About this blog

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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Fireplace excavation

It's been quite a while since I last wrote about the fireplace project, and there's a good reason for this: We did very little work on it for over four months. Shortly after the last post I did a bit more excavation hacking off of plaster/concrete to see if I could find the edges of the fireplace. I did, and something else, too...

There certainly was a brick arched fireplace here - exactly what I was hoping to discover. Shame there's so little of it left.

The discovery of the arch, as well as adding its own complications, raised doubts about the function of the wooden beam above. We'd assumed it was a lintel originally, but a visiting brother-in-law, who knows a lot about buildings, said it might be a thin strip for fixing things to. Apparently these were quite common in posh houses, for fixing wood panelling to. Now, our house is by no means posh, but it was industrial, so might have had just as much need for fixing things to the wall.


That was the status for quite a long time. Hmmm.

In due course we decided that we'd like to recreate the arch, retaining the rather crumbly sides of the original fireplace. The first step would be to get something to hold the arch up - and not just during the process of putting the bricks back. The original construction clearly hadn't lasted, so we'd like to have something a bit stronger for the replacement. A good sturdy bit of metal would do the job nicely.

Firstly, I made a template of the shape we needed. This involved taking rubbings of the old bricks. Did you do that at school? With crayons? I didn't have any crayons, so I had to make do with pencil.

Taking rubbings of the brick arch over the fireplace

The end result was a cardboard template with a rough outline of the shape, but more importantly, the key dimensions. Well, one key dimension - the width.

We then needed to take this to a blacksmith. By happy coincidence, my dad's a blacksmith. Less happily, he's in France and his machine for rolling pieces of metal into arch shapes is in pieces. Otherwise, he'd have certainly made it for us.

Yellow pages turned up several likely metalworkers, so I tried the nearest one, about five miles away along tiny back roads over the mountains. First I drove over there (slowly!) and found a promising looking workshop with a sign (and heaps of metal) that looked just like my dad's, but no sign of the smith. Over the next week or so I phoned several times, and got 'call waiting' every time. If this man spends so long on the phone, you have to wonder how he ever makes any metalwork!

Ian made some enquiries of the builder next door (quite handy having a building site next door, even if it isn't very peaceful) and learnt that the blacksmith had recently died. That'll be why he wasn't answering his phone, then. The builder also recommended another smith, who'd been apprenticed to the deceased and had a workshop not much further away. This time we called first, then went round with the bit of cardboard, and within two days we had our metal arch, in exchange for the princely sum of 27 quid. Not bad, eh?

New metalwork for the fireplace arch, sitting on the old mantelpiece

... and there it sat for some considerable time while we pondered how to get it into the wall. It's all very well knowing what we want to achieve, but getting there was another matter entirely. Presumably there was something holding up the broken remains of the arch at the moment? If we wanted to get the metal arch into its rightful place, would we need to remove whatever it was that was doing the holding up? If so, and the lintel actually turned out to be a thin fixing-batten, would the wall fall down? Chimneys tend to be quite important features of houses, structurally speaking. Would the whole house fall down?

Our dithering was brought to a head by the intervention of helpful relatives. Ian's aunt and her partner offered to come and stay for a few days to help us with the project. I could cope with potentially bringing my house down, provided I had someone more experienced there to share the responsibility!

They came to stay for a few days before Easter. The first thing we did was to examine the lintel/fixing batten and establish that it was in fact quite deep and therefore almost certainly a lintel, not just a bit of wood for fixing things to. That made life a lot less scary. If things did fall down, it would only be a few courses of bricks and stone, not the whole house. Phew!

And so we started dismantling things. First the old fireplace came out (carefully because, much as we hate it, several visitors have said they quite like it):

Yippee! The horrid old fireplace is gone!

There was indeed a lintel lower down, holding up the broken brick arch, so we propped that up while we removed bricks and stuff below it.

After a bit, we removed that as well, and things didn't fall down. We found the old bar and chain that had been used for hanging cooking pots over the fire.

I would have loved to keep that bar and chain, but couldn't see a way of making it fit in with the wood burning stove, or indeed the metal arch, so it had to go.

I had to go out in the evening, but work continued without me, and by not very long into the next day, we had the fireplace opened out, the metal arch in place, and a hole in the floor.

