A Fireplace Worthy of the House

We moved in to RiverBank on November 15, 1997, and immediately heat became a challenge. We solved the problem with small gas heaters in the kitchen and bathroom, a woodstove in the middle room, and the fireplace in the kitchen, which for a long time, sufficed. It was Early American living at its finest.

We live closer to nature than most people, and not only because of the occasional bear in the back yard. The house is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Three courses of brick and a layer of plaster don't provide much in the way of insulation. You get used to it. And, for eleven years, we spent the winter playing with the fire, which was fun. But most of the heat went up the chimney. So last year, we bought a new woodstove and immediately cut way down on our wood consumption. We also got a lot warmer. And we spent the winter with the woodstove temporarily fixed, but we knew we would have to rebuild the firebox and mantle.

removing the hearth
Taking up the hearth.

The first step was to remove the hearth, which we built on top of the 1968 hearth, because that one slanted out, leading stuff to roll out of the firebox and onto the floor.

Then came the time to take the mantle off the wall. The mantle was too low to let us put the stove in the firebox, even partway, so we had decided to remove the existing mantle and replace it with one we salvaged out of an 1840 house, one that was much taller and much less banged up, nailed into, and scorched. Once the mantle came off, we were going to remove the brick surround (the bricks inside the mantle space) and then the modern firebox, which we suspected had been built inside the original firebox.

getting ready
Preparing to take the mantle off the wall
(the boards on the floor cover the hole where the hearth was removed)

After cutting the mantle free from the chair rail and the baseboards, it was a matter of carefully, gently prying the mantle loose. It was held in place by nail-to's mortared into the brick wall. When they pried it off, some of the nail-to's came with it.

prying it loose
We found a history of school photos, old report cards, one gift card
and a coin trinket from Frank & Seder Department Store
in Pittsburgh, forerunner of the credit card.

When we took the mantle away, we found out why we occasionally saw smoke in the room. When someone tried to put a damper in the fireplace in the 1960's, they knocked loose a bunch of bricks. The back of the mantle was scorched.


Next step was to clear the loose bricks away, and then to disassemble the firebox. In short order, we had a hole you could drive a golf cart through in the kitchen.

demolition completed
Original firebox exposed, with lots of damage.

The original hearth was level with the floor. When we got everything cleared away, we realized that we were not going to be able to get to the 1780's configuration, and would have to go with the 1850 one. How can you tell? Look at the floor, the way the hearth extends out to the left. In 1850, they made the fireplace smaller by putting two courses of brick in the left side of the firebox, and seaming the masonry up through the chimney throat.

The first step was required rebuilding the outer edges of the wall, which would support the angle iron that crossed the span. Once that was built, it wasn't hard to rebuild the two courses of wall and make sure that everything was solid and safe.

rebuilt begun
Structural supports put back in place, and the wall rebuilt.

With the firebox back to something of its original form, it was obvious that the bricks were crumbling and spalled. A generous coat of limewash kept them from falling apart, but it was obvious it wasn't going to hold up to daily wear. We needed something that would hold the brickwork in place and wouldn't crumble under exposure to heat, even if it was only the heat from the back of a woodstove. We wanted more than that--we hoped to keep the option of using the fireplace for a regular fire, if ever we needed it.


There's an amazing product on the market called surface bonding cement. It's not historically accurate, but it's strong, easy to work with, and rated to stand up to heat. Once we used it in our fireplace, we started noticing it in historic houses everywhere, and with good reason. With fire clay now hard to get, there aren't many other materials that can be used to restore fireplaces, and fire clay is a lot harder to work with.

nearing completion
The fire box finished, awaiting a hearth and a mantle.

We found pavers that were approximately the color of the original bricks. I would have liked to go with original bricks, but they were nowhere near strong enough to bear the weight of a wood stove, so we went with modern paving bricks. Andy cut them to fit, and laid them in the same pattern used in the rest of the house.

hearth installed

It took me about a month to strip, sand and varnish the new mantle. When it was done, we fixed it back in place, screwing it into the re-mortared and already cured nail-to's. Andy put in brackets and installed a piece of cement board that holds the stovepipe in place and acts as a damper. It works beautifully. With the stove in place just in time for cold weather, it would be hard for us to be happier with it. And the old mantle? It will go in the warming room behind the kitchen, when we're ready to reopen and restore that fireplace.

And, now that I know how to do it, there are the fireplaces in the parlor, front room and dining room that all have to be put back into original condition, although I'm thankful there's no cold-weather deadline on that.

all done

Next, in the spring I'll fix the plasterwork I messed up and, over the summer, we'll fix the broken floor boards, replace what we can't fix, and restore the floor. That'll hold the kitchen until we agree what to do with cabinets. (If I get my way, we'll be making them.)

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