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Calling fireplace enthusiasts

So, this new to us house. Got a vast fireplace – 5ft wide mebbe, 2.5 high. Nearly the size to stick a boy in to turn the spit (which it doesn’t have, either boy or spit).

Cool – tho’ obviously that’s going to consume the firewood summat rotten.

So, stick a grate (and a fireguard) in there and we’re golden, right? I have been informed that it draws very well, which is good.

However, it has two steel plates in it. Or maybe iron, but not cast iron. One on the floor, one on the back wall. Clearly, the intention is that this gets hot from the fire, then radiates heat out.

OK, so who knows about these sorts of things?

#For example, instead of a grate that keeps the fire off the steel plate, should we instead look for something more like a barrier to horizontal movement if it? So that the fire does rest on the steel, but we also make sure that we can have a small and ntense fore through concentration? Anyone with detailed knowledge here?

32 thoughts on “Calling fireplace enthusiasts”

  1. The Meissen Bison

    Fire dogs rather than a grate, Tim, though I’m surprised that you dare raise the topic given the general anti-log sympathies here!

  2. How cold can it be at your new location? An open chimney arrangement like yours (especially one that draws well) will pump warm air out of the house (and outside colder air in) really fast. Expect your feet to feel cold from the wind chill. A stove is a good suggestion – especially one which draws its combustion air directly from outside rather than from the living space.

  3. Bloke in North Dorset

    Modern log burners are really efficient and as said above they reduce soot and smoke in the house. It looks like you could get a decent sized on in there and even use it for cooking. We manage to cook on our quite small one.

    Also, get a cheap battery car vac for clearing out ash. Again it saves getting ash in to the air and it reduced the amount of bronchitis type symptoms my wife was getting.

  4. An iron or steel “fireback” at the back of the flue should do two things: prevent the fire resting on or radiating too much heat to the bricks/stonework, which will eventually cause damage,;and secondly to radiate some of the heat back into the room. Ideally, you also need a grate or (for long logs) some dogs to hold everything together.

    As others have said, it’s all a bit inefficient. A stove is more practical as you can control the air flow, and open the doors when you want to see the roaring flames or a nice steady glow. It will need a stove-pipe and possibly a metal “liner” to the top of your flue, especially if the stonework is dodgy. And a “register plate” through which the pipe passes, so as to create a good seal for an effective draught and to prevent all the hot air going straight up the chimney.

  5. Bloke in North Dorset


    My mate had a big open fire like yours in his place in Nefyn, N Wales and it never warmed the place no matter how well he got the open fire going. He replaced it with a log burner and now it’s great.

  6. 53 years experience (man and boy) of heating houses using wood says get a log burner. An open fire will send all the heat up the chimney and consume wood at a impressive rate of knots, while you freeze just a few yards from the fire. Every big old farmhouse in the country has a log burner for a reason.

  7. Yep most of the heat from a wood fire in a fire basket ( I think of grates as for coal/solid fuel but usage varies) comes from the ash falling underneath and radiating out, heat from the flames does straight up the chimney. You will need the flue checking for leakage anyway – old mortar and flue linings crack and that’s a potential killer to rooms off the stack upstairs if you have any.

    Normally that ash falls onto stone or brick and you exploit the thermal mass. Unless you are sure it’s absolutely original would strongly suggest properly checking what’s behind the metal plates . The backplate makes some sense but the metal might have been fitted to cover up an unsuitable surface – mine had a mortar lining but turns out some bastard had skimmed over plywood on the base and we found it had been charred through when we installed the stove after the flue lining gave in (victorian original).

    For any sort of regular use would add to the suggestions of a modern flue lining and use a modern wood stove. Not quite the medieval feel and no good for toasting marshmallows but much cleaner and warmer. That also gives many more options – add thermoelectric fans, hob space , humidifier and so on.

    If you must have an open fire maybe see if Franklin stoves (invented by Benjamin F) are allowed under local regs as that’s a stove that is either open or can be open at the front.

  8. Bloke in the Wash

    A few other advantages of a wood burning stove. You can shut the airflow down to keep the fire just alight if you are going off for a few hours or if you want to keep it alight when it’s cold overnight. You can light it really easily by opening the airflow: it’s often enough to get a glow and a subsequent relight from warm embers. You can keep a kettle hot on it, and we often leave things to cook, maybe a couple of slices of bacon or beef and chopped onion wrapped in foil. Sweet potatoes work well baked in foil either on top or in the ash tray underneath. You can make great toast, but get a proper long handled toasting fork. You get to use your recycling bin for kindling.

    Heat-driven fans do a decent job circulating the heat. And you ought to use hardwood, not soft resinous wood.

