How to make smoke with fire

As previously mentioned (once or erm, twice) I need cowls for the chimneys to stop the birds nesting in there again in the spring.  I’ve only two fireplaces but there are three chimney pots (the bedroom fireplace has been blocked up).  Even picking the most affordable chimney cowls, getting three cowls was going to be over £42 and, well I’m far too tight for that.  So I needed to work out which pot corresponded with which fireplace – so I could get away with buying two.  There’s one big (tall) pot which I’m fairly sure is the range, as the chimney sweep commented that it had really good draw and I’m pretty sure that his pole was poking out of that pot as I walked up the path (I nipped out while he was here).  The other two pots are much smaller, so small in fact you can’t see them from the garden – you have to go to the carpark on the other side of the river.  The chimney sweep said that there was a bit of a down draft in the living room fireplace so he didn’t light it.

So what I needed to do was light a smoky fire in a fireplace with downdraft and then get to a place where I could see which chimney was smoking.  Easier said than done.

I first attempted it yesterday while waiting for the guy from Forestry.  I put a bit of paper in the grate and lit it, went outside – couldn’t see a thing.

So today I was clearing the leaves in the garden and I filled a bucket with some nice dry ones and some slightly less dry ones.  Then loaded up the fire

fire leaves

The photo is of my first tentative attempt – nothing like lighting a fire in your house for the first time and then almost immediately bombing it out of the front door, down the path, out the gate, over the road, across the footbridge, across the road, around cars, trying to find a spot between the trees on the river bank where you can see the chimney pots.  There was definitely smoke, it was a pretty similar colour to the overcast sky and it was getting whipped around in the wind a lot.  Could have been coming from either of the two smaller pots – then it stopped as the leaves had burnt out.

Take 2 – repeat process, only this time I didn’t wait for it to catch properly before running out the door.  School boy error, it didn’t catch and there was no smoke.  There was, however, an old lady and her dog who stood to one side as I was running over the foot bridge (in my boiler suit and red wellies with camera in hand), of course I felt the need to explain what I was doing as I ran past and shouted something along the lines of “need to see which chimney is smoking”. To which she just smiled politely, so either a) she didn’t hear what I said b) she immediately understood what I was doing and ascertained likely reasons for it c) smiling politely is the only cause of action when confronted with someone behaving in such a fashion d) she’s currently pondering the meaning of the cryptic message the girl in the red wellies tried to communicate to her.

Take 3 – well, I’d say that was fairly conclusive.

Chimney smoke

Where’s our nest?

The chimney sweep recommended I get some chimney cowls to prevent the birds nesting the chimney again.  I went by the house this morning to get a photo of the chimney in the daylight so I could try to work out what size cowls I need.

I felt quite bad when I saw them looking forlornly down the chimney for their nest!

No Nest

Chim, chimney, chim, chim, cher-ee

The house has two fireplaces – one in the living room and one in the dining room so they are back to back and share a single chimney stack.  There must have been one in the master bedroom too but that’s been blocked up and plastered over.

The one in the dining room is this range type thing – which fascinates me as it looks much older than the house. Note the cushion (complete with tassel) used as a chimney balloon.


The one in the living room was boarded up and there wasn’t any obvious way into it.  I think the electric fire currently by the outbuildings had previously been mounted on the front of it. It looked like this:

Fireplace boarded up

I eventually took one of Dad’s crow bars (which was a completely inappropriate tool) to find out what I had – from knocking at it, I was aware there was some sort of opening behind – the mantle was obviously fairly new (it was wallpapered behind!) but who knows there still might be something beautiful underneath the panelling.  So with a lot of huffing and puffing and bashing I got the panel off. Was there something beautiful? Erm, no – there was this:

Opened up fireplace

Pretty.  Note the twigs?  Hmm, looks like a bird’s nest too.

What to do with the fires has been one of my big uncertainties – prior to getting the house I’d convinced myself they were going to have to go as they took up too much space in the rooms – next door have had their whole chimney stack removed. When I actually got the keys I discovered the rooms were actually bigger than I’d remembered (although they are still not massive) and the difficulty (the chimney breast supports the purlin in the roof) and cost to remove vs the space that would be gained probably means they are staying.

The range was particularly troublesome because although it’s a lovely feature, if I was going to have something so big, taking up so much space – I’d quite like it to be usable.

So I decided to get the chimneys swept and to see if that got me any further to making a decision.  Thursday lunchtime I went down to meet the chimney sweep – who I was surprised to discover was about my age, for some reason I’d expected him to be at least 100. His jaw actually dropped when he saw the range (the company is two brothers and although I’d explained all to the other one I don’t think he’d passed the info on) but he cracked on nevertheless and promptly came across a huge bird’s nest.  I’d assumed the chimney must have been in use relatively recently as the coal bunker is still right outside the back door but he reckoned it couldn’t have been swept for at least a decade.  The birds had been nesting in it for so long the twigs had composted and bin bags of soil were coming down.  It took ages!  After he got the chimney swept he started investigating the range for me to discover how it works (I couldn’t get my head around how the food in the oven could be heated uniformly with a fire on one side) – I think I’ll save all that for another post though (it needs photos to explain properly).  The chimney has really good draw though and he lit a ball of paper and it burnt really well – also no masonry or anything came down while he was sweeping it so it’s basically good to go (except it’s not – more about that later too).

The other fireplace also had a birds nest but not quite as solid as the first so was much quicker to sweep.  He didn’t light that one as there was quite a bit of down draft.  He recommended I get some bird cowls ‘before the Spring’ to stop the birds coming back – so I should probably get on that sharpish.

Chim chiminey
Chim chiminey
Chim chim cher-oo!
Good luck will rub off when
I shake ‘ands with you

I know chimney sweeps are meant to be lucky but I did have the oddest stroke of luck while the sweep was sweeping.  I decided it was probably best not to sit watching him and asking inane questions (don’t get me wrong, I did that for a while) so potted around the house doing odd jobs and hoovering – then I went to sort out the pallets in the outhouse.  There’s no light in the outhouse and as the days are short at the moment and the weather has been awful, I’d not been in there properly other than to stuff the pallets in – there were a few old boxes but I didn’t think there was anything in them.  You can see a box in this photo:


In fact, that very box turned out to be full of rusty old bits of cast iron.  It was clearly bits from a fire but, to me, most just seemed random and disconnected.  Anyway, I pulled them all out and was brushing them down when the chimney sweep came to find me and immediately identified what they all were.  All the parts of the open fire in the living room were there – in all their retro glory.  So that it now looks like this:

Fire with grate

Also there was the fret from the front of the range (which obviously needs some polishing) plus the frame for the damper 🙂

range with fret

Lucky, huh?  I’m not sure I would have realised that fret (I’m calling it a fret as I’ve no other word for it) was something that was intended to go on the front of the range if the chimney sweep hadn’t have been here when I made the discovery!

Then I hot-tailed it back to work after a 3 hour lunchbreak.  Whoops…