Gone are the days when homeowners would routinely plasterboard over or brick up a fireplace in order to give a more modern, streamlined look to a period property.
Some old houses once had a fireplace in every room, a setup that’s admittedly not always desirable these days in bedrooms and bathrooms, even as ornamental objects. However, in our principal living spaces we are now much more likely to regard a fireplace as a prized original feature.
The rise of clean, highly efficient solid-fuel stoves and gas fires (as opposed to inefficient, smoky open fires) is a further argument for creating a beautiful focal point in the room – one that can also keep you cosy and warm.
Breathing new life into an old fireplace will usually involve multiple stages of work, from recreating/enlarging the opening to installing a new hearth and flue liner. Some are more DIY-friendly than others, but as Building Regs apply, people often farm out the whole project and find a local retailer-cum-installer for their chosen appliance.
Establish what fuel you want to burn (gas or solid), since that will point you in the direction of who can do the work. “First speak to your local retailer, who will arrange for a site assessment. They’ll be able to check whether the chimney is in good condition, or whether it might need lining to get it into working order,” says Dave Saunders, Stovax’s technical standards manager.
This typically involves a smoke test to establish whether there are gaps in masonry joins or damaged flue pipes. If significant leaks are happening, a new flue will be needed.
There are different requirements for gas or solid fuel. For example, a woodburning stove has to be used in tandem with a twin-wall flue to cope with high temperatures.
Don’t buy a stove without first uncovering the builder’s opening (the original cavity where the fire goes). You’ll need to know its size to make sure the stove fits and leaves enough clearances to conform to Building Regulations rules surrounding the distance the appliance can sit from combustible materials.
If you’ve just moved in to a new home and have inherited an existing fireplace that you want to get working again, “at the very least you will need to have the chimney swept before it is reused,” says Dave.
A chimney sweep can clean and inspect the flue and advise on any repairs. If an unused chimney has been sealed up on top of the stack, it will need to be opened again. Find a sweep via the HETAS website or a trade body such as The Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps.
Period fireplaces create a characterful focal feature. The Georgians favoured classical-style stone or marble surrounds, with a plain aperture containing a firebasket.
Victorian and Edwardian houses typically had one-piece cast iron fireplaces (with the surround and insert combined), or cast-iron inserts with surrounds made of stone, marble or timber. Tiled inserts on the cheeks (or sides) add a further decorative element.
Typical issues with period fireplaces include layers of overpainting, damaged tiles, cracked hearths, disfigured firebacks and missing or harmed metal components. Some of these issues can be tackled by a competent DIYer, such as removing paint with chemical stripper (the Victorian Society recommends avoiding a heat gun, because it can crack old metal).
If your cast-iron fireplace just needs a cosmetic spruce-up, buff it with a specialist polish such as Liberon paste, or cover it with matt black fireplace paint specially formulated for higher temperatures. You’ll need to call in the professionals for missing or damaged metal components. A restorer should be able to recast features such as hoods and grates.
Stonework can also be cleaned, restored and resealed, usually in situ, while new hearths (in standard sizes or custom-made to your dimensions) are widely available online, or try your local granite/marble yard.
If a fireplace is very dilapidated, you may be better off starting again, with a good-quality replica or a reclaimed model (restorers often also deal in good-quality salvaged examples).
If you want a bare-brick fireplace with no mantel – a clean, minimal setting for a woodburning stove – don’t expect to find perfect brickwork lining the original opening. It’s often a mess, using offcut bricks and rough mortar, because it was intended to be covered with a fireback.
Slotting in a made-to-measure brick-faced chamber will restore a neat finish – but many opt to render it, or line it with a non-combustible board such as Thermalux.
How to uncover the builder’s opening
If you like the look of an open fire in a traditional setting but want efficiency, too, look for gas fires with a glass screen that completely covers the aperture, which can be paired with a period mantel. Gazco’s Reflex 75T or Capital Fireplaces’ DL500 are both good options.
“If you want to install a new or replacement appliance, you must use a registrant of a competent person self-certification scheme,” says Bruce Allen, CEO of HETAS, which deals with solid-fuel fires such as woodburning stoves.
“Alternatively, contact your local authority building control department and seek a building notice, which gives you permission to undertake work covered by the regs. This can be the most expensive option, with fees payable to the local authority – something that can be avoided if you use a scheme member like a HETAS registrant.”
The regs must also be adhered to if there are going to be structural alterations, including replacing the lintel above the aperture. If you are decommissioning an old gas or electric fire, this needs to be done by a qualified pro.