  9. A fireback is common, and useful, but I’ve not heard of one on the base or under the fire before. As CF says, get it all checked out first. Could be covering up any sort of problem.

    Fireplaces are for fun, not heating. Stoves are for heating, not fun. It’s a choice. I did once have a stove with a wide open face that was a pretty good compromise. Or maybe technically it was a metal fireplace, suspended from the ceiling by its flue, very 1960’s.

    I’d get a space heater for warmth and a bunch of split logs for the pleasure of burning them, but that’s just me.

  10. Install a wood-burning stove for all the reasons above. Plus, you may remember a discussion on the Continental Telegraph site back in 2021 about whether segmented sleep was really a thing, and we decided in the comments section that it was probably a misunderstanding of how people used to get up in the night to put a log on the fire, to ensure that there would still be embers in the morning. That way you don’t have to continually start a new one from scratch.

    This is a million times easier to do with stove. I don’t mean getting up in the middle of the night. Just popping on a log , or two or three bits of branch, at any time. Just to get continual background warmth.

    One recommendation: get a dual-use stove, i.e, one that can be used for coal or wood. Not because you’d want to burn coal, but because with dual-use ones you have two options for air-flow: one from underneath for the coal and one from on top for the wood. The flow from underneath can be opened briefly when you light the stove for wood use, and it makes getting the fire going so much easier. Similarly if you’re having trouble getting a new log going later on.

  11. It’s a strange design. Sounds like someone’s put it in for show. The way these fires used to actually work was by heating the stone/brickwork of the chimney & thus the rooms above. The fire itself was for cooking. so would be more like 5×5. People lived with a room full of smoke as the price of being warm & the cooking. But you put those sort of fireplace/chimney combinations in the centre & build the house around it. If it’s in an outside wall, half the heat is warming Portugal. And agree with decnine/Jim. The amount of wood you’d have to put through a thing like that to get any heat would be phenomenal. Stele a week. All this is why people adopted stoves & ranges when they became economical. An open fire is really an affectation. Bit of theatre. Unless you’re intent on reproducing medieval poverty.

  12. Have you checked the price of firewood where you are? And what? We used to burn oak in France & olive here. Pine I really wouldn’t bother. Not dense enough.

    I looked up stele & Google says it’s spelt stere for a metre cube. It’s not a word I’d ever seen written, only said. And the locals where we were speak Occitan. And I’m sure the measure was 3 metres. I suspect it’s a cart load.

    Other thing. Does the chimney have a shelf? If it hasn’t I’d suspect it was put in for show..

  13. We burn 4 or 5 full cords of red oak per season, for supplemental heat. I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is in old money. I also sell a similar amount each year to a BBQ restaurant in town.

    As others have observed, a fireplace / stove / insert is nothing but a millstone around your neck unless a) you have a woodlot with plenty of mature hardwoods (we do), and b) you like to fell, cut and split wood, you’re good at it, and you have the equipment to do so efficiently (I do, I am, and I do) or c) you have a steady supply of quality firewood at low or no cost. Otherwise, you are always at the mercy of suppliers and whatever lumbermill slabwood they decide to deliver, and you’ll get old and grey hauling, stacking and fetching firewood.

    If using it for ambience only, the climate is mild and you don’t mind the draught, the open fireplace is fine. As said, it was not designed to heat the room, but for cooking, and it only works as a source of heat by being fired for days or weeks at a time and so heating the masonry. Rumford-style reflector plates will do little good, these really only help in small, close fireplaces burning coal or coke. A good firebasket, a set of firedogs, and (unless your floors are stone or tile) a good firescreen, lest you get an unpleasant surprise a la Duke of Gloucester.

    If you want actual heat – serious, warm the house heat – you’re going to need some form of woodburner. It needs to let you control the fire by means of dampers (and you’ll need an engineered chimney of some sort), it should draw both conditioning air and combustion air from the outside, and the very-best ones have a bypass catalytic converter that extracts further heat from the flue gasses by chemical reaction. This all gets a bit spendy, plus, you can’t burn just any old crap wood in one of these, it needs 15%-seasoned hardwood or you’re wasting your money. This is what we do, and it works great – but we don’t kid ourselves that it saves money. We only do this because we have the wood, I like the work, and it’s a good reliable backup source of heat. The wood I sell probably makes it just-about cash-flow, no more.

    In your calculations, don’t forget to budget a professional chimney-sweep once a year.

    Discouraged yet? 🙂



  14. My house in France had such a fireplace. – une cheminé.

    Backplate to stop stonework/brickwork/mortar from cracking and crumbling due to heat. Bottom plate because – maybe – if you lift it there will be sand, because logs can be burned on a sand bed so the ash mixes in – the sand/ash only need replacing now and then. This means the wood doesn’t burn through so quickly it would on a grate as there is not so much airflow through it, and grates do burn out in time.

