Fireplace Alcove Facelift

All summer our wood stove, and the ramshackle alcove in which it resides, goes unnoticed and unattended.  Unfortunately, as soon as the wetter weather of October and November rolls around we realize we have a muddy, overrun mess on our hands.  Soggy boots dripping into the walkway; newspaper and kindling precariously stacked against the wall; and wadded, wet socks or gloves dotting it all like some sad, dirty garnish.

Besides the obvious visual grossness, we had operational issues to address. The wood stove put out too much heat on the main floor and bedrooms above, but the split-level adjoining daylight basement was bitterly cold without additional (costly) heating.

empty alcove before construction and paint

The punch list for a ‘new-and-improved’ fireside alcove included:

  • Remove & cap existing baseboard heater unit
  • Add through-wall fan to help heat basement
  • Add area to hang hats, wet clothes, and gloves
  • Add area to dry wet shoes and boots (all sizes)
  • Organize fire-starting kindling materials
  • Keep area for dog bed
  • Keep ash bucket and fireplace tools out of the way
  • Update paint and fix hole in drywall

I have meant to tackle the project of updating and organizing this mess for three winters … now that it’s done, I can’t believe we waited so long!  The project took approximately 10 hours to complete, spread over two days (to allow for drywall compound drying time) and was fairly simple.  Totally worth it!

First, (because neither Jeremiah nor I enjoy electrocution … and we couldn’t determine the exact electrical circuit to isolate) we turned the house’s electrical main ‘off’.  We then removed the baseboard heater unit that had been installed years earlier behind the wood stove.  Don’t ask me why a heater was installed behind a wood stove … I would probably have to blame the 1970’s.

I installed and mounted a plastic electrical box at the base of the wall, routed the electrical wire from the removed heater into the box, capped the electrical wires (adding electrical tape for good measure), and repaired the drywall surrounding the new electrical box with mesh tape and low-dust drywall compound.  It is NEVER a good idea to just bury capped live wires in the wall.  A dedicated electrical box and blank faceplate remind you that those wires exist and keeps the electrical current safely housed until it is needed again.

Meanwhile,  Jeremiah kept busy cutting holes in the wall behind the wood stove for the through-wall vent fan.  We knew we would be challenged in this project because of varied wall thickness in this part of the house. (Remember, it’s split-level to the basement.)  We cut the wall on the basement side first to ensure the finished face-plate position did not interfere with another heater vent close-by.  After fighting with some unruly surprise plywood while we made our way through the wall, we used the outside edge of a level to aid us in marking the outline of our cut hole on the backside (inside the wall) of the fireplace alcove wall.

We located the center point of the proposed second hole and drilled a pilot hole through to the main floor.  We returned upstairs, centered the connecting vent pipe over our pilot hole, and traced its outline.  Jeremiah used the pilot hole to easily start cutting the drywall away, revealing a beautiful straight shot through both levels of the wall … success!  By far, the most complicated part of the project.

The through-wall fan installed quickly.  We ran the electrical cord through our cut holes first, then slid the opposing ends of the vent ducting together easily.  We sealed the connection point of the two sides with metal tape (available at most hardware stores) to ensure minimal lost air and mounted the fan covers to the walls, securing the fan’s placement.  For aesthetics, I used cable staples to tack the power cord along the baseboard as it travels to its power source under the new bench.

alcove wall gets drywall repair, texture, and base faux finish

Where the baseboard heater was removed, and other areas significantly patched in the repair of the drywall, we needed to recreate and blend the wall’s texture. Don’t try to skip over the re-texturing step if you want your finished paint job to be of any quality!  I used fans to speed drying time of the drywall compound after repairs because I am woefully impatient.  I sanded the repaired areas smooth and reapplied a spotty (and slightly thinned down) coat of compound using a 2″ paint brush.  When the compound was barely dry to the touch I used a putty knife to ‘knock down’ the peaks, effectively flattening the texture to match the existing wall.

Here we arrive at my favorite part of any project … painting!

metallic glazes and acrylic house paints applied in layers to form faux finish

I love to challenge the color palate in our home to be complimentary yet non-traditional.  I maintain cohesion between rooms (which makes my senses happy) by sticking to the use of one off-white tone, throughout, as a base for all other color combinations.  This color theory was important to follow since I was working in the center of our main living/dining area … the very ‘heart’ of our home.

six colors applied in layers using splatter, brush, rag, and sponge techniques

The fireplace alcove is in the center of our dining room.  At one end, the dining room opens to a tranquil peacock blue library and on the other end, a gothic maroon kitchen.  I wanted to have hints of both colors in the dining room without weighing the room down in color … or causing vertigo.  A faux-finish was a just the ticket!  I layered four paint colors (a camel brown, deep jewel blue, burnt sienna red, and wet slate grey) between silver and copper metallic glazes … applied with dry-brush, splatter, sponge, and ragging techniques as needed to create the end effect.  The metallic glazes brought out a milky, iridescent shimmer in the paints that I hadn’t expected, but really enjoy.

scrap garden wood and repurposed cabinet doors create quirky yet functional storage

While the paint was drying I rummaged through my scrap wood pile to make the shelf and boot hanger come to life.  I was able to repurpose some lumber from a disassembled garden enclosure for the legs and shelf frame.  I love the look of the naturally aged wood.  The shelf top was serendipity’s gift of two perfectly sized cabinet doors from the old kitchen (hinges and all).  The quirky, lift-top action on such a low shelf makes the storage underneath much more accessible. I mounted the shelf to the wall with drywall anchors and L-brackets for added support.

wooden dowels and scrap trim make handy boot and glove drying area

A solid piece of discarded trim, a few well-placed holes and enough 6″ dowels to hold 10 pair of boots upside down was all this boot hanger required.  I feel it fair to mention that I glued the dowels in place once I liked the design (1″x3″x34″ lumber as back; 11 holes for pegs are spaced 3.25″ apart on the back; approx. 5″ of dowel is exposed for each of the pegs after dowels are tapped into back until flush).  I also used drywall anchors to secure the boot hanger to the wall.  I didn’t want any near-term drywall repairs in here!  I hung three hat and jacket hangers close to the top of the alcove (not shown in images) to dry those items without crowding.

organized and fresh … repurposed materials give new life to this fireplace alcove

It was no problem to neatly replace all of the original items without even the slightest hint of a mess.  The dogs are super excited they can snuggle up close to the fire too.  Now, winter jackets and wet accessories won’t be a bothersome eye-sore, and we have added heat in the basement.  Bring on the slush and snow!

What a great ‘before’ and ‘after’, right?!

I hope you like the images and process I have shown here.  Please share this article and check out other topics on the blog … I love feedback and shared experiences as well.

Thanks and happy tinkering!

Shaunna and Jeremiah


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