Designing Our Blackened-Steel Fireplace 🔥

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


About a year ago, I wrote “Trees, Wood, and Fire” and mentioned how our perspective on the fireplace had changed after living on Orcas for a while:

We had a natural gas fireplace in the city which ignited with the push of a button, and planned to have a similar model in the new house. It was so clean and easy.

Having burned wood for the winter on Orcas, gas just didn’t seem right. I started to feel the new house needed a wood burning fireplace instead. Sure, it would be more maintenance and take time to manage, but that was part of the experience.

This decision turned out to be the first of a hundred decisions about the fireplace “unit” for the house. The story of getting it right provides a real-world look at home design and what it takes to create a one-of-a-kind feature.

The Big Idea

Early in the design process, we saw an opportunity to have a two-sided wall (interior and exterior) that serves as a home for cooking, heating, and entertainment. Inside, we would have a fireplace and TV. The outside would have a second fireplace and grill.

The Big Idea

Here’s how it was framed:

Below is one of my first 3d models of the unit from July of 2019.

my first 3d models

It’s a relatively simple idea that is also an important one. The fireplace unit will be a central part of the house and the heart of our activity. Getting it right was more of a challenge than I would have imagined.

At the beginning, we had to think about the big questions like how it looks, what it’s made of, and how we plan to use it.

grill and two fireplaces

Initially, we focused on the interior unit, with fireplace, TV and storage. It would be the most visible element of the house and set the tone for everything else.

I looked forward to the design process and, as usual, assumed it would go quickly and easily. What happened in reality was a long process of iteration; one design after the other. Between us and John, there was always a new idea.

The Evolution

Let’s look at a few versions of the interior and how they evolved. As you’ll see, it’s mostly a process of subtraction, which I think is a good sign.

The first concept was a unit that was placed in front of the wall, protruding into the room. It was mostly covered in steel, with a recessed section for the the TV, etc.

protruding into the room

It seemed like a good idea. The TV would be beside the fireplace and not above it. But, it was boring and we saw opportunities to to add a bit of style.

Then we had a revelation. What if the unit wasn’t a big wall of steel with recessed shelves? What if, instead, the drywall behind the unit was more visible and the elements were simply placed in front of the wall? This seemed like we were on the right track, as it made the space feel more open.

We tried a number of different configurations with shelves and cabinets. The one below was one of my worst attempts, but it got us further down the road.

shelves and cabinets

We soon realized that we needed to get specific about what components would live in the unit. This way, we could use start designing with the right dimensions. I sent this to John:

designing with the right dimensions

For the first time, we felt that we were on the right track. Instead of a big monolithic piece of steel, it was becoming a more open and purpose built unit.

This model became our more stable version and one that hasn’t changed significantly:

big monolithic piece

The same is true for the exterior. After a few tweaks, it was stable and we were feeling good.

true for the exterior

The Pressure Is On

We told Drew that the design was close to final and that we were ready to get the work started. He called a friend from out of town who planned to come do the metal work. This meant that we had to have everything buttoned-up so we didn’t waste this person’s time.

The day before the metal worker arrived, we had a call from John, who was having second thoughts about the steel. Before pulling the trigger he and I agreed to at least entertain the thought of using brick as the main surface of the unit. Initially, Sachi was happy to consider the options and I created a model as a test:

metal worker

That evening, Sachi and I had a design discussion. She was not fully invested in the brick and wanted to stick to the steel surface. I could see her point. Within a few hours, the brick discussion had ended and the arrival of the metal worker was imminent.

We told Drew that we would have final designs ready on Friday morning, less than 48 hours away. Our goal was to meet on site and work through the entire design.

John took on the challenge and, over Wednesday night, designed what became our final specification. We reviewed it, made a few tweaks on Thursday and spent Friday going over the details with the crew on-site. Things looked to be buttoned up and we left feeling good.

Of course, we were not done.  

The following Monday (yesterday) ended up being full of more questions about the unit. The vision was clear and agreed upon, but some details needed attention before work could begin.

At the last minute, we ended up adding an access door under the grill and using stainless steel on the front of the grill cabinet.

Right now, we’re feeling relieved and above all, confident that we ended up with a design that we love. Decisions on details will keep coming for a while, and that’s all part of the process of getting it right. We iterate our way to what we want.

the grill cabinet

I’m excited for the day, probably in just a few weeks, that I can show you the final product.

I Can Recommend…

Show: We’ve been binging Ratched on Netflix. It’s loosely adapted from the Nurse Ratched character in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Dark, stylish, and full of monstrous characters, it’s a recent favorite.

Movie: I first learned about the Safdie brothers from their direction of the movie Uncut Gems (which I recommend). Their specialty is gritty, pressure-cooker dramas that keep your attention. The strangely named Good Time is another Safdie Brothers film that is a wild trip, full of action.

Podcast: The Broken Record Podcast is a deep-dive into the work of musicians, in a similar vein to the awesome Song Exploder podcast. Some episodes are hosted by Rick Rubin.

I loved this episode with the Mike D and Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys along with Spike Jonze. Rick Rubin hosts and the episode and it goes much deeper than their recent stage show. I particularly love the stories from before their fame when they would visit Rick at his dorm at NYU.

Photo:We had a strange mix of fog and smoke that made for interesting scenes on the water.

mix of fog and smoke

That’s what I have for now. Cheers!

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