Survey after survey reveals the fireplace to be one of the most desired features for prospective log-home owners. No surprise there.
But saying you want a fireplace is like saying you want a car. The difference between a Kia and a Mercedes is pretty significant. Both will get you from Point A to Point B efficiently, but how is a question of style and comfort.
The same could be said about fireplaces. Beyond having a firebox and a chimney, the differences among fireplaces can be considerable. And while topics such as cost and efficiency are important ones, for the purpose of this discussion let’s talk about exterior styling and what you need to consider, especially when it comes to fireplace materials.
• Rock or stone. Whether it is rounded rock or randomly shaped stone, the most popular finish for fireplace surrounds and visible chimneys is provided by Mother Nature. One of the reasons for this esteem is because no two rock or stone fireplaces look completely alike.
Size, color and texture are guaranteed to make a fireplace unique. Even with synthetic stone, manufacturers have succeeded in creating a totally natural finish that looks uncannily real.
Because of weight considerations, it’s important to consider locations carefully in order to provide a solid base. No mason is going to agree to build a rock or stone chimney that is unsupported or on a surface that is soft and may shift.
A significant number of companies now offer a synthetic stone (or “stone effect,” as it usually called) as a finish on a resin-fiberglass base that is both lighter weight and durable. There is also “reformed” or “reconstituted” stone, which is crushed stone molded into shape. Only product labeled “natural” is the original, complete stone.
• Slate. Whether it is natural (or cleft), honed or polished, slate has become one of the most sought-after materials for use in fireplace surrounds. Probably no material can offer such a wide range of appearances, just by altering the finish.
Polished finishes mimic marble in terms of gleam and gloss but tend to have a more subdued appearance than marble. Honed finishes are between polished and natural, with a smooth feel to the touch but without the shiny appearance that polished slate has. And natural finishes have a rough surface in which individual pieces don’t have a uniform surface. The dimensional variance adds character and a natural patina that evokes appreciation for an earlier time.
• Marble. Not found in log homes very often because of the very finished and formal appearance, marble, nonetheless, is increasingly popular for creating that very contrast. Available in a variety of colors, it relies for its appeal on the natural randomness of the veined lines. The fact that natural light on marble can make it seem to glow or shine is another factor.
Because it is a relatively soft material, architectural marble is usually carved into tiles. This reduces the likelihood of crumbling or chipping, although marble is frequently finished with a sealer to protect its porous surface.
Cost used to be another discouraging factor, but even modest homes now are able to employ marble where desired, thanks to new finishing techniques.
• Brick. Another material not frequently found in log homes but increasing in attraction is brick. Again, it is a matter of dissimilarity to wood and many other materials used in interior construction. Wood, particularly presented in log form, offers a feeling of soft warmth, whereas brick is the ultimate stolid material. Brick is also available in a wide range of colors and can be cleverly mixed and controlled.
One of the other ways in which brick is unique as a material is that it can be painted. Also remember that brick fireplaces are built on site, likely adding time and expense over material that can be built off site and transported.
• Plaster, drywall and adobe. Minimalism is making a comeback in design. Simple, straight or angular lines are found in furnishings, accents and even base design. As a result, it’s not at all unusual these days to see fireplaces that are integrated into a wall, often without even a mantel to disrupt the smooth line from ceiling to floor beyond simple glass doors on the firebox. In addition to the practicality of a fireplace, keeping sleek lines on the chimney area can provide a blank palette for exciting artwork or design elements.
In Southwestern areas, free-standing fireplaces, as well as built-in ones, have long featured adobe finishes.
• Wood surrounds. In traditional, stick-built homes, a wood surround is not all that uncommon, but in log homes the fireplace has tended to be viewed as the opportunity for a contrasting material. Polished, finished wood has not always been the first thought in fireplace planning for log homes.
But as homes have become more sophisticated and featured a greater variety of materials, the formal fireplace is becoming more commonplace, too.
In selecting a wood finish, a little practicality is called for. Inexpensive wood, such as pressboard or chipboard, is a poor choice that will be unlikely to hold up to the heat from the firebox. But some veneers and laminates can actually be better than a single species at holding up to long-term use. Often, this is truly a matter of getting what you pay for. More expensive wood sources, such as rosewood or cherry, are usually best.
• Metal. Farriers have never been more popular. The ability to shape metal into anything the mind can design has made the blacksmith an artist whose work is increasingly appreciated.
Whether iron, steel or composites, metalwork is now being incorporated into surrounds and mantels to create unique designs. While this material adds overall weight, with careful planning, metal against stone, rock, wood, even plaster, can be an exciting choice.
• Recycled mantels and surrounds. Not surprisingly, in an era in which recycled materials are increasingly sought after, the fireplace frame rescued out of an older home is very popular. Not only does it evoke appreciation for an earlier time, but it also offers character that simply can’t be duplicated by modern methods. These surrounds and mantels can be made from nearly any material, but they are usually wood. The distressed finish, especially when it’s totally natural, is particularly appreciated.
This story ran longer and with more images in the November issue of Log Homes Illustrated.