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Ask the Builder: Troubleshooting a masonry fireplace

Tim Carter, Tribune Content Agency on

Every winter, I get quite a few emails from readers who suffer from smoky fireplaces.

Just a month ago, one of my amateur radio friends reached out to me with the same problem. After asking him some questions and looking at photos he provided, I was able to solve his primary problems. I saw reasons why he was plagued with smoke in his home, and you might be in the same boat.

The two main causes of smoke in his home were the lack of a combustion air intake and his chimney was not the correct height. A few of his photos also showed a very dangerous situation in which his flue liners were not surrounded by solid masonry, rubble, and mortar. A hot ember could make contact with wood framing with little difficulty.

Over the years, I’ve visited homes that have fireplaces built by amateurs or paid masons that have no clue how to build them. You may not think it’s that hard to build a fireplace, but it’s actually very technical. The width of the fireplace opening controls all the other dimensions.

The Brick Industry Association (BIA) should be your go-to source for all the information you need if a traditional masonry fireplace is in your future. I’ve used the association's specifications for more than 40 years to build smoke-free fireplaces in all of the homes I’ve ever built.

I urge you to go to their website and download the free technical notes publications about masonry fireplaces. They are:


#19 Residential Fireplace Design

#19A Residential Fireplaces, Details and Construction

#19B Residential Chimneys — Design and Construction

These publications are written so a lay person can understand them with ease. The illustrations and tables allow you to easily visualize exactly how a masonry fireplace should be constructed. If you have a smoking fireplace, you’ll no doubt discover the cause of why you’re coughing by using the three publications. I guarantee they’ll help you do an autopsy on your fireplace.


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