    Open fireplaces let in the rain, let out the heat, backdraft fills the room with smoke at times and allow birds in – sooty birds flapping round the house trying to get out – also allows ingress for bats.

    The stonework will get blackened with tar, and you will have that tar smell particularly in Summer when the fire isn’t lit.

    The best thing is get a wood-burning stove, which means the chimney will be closed off at the top around the flue and at the lower end above the stove.

    Or consider “un insert” (in France…

    There’s pictures so you get the idea.

    You will find you get a better heating, use less wood and it’s cleaner and less smelly.

  15. The Meissen Bison

    BiS: It’s un stère which corresponds to 1m³ of wood on condition that you’re talking about 1m length logs of the type that fit into, e.g., the old-fashioned and top loading Godin stoves. Shorter logs result in more empty space so <1m³.

    John B: cheminée, while I’m in the mood 🙂

  16. You’ll be up and down like the sorcerer’s apprentice with an open fire. Your log supply will disappear like snow in Summer and it won’t be controllable in the slightest. Virtually all the heat goes up the chimney plus the attendant mess in the mornings to clear up.
    Don’t bugger around with it, get a decent make of wood-burner (I’ve favoured Hunter in the past) have it installed by someone who knows what they’re doing, with a flue liner and put an H-pot on the chimney to a) stop rain coming down the chimney when the fire’s not lit and b) it’ll make it draw even better. Fix a metal register plate above the stove to fill the chimney aperture and it’ll block residual heat from going upwards. (You’ll obviously need to cut a circular hole in it above the stove to let the stove-pipe pass through).
    A decent stove, if banked up and shut down will last the night. I usually have a bag of small hard coal alongside and once the fire’s started, a shovelful of coal in the base of the fire and logs on top will give a good long lasting heat.

  17. Yes un stère is a cubic metre. But that is for logs 1 metre long, 20-30 cms diameter. Once split and cut the wood takes up much less space but it’s still a stere.

    A cord is (I think) a cubic yard, on the same principle.

    Firewood prices vary a lot. Your vendedor de lenha will pretend to be your friend. (You’ll meet him often.) You’ll want hardwood seasoned at least 18 months. He’ll try and deliver any old crap.
    Get a reasonably sized stove that takes 30 or 40 cm long logs. Your supplier will charge more for cutting to 20 cm length.

    Personally, I’d go for an oil fired boiler. (I assume you’re in the boonies without mains gas.) As it’s Portugal you only need central heating for the day room(s) so not much plumbing required.

    Admittedly, a fire or a stove makes a nicer focal point to the room than a bloody television, but don’t think log burners are efficient or economical, they’re not. Not even at Drax level of scale.

  18. 20 years of life in a stone house in the Northern Isles suggests to me the right course would be:

    1. get the chimney swept clean
    2. install a good size cast iron log burning or smokeless fuel burning stove and a plate to seal off the chimney
    3. get a stainless steel flue liner rated for smokeless fuel pellets (because they resist acid attack) inserted and insulated with whatever they use in Portugal (vermiculite in mine).

    Sweeping the chimney is easy, it’ll draw well and you’ll be able to damp it right down once it’s warm to reduce the fuel burn. In the depths of winter storms with the power off, I used to fill my stoves to capacity with smokeless fuel and then damp them right down – they’d still be warming the room 30 hours later.

  19. Sorry, it’s the flue liner that’s resistant to acid attack not the briquettes! Also bear in mind that use of a stove more or less guarantees you’ll be redecorating the room every 2 years.

  20. You shouldn’t have a problem of wood supply in Portugal. There seems to be plenty of good hardwood offcuts going in the Iberian peninsula. I buy a trailer load every year. Maybe 2.5m3. Although it is supposed to come woodburner (Jotul in my case) ready, I have a chainsaw (infrequent) and a felling axe for splitting. That and offcuts from my trees sees me through. If I were to pay more, it would come better prepared but I actually enjoy the Rambo bit.

  21. What others have said. Just come from 12 years of a log burner and will miss it this winter but will not miss organising the pre-cut firewood. It effectively heated the whole house but was not top of the latest range.

    But do get the whole existing set up checked out first and ensure you understand it from go to woe.

    And the chimney of the logburner is much easier to get cleaned annually than you existing set up.

    I used to get eucalypt firewood 12 months out and stacked it to thorougly dry. The starlings loved nesting in it!

  22. PS Idle thought. Check out how you insurance is worded with respect to (a) open fires (b) log burners. Lota companies very picky these days.

