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Traditional fireplaces

Like snow and foxes, there is something magical and fairytale about the traditional fireplace.

Fireplaces are naturally only found in temperate and cold climates.

They are structurally integral to the building and therefore historically they are load-bearing.

They originate in the cave so they are pretty much as old as civilisation.

It has always been somewhere to cook, get warm and to sit in front of while thinking about things or telling stories. The crackle of flames is comforting and poignant. The oldest and most low-tech fireplaces are wood burning.

What is a fireplace?

A fireplace is made of:

Fireplace surrounds

The surround is usually made of a luxurious, decorated or fancy material such as polished wood, sandstone, marble or even face brickwork and the mantel which is top piece of the surround, becomes a feature.

The mantel is like a shelf or sill where household treasures may be displayed, such as a clock, a candelabra or family pictures.

A variety of matching accessories finishes off the 'look': often they are not even functional as they are merely decorative. They could be grates, fireguards, logboxes, pellet baskets, log baskets and fire dogs. These are not actually woofing furry friends. They are cradles made of iron or steel, to hold the logs and cradle the fuel for more efficient burning and heat production.

Traditional fireplace

Above: Traditional fireplace - mirror is there as in this apartment, the fireplace is not in use very often.

Types of fireplaces

During the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and the first half of the last century, they were fuelled by coal. Today they are powered by electric and gas fires, although wood burning ones are still very popular especially in areas where there is too much wood to burn such as rural or agricultural buildings.

Traditional fireplace - fitting

Above: Fitting a traditional fireplace. Note gas fitting in centre.

Traditional fireplaces are large, dirty, dusty, and burn coal (smokeless or not), wood, logs, charcoal etc. And very attractive. The hearth is now replaced in the main family room by the television set.

Main combustion materials are EPA-certified wood (or just normal wood if self-collected, although this is not recommended), pellet and coal, charcoal, smokeless coke, natural gas and propane, also ethanol and other less common materials.

Storage of fireplace fuel - burning materials - combustible material

Coal and other solid materials have to be kept in coal buckets, with coal tongs, brushes etc., in the house, and a storage area such as a cellar or outdoor box of some sort. This can be either brick or concrete made, or wooden with a waterproof lid. In the old days coalmen delivered coal to most if not all houses, and carried the coal in sacks, on their shoulders, and dumped it into the coal shed or storage area.

Logs have also to be stored, made waterproofed and damp proof, and care has to be taken to prevent infestation by all sorts of animals, from ants to bears.

Safety precautions have to be taken if using gas and stored or bottled gas.

Electric fireplaces

Many people think electricity is safer and cleaner than coal or gas, and they have a point.

Some have false flame effects to give a traditional hearth-like appeal.

Gas fireplaces

There are many types of gas for burning, such as burning mains gas (which used to be coal-derived, now natural gas), coal, coke, or bottled or stored gas. Low temperature blocks which look very good in artistic fireplaces are a new development.

Fireplace inserts

Fireplace inserts are made to fit into an existing fireplace and have glass doors to give a view of the flames.

They are are made of metal, cast iron or steel, and might have self cleaning glass doors. This looks good and also makes the fire burn better. Air is drawn in below through vents and leaves at the top.

Water heating can also be installed around the fireplace in a larger installation. This improves the sometimes low energy efficiency of a fireplace.

Fireplace inserts can save energy loss, and so save money, and allow you to use your existing fireplace without too much disruption.

Reproduction fireplaces

Repro fireplaces will save you a lot of money if you are after the traditional Victorian or Edwardian look but don't have the budget for a real one.

Fire screens

These range from small metal grills that prevent children getting too close, to larger all over grill protection attached to the walls or surrounds.


These only provide a small amount of protection so never leave children with a fire. SOme clothing materials are dangerous and can catch alight easily.


All work on a fireplace has to be certified as it is a high risk area. DIY or amateur work is not recommended for anything to do with the burning system, flues, extraction and storage of combustible materials. Surrounds are where you might be able to do some work yourself. You can also do some of the work and get it checked and signed off by a professional.

People can be killed by carbon monoxide fumes from badly fitted systems, and there is also a fire risk. There is also smoke and particulate pollution which might be low level but is still bad for your health.

Do not place pictures or flat screen televisions or computer monitors over a fireplace, unless it can be protected in some way. This is not due to emissions (usually) but due to temperature changes which will damage anything there. If the fireplace is only used occasionally, it might be safe.