ABOVE: A bungalow fireplace has straightforward but sculptural andirons as well as a grate. Photo by Linda Svendsen
Standard equipment for centuries, fireplace screens, grates, andirons and tools are often seen as merely practical. But accessorizing your hearth in period style makes it the decorative focal point in the room.
Though you may think of the metalwork tools and accessories around your fireplace as practical necessities, they can be a great way to incorporate antiques and stylish design into the room, as well. A tiled hearth of the Arts & Crafts period looks even better with a pair of brass fire dogs in the style of Christopher Dresser.
No matter what style your room is, you’ll be considering a few basics. The grate should be more than an afterthought. The metal grate elevates logs off the hearth to allow air to flow around them and so determines how well they will burn; a grate also protects logs from falling forward into the room. In general, the more bars in the grate the better as the wood is less likely to fall through; look also for splayed arms on the ends so that the logs don’t roll off as they burn.
A safe ash container remains another essential. It’s best to wait three to four days after a fire is out before cleaning up embers and ashes—and, if you plan to light more fires, they will burn better if you’ve left some ashes in the hearth. A metal container is the safest receptacle for ashes. Look for one that has a raised or double-walled bottom lining. A tight-fitting lid prevents ashes from blowing about and starting another fire. Most ash containers today are simple, in the form of a metal bucket with a lid and handle. Decorative copper models with porcelain handles are available.
Sometimes called fire dogs, andirons were designed to hold logs in the hearth and were popular before the introduction of grates. They provided a means of lifting the firewood off the floor, allowing oxygen to circulate around the wood. The decorative front ends of the andirons kept logs from rolling forward. Andirons can still be used for this purpose, but grates are more practical as they keep the burning wood completely off the fireplace floor even when it has burned down to small pieces. Homeowners today often collect andirons for their aesthetic appeal, using them decoratively along with grates. Andirons are usually of cast iron or brass; styles run from classical urn shapes to Aesthetic Movement owls and cats with glass eyes to modern Arts & Crafts designs by W.A.S. Benson and his contemporaries.
A tool set consists of a poker, shovel, tongs, and a brush or small broom. Many of us recall the brassy sets our parents owned, with screw-on knobs that fell off. But many period-appropriate styles and designs are available today: wrought-iron rods with open swirled finials are very nice for Arts & Crafts fireplaces; straightforward, hand-forged pokers and tongs for a colonial-era hearthside. Make sure the set you select is welded and not screwed together for better durability. Never buy a brush with synthetic fibers, as they may melt with the heat of the fire; natural straw bristles have withstood the test of time and remain the best choice.
Firebacks were first found in colonial fireplaces, used both to protect the back wall of the bricks-and-mortar chimney and to absorb and radiate heat and light back into the room. Using a cast-iron fireback today will prevent further damage and buildup in your old firebox. These come in several sizes and styles, including reproductions of originals and new designs.
Fireplace fenders are another accessory. Designed to keep long dresses and small children away from the flames, fenders in England were often built with small benches or seats for those wanting to get close to the fire. Fenders come in every imaginable style and sometimes were part of a matching set of tools and andirons. They’re great for a formal period look, or to lend English ambiance, but fenders do take up floor space and make it more cumbersome to add logs and clean out ashes. For these reasons they are not as popular today.
As a decorative and period-specific accessory, firescreens are especially important. These sat in front of the fire: to protect the complexions of the ladies when the fire was lit, and to screen the empty firebox from full view when the fire was out. They came in brass and copper, were fashioned of textiles, wood, glass, even papier maché. Screens were often works of art and an important venue for the mistress of the home to show off her embroidery skills during the 19th century. Go ahead and buy (or make) a fireplace screen even if you don’t have a fireplace. Their beauty and craftsmanship can be appreciated even if you use them as room dividers, to fill an empty corner, or as a decorative accent next to a side table or chair.
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