Installing and renovating old fireplaces

Ned Browne 

The trend in the 1960s and 1970s was to replace fireplaces with either nothing or a gas fire. Many cast iron fireplaces ended up in the skip—a crying shame but all is not lost.

Where to buy

Reclamation yards are awash with old examples, as are online auction houses and specialist salvage websites. Alternatively, you can buy one from a fireplace shop—but expect to pay a premium.


What to check first

You need to check that the chimneybreast has not been removed at any level. In addition, make sure the chimney hasn’t been blocked up. 

Before you employ a chimney sweep, buy some smoke pellets—you can use these to check the smoke draws upwards.

Most fireplaces were covered up with lightweight blocks or plasterboard. The best case scenario: the previous builder may have cut corners and boarded up the old fireplace. If you need to, use an angle grinder cut out the old block-work, this will create a lot of dust—put sheets everywhere. 

The build up of old soot could be sizeable too. It’s a messy job: you have been warned!

Learn how to open up an old fireplace


before fireplace


Choosing a fireplace

It is essential you have the fireplace on site before you start. Measure the chimneybreast and make sure your fireplace shelf is narrower by at least 10cm. 

Remember, there is some wriggle-room, so you don’t need to find a fireplace that’s exactly the right size. You also need to check the metal insert fits into the surround. If the surround is too big you can always fill the gap with additional wall tiles.


Nitromors vs heat gun vs dipping

If the fireplace is in situ use either Nitromors or a heat gun to remove the old paint. I would strongly recommend the latter. 

In the long run heat guns save time and money and make far less mess. If it can be dipped off site, definitely go for that option. It will save you hours of horrible work.

Fireplace before restoration
Fireplace before restoration


Fireplace after restoration and installment
Firplace after restoration and installment

In the example pictured above the inset tiles were removed and the cast iron surround dipped in an acid bath.

It was washed and scrubbed and then sprayed black using stove paint. The rear of the wooden surround was braced with additional timbers to give it more rigidity. 

It was then sanded thoroughly and painted three times with eggshell paint. The inset tiles were refitted using tile adhesive and temporary wooden wedges to keep them in place. 

The fireplace cost £90 from a reclamation yard; the dipping in acid cost £50 and the surround cost £150 online.


Here are the main elements to installing a fireplace

  • Remove the skirting board and cut to size to fit around the new fireplace
  • Remove the blocks covering the opening
  • Uncover the hearth, or rebuild if it’s been removed—building a new hearth is a remarkably easy and satisfying job. Make some timber shuttering and fill with a wet concrete mix—five parts ballast, one part cement—and level with a float
  • Install the metal insert—ideally the surround will keep it in place.  Some cast iron fireplaces, especially smaller ones, are one piece (i.e. surround and insert combined). Most have holes below the mantelpiece that will enable you to easily attach it to the wall
  • Attach the surround to the wall—the easiest way is to use four fixing plates screwed to the back of the surround and then onto the wall. Make sure you chisel out a channel in the wall for these.  You can them make good with filler
  • Tile the heart

Learn how to install a fireplace here


After the fireplace has been installed

It’s essential you get the chimney swept before you light a fire—chimney fires are uncommon but ruinous, as insurance companies won’t pay out if your chimney hasn’t been swept within a reasonable period (which varies policy to policy). Then sit back hypnotized by the warming flames.