Planning a Fireplace Remodel

Changing the look of a fireplace involves more planning than most people realize. 

Adding the wrong type of material may be a fire hazard, and is the most often overlooked part of the process. By watching some DIY shows on TV, homeowners may get the impression that they can do the remodeling themselves without checking for fire safety issues, clearances to combustibles, or consulting a professional chimney sweep.

Fireplace Surround - BeforeOne of my pet peeves is the TV remodelers who show their audience how easy it is to just add a new mantel or facial wall finish to a fireplace without talking about codes and clearances to combustible materials.

In some cases, these show hosts have actually put the homeowners at risk. In order to prevent a serious fire hazard it is best to consult with a qualified chimney professional before starting the work. 

In one case in Kansas City, a homeowner had a carpenter build custom bookcases and trim work around and above the fireplace.

Fireplace Surround - After

This work was quite extensive and expensive to build. After the work was completed, the homeowner called a chimney sweep to check it to see if there were any problems with the installation.

Unfortunately, the carpenter covered up vents on a heat-circulating fireplace with wood. The manufacturer of the fireplace requires that no combustibles by placed within 18” of the vents. By doing this installation, the carpenter, who was unfamiliar with chimneys and fireplaces, put the owners at extreme risk.

The wood would have ignited due to exposure to heat. The owner opted not to redesign the woodwork and not to use the fireplace due to the expense to remove and re-design the carpentry work. 

Most heat-circulating fireplace manufacturers require that no combustibles be placed on the fireplace face.

Stone Hearth - Before

The face is the decorative surround which is usually made out of brick and installed to the sides and above the fireplace. The face is not a part of the chimney structure. The mantel must be made out of metal, stone, or brick in order to reduce the risk of fire due to heat venting out of the top vents. Improper mantel type is another common mistake made by unsuspecting homeowners. 

Fireplace Surround - After

Remodeling a fireplace can make all the difference in appearance of the home.

The fireplace is usually the focal point of the room so it is important for it to coordinate with the style of the home. During the 60’s and 70’s, large heavy brick or stone fireplaces, mantels, and hearth were often used in décor but are now out of vogue, so homeowners may look for a way to update the look but keep their functional fireplace.

One method is to cover the face with a non-combustible product called wonder board, which is similar to sheet rock but does not have a combustible paper backing. Wonder board must be cut with a commercial saw, but otherwise, can be used like sheetrock and finished to create a more modern look. 

Another popular method is to add tile over the top of bricks. The installer may or may not install a wire backing first because most brick is rough enough to apply thinset on directly, then place tiles on the thin set. Since tiles are non-combustible, they can be used without worry. 

Before completing any fireplace remodel project it is a good idea to call a professional chimney sweep to consult with your designer or remodeler regarding codes and clearances and to have the chimney inspected.

Some chimney sweeps are experienced in masonry or carpentry work and may be able to do this work as well.  Before hiring anyone to do the remodel, ask to see some of the contractor’s previous jobs. 

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