How to clean a fireplace

A real fire is a treat but causes wear and tear, so take a weekend to remedy the situation. Helaine Clare shows how in her guide to reviving a fireplace

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Many fireplaces were boarded up in the 1960s and replaced with electric fires, but fashions come and go and now the heart-warming cheer of an open fire is aspirational again. Cover up furniture and carpets before starting remedial work as it’s surprising how far soot and bird nesting debris can spew whilst you are working on your fireplace.

 You will need:

Restoring a fireplace steps 1 and 2

 1. Prepare the room and sweep up

Don old clothes and work gloves before starting. Move furniture, roll up rugs, and protect floor with dust sheets and newspapers. Next empty ashes and unburnt wood or coal that is still in the hearth into a bucket. Sweep the fireplace clean or use a vacuum cleaner so you can better examine the fireplace beneath.

 2. Repair or replenish fire bricks

Check the insulating firebricks to the back and sides of the hearth. Badly deteriorated bricks will need to be replaced but cracks and chips can be made good with fire cement. The brick must be dry and dust-free – use a knife to push the cement in place. Following a repair you may need to light a fire to cure the cement. 

Restoring a fireplace steps 3 and 4

 3. Clean the ceramic tile surround

Clean tiles on the surround and hearth with warm soapy water – use a bristle scrubbing brush or nylon scourer. Badly broken tiles can be replaced, although cracked tiles on the hearth, probably caused by the careless use of poker or tongs, are everyday wear and tear that I include as just a part of the house’s history.

 4. Clean and replace grouting

An old toothbrush is useful for cleaning grouting. Missing grouting can be replaced too. Check the new product is suitable for surfaces exposed to high temperatures and press firmly into joints. When partially set, run the end of a pencil along to make a neat finish. Next day clean off surplus grout with a nylon scourer. 

Restoring a fireplace steps 5 and 6

 5. Remove really stubborn stains

If after the initial clean stubborn stains remain, apply a proprietary tile cleaner and leave an hour or two to lift the dirt. Scrub again with soapy water and a bristle brush. Wipe down the area with a clean cloth and water. Once completely dry polish with a soft cotton cloth to make the tiles shine.

 6. Remove build up of candle wax

Candles on the hearth can look pretty but avoid heavy build-ups of wax as it could present a fire hazard. Hold a scraper at an acute angle to avoid scratching the tiles, and scrape away the wax. If melted wax has run into the grouting, heat it with a hairdryer and mop the wax up with kitchen roll. 

Restoring a fireplace steps 7 and 8

 7. Spruce up the metal fire grate

Clean rusty metal with a steel brush. Then apply black grate polish sparingly with a brush. For a shiny finish leave for at least an hour and then polish with a bristle brush. Beware, grate polish easily rubs off on furnishings and clothing so use sparingly. Use stove paint for a longer-lasting finish.

 8. Polish the wooden fire surround

The wooden surround is looking faded and dull. To nourish the wood and protect it from the drying eff ect of heat, rub in a good quality beeswax polish. Leave to dry and buff up with a soft cotton cloth. To avoid a smeary finish always apply polish sparingly – too much will discolour the wood. 

 Uncovering a hidden fireplace 

Hidden fireplaces can usually be identified by the presence of a chimney breast as they project either into the room or externally from the outer wall. The size of the opening is approximately 580mm wide, 255mm deep and 640mm high.

Sometimes the breast would simply be boarded up with hardboard nailed to battening; tap along the wall until you hear a hollow sound then prise away the hardboard. Alternatively the opening may have been bricked up. If this was done properly there should be an airbrick or ventilator nearby.

  • Chisel out a couple of bricks about 300mm above the floor
  • Hold a candle in front of the opening. If the flame is drawn towards the opening it would indicate the chimney is clear whereas a still flame suggests there is an obstruction which needs to be cleared.
  • Remove the rest of the bricks with care as there may be a fireback, lintel, brick arch or iron arch bar hidden behind.

Clean up all the mess, but don’t light a fire until you’ve had the chimney swept, checked for safety and smoke tested to make sure flue gases don’t seep through defective brickwork into the house or roof space. Take particular care if you live in a thatched home, where fire risk is much greater, even from an enclosed stove.

Read more about reopening a hidden fireplace

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