is where the fire is built and it endures the most punishing conditions. Intense heat, soot, and ash all build up here so it’s important to inspect it before your heating season begins. Look for any loose bricks or missing mortar and repoint as necessary with a lime mortar for homes built before the 1930s or so. Follow this tutorial for repointing historic masonry.
In older homes from before the mid-1800s, it wasn’t uncommon to find the firebox bricks plastered over to protect the bricks. The plaster acted as a sacrificial layer that could be replaced as it failed from the heat. If this is the case for your house feel free to touch up the plaster as necessary.
Inspect the Damper
A properly functioning damper is huge and make or break your fireplace’s effectiveness. Some chimneys will have a damper just above the firebox and other designs have the damper at the chimney cap with a wire run down the chimney that allows you to operate it. Whichever kind you have, make sure it is operating properly and can open and close.
If the damper is sticking it’s sometimes just a matter of adding a little high-temp WD-40 or similar lubricant and use a wire brush to clean some of the built up soot and creosote off the moveable parts.
Keep the damper tightly closed when there is no fire going to avoid cold air pouring into your house, and don’t forget to open it before lighting any fires. If you’re one of the folks without a damper and have done the old “insulation in a trash bag stuffed up the chimney” make sure you remove that before lighting a fire as well.
Inspect the Chimney Cap
During the summer storms it’s not uncommon for a chimney cap to get damaged by a tree limb or other debris. If that happens, your fireplace may not draft properly and end up filling your house with smoke. You usually don’t need to go up on the roof to inspect it as a simple visual inspection from the ground will suffice. If you notice any problems then a closer look may be called for.
Clean the Chimney
Yes, you can put on your worst cockney accent and dance to Chim Chim Cher-ee, but cleaning your chimney is best done safely by a professional chimney sweep in just an hour or two for a small price. Cleaning all the built up soot and creosote from the inside of the chimney walls and inspecting the condition of the flue is what they do best and it’s money well spent for a very dirty job.
A clean chimney drafts better, keeping smoke out of your house and also reduces the risk of fire from built up creosote inside the flue.
If you follow these simple steps to maintain a fireplace at the beginning of the season then you’ll be saved from a problematic chimney when the the coldest nights hit. That way you can stay both warm and safe this winter.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.
1 thought on “How To: Maintain a Fireplace”
Looking for an experienced professional who can evaluate our fireplace and either modify it as a “Rumford” or put in an insert. Would prefer somebody that can do either and can give us an “objective” assessment,
in the Philadelphia PA area if anyone knows of someone.