Please don’t let the column title mislead you into relying on Joiner’s Corner for chimney repair advice. A lack of knowledge has rarely deterred me from expressing an opinion. That reminds me of something Mr. Emmett Stephens said during his senior years.
“I’ve reached an age,” he remarked, “where I intend to stop setting a bad example and start giving good advice.” I admire that approach to life but perfecting it may be beyond my grasp. If you follow my lead on chimney repairs, your dreams are liable to go up in smoke.
My recommendation for such a project is to listen to someone who knows what they’re doing, like John David Law of Pinehurst. At 89 years of age, he’s still slinging mud with no plans to stop. Bud Law is the undisputed king of mortar mountain but too humble to boast. He gets that humility from another King he faithfully serves. That’s who he credits for his exceptional health and abundant blessings. I’d trust his advice on life just as much as masonry.
It’s best to seek expert counsel when needed. I can, however, tell you a few things about chimney repairs to avoid. Hopefully I’ve learned from my mistakes, but I’m prone to repetition.
We have been working for a while now on my mother’s childhood home, slowly taking care of overdue maintenance and minor updates. Two double-sided chimneys were sealed years ago when space heaters were added. We recently reopened them to prepare for gas logs.
Opening the fireplaces took more effort than I expected, even though I have a gift for demolition. As a young boy growing up on a family farm, I demolished things that were generally considered indestructible. Nobody knows exactly how the point of an anvil got broken. A flat tire on the John Deere 4020, however, indicated I may have been involved.
Armed with a nail puller, crowbar, and stout hammer, I gradually persuaded the three-quarter inch plywood to turn the chimney facings loose. An ample supply of glue had been used to attach them, in addition to a keg of twenty-penny nails. The glue was so potent I doubt it’s still legal.
After getting the fireplaces open, my initial mistake was to let my hands get ahead of my head. My boss at Bank of Dooly, Luke Couch, told me several decades ago, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Planning made sense for financial matters, but I had no idea it applied to something as simple as chimney repairs.
The first significant error came after I removed loose bricks in the floor of the den fireplace. Beneath them was red sand so fine it could have passed for dust. It looked like a perfect path for termites, an easy route to the buffet at Hole Foods. That’s why I began scooping sand into five-gallon buckets and filling potholes in the yard.
Ten buckets or so later, I realized the sand was deep and wide and extended under the adjoining fireplace that shared the same chimney. Using dirt under a house for filler struck me as a terrible idea, but I’ve since learned it was a common practice in the 1930s. Triple layered brick walls encased the powdery sand and kept it so dry a termite would have perished trying to crawl through. I should have left it alone and sought good advice instead of grabbing a shovel.
Ken, a neighbor who is talented in many areas of construction, helped fill the void I created with cement, then laid black tile on the floor. Afterward, however, I decided to lower and seal the chimneys, a task which had to be done from inside the attic. I padded the new floor tiles with foam and cardboard, hoping that falling bricks and mortar wouldn’t crack them. Most of the bricks, however, I lowered through a hole in the ceiling for Seth and Jane to take outside.
It would have been much easier to have knocked the bricks into the chimney and let them fall harmlessly on a bed of sand. Knocking them toward myself, rather than away, while standing on rafters in a dusty attic was a challenge. Head before hands, I’ve been reminded, is the proper sequence.
We’ll cover some repair details next week. I don’t profess to know much about masonry, but I’ve learned a good deal lately about the importance of having a plan, even when we think we don’t need one. And I’m hoping the point in life Mr. Emmett spoke of is within reach, an age where I’ll stop setting a bad example and start giving good advice.