Last updated on November 30th, 2018
Mind if I pay homage to Count Rumford and the fireplace he designed in the late 18th century?
Count von Rumford (a/k/a Sir Benjamin Thompson — he was knighted by King George III) was a physicist who specialized in the nature of heat. In the late 18th century, he transformed the common, smokey fireplace into a clean-burning, heat-making machine.
Rumford fireplaces were popular in American houses from 1796 until 1850. The Rumford in my dining room (1826) is certainly efficient! In a matter of minutes, and with only 5 pieces of split wood, it produces enough radiant heat to warm the room by 20°F.
Watch the following video to discover the proper way to build a fire in a Rumford, and also to learn about the Count’s other clever inventions:
Thanks for watching!
In the video, I forgot to mention that an iron grate is neither necessary nor desirable in a Rumford fireplace. The fire burns cleaner without a grate.
In the comments field below, let me know if you have a fireplace, and whether or not it actually heats a room. And if you’d like to learn more about Rumford fireplaces — mercifully, they are making a comeback — be sure to check out www.rumford.com.
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Love, hugs, and warm thoughts —
Thanks for posting this. In my previous life as a historian, I wrote a lot about domestic life in Regency England (including Rumford stoves), but have never gotten to hear from someone who actually had one!
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Hi Corrie – Nice to meet you. Lots of Federal era houses in my neighborhood, so lots of Rumford fireplaces. Rumford/Thompson was an interesting character. I wish someone (you, perhaps?) would write his definitive biography!
David A says
Just a clarification please. You mention that a grate is neither needed or desirable in a Rumford fireplace. In the next sentence you say the the fire burns cleaner with a grate. So which preferable, grate or no…or did I miss something?
Love your newsletters and recipes
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Hi David A – Thanks for drawing my attention to that typo. Fixed now to read “fire burns cleaner without a grate.”
Charlotte Rinehart says
What a great video. Not boring whatsoever. I had heard the name of Rumford Fireplaces but really didn’t know how they differed. I will contact http://www.rumford.org (?) and investigate how to change the regular, inefficient fireplace into a Rumford. Hope you are getting ready for the really cold
weather and making sure you have enough well seasoned wood to enjoy your lovely historic home.
Dear Kevin, we do not have a Rumford fireplace in our northern California contemporary, although I notice that whenever my brother visits he builds the fire by stacking the wood in the same vertical manner you do. The fire takes off almost immediately. Will look into converting the fireplace to a Rumford style to generate more heat into the conversation pit and living area where the fireplace is located. Thank you for this very informative video!!!
you always have something interesting your doing or talking about. We have a large wood stove we heat our ” off the grid” remote Maine woods camp with and we start the fire the same way, and it always starts right off with just one match.
All this knowledge would be lost if there were not people like you sharing it.
You are going to be all set, get a good book and you favorate drink and sit a while in your warm and beautiful room
Amy Dolego says
I have 4 fireplaces in my circa 1775 home in CT, 2 of which are original Rumford fireplaces. One is in the kitchen and the other is in the living room, both are extremely efficient. Due to the projection of heat, Rumford fireplaces are having a bit of a renaissance with architects specifying them, but they are pre-built units installed in new homes. They don’t suck all the warm air up the chimney like later designs starting around the 1850’s. But I’m glad I have the real thing. Mine use the same chimney which we had rebuilt 3 years ago by a great mason from Britain.
Wow, that is amazing! What a great video! I grew up in upstate NY, near Ithaca, love the old houses there.
I couldn’t help but see a resemblance between the Count and you Kevin. I think your related! He sounds very fascinating and I intend to learn more about this genius.
Mary W says
So interesting. We used a fireplace in the living room and pot bellied stove in the kitchen for years but once had a tremendous chimney fire from crunched up papers. I was told never to burn news papers in a home fireplace. I think the difference is that you trapped the paper behind the wood and so the papers couldn’t fly up the chimney once they caught fire. Another reason for NEVER using fresh cut wood is it produces tons more carbon from not burning cleanly due to the moisture. Carbon lines the inside of the chimney and easily turns into a burning chimney instead of a burning fire. (Another mistake we made while learning about fireplaces – the hard way.) It’s a wonder we never burned our house down. So enjoyed those cold mornings with a hot cup of coffee and toasty fire – my husband always got up early to get our home warm before the kids got up.
We get a little heat from our fireplace but I guess the rest heats the outside. When we moved here, there was a built in blower to help heat the room but it destroys all the ambiance because it is so noisy so we have never used it. Wonder why they didn’t stick with the Rumford fireplace as it seems so efficient. I guess someone thought this was a “better” idea.
I love reading this post about Rumford fireplaces. When we had our fireplace cleaned as new home owners, we learned ours was one. What a great thing to learn the alternate way to build the fire.
My grandmother had three fireplaces in her home, but none of them were Rumford style. I loved the warmth of them, and the soft firelight glow when we had bedtime stories red to us. When we were little we got a way with being spoilt at Christmas. We got to hang stockings on each mantle until we are about 6. Then we were told that Santa would surely know which one our stocks were hung on and so come down that particular chimney. Love the colour of your marble surround!
Bobbe Nunes says
Great video. Thank you. We had the good fortune to live in New Mexico in an old adobe house . . . the fireplaces were shallow, we were taught to stack the fire material as you describe, and the heat was magnificent and clean burning. Now I can imagine tweaking our New Hampshire fireplaces with all the great information you provided.