A hole in the floor where the hearth used to be

At about this point, with the back of the fireplace clearly defined, we looked up building regulations for how much space we needed to leave around the stove, so we could measure where the stove and front of the hearth would need to be. The stove only needs to come to the front edge of the fireplace, i.e. the front of it will be in line with the wall, and the nice piece of slate I dug up when making a flower bed is just the right size to go in front of it to make sticking-out part of the hearth.

I then asked Ian, who was doing the looking-up, Does it say anything about the thickness of the hearth? Erm, yes. Yes it does. I wished I hadn't asked that question. If the hearth sits on combustible material, e.g. wooden joists, it has to be at least 250 mm thick. That's not far off a foot. We learned this just after I'd made very clear that I wanted the hearth not much thicker than the piece of slate, i.e. a couple of inches at most. Hmph.

On the other hand... if the hearth sits on non-combustible material and has an air-gap of at least 50 mm, it only needs to be 125 mm thick. That's much more like it. We certainly have the air-gap, so what to do about those combustible joists? We decided that they could be replaced with angle-iron of hefty dimensions, in fairly large quantities.

Finding angle iron wasn't easy. The number of DIY shops is limited round here, and we weren't sure they'd have it anyway. We tried calling the blacksmith, but he didn't answer his phone and we doubted he'd be there on Easter Saturday. A neighbour mentioned a scrap yard, but didn't know exactly where it was. There was a builder's merchant that was open - even if they didn't have it themselves, they might be able to point us towards the scrappy. This plan worked - we got directions to the scrapyard.

When we found it, it turned out to be the kind of chaotic treasure trove that has mostly been obliterated by health and safety. After tracking down and enquiring of the owner of the yard, we spent some time wandering around looking for angle iron, but couldn't find any that looked suitable. Eventually, though, we found this:

More hefty bits of metal, found at the scrapyard

We bought three (for £5) and transported them home.

The trusty 2CV brings home the spoils

These turned out to be even better than angle iron, and matched the joist we were removing very closely. This meant that the whole joist would be replaced, rather than just half of it, so more nails were ground off, and the joist was extracted.

Grinding off nails, seen through the hole in the floor where the hearth used to be

Once the supporting beam was in place (which took two attempts because its similarity to the joist distracted us from the fact that it needed to go a couple of inches lower), we needed a concrete base to the hearth. We'd originally planned to make a frame of some kind and pour new concrete into it, but a quick search of the hillside produced a concrete slab that turned out to be exactly the right size. In fact, when we dug it up, we found tiles on the other side, so it had obviously been a hearth at some point in its life. It was one hell of a job shifting into position, but once there, it saved a lot of work (and potential mess) in pouring a new slab.

Concrete sub-hearth, complete with moss

With the base in place, we then laid the slate hearth stone...

... and cut some roofing slates...

... to fit in the space behind it.

The hearth is now laid, with plenty of mortar under the thinner roofing slates (one of them still isn't quite right - I hope a little more mortar will fix it) and a nice fireplace with space for the stove. There's still some brickwork to do for the arch, but we're leaving that until the stove's in, because the extra access through the gap might be useful.

What was Pebble doing while all this was going on? She supervised, of course.

Pebble, supervising from a safe distance

The next step ought to be installing the stove, but it's not quite that simple...

I originally thought we'd have the water tank in the loft, allowing the hot water to simply rise from the stove to the tank (thermosyphoning). We then got a plumber to come and quote, and he didn't like the sound of that idea, preferring a tank below and a pump. We didn't like the sound of his quote (though he was a very nice man) and got another plumber in, who was quite happy with the tank in the loft plan, but hasn't yet (and I've lost count of how many weeks it's been) given us the promised quote.

Deciding where the tank goes affects which way the pipes head off from the stove, which is something that really should be determined before the very heavy stove is placed an inch or so from a wall, surrounded by other walls.

This week I have mostly been learning about central heating systems...


  1. Sounds like a heck of a job - glad it's going well now.

    We've currently got a 1980s fake-stone fireplace in our living room (topped with nasty dark wooden panelling) -- taking that out is on this year's to-do list. Who knows what we'll find... I may be calling on your central heating knowledge!

  2. This is the third time I've taken out a hideous fireplace, but only the first time I've done it carefully. Taking a crowbar to a monstrosity and seeing it crash to the floor is hugely satisfying (provided the floor isn't going to suffer from the crash).

  3. excellent work :)


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