A masonry fireplace is a structure constructed on site from stone or brick and mortar, and are part of the home’s structural design but this simple definition doesn’t paint the image of beauty that a masonry fireplace truly is. Originally the masonry fireplace was included in a home as the place a family would gather to stay warm, dine and bond but the design of the masonry fireplace has improved greatly since first being introduced to the American home.
We have used fire to our benefit for thousands of years and the first form of a contained fire in a dwelling was a fire pit dug into the middle of the floor which vented through a hole in the roof. Fireplaces were moved to the outside wall and vented horizontally out of the home with the introduction of the 2 story build but since smoke naturally rises the chimney was designed for the smoke to properly exit. This first form of the fireplace was large enough to walk in and was popular into the 1800s. In 1795, Count Rumford established construction techniques and standards for masonry fireplaces which is still the basic standard for modern masonry fireplaces and is known as the Rumford fireplace design. The Rumford fireplace is a tall narrow fireplace which most resembles the fireplace we think of today, this design gained popularity because it was able to push more heat into the room and prevent backdraft.
Now that we are familiar with the evolution of the masonry fireplaces we can dive into the common issues you can expect and prepare for if you have a masonry fireplace or plan to add one to your home. The four main issues that are common with masonry fireplaces are settling, firebox damage, masonry/water damage, and flue liner damage.
Settling or movement is common in masonry fireplaces due to the extensive footing for support and they can shift or crack which allows fire to escape to nearby combustibles. One weak spot where settling often first appears is inside the firebox where the facing material meets the firebrick. It is recommended to direct downspouts away from the structure and sloping the ground around the fireplace so that water runs away from the structure.
The firebox in a fireplace has the most exposure to a fire’s heat and over time the heating and cooling temperature expands and contracts the joints between the firebrick. To slow the progression of decay, make sure the fireplace has a chimney cover which will help keep water out of the chimney and fireplace. Without a chimney cover the rainwater will come in through the chimney, pool on the smoke shelf and mix with the soot behind the damper creating an acidic slurry which will cause the mortar joints to decay faster.
Unlike the rest of a house which receives some protection from the eaves the chimney is completely exposed to every raindrop and freeze/thaw cycle. The best way to protect your chimney against water damage is to choose a quality chimney cover, invest in waterproofing treatment and keep your crown in good condition.
The last common issue with masonry fireplaces is flue liner damage which is usually caused by a chimney fire. A clay tile liner can last up to 50 years if they are properly maintained but one chimney fire will cause the tiles to crack. A cracked tile deems your system inoperable and continuing to use the fireplace can result in harmful gases leaking into the living spaces or structural problems causing the chimney to lean and even collapse if repairs are not completed timely. Keeping up with your annual sweep and inspection is the best way to identify any possible contributors to damage and remove corrosive byproducts that also damage tile liners.
Masonry fireplaces unlike prefabricated are custom built for each home and therefore allow more options to create a unique or traditional aesthetic for your space and despite the common issues that arise a masonry fireplace especially when maintained and cared for adds value to the home. The appearance of a masonry fireplace has improved and changed based on the popular styles of the time and needs of the home but still remains a focal point to gather and bond in a home.