19 tips for fireplaces and firescreens

Only a tightwad would make do without a firescreen, right? Sadly, we’ve seen plenty of sparks flying toward unprotected spendy Oriental rugs. And don’t even get us started about the looks-like-a-double-oven trend of hanging a TV above the mantel. Oregon Home asked two interior designers, a fireplace resurfacer and two firescreen makers for tips to ensure that you end up with a fireplace that sizzles.



[1. Before you hang a plasma TV above your mantel, ponder whether doing so will lessen the fireplace’s impact as a focal point.]

That large expanse of wall over the mantel may seem like the perfect place to hang your new (and super-sized) flat-screen television, but think twice before hanging it there. Having a crackling fire in the fireplace and the drama of frenemies competing in “Project Runway” on the television may make it difficult to fully enjoy either one.

“I’m not a huge fan of putting  the television over the mantel,” says  Jason Ball, an interior designer and the owner of Jason Ball Interiors in Portland. “I’m of the belief that you should sit and enjoy the fire. Having a fire below the TV can be fun to look at, but it can also be distracting. There’s something to be said for arranging a room so you can use the fireplace and the TV separately.”

Hanging a television in such a prominent place in a room—whether  it’s in a Great Room, a master bedroom or a family den—can overwhelm the room’s other features. “It depends on the room, but a TV on the wall often shrinks a room visually,” says Mark Parsons, a designer and the owner of Mark Parsons Design in Portland.  “And it detracts from all the nice things that are in that room.”

[2. If you must have the TV over the mantel, minimize its Visual impact.]

Sometimes a room’s layout leaves only one wall available for the television: the one with the fireplace. “In some projects, I’ve worked on, we’ve recessed a flat-screen television into a 4- to 5-inch niche,” says Ball. “That minimizes the intrusion because it’s not sticking out into the room. Another thing you can do is paint the inside of the television black. That way you’re not drawing attention to it because the black helps hide shadows.”

If you can’t recess the television into the wall, think of design solutions that can hide it when it’s not in use. “When I’m working with a client and the television must be in a formal room, I try to hide it,” says Parsons. “I’ll put a folding screen in front of it or something decorative that’s easy to move out of the way when you want to watch TV.”


[3. Don’t make do with a too-narrow mantel.]

That narrow slab of unusually colored stone or exotic wood may look great on it own, but don’t use it as a mantel if it won’t be in proportion to the rest of the fireplace. At the very minimum, make sure the mantel is deep enough so that what you plan on displaying on it—a mantel clock, your favorite candlesticks, a great vintage photo—isn’t in constant danger of falling or being knocked off. “When I put in a mantel for a client,  I do one that’s at least 8 to 10 inches deep,” says Ball. “Anything less than that feels wimpy and much too shallow.”


[4. Put safety first when  you want to enjoy a roaring fire.]

If Smokey Bear took his forest-fighting message inside, he might be known for, “Only you can prevent fireplace fires.” According to the National Fire Protection Association, some 14,500 people ended up in emergency rooms for injuries associated with fireplaces and fireplace equipment in 2006, with most of the injuries occuring with kids younger than 5 years old. Fire safety experts say you should never have a wood fire without a sturdy firescreen in place in front of the firebox; that you should only burn dry, seasoned wood; and that you have your chimney and vents cleaned and inspected at least once a year.


[5. if you’re planning to paint over dated masonry, Use the correct paint.]

If the color of your painted brick—or the brick itself—bothers you, changing it can have a huge impact. “Repainting the brick can be a simple way to change the look of your fireplace,” says Parsons. “There are specialty paints that are designed to go over brick, so just make sure that the paint can handle the heat and that it’s washable so you can easily remove marks from soot.” Ultimately, though, refacing a red brick fireplace might be a better way to get a design-forward look than to paint it.


[6. Seek out a pro to help you figure out whether you should repaint dated brick masonry or resurface it.]

If it’s the brick itself that you don’t like, resurface a fireplace with a stone veneer. “My favorite material to work with for a fireplace is natural stone,” says Nathan Kincaid, the owner of Kincaid Custom Surface Inc. in Portland. “I love the look of it because it’s timeless. There are some beautiful stone and slate veneers out there with different shades and different honings that look amazing. You can have something that looks very sleek or very rustic. It all depends on the style of your fireplace.”


