Grouting Complete

Our house has two fireplaces, but both needed some attention when we moved in. The chimneys were in disrepair and both had to be rebuilt from the roof upward. Lord knows when they had last been cleaned! In the fireboxes themselves, the grout was so loose I could clean out some of the joints with a pencil.

The upstairs fireplace was the first priority, tied right to our main living space. I re-grouted it right away, and was so pleased with my work that I scraped all of the old grout out of the downstairs fireplace that same week. And for two years the downstairs stayed that way, prepped for new grout.

Since everything else is done in the family room, I finally pulled out my trowel, float, and grout sponge and put two years of procrastinating to rest in two hours.

I have decided that DiY renovating is a lot like flossing. It is a good thing to do, the right thing to do for a house (your teeth). But all it takes is one day where I say ‘I will just finish that later’ to break the habit. I am making no promises about dental hygiene, but I’d like to get back on top of some of these minor projects! Like the last coat of paint in the downstairs hall!

Family room mantel

Since the furniture won’t arrive for another week, we have some extra time to put some finishing touches on the family room. The only remaining unscraped surfaces are the windows and fireplace mantel. The windows have screens that we will ultimately remove, so I will wait until after that demo to paint the window trim. For the mantel, there was one spot where very loose paint had come off, exposing an almond-glossy paint beneath. I figured I could scrape a little more loose paint in that area, take off any other high point, and get painting. Right?

Wrong. The loose paint turned out to be systemic. With very little effort, entire strips of white latex paint could be pulled off! Diana and I carefully pulled off all of the white paint from the nooks and crannies of the fireplace woodwork. Here is a shot with only the lower left pillar awaiting scraping.

In most spots, we managed not to damage the almond paint below, so I plan to do some very minimal patching before painting. We will also sand all surfaces so that our new paint has a better chance of sticking! I wonder if the heat from the fire will have any impact on the paint finish.

Here is a glimpse of the typical winter evening scene at the Schenckington house.  A fire crackling safely behind the new fireplace screen, and Gus sitting on a pillow as close as he can get to the warmest place in the house.

After admiring this copper bucket and wishing we had a place to put firewood, I realized we *do* have something that would work. This galvanized metal bucket was a street find in Brooklyn, and I originally intended to grow plants in it.  Lately, its been corralling rakes and shovels in the basement. Since gardening season is months away, I figured it could spend the off-season on firewood duty. Perfect.

Fire Reprise

Ok! We have learned through many efforts that a fireplace CAN heat the house.  Well, a fire can at least heat one room adequately and maintain a high level of comfort.  The key is to close off the main part of the house so that the air to fuel the fire doesn’t come from the furnace-warmed parts of the house, and to open a kitchen window just enough to provide the necessary draft.  Then, construct the largest fire that the fireplace can contain, to get all the air circulating properly and to create the most heat possible.  The white-hot coals then keep radiating heat with minimal smoke (and quickly ignite any new wood added in), so even if a lot of the heat goes right up the chimney, we don’t need sweaters or long-johns in the living room.  Fireplace doors to restrict the air’s escape and to radiate even more heat will also help, and are on Lars’ drawing board.  I however, am now motivated enough to undertake the repointing of the downstairs fire place, since an even larger fire will be possible down there.

Fireplace Follow-up

Perhaps some of you remember our ambitious storm-window construction plan… It has proven to be too ambitious for fall 2010. So I have instead become a master of heat-shrinkable window film!

I bet you can hardly even tell there’s plastic on that window.  Here’s another one to prove I really sealed them.

Do you want to be a master of window sealing too? Here are my tips for successful window sealing:

  • Clean the surface you are about to affix the double-sided tape to (duh)
  • Blow dry that surface to remove any residual dust and to heat up the surface slightly
  • Apply the tape and smooth it down
  • WAIT 15 minutes, at least; otherwise the tape may pull loose
  • Carefully remove the tape backing and attach the film, smoothing down
  • Hair-dry from one corner diagonally to the opposite, not just top-down
  • Beautiful, clear and tight results!

So, what does this have to do with the fireplace? Well, after the first fire fell flat, I thought perhaps we could control the amount of cold air sucking into the house if I sealed up the windows. Then we could maybe restrict the influx of air to a place of our choosing, like the kitchen (which the radiator turns into a veritable kiln). Then the rest of the house could stay warm. Perhaps.

Test time! The second fire was larger than the first, and conducted with the furnace on. We all felt a lot warmer than the first time, shedding our many layers down to t-shirts. The rest of the house seemed to remain at a decent heat level, though the thermostat temperature reading actually read HIGHER at some point in the evening… Which was probably the hot air rushing by from the other rooms!

The fireplace is still not a roaring success, and a bit smoky throughout the house as we learn to control the flue. But definitely more enjoyable! I’ll get to work fixing the downstairs mortar next…

Inaugural Fire

The first fire of the season was a bit of a letdown. 

Its been chilly this past week, getting down to freezing at night.  Almost chilly enough to compel one of us to click the “on” switch on the thermostat.  Almost. The prospect of a toasty warm fire heating up the living room was the last thing standing in between me and the thermostat. 

Brian re-grouted the fireplace last Monday. By the next day after dinner, the grout had dried for 24 hours and we were ready for a fire. 

Brian gathered logs from our huge stockpile and brought them up to the living room. Soon enough, the fire was going. It looked great, especially the iron fire dogs holding up the logs.

There was only one thing wrong: it wasn’t warm. The living room seemed even colder than before we started the fire. The internet confirmed it – open hearth masonry fireplaces are notoriously inefficient, ranging from -10% to 20%.  Based on my non-scientific observations, it seems like we are in the negative range. That means all the heat created by the fire plus some went right up the chimney. The fireplace actually makes the room colder! 

There are a couple things we can do to improve this, by getting a woodstove insert or glass doors. A woodstove seems like a good way to go, and if we get one before the end of the year, there’s a government rebate. 

But here’s my question – if hearth fireplaces are so inefficient, why are they such a symbol of warmth? You know the New England cliche of sitting cozily next to a fireplace while its snowing outside. It’s not true? In old homes, open hearth fireplaces are in every room, seemingly to keep the occupants warm. But they don’t work? How could this be?

I’m off to investigate this, and price out some woodstove inserts.