When Rachel Dalley moved into her 1918 Seattle house, she knew there was once a fireplace in the living room — because the chimney was still standing.

The previous owners had covered the original firebox with drywall, but Dalley wanted the fireplace back, and the stay-at-home period seemed like a good time to tackle the project. Both she and her husband were working from home and could be flexible to meet with contractors.

The couple also wanted an easier and safer system for their family of five, so they decided to add a gas insert into the old firebox, rather than going back to a wood-burning fireplace.  

The relatively simple project of removing some drywall and adding a gas insert became more complicated when the Dalleys discovered their chimney was crumbling and had to be taken down. A local firm removed the brick and rebuilt the exterior wall with a bump-out that accommodates the gas insert. Now nearing competition, the project wound up costing about $15,000. 

Seattleite Rachel Dalley had a crumbling 1918-era chimney removed (left) and replaced with a bump-out that accommodates a new gas insert with a modern venting system (right). (Courtesy of Rachel Dalley)
Seattleite Rachel Dalley had a crumbling 1918-era chimney removed (left) and replaced with a bump-out that accommodates a new gas insert with a modern venting system (right). (Courtesy of Rachel Dalley)

“Dealing with the old chimney was not a cost we had factored in there. It definitely blew our budget,” Dalley said. “But part of it was nice, not to think about that old chimney ever again. The top was starting to fall. I can’t imagine — even a small earthquake or anything — it would have been gone.”

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The project’s final step is adding a surround and a mantel. Once everything is done, Dalley says she’s looking forward to “lounging in front of it on a cool winter’s day.”

Indeed, a fireplace adds hygge and coziness to a home — things we’ll need for the long dark months ahead. Here are some pro tips for caring for your fireplace, as well as options for updates to make it lower maintenance, more energy efficient and better looking.

Getting started

If you have a wood-burning fireplace, you should get it checked out annually by a chimney sweep certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America to make sure it’s in safe operating condition. This service typically costs $200–$300.

Also know that, even if it is safe to use, a fireplace may not add much more to your room than a lovely glow. Most Seattle-area homes built between 1900 and 1945 have an open wood-burning fireplace. The problem is, an open fireplace isn’t efficient at heating a room: It pulls warm air from your house as it combusts and creates a draft. 

“If you think it’s going to heat, it’s not that. It’s ambiance, for sitting with a glass of wine,” says Daniel Hammer, general manager and owner of Sutter Home & Hearth in Seattle.

Gas inserts, such as this one from Seattle’s Sutter Home & Hearth, are the most low-maintenance option. They are also convenient, with remote controls that sense room temperature. (Courtesy of Sutter Home & Hearth)
Gas inserts, such as this one from Seattle’s Sutter Home & Hearth, are the most low-maintenance option. They are also convenient, with remote controls that sense room temperature. (Courtesy of Sutter Home & Hearth)
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Adding some heat

If splitting wood and cleaning up ashes sounds like too much work for too little heat, you could, like the Dalleys, add a gas insert to your wood-burning fireplace. 

These inserts are actually appliances with their own vent systems that will heat a room up to 2,500 square feet in size. And, as a bonus, they work when the power goes out. They’re sealed from the room with a solid piece of glass, and they pull in outside air for combustion.

Wood-burning inserts are also available to increase the warmth from an older fireplace. But, again, you will have to deal with finding dry, seasoned cord wood and storing it properly.

An old firebox can be updated with a wood-burning or gas insert, an appliance that provides more warmth than an open fireplace. (Getty Images)
An old firebox can be updated with a wood-burning or gas insert, an appliance that provides more warmth than an open fireplace. (Getty Images)

When customers ask about installing a wood insert, “We want to make sure they understand what they’re asking for,” Hammer says. “Wood is a labor of love, and a lot of people don’t want the labor part of it.”

A gas insert is a bigger investment initially, starting at $5,000 installed and going up depending on the model and installation requirements. But they come with a huge convenience factor: a remote with a thermostat built into it. And gas heat is steady, unlike wood, which spikes and drops in temperature depending on how much it’s fed. These factors have made gas inserts, by far, the most popular option, Hammer says.

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Closing it up

Maybe you don’t want the maintenance involved with using a fireplace at all, and you want it closed up to eliminate drafts.

One option is to hire a contractor or mason to brick it up and sheetrock over it. But be aware that covering a fireplace may hurt your resale value. “People regret that when they do it, typically,” Hammer says.

Or you could leave it as a purely visual focal point to the room. Installing a set of custom glass doors (with locks, to keep kids from getting in) and a set of nice aspen logs as a decorative touch runs $2,000–$4,000.

Eldorado Stone, a manufactured stone veneer available in several styles and colors, is a popular material for updating a surround. (Courtesy of Eldorado Stone)
Eldorado Stone, a manufactured stone veneer available in several styles and colors, is a popular material for updating a surround. (Courtesy of Eldorado Stone)

Picking a surround

Over the years, Derek Lober has seen trends come and go when it comes to the type of stone used for fireplace surrounds. Custom Masonry & Stoves in Lake Forest Park was started by Lober’s father in 1962, and he’s been working at the family business since he was a kid.

Chimneys and fireplaces built in Seattle in the 1940s and ’50s often used Wilkeson stone, quarried in Washington. In the ’70s and into the ’80s, people took out the stone and went with brick. In the ’80s and ’90s, marble was the look everyone wanted. 

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And now? The hot material is a manufactured stone veneer, called Eldorado Stone, that’s also used on building exteriors. “That’s kind of been the trend for the past 20 years,” Lober says. “Very, very popular.”

Budget around $2,000 for redoing brickwork around a fireplace. Painting brick is a much cheaper way to update the look, but Lober doesn’t recommend going that route.

“Once you paint facing, that’s it. You can’t take it off. And once you paint, you have to constantly paint it,” he said. “The whole purpose of brick or masonry is you don’t have to paint it. It’s basically no maintenance, which is kind of nice. [Masonry] is something that hasn’t changed much in several thousand years, because it’s tried and tested. The beauty is, once you do it, it can last for a couple generations.”