A wood fireplace insert is a great way to improve the efficiency and performance of an older wood burning fireplace. The challenge is to create a unified look that integrates the insert face with the fireplace mantel, surround, and hearth.
In the past, wood fireplace inserts have been notoriously "beastly" in appearance. Finding a well designed
unit that complemented an exist-
ing fireplace mantel and surround was virtually impossible.
Generally, they were oversized, overextended, overpowering . . . . . and overbearing. Looking like a giant
behemoth emerging from the firebox to devour everything in its path, the wood fireplace insert was purely
tional in nature and couldn't "care" less about form.
Fortunately, in the past couple of years, a few manufacturers have be-
gun to take aesthetics into consideration when producing wood inserts. And though there have been some remarkable improvements along the way, many manufacturers -- quite frankly -- still have a long way to go. However, thanks to those manufacturers that do, indeed, "get it," we no longer need to sacrifice appearance for performance when installing a
new wood fireplace insert.
Taming the Beast
One of the improvements that has been made along the way includes flush fitting inserts. In other words,
except for the facing, the wood in-
sert fits entirely inside the firebox, rather than projecting beyond the firebox opening onto the hearth,
giving it a cleaner and more natural look. The example at right fits flush with the face of the fireplace.
Another improvement made by manufacturers in recent years includes a wider range of choices in decorative door facings, some of which have changeable grills, as well as larger viewing areas, i.e., more glass. Others offer a variety of finishing options such as pewter or nickel plating, as shown in the example below right. These are significant improvements over earlier door designs.
Some manufacturers went even further -- particularly with traditional styles -- by creating attractive borders to frame the new door designs, such as in the example at right.
So far, so good . . . . . right? Right!
That is . . . . . until we get to the sur-
round or extension panels supplied by many (most) manufacturers of wood fireplace inserts . . . . those manufac-
turers that don't provide an attractive border to frame the insert door facing. Those manufacturers that appear to have ended the design process with the door facings and merely tossed in the extension panels as an afterthought, such as in the example below.
What were they THINKING?
Why would they take the time to care-
fully design an attractive pewter-plated door facing, then simply "frame" it with a wide band of black painted metal that covers most of the beauti-
ful marble surround on this elegant fireplace?
(In all fairness to the manufacturer, steps have since been taken to im-
prove the extension panels, as they now have the flexibility to be custom cut for an inside-fit to the fireplace opening.)
The fireplace is an important architectural element that frequently sets the tone for the style of decorating and
decor in the home. Consequently, it's important to "get
1. Select a wood fireplace insert that fits flush with the fireplace facing, rather than extending out onto the hearth more than an inch or two, as shown below left. In other words, choose an insert that will fit entirely within your existing firebox, except for the door facing. If the extra heating capability of an "extended hearth" insert is important to you, try to select a model that doesn't overpower the mantel and surround, such as the wood fireplace insert shown below right.
2. Make sure the surround or extension panel that comes with your wood fireplace insert is no more than 1/4
to 1/3 the width -- less is even better -- of your fireplace surround (that area between the top of
the firebox opening and the underside of the mantel shelf, as well as the area between the sides of the firebox opening and the mantel legs) when installed. If the manufacturer does not provide an appro-
priately sized/scaled extension panel, have a metal working shop make one to your specifications.
Alternatively, find a craftsman to fabricate a natural stone or tile extension to frame your insert door facing, as shown in the examples below.
3. Conversely, if your existing fireplace surround has seen better days, you may want to consider covering it up completely. Some manufacturers now make attractive coordinated extension panels designed to go over the entire surround when paired with a wood burning insert, such as shown in the striking example at right.
4. Try to select a wood fireplace insert with as large a viewing area as possible. Fortunately, many of today's manufacturers have expanded the viewing area of the insert doors on their latest models, making it easier to see more of the flames in the fireplace.
5. Another, albeit less common, ap-
proach to incorporate an insert so as not to detract from the overall aes-
thetic composition of your fireplace is to recess it entirely, including the facing, inside the firebox, as shown in the examples at right and at the bot-
tom of this page.
6. And finally, if you're not happy with the appearance of your existing fire-
place, you may want to consider a complete makeover, or simply remove the mantel and install your wood fire-
place insert as a stand-alone unit. Several models -- many contemporary designs, in particular -- are currently being manufactured that look great all by themselves. Some, such as the striking European example pictured at right, look equally "at home" in both traditional and contemporary settings . . . . . . with or without a mantel and surround.
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