Wood Burning Fireplace; Construction and Safety Considerations

Once an integral part of nearly every home, a wood burning fireplace is still a wonderful way to add ambiance and a touch of class to nearly any room design. But more than adding aesthetic appeal or set a relaxing, romantic mood, a fireplace helps supplement heating during cold winter months.

Although more contemporary versions are available - such as a modern electric fireplace or ventless gas fireplace - a traditional wood burning fireplace is still a very popular option. Fireplace design and construction are important.

Masonry Fireplace Construction

A safe and efficient wood burning fireplace is well-built, durable, and fireproof. Although specific designs may differ and additional features may be present, masonry fireplaces all have an inner and outer shell.

Because its main functions are to control fire, heat, and smoke, the inner shell is made from fireproof materials. The outer shell supports and surrounds the inner shell, providing structural stability. It is made from brick or other type masonry product, and consists of the following:

  • Foundation - also referred to as a “footing” in some building codes. Codes specify that the foundation must be a certain thickness and width, with proper reinforcement.
  • Ash pit - where fire ashes can be collected and removed through an ash pit fireplace door.
  • Outer and inner fireplace hearth - with the inner hearth forming the firebox, directly under the fire. The outer hearth is located in front of the fireplace opening; it protects the floor from runaway sparks.
  • Fireplace butt walls - support the firebox. They extend from the foundation to the bottom of the flue.
  • Fireplace firebox - or fire pit; the fireplace opening, adjacent to the fire. Its dimensions are important for proper combustion and smoke removal.
  • Smoke shelf - a curved shelf that projects out from the rear butt wall; its purpose is to reflect down drafts back up the flue.
  • Damper - a metal spring door used to open and close the draft; to regulate airflow.
  • Lintel - an angle iron located horizontally across the fireplace opening, lending support to masonry units laid over the opening.
  • Smoke chamber - an area extending from the throat of the fireplace to the bottom of the flue. Its purpose is to collect and discharge smoke and gases, and reflect downdrafts.
  • Flue - a vertical opening through the chimney, extending from the smoke chamber to the top of the chimney. Its primary function is to create a draft for proper ventilation, and to discharge smoke.
  • Chimney system - the walls of which consist of bricks or other type masonry; constructed together as one unit, surrounding the flue. The chimney top consists of three features; a cap - for moisture protection and to prevent birds and small animals from entering the chimney. A metal wire mesh called a spark arrester, to prevent burning debris from rising out of the chimney. And a rotating hood or “chimney cowl,” to control downdrafts.

Despite their popularity, one setback of traditional fireplace construction is that approximately 90% of the heat from burning wood goes right up the chimney. This problem can be reduced and energy efficiency increased with the introduction of an airtight wood burning fireplace insert.

This type insert is basically a wood stove, designed to breathe new life into old drafty fireplaces. They are easily installed and use the existing chimney. Standard features include a brick-lined firebox, a blower (to circulate heat into the room), and a faceplate. Make sure the one you select is Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended; clean burning and highly energy efficient.

Wood Burning Fireplace Safety Tips

  • Have your fireplace chimney inspected annually by a qualified chimney service provider; have it cleaned when necessary by an experienced chimney sweeper.
  • Install smoke AND carbon monoxide detectors in your home.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher handy.
  • Keep at least a 2-foot boundary around the fireplace, free from flammable materials.
  • Always use a fireplace grate; keep the screen closed when in use.
  • Never use a liquid accelerant to start a fire in a fireplace, including gasoline and lighter fuel.

DIY Project - or a Job for a Licensed Fireplace Chimney Contractor?

Some homeowners have the skill level required to construct a masonry fireplace that is both efficient and safe. Skills required include:

  • Ability to accurately read blue prints and detailed drawings.
  • Ability to follow building code specifications and fireplace design plans exactly.
  • Proper trade practices when working with masonry units and mortar for construction of the fireplace.
  • Ability to install the inner and outer hearth, chimney damper, and lintel using the proper materials and methods specified.
  • Ability to form the smoke shelf, throat, smoke chamber, and liner support.
  • Ability to properly install a face on the fireplace.

Once the project is completed, a smoke test should be conducted to insure the fireplace is safe to use.

If time restrictions or lack of required skills prevent you from undertaking this type project on your own, hiring a contractor is your best bet.

A brick layer or other type professional fireplace builder will be privy to building codes, and the importance of precise fireplace construction and design. He or she will insure that corners are square, measurements accurate, and that each aspect of fireplace construction is according to specified dimensions so it will function safely.

Finding the Right Contractor for the Job

Whether you require the services of a local chimney cleaner, licensed mason, or a chimney cleaning repairing builder contractor, find just the right professional at

Posting your project online is fast, easy, and FREE - with no obligation. Service provider members view project postings online. They also receive e-mail notification of new projects in their locality; within their area of expertise. And then provide project owners with competitive bids.

Homeowners can view company profile information, contractor credentials, licensing and insurance information, references, and pictures of recently completed projects online at, 24//7. And then make an informed hiring decision - or hire no one at all. Remember, there is no obligation whatsoever.

Posted by: TrustedPros
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