Putting the fireplace to bed at night

What do you do to put the fireplace to bed at night?

If the fire is still producing heat, the damper has to be left open. And if the damper is open, the heat inside the house finds a fast exit to the outside.

The answer is to make a cover to close off the entire fireplace, just as our ancestors did. It's time-tested, practical, and inexpensive to boot. Best of all , any semi-handy person can build one.

A ready-made metal cover can be bought for $50 to $75, but that's a stiff price to pay and you don't have to do it.

You can make your own shield for a fraction of the cost, using wafer or particle board, quarter-inch plywood, or similar materials. The trick is to make your shield heatproof by facing it with heavy-duty aluminum foil, the kind used for protecting food. One thickness will do, but two thicknesses will provide extra safety.

Cut the board to fit the opening tightly and apply the foil, tacking it into place with small bits of masking tape on the surface facing the fire and larger strips where the foil comes over onto the back. Overlap the edges generously. Remember, looks are not important. The next morning you can hide the panel behind the piano (as I do), in a closet, or in some other out-of-the-way spot.

A friend of mine cut his shield from a sheet of light aluminum, crimped the edges, and then applied rigid Styrofoam-brand insulation to the edges to obtain a tight seal.

There is usually a metal plate supporting the bricks across the top of the fireplace opening. My shield rests snugly against the plate. As a precaution, I place the fireplace tool stand up against it and always put the screen in place.

Common sense dictates that you allow the fire to dwindle as bedtime approaches and that you push any remaining hot coals or unburned wood to the back of the grate. If you wish to produce heat as long as possible, bank your fire with ashes.

Is such a home-made shield safe?

I've used my plywood shield for the last two winters - and this is the third.

The idea came to me from an engineer friend who spent many years as a call fireman and has used such a shield in his New Hampshire retirement home, heated solely by wood, for many years.

His fireplace, like mine, also is equipped with a blower system. A small hole in the lower-left corner of the shield accommodates the intake pipe nicely.

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