That Smoky Fireplace

A man who is building a house nowadays has troubles enough, you might suppose, without his most important fireplace turning out to be smoky. If you are intending to build a house, accept my advice — don’t! Not, that is, unless you command the key to the deposit vaults of Crœsus. Your troubles begin the first morning, when you send a fleet of Fords to fetch the laborers, and discover that they demand limousines. Then the price of everything keeps going up so much faster than your walls that, by the time you have reached the roof, they are lost to view in the empyrean. So, having planned for an oak floor in your library, you end with native pine at $60 per thousand knot-holes; and having planned a tile bathroom, you resign yourself to a pool in the brook or a tin tub by the kitchen stove, and talk about the simple life. And, I repeat, after you have at least made sure of being warmed by a generous fireplace in your study, with wood cut on your own wood-lot, — one reason why you bought the place, — it is, to put it mildly, annoying to cross your beautiful floor of painted pine-knots, kindle your first joyous fire — and be driven, coughing and blinded, from the room by billowing clouds of smoke.

I have had considerable experience with smoky fireplaces in the past. I have lived with ones that smoked when the weather was damp and the wind southeast, and ones that smoked when the weather was dry and the wind northwest, and ones that smoked all the time. I have fixed some of them by building up the bottom, and others by inserting a charmingly decorative piece of tin across the top. Some have been beyond fixing. I have studied their proportions in consultation with masons and contractors, and been initiated into the mysteries of ratio between fluediameter and fireplace opening. From the masons’ own lips I have learned that one mason is not like unto another mason, but some there be who build fireplaces which always draw, and others who build fireplaces which draw by the grace of God, if at all. So I employed, for my new home, a mason of the former type. His credentials were all that could be desired; I measured the width and height of his opening, I saw to the size of his flue. I was satisfied. I dreamed of dancing flames and genial warmth. And then — a smoke-screen which could have concealed the North Atlantic fleet!

But my faith in masons was not shattered — only in one mason. Dashing back into the room, I put out enough of the fire to enable me to breathe, and fell to examining intimately the conduct of the smoke. At once I decided what was the trouble. The back of the fireplace, instead of being straight, curved gracefully forward near the top, — it was a pretty bit of brick-laying, I assure you, — deflecting the smoke suddenly toward the front, where it created an eddy, as water does on the reverse side of a curving stream. Simple! I would get another mason, one with an even purer reputation for smokeless fireplaces, to come and fix it.

He came. First ho lit a fresh fire of wet hay, ‘to make a good smoke.’ It did. We coughed our way to the door once more, breathed deep, and groped back in mad dashes to observe. I explained to the new mason what was the trouble. He looked at me with as much scorn as he could convey with his watering eyes, and said that had nothing to do with it. He stuck his head up the flue and said the damper was set wrong. Then he went up on the roof and said the flue was contracted at the top and would have to be enlarged and heightened. He went busily to work, first chopping out a slice of the chimneybreast and removing the damper, and then knocking a barrel of bricks down the flue from the roof, and setting up a piece of tile like the mouth of an aerialdefense gun pointed skyward from the top of my chimney. Then, while I was removing the débris, he got more wet hay and lit another fire.

‘You’ll see!’ he said.

In a moment nobody could see. The fireplace smoked as badly as ever.

‘The flue’s too small — there’s nothing you can do about it, ’ he said, getting out his rule. ‘An opening over 38 inches wide should have a 16-inch flue. This is 38½ inches. It’s all wrong. Whoever built it did n’t know his business.’

Then, serene in his confidence that he knew his, he got into the limousine I had provided, and went home.

Left alone with my smoke, I was naturally humbled, and quite as naturally bitterly disappointed. But, thought I, it will do no harm just to try out my own theory. Nobody is here to observe my folly. So I got a barrow-load of firebrick and built them up loose at the back of my fireplace, eliminating the overhang. Then I piled in more wet hay, and stuck a match into the shavings below. The flames spurted, the hay began to smoulder, the dense coils of lovely smoke curled out and braided themselves straight up the flue! In two minutes the hay, then the wood, was well afire, and the sparks danced gayly upward. I raised my head in pious thanksgiving, but quickly lowered it when I saw the color of my new white ceiling. However, the fireplace drew. What mattered the ceiling?

So presently I mixed some cement mortar and set the bricks myself, pondering the while on the wisdom of masons and such-like experts, and the blundering ignorance of laymen. Can it be possible, thought I, that a little general intelligence is worth as much, on occasion, as a lifetime of routine experience and a union card? This seemed to undermine the entire structure of modern society, with its multiple divisions of labor, its cult of the specialist, its putting of the ordinary man in his proper place of helplessness. Still, there was the smoke sucking straight up the flue. Let the social system crumble — I shall be warm!