Firebacks – The Art of Warming
In earlier times, the well-appointed fireplace was never considered complete unless it included a cast iron fireback. Today, the fireback’s usefulness and charm have been rediscovered and they are again at the center of the hearth and home.
A good cast iron fireback can improve the heating efficiency of a fireplace by up to 50%.
Positioned against the back wall of a fireplace, a fireback protects the masonry of the back wall and radiates the heat of the fire forward. Cast iron firebacks, usually about 5/8″ thick, store heat while the fireplace is burning and radiate it back into the room even after the fire goes out.
Stainless steel firebacks typically have a matte finish or a highly polished finish. Stainless steel firebacks with either finish work by reflecting heat into the room. Stainless steel ones do not store as much heat as the cast iron ones.
Black stainless steel firebacks, although made of stainless steel, have a heat-resistant, black powder coat finish. They shield the back wall of the fireplace from about one-third of the heat your fire creates, protecting the masonry from decay. Although some people like the looks of them better than the unpainted stainless steel firebacks, they will reflect less heat.
By sending light and heat from the fire out into the room, a fireback is a noticeable improvement to the hearth.
A cast iron fireback is still the best way to protect a fire box’s back wall from decay. Despite advances in technology, the harsh rays of the fire render even modern refractory material vulnerable to damage and the likelihood of expensive repairs. A fireback will effectively prevent any damage to the back wall.
As a sculptural accent in the natural focal point of a home, a fireback lends visual warmth and interest to a hearth whether it’s alight with a roaring fire or lit by soft candlelight. Even when the fire is not lit, firebacks fill in the “empty black hole.”
Early fireplace firebacks (15th Century) were made in sand forms with decorations like coats of arms, religious themes, mythological subjects, and foods. Joan of Arc’s home in Domremy had one with a cross and fleur de lis pattern.
The mirror-polished stainless steel firebacks are often selected as least as much for their visual properties as for their heating properties.
Increasingly, cast iron firebacks are used on the wall behind a range, or in other decorative ways, in parts of a home other than the fireplace.
While firebacks can simply be leaned against the back wall of your fireplace, their stands serve three purposes:
- They secure the fireback in position. If firebacks are used where there is frequent vibration (such as in homes near railroad tracks, subways or highways) or there is exposure to earthquakes, stands are highly recommended.
- They position the fireback at grate and firewood level instead of at the level of the firebox floor. Thus positioned, more heat is radiated or reflected into the room and more of the fireback is visible.
- They hold the fireback at the best angle for your fireplace. If the back wall of your fireplace angles toward the room, you will definitely want to use stands.
Care and Maintenance
Cast iron fireplace firebacks need little care as long as they are not exposed to moisture. If you ever feel the need to freshen them up, use a black spray paint specifically designed to withstand high temperatures.
The cleaning of a stainless steel fireback is as convenient as it is easy. Simply use a bit of cold ash from the bottom of your fireplace and a paper towel to shine them.