Firebacks - What are they?

William Kibbel III, The Home Inspector

Dear Home Inspector: I've come across a cast iron plate in the backof a fireplace. It is free standing and behind the logs. I assume it is used tohelp protect the firebrick and also to absorb radiant heat? It has a stampeddesign. Any information as to what it is called and the history would beappreciated. Thank you!

Pennsylvania Firebacks
A Victorian style fireback from Pennsylvania Firebacks. (See the Old House Web Guide to Suppliers/Fireplaces)


You have what is called a fireback. The primary function is to protect themasonry material inside the fireplace from the damaging effects of the constantheating and cooling of the hearth fires. The secondary benefit was the reflectedheat into the room.

These firebacks were cast from iron. A design, usually carved in wood, waspressed into a form containing compacted moist sand. A negative image was thencreated and molten iron was poured into the mold. Floral motifs, coats-of-arms,historical and allegorical scenes were common designs. Some are embossed withthe date or the iron furnace/foundry name.

Most of the decorated firebacks had an arch or other ornamentation to theirtops. Firebacks that are square or rectangular, without any projection on top,are likely to be salvaged stove plates. Many of these are from five-platestoves, common in colonial Pennsylvania-German homes. These stove plates oftenportray a biblical scene and verses of Psalms.

Both functional and decorative, cast iron firebacks are still popular todayin traditional as well as modern hearths.

About the Author
William Kibbel III is a home inspector and restoration consultant specializing in historic residential and commercial buildings. He is vice president of Tri-County Inspection Company, serving Southeastern Pennsylvania and Central New Jersey.


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