Playing With Fire

Tips and tricks to update your existing fireplace or add a new indoor fire feature to warm up your winter.


Photo courtesy of Bartelt. The Remodeling Resource

For many Wisconsin homeowners, an indoor fireplace is a must-have, conjuring thoughts of cozy winter evenings spent reading books, playing board games or just relaxing with family and friends in the glow of the flames.

John Dunlevy, owner of American Heritage Fireplace, a company with locations in Milwaukee and Chicago, said many Midwestern homeowners demand this enduring  — and, given the region’s long and frigid winters, highly practical — feature. “There’s always been a pretty solid demand,” he says. Dunlevy adds that “see through” fireplaces, which can be enjoyed from both indoor and outdoor living spaces, are gaining popularity too, as hearty Wisconsinites look to extend their patio or deck time as far into fall as possible.

Dunlevy and other experts say that upgrading an existing fireplace can also be a straightforward project that doesn’t break the bank — and transforms a home as well. “Fireplaces are typically the focal point of the room. You change the look of the fireplace, you change the look of the whole room,” Dunlevy notes. 

Simply Stylish

According to Dunlevy, an impressive renovation can be “as simple as putting new tile or stone around the fireplace.” For quick and relatively inexpensive upgrades, he recommends painting a firebox black and replacing a wooden mantel with marble. 

Matthew Retzak, project designer for Bartelt. The Remodeling Resource in Delafield, recommends color-coordinating mantels with cabinets and hanging artwork on the wall behind the mantel to give a room a stylish, contemporary look. “A mantel project is very simple, even if it’s in an older home,” he explains.

In keeping with the modern farmhouse megatrend, shiplap — a classic technique in which 1” x 8” plywood boards are stacked on top of each other — is an increasingly popular fireplace style, according to Nancy Lehman, who owns Bella Tile & Stone in Delafield with Bridget Lutz. “Instead of a super-formal, dressy mantel, people are going towards rustic and simple,” says Lehman.

“Replacing a wooden mantel with a metallic-look porcelain slab or a natural stone mantel with a matching mirror is a great way to modernize an old-fashioned fireplace,” Lutz adds. “It really is about keeping it very streamlined.” 

For an additional low-cost upgrade that can give an existing fireplace a freshened-up look, Lehman and Lutz recommend painting wood surrounding the fireplace a crisp white. “Another more affordable option is [adding]
8” x 8” cement tiles that are colorful,” says Lutz.


Photo courtesy of Bella Stone and Tile

Go For Gas
Dunlevy notes that, while the distinctive crackle of wood-burning fireplaces is homey and nostalgic, they can be labor-intensive, from chopping or sourcing the wood to cleaning up the resulting ashes and maintaining the chimney and flue. A gas fireplace is simply ignited by a wall switch or remote control, and with a standard masonry fireplace, it’s fairly straightforward to switch a wood-burning fireplace to gas. Either direct vent gas inserts, or vented or unvented gas logs can be installed in the fireplace, many of which come with log lighters. 

Many wood burning fireplaces already come equipped with gas log lighters. Connected to a gas line, a valve is opened with the turn of a key, and logs are lit with a fireplace lighter. The fire is easily extinguished by turning the valve to the “off” position with a key. “You don’t have to spend an hour turning the fire on and off,” Dunlevy says. Gas log lighter kits, which can only be used in wood burning fireplaces, range from around $100 to $200.

Insert Efficiency
Dunlevy believes that an insert, or “a fireplace within a fireplace,” is a great way to help increase fireplace efficiency, as heat output can be easily controlled. For example, placing a wood-burning insert inside a natural fireplace can heat up a room more quickly. “A lot of people are going with inserts,” he says, adding that quality inserts typically start at $2,000.

Dunlevy also notes that standards for fireplace inserts are changing, with companies no longer able to sell wood-burning fireplace inserts beginning in 2020 — meaning that these items will likely be available at a discounted price. For safety reasons, a wood-burning insert should never be installed in an electric fireplace.

Feel Free
Conjuring memories of days gone by, freestanding fireplace stoves, both electric and wood burning, are now available in a
variety of styles, sizes and prices, ranging from around $200 to upwards of $3,000. 

Unlike traditional fireplaces, these stoves can be installed in any room in your home. From classic black to subtle creamy designs, freestanding fireplaces add an eye-pleasing design element to a space while keeping it nice and toasty too. Some electric stoves even come with remote controls. 

Freestanding stoves are “a great way to extend a three-season room,” says Retzak, explaining that all freestanding stoves and fireplace inserts should be installed by a professional chimney sweep or hearth installer in order for homeowners to avoid fire hazards and comply with local building codes. MKE