Again another most interesting and informative video, Kevin! Stacking the kindling and wood in the fashion you showed is so different than what we’ve always been shown. I’m going to explore the Rumford website to learn about fireplace conversion. Thanks again for your videos.
Joan D says
Interesting and informative. As a remodeling contractor of old houses, MN has mostly late 1800s era Victorian style and early 1900s craftsman style. We often opened walls that had fireplaces walled in, including lovely Rumford style fire boxes and mantles still intact. Why? I can only conject that landlords covered them to keep tenants from using them incorrectly. Saved the landlord insurance premiums by eliminating the fireplace. During the 1980s with a resurgence of interest in old houses, restoring the tenements in old cities allowed these beauties to shine again. Thank you for sharing your old house experiences. Your passion is so evident in your loving restoration.
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Hi Joan D – Kudos to you for restoring some of the beautiful old houses in MN. Always a delight to find a fireplace — with mantel intact — hidden behind a wall!
Julie R says
That was a really informative video finding out about Count von Rumford and also I had never saw fireplace wood stacked upwards. We do have a fireplace, but it is not Rumford style. There is just something about a fire in the fireplace or even a lit candle, that is so relaxing. I can picture sweet Avery curled up napping near by the fireplace = )
Janice in Vermont says
Thanks for a walk down Memory Lane. Eighteen years ago, I moved from my 1826 brick cape with a Rumford fireplace (to an 1856 stone cape, but its fireplace isn’t a Rumford, or even original to the house: cutting edge at that point was wood stoves, and the marks of them are still there on the old floors). I can testify to how warm a Rumford makes a house, in a matter of minutes — even though I didn’t know about your “teepee” method of laying the fire. I did use the crumbled paper as the starter, though. In our small cape, that one fire warmed the whole house, even upstairs. There’s nothing more wonderful in a Vermont winter than a warm room, a good book and a glass of red wine in front of the dancing flames.
Lynne McGee says
18 years ago I built a Rumford Kiva Style fireplace in my Colorado home .It has worked like a charm. However you have given me new information because I have been using a grate and placing the wood horizontally.
Today it will be out with the grate and a new placement of the wood. Thank you Kevin for yet again for some great and helpful information
Diane Garey says
Thanks so much for the information Kevin! We will be adding a fireplace to our Pretty Good Room (not quite a Great Room), and will be researching a Rumford style fireplace! Enjoyed your video, as always!
Chris & Diane
Jane Jefferis says
I have a modern Rumford and love it! The glass door and screen store above the fire box, and slide up and down as needed, so handy!
Sandra L Barton says
Kevin: Hi! We have a Jotul wood stove in our large family room & a Timberline wood stove in our living room. Although the Jotul is a small stove it does an excellent job of warming the family room. When our heater went out a few years ago we used the Timberline & it kept the entire house warm for a week while we waited for a new heater to be installed. However we have air quality issues in our valley so unfortunately we have a lot of yellow and red burn days where we are unable to use either of our wood stoves. Thank you for all the good ideas, recipes & sharing you do on your website! Happy Holidays! (Hugs to Avery) 🙂
About five years ago, my wife and I added a traditional masonry fireplace constructed of split field stone (the outside chimney is constructed of brick) to the cir. 1987 colonial we purchased in the Mohawk Valley.
The house did not originally have a fireplace, but we both grew up in homes which had one. We saved up some money, and I think the total cost to add the fireplace was somewhere around $12,000. We could have used the money to purchase a new car or something, but the vehicle would have depreciated by now whereas the fireplace will add value and be there forever.
We always say that adding the fireplace was the best home improvement we could have ever made. Nothing compares to having a warm, relaxing fire on a cold day. I enjoy monkeying around outside splitting wood as I find it to be relaxing and great exercise, plus it’s an excuse to be outdoors. Splitting and stacking wood can almost be as rewarding as sitting by the fire with a cup of coffee (or a cocktail lol).
We debated having the mason construct a Rumford fireplace as the mason we hired knew how to build them, but we were concerned we might be blasted out of the living room due to the high amount of heat they can put out. In my childhood home, the upstairs would always be freezing at night when we went to bed due to the furnace kicking off when there was a fire. This would not have been much of a concern, though, if we did not have a baby and plans for more children on the way.
I am curious if those who do not use screens ever worry about sparks shooting out from their fireplace? We had the mason install glass doors and mesh screens on ours, partly to block sparks, but also so that the house wouldn’t be frigid when we wake up in the morning due to the fire being out and the flue still being open.
After watching your video, I sort of regret the decision not to add a Rumford, although we are really happy with our fireplace. Our fireplace warms the downstairs up enough to take the edge off of those days during the shoulder seasons when we may have otherwise turned on the gas furnace. Right now, the kids (six and three now) love thinking about Santa Claus parking his sleigh on our roof, coming down the chimney, and putting presents under the Christmas tree.
Our fireplace has truly become the heart of our home.
Cheryl Orluck says
You have changed my life! I am 62 and have been building and over tending fires until you showed me the Rumford way! This way of building a fire is certain! Kevin, thank you so so much! If your ever in Mn come and sit round the fire with me and we can enjoy! Thanks again for changing my life!
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Hi Cheryl – I’m so happy this video-tutorial was helpful to you!