Up in Smoke: How to Fix a Smoky Fireplace

I enjoy smoked turkey. Thinly sliced. Between bread. Or inside a wrap with Swiss cheese and lettuce and mayonnaise. Maybe even some slices of pickle. Yes, slices of pickle and salt and pepper.

But a smoky fireplace on Turkey day?

Half an hour before my in-laws arrived to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner at Rosslyn I began to prepare the dining room fireplace. Logs, kindling, newspaper. The usual. But before lighting the fire I undertook an unusual step: warming the flue.

“Wait,” I can hear you say. “Isn’t the fire supposed to do that?”

Yes. And no.

While I’ve blathered on often enough about the quirky fireplace situation at Rosslyn, I’ve neglected to explain the importance of the dining room fireplace. Despite having six chimneys and nine fireplaces, there’s only one “usable” wood burning fireplace in the entire house. And it required to small parade of miracles to ensure that we would be able to restore and use this one fireplace to actually burn logs.

Long story short: the majority of Rosslyn’s chimney flues were either built for coal burning (and are too narrow) or are too old and deteriorated for burning wood fires. We discovered this after we’d fallen in love with Rosslyn and her nine fireplaces. We bought the stately-but-sagging home anyway, and before long many of the fireplaces had been converted to gas. Efficient. Easy. Pleasant.

But I love fireplaces, real fireplaces, with logs and crackles and the faint fragrance of smoke and oak or maple smoldering away. And so we managed to find a mason who assured us that he could rebuild the dining room fireplace.

The flue was lined and the firebox was rebuilt. In fact, almost the entire fireplace was rebuilt as was the surround and hearth and mantle. Beautiful. Elegant. But problematic.

The chimney is tall. Almost four stories tall. And it is built into the exterior brick wall. This makes is cold during the winter which in turn prevents it from drawing smoke up from the hearth until the air column withing the flue is warm. Unfortunately, starting a fire and waiting for the chimney to warm up enough to draw out the smoke is hazardous to my marriage.

“You’re not going to start a fire in there,” my wife asked/announced as I began setting it up between turkey basting and gravy stirring.

“Yes, my dear,” I announced with feigned authority. “I am.”

“Are you crazy? You’ll smoke up the entire house just as everyone is arriving for Thanksgiving!”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure I can warm it up enough to draft before starting the fire…”

She was not convinced. But I insisted. A year or so ago I actually managed to warm the flue enough by burning a rolled up newspaper held high up into the throat of the firebox. The paper burned and the smoke slowly began to rise. I continued to light new rolls of paper like a chain smoker on steroids, holding them high up into the chilly chimney until the fire burned clear and fast. I could see the flames and smoke being pulled up the chimney. Then I lit the previously laid fire. Victory. We enjoyed a beautiful fire throughout dinner with a dining room full of guests. No smoky fireplace.

That was the one and only time we’ve successfully had a fire in the dining room. The only other time we tried was just before family and friends arrived for Christmas dinner almost two years ago. Catastrophe! The flue seemed to be drawing, but as soon as the fire was started the smoke ceased to rise and the dining room filled with smoke. Thick, heavy smoke. We had to smother the fire to put it out releasing even more sooty smoke… Weeks later we were still trying to clean the sooty stains and smells from the dining room.

This year would be different. I had succeeded once, and now I understood the formula.

Unfortunately, the formula was insufficient remedy for the cold flue and heavy smoke. The dining room filled with smoke and my bride chastised me as I ran out the front door with the burning roll of newspapers like an Olympian preparing to the light the torch.

Fire out, we proceeded to throw open any windows not yet sealed with winter storm windows. And then the doorbell rang. Our guests had arrived…

In theory, lighting a fireplace with a tall, cold flue is possible. Even in a tight house. Here, for example, is the technique for warming a fireplace flue with a newspaper torch:

Roll several sheets of paper lengthwise and twist one end closed. This keeps the smoke from traveling through the newspaper tube and into your face. Light the other end of the torch and hold it inside the fireplace. Move it slowly around the walls and let the flame touch the damper grate. When the flue is properly warmed, the smoke from the torch will travel straight up the chimney. (eHow.com)

Sounds good. And, in some cases, it works wonderfully. Though Rosslyn’s dining room fireplace apparently poses some challenges to this tried and true method for warming a cold flue. Perhaps a “gas supplement” is the trick to start our finicky fireplace:

Prime the flue. If your chimney is built on the outside of your house, the chimney flue is probably cold. When you open the damper, the cold air in the flue will sink and come into your warm house. If you try to light a fire during this air sink, you’re going to end up with smoke coming into the house instead of up the chimney. To counteract the air sink, you need to prime the flue by warming it up. This is done by lighting a roll of newspaper and holding it up the damper opening for a few minutes. When you feel the draft reverse, you know the flue is primed, and you’re ready to start your fire. If you have a fireplace that has a gas pipe to supplement your wood burning, turn on the gas and light the pilot light without any wood in the fireplace. Your flue will warm up in a matter of minutes. (The Art of Manliness)

Sound logical enough. But one success and two failures represents daunting odds, especially when my bride’s patience has already been exhausted. And I hesitate to add gas to an already worrisome fire hazard. Call me a coward.

But all hope is not lost. It has been suggested that running a heater in the firebox for a period before starting the fire would warm the flue. Or installation of a flue-top exhaust fan which would such smoke up the chimney until the fire could manage on its own.

Both sound slightly dubious, so I’m casting about for alternatives. Any ideas? I need to fix this smoky fireplace once and for all…


About virtualDavis

A writer, storyteller and unabashed flâneur, George Davis (aka virtualDavis or G.G. Davis, Jr.) is the author of Rosslyn Redux: Reawakening a home, a dream and ourselves, a transmedia chronicle about rehabilitating an historic property in the Adirondacks with his bride. He blogs about storytelling, poetry, doodling, marginalia, flânerie, publishing, and other creativity-inspired esoterica at virtualDavis.com; posts sometimes exhilarating, often unnerving, occasionally euphoric, and always pollyanna "midlife mashups" at 40x41.com; chronicles his sailing adventures (and misadventures) at Sailing Errant; and delves into matters of parenting, babylandia, and childfreedom at Why No Kids? George formerly taught and coached at Santa Fe Preparatory School and The American School of Paris, and he co-founded and launched Maison Margaux: "Paris à la parisienne" in Faubourg Saint-Germain. He currently owns and operates Adobe Oasis in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his bride. George meanders on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube and Flickr.
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2 Responses to Up in Smoke: How to Fix a Smoky Fireplace

  1. @tourpro says:

    Have you tried opening a window? If the air inside is warmer than outside, doesn’t opening the flue create a draft?

    • virtualDavis says:

      Thanks for your advice/questions. We’ve tried opening a window in the past, but that seems to exacerbate the problem in this unusual case. Strange, I know. As for your logical assumption that opening the flue would allow the room’s warm air to rise up the chimney, warming the flue… No dice. Throw logic asunder! This is a quirky old house with a mind of its own. ;-) I think the trouble is that the chimney is tall (hence the flue is long) and the column of cold air (chilled to the exterior temperature by virtue of a shared brick thermal mass) takes LOTS or rising heat to displace, especially if there’s any breeze coming off the lake. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way!

Your thoughts?