[7. Play stylist  with your mantel displays.]

It’s common to see lots of small accessories and family photographs on top of a mantel, but small things can be distracting and often don’t go with the scale of the mantel. “You want to avoid your mantel looking too cluttered,” says Ball. “Displaying fewer, larger accessories keeps the proper scale. I like to create vignettes; do collections on each side of the fireplace. And remember that the human brain needs someplace to rest the eye: Things marched across a mantel in a row don’t allow your eye to rest, but groupings do. Also, don’t forget the space around the fireplace. Tall floor-standing vases that fit the scale of the fireplace can help emphasize your fireplace’s design.”


[8. don’t let your home’s vintage force you to to a period-looking fireplace redesign.]

While a fireplace in a Victorian home should have some Victorian elements, that doesn’t mean the fireplace has to have a 19th century vibe if the look you want is more 21st century. “If I have a client with a rustic house but transitional furniture, I can use that as my design cue,” says Parsons. “I could use a rustic material for the mantel, but give it an updated look.”

Another option is to resurface a hearth in something that looks traditional, but is actually a modern material. “If you live in a Craftsman house, for example, you could combine a wood mantel with a new surround out of glass tile,” says Ball. “Keep the feel of the house by using a traditional shape such as a subway tile, but pick a tile that’s in a modern material.”

[9. Anticipate your future fireside electrical needs while you’re designing  your fireplace upgrade.]

If you need access to outlets in your fireplace area, make sure to put them in before you finish the fireplace project. Once a fireplace is built, it’s almost impossible to run new wiring behind it. “If you’re going to have a television over the mantel, for example, you need to be able to run power up to it, so plan for that,” says Ball.


[10. Anticipate the look  and location of a  new fireplace’s  venting system.]

You may love the look of a ribbon fireplace with its five flame and light settings, but before you buy one, you have to visualize the impact the fireplace would have beyond the room in which it would be installed. After all, those vents have to go somewhere.

“Think about where the vents would go if you moved forward with one fireplace model or another,” says Parsons. “That could help decide the kind of fireplace you buy. Ask yourself, Would it bother me to have a big vent showing on the exterior of my house? What would a new vent do to my roofline? To the room directly above the new fireplace? Research exactly where a vent would exit the house and what it would look like.”


[11. don’t box in your tilesetter to only use square materials for your fireplace redo.]

If you want to tile your fireplace surround or redo the tile on the floor in front of the hearth, remember as you shop the showrooms that tile is a material that can often be modified, so indulge your flights of fancy. “Just because tiles are often square doesn’t mean you have to go with the obvious with these materials,” says Kincaid. “A good tilesetter can be really creative with fireplace treatments. I’ve cut every kind of shape you can think of. You just have to use your imagination. If you want medallions, a good mason or tilesetter can make you medallions.”

[12. carefully assess whether you should raise a firebox higher than its traditional floor-level position.]

While it might be nice to imagine yourself sitting on a windowseat-high ledge next to a roaring fire, realize that raising your firebox above floor level will have a huge impact on your fireplace’s overall design. “That’s important to think about especially if you want to have a mantel because then the mantel will be very high,” says Parsons. “A raised hearth has the advantage that you can see the fire better, but also keep in mind that by the time you’ve added a mantel, the mantel could be six feet off the floor.”


[13. Triple-check that the materials you’ll use on  your fireplace makeover  are heat-tolerant.]

Before you pay for that tile in the forest green shade you’ve always wanted for the interior of your firebox, make sure it’s designed to take the heat. “There are all different sorts of tile,” says Kincaid. “A lot of them are fine for a fireplaces, but you really need to check if it’s appropriate for use in a fireplace. If it turns out that it’s not, that doesn’t mean you can’t use it. Incorporate it into your design in a spot where the heat won’t affect it, but it will work as a decorative treatment.”


[14. Keep the Fireplace in  proportion with the architecture of the room.]

You may have always dreamed of a dry-stack fireplace that fills a wall, but if that design will overpower your current living room, switch to one that will be a better fit. “A fireplace is an important part of the architecture of the house,” says Parsons. “It works better if the fireplace flows with the house. Not only should the fireplace be in proportion to a room, but it should be in proportion to the wall it’s on and in proportion to any built-in bookcases that surround it. There are ways to make modern design more traditional, and vice versa, but because a fireplace is such a focal point, it really needs to look as if it’s part of the room.”

