I needed help with my fireplace. When we built the house twenty years ago, we selected a plan that located the fireplace in the center of the house so as not to block gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge Mountains through large floor to ceiling glass doors that opened onto a series of decks. We knew that all that glass in a house facing northwest, even though double paned, might result in keeping the living room a little cool in the winter months. A woodstove clearly would have been more practical, but we wanted a fully viewed fire in a fireplace. Most modern fireplaces don’t do a good job of warming a room. What to do?
We had noticed that friends of ours that lived in nearby Albemarle County on an estate that had been in their family for seven generations always had radiantly warm fires burning in their fireplaces on cold, snowy days. These fires were significantly warmer than any we had ever experienced, and certainly warmer than those produced by the fireplace in the Northern Virginia home we then owned. We shared our observations and our friends responded that all the fireplaces in their 1810 home were “Rumfords.” They explained someone named Count Rumford (a Tory from Colonial days) figured out that the only real heat a fireplace emits is radiant heat. Therefore, the firebox needs to be tall, wide and shallow and flush with the floor to allow for the maximum amount of radiant heat
Intrigued, I began to research Rumford fireplaces. As this was in the days before widespread use of personal computers and the internet, it was not as easy as it would be today. But I found and ordered a pamphlet entitled, “Energy Efficient Masonry Fireplaces” from the Centre for Research and Development in Masonry in Calgary, Alberta Canada. The pamphlet extols the virtues of a Rumford fireplace and provided clear blueprints on how to build one. I handed this over to our builder who, in turn, gave it to the masons subcontracted to build our fireplace. You don’t have to order the pamphlet from Canada; you can read more about Rumford fireplaces at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumford_fireplace.
The stone masons were Nelson County craftsman, but former school teachers who had emigrated to the peace of rural central Virginia from the frenzy of Northern Virginia. They had learned their dry-stone masonry technique from a local master. When they visited Naked Mountain and the building site, they urged us not to buy pretty stone from a building supplier, but rather to use the dark, streaked and lichen-covered stone they found lying on the ground everywhere near the building site. They said they had never seen stone like this. Many of the fragments were right-sized and required little more effort than being picked up, brushed off and fitted, like a puzzle, with other found stones. The finished fireplace, they argued, would look like the rocks we could view just beyond our windows.
Many years later, we learned how special those rocks are: amphibolite that has been metamorphosed through geologic forces from basalt and that is rich in calcium, magnesium and potassium. These chemicals leach into the soil and help nurture robust and diverse flora on Naked Mountain.
But back to the fireplace… convinced we should have a site-stone fireplace, we said go ahead. I worked with them to try and scale the firebox opening to fit the tall, 13.5 foot fireplace, faced with amphibolite and flanked with slanted antique heart-pine boards. The opening was tall and very shallow, but needed to be much narrower than most Rumford fireplaces. It looked right, but when we lit a fire, the opening was so high, smoke drifted out into the room. We then had to purchase two lintels that we could stuff up at the top of the opening and seal the gaps that occurred between it and the natural stone with yellow insulation that came in the package. The effect was less than appealing since the lintels were shiny black and ill-fitting with bits of yellow insulation showing through. But, the fireplace then worked very well and the fire threw out radiant heat like any other well-designed Rumford fireplace. Over time, the yellow insulation acquired black soot and visually disappeared, more or less, into the black rock.
A few weeks ago I resolved to fix the fireplace; to replace the make-shift lintels with a properly fashioned, iron lintel that would be shaped to fit into the natural stone gaps. I got the name of a good local blacksmith, Scott Hingley, from a neighbor.
Scott is a character who drives around Nelson County in a Model A 1930 Ford Coupe that he has re-worked so it functions like a small pick up truck. Scott is a highly independent person who is completely self-taught. He can do many things: stonework, carpentry and metal work. He came to my house in his old truck, neatly dressed in a button-down striped blue shirt. He showed me pages and pages of pictures of beautiful work he has done over the years, most of it metal work, ornate gates, doors, hinges, etc. It was very impressive.
I just needed something quite simple. Scott measured the make-shift lintels and the fireplace opening very carefully. He looked everything over and then told me what he would do and gave me what I thought was a very reasonable price. And… he could do it tomorrow! After 20 years of an eyesore in an otherwise beautiful and interesting fireplace, I was going to get it fixed tomorrow!
Scott showed up the next day and spent about four hours carefully carving out curved areas so they matched the uneven shapes of the rocks flanking the firebox opening. He set up just outside the house on the gravel walk, carefully raking away any dry leaves to keep the resulting sparks from causing a fire. He trimmed the metal piece first with a cutting torch and then refined the contours with a hand-held electric grinder. He then checked the progress of the shape he was making against the fireplace rocks, then back out again to re-work the metal, then back into the house again to check it.
He probably made 50 trips before he was satisfied he had the right shapes and the right fix. Then he fit the metal piece in tightly and sealed it with a fireproof sealant so any remaining cracks (I couldn’t see any) were eliminated. He came back the next day to paint the sealant black and then it was done. I waited a week before using the fireplace to be sure the sealant and paint were properly cured. The new, beautiful lintel worked perfectly.
Well done Scott!