  23. @TMB
    I think you’re probably right about stere. Although when I used the L , we seemed to be talking about the same thing. Maybe I saw the word handwritten once. L´s & R’s are almost the same in written french. As for what it actually is as a measure… They seem to think linear. Logs stacked five foot high, cut to about 14″. So what you’re buying is so far along this stack, depending on whether it’s stacked out double or treble. We did have a proper wood burning stove in France

    Philip’s right about what you buy. The leña guy supplied the wood for the villa down here was a right bandit. Some sort reddish wood in all sorts of sizes. Burnt away so quickly one spent more time shifting wood than enjoying the fire. And that was in one of those modern glass fronted things. Only provided heat if you were sat in front of it. And it was built the wrong way round. Set in a flat wall. The chimney was built up the outside of the house. So most of the wood was keeping the garden warm. Architects!

    I think we can all agree that an open wood fire as a source of heating is a non-starter. You’re really going back 500 years.

  24. Well, we’re off to Normandy next week, to our “petit manoir” (must be true; that’s what it was advertised as)

    Our kitchen is of reasonable size, and we use it both as a kitchen and as a dining room.

    It has a fine cheminee. M’lady wife likes open fires, and she builds one daily in the cheminee during the colder months – which for us is typically late March and April. The cheminee has a decorative bas-relief metal thingy at the back of the fireplace, left because the previous owner found it ‘too (expletive) heavy’ to take with him. We bought a pair of firedogs and a set of fireplace tools at an ‘antiquites’ place at a reasonable price. The top of the cheminee is covered by a tiltable metal plate; you shut it when the fire isn’t on the go; there’s a chain you grab to control this. There’s a pair of air inlets at either side of the hearth, connected to a pair of metal grille-covered external holes. These can be conveniently closed by putting things on the hearth air grilles.

    We also inherited from previous owner a large quantity of firewood, stacked nicely against the hedge, and – of course – regularly soaked by rain. So we got someone to build us a pitched-roof wood shelter, withe the wood being lifted off the ground by being sat on old wooden pallets.

    What we burn in the colder months is probably (remember, late March to end April – NOT Dec, Jan, Feb) about one stere, which cost us 80-100 euros delivered when we bought it last year. The fire raises the temperature of the kitchen quite noticeably – enough to leave the door open and add warmth to the rest of the house. The fire draws well and there is very rarely even a trace of smokiness in the kitchen.

    The three other major rooms all have fireplaces. The salon had a stove fitted; we tried it but it’s a real bugger to start and does indeed smoke the place up, so we stopped using it. The house has electric-only heating otherwise – wall mount electrical heaters, 2kW per heater per room, and two heaters. per room. They’re all fitted with add-on wireless remote control, with an exceedingly primitive app-controlled remote (you can choose comfort, economy, or don’t freeze as targets, and on the heaters you can set what temperatures these are).

    It is indeed a minor bugger to keep the kitchen fire fed and clean up; but Madame enjoys it as a pleasant break from the over-civilized set up here in Tejas (propane heating plus air conditioning).

    Now – you’re living in your place year round, but the climate may be warmer enough than Normandy that your cost would be similar to ours – check with the locals. A couple of stere per year isn’t much – if that’s what it ends up being – and you’ll have the quiet pleasure of destroying the green efforts perhaps 100-200 lunatic green households by heavily polluting the skies 🙂

    One final thing – be sure to put chicken wire over the chimney pots to stop birdies coming down the chimney. We had several end up in the unused salon stove, and I had the task of disposing of their tiny desiccated corpses. In France it’s the law that you get all real chimneys swept regularly (I think once per year). Our chimney sweep also repair chimneys, and walks happily around the steep tile roof without a care. He patched up the chimney tops, and added the needed chicken wire. You’re pretty sure to have an equivalent near you.


  25. Get a log burner. But get the smallest. They generate huge amounts of heat. Size of the log burner is based on the room size, not the fireplace size. We had the smallest possible in a room 6m x 7m with low ceilings and it could get stifling hot.

  26. Agreed on the stove vs open fire comments above. We have both (one either side of the room); the stove will last for ages with very little fuel and heats the whole house (and this is an old cast iron one, not the modern super-efficient ones); the open fire mostly just looks nice but isn’t very effective.

    The one big advantage of the open fire is that it’s very easy to sweep the chimney (just stick the rods up and pull them down again, remembering to keep twisting them clockwise as you do so, so they don’t unscrew halfway up); easy job. But the stove is a complete bugger because you’ve got to disconnect it to get the rods up, then re-seal it – a job for the professionals, but the waiting list for a sweep round here is even longer than for an NHS doctor.

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