[15. Finish off your fireplace with a firescreen worthy of the craftsmanship of your home.]

If you’ve just invested a five-figure sum of money in a floor-to-ceiling chimney in your new custom home—or a fireplace makeover in your old one—don’t diminish the impact of your fireplace by fronting the firebox with a flimsy firescreen from a Big Box store. “To me, living with a cheap firescreen is like buying the biggest, baddest Mercedes-Benz . . . and then driving  it with a rebel flag on its roof,” says Wolfgang Rotbart, the blacksmith-owner behind Wolfgang Forge in Vernonia, Ore.

Wolfgang Forge firescreens in standard sizes are available off the shelf at Rejuvenation in Portland, but Rotbart often works with home-owners and designers on custom commissions, too. “With blacksmithing costing $85 an hour, I try to use modern technology—laser-cutting and starting with blanks when I can—to save my clients money,” he says. His freestanding firescreens cost $500 to $700. Built-in firescreens start at $2,000. Go to wolfgangforge.com to see samples of his work.


[16. assess whether built-in cabinetry needs to be tweaked (or Demo’d)  to make the fireplace a better fit for the room.]

Sometimes the design problem child in a room isn’t the fireplace; the details  around the fireplace are throwing off the proportions. “Fireplaces often don’t have enough depth when the surround isn’t very big,” says Ball. “One solution for that problem is to add bookcases to the wall. You can also have a fireplace wall that’s too large. I worked on a project where there was a fireplace wall that was designed around an old-style tube television, so the old wall stuck out about two feet. I took out that wall and built in new cabinetry with windows above them, which really lightened up the room.”


[17. Do the math differently when you start to zero in on your fireplace accessories budget.]

You wouldn’t blink at paying several hundred dollars for other always-on-display adornments in your Great Room—a painting, a rug, a killer coffee table—but there’s something about a firescreen and fire tools purchase that brings out the penny-pincher in you. Don’t even think about multiplying the number of times you swept ashes out of the fireplace last year by some pulled-out-of-the-air number. A good firescreen and fire tools can make a dated fireplace look better, just as hand-me-down brass fireplace accessories from a tag sale can make top-of-the-line masonry look ghetto.

Mary Blankenburg, a metal sculptor in Portland who fabricates firescreens with modern lines as M.E. Blank Co. (go to meblank.com) considers the firescreen a “window” for the fire. “A well-designed firescreen adds to the play of the fire,” she says. “My firescreens always include some kind of mesh, but the mesh can have different designs added to it. Even when a fire isn’t burning, the firescreen is still an architectural element that serves a purpose beyond protecting you from the fire. A firescreen should be functional and should be beautiful to look at.”

[18. If you’ve got your  heart set on using  a vintage mantel for your fireplace, find (and buy!) the mantel  before you design  the fireplace.]

There’s nothing worse than spending a lot of time designing a detail for your home—only to discover that you can’t find the materials to make it work. “It can be fun to add a vintage mantel that has an interesting history to a newer home,” says Parsons, “but if that’s what you want, buy the salvaged mantel first and then design and build the fireplace around it.”

If you do it the other way, it can be difficult to not only find a mantel that fits perfectly, but to also find one you really like. “If you want something very specific, you’re probably better served with a custom design than trying to work with salvaged materials,” says Parsons. “But if you can be flexible about the design of the mantel, a salvaged piece can give you a unique look.”


[19. think Beyond the rectangle when it comes to the shape of a gas or a vent-free firebox.]

Some of the latest rages are ribbon fireplaces (think slim, horizontal views of the fire), the Xtreme gas fireplace (flames pass through glass chips spread across a wide firebox), a Tempest burner (spiral-shaped flames) and “portrait-style” fireplaces that have a firebox that’s taller than it is wide. “There are so many different kinds and shapes of fireplaces now that you can fit a fireplace in an area of a room where it would’ve been impossible before,” says Parsons. “I installed a Cyclone fireplace above a dresser in a client’s bedroom, which is a lot more fun that the traditional mirror you might have over a dresser.” n