Custom Masonry and Fireplace Design San Diego

Custom Masonry, Chimneys, and Fireplaces
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Diagnosing Your Chimney and Fireplace Problems

 The table below outlines typical chimney and fireplace problems and offers a probable explanation.
Chimney - Fireplace Problem Diagnosis
Your fire never seems to burn properly and the smell of smoke always seems to be present in your room.


A fire that does not burn properly or more or less constantly trickles smoke back into the room is generally the result of inadequate maintenance or a flaw in the design.

If your chimney has been recently swept and you are satisfied that the flue is clear and not obstructed by either deteriorating internal masonry or by soot, then you need to start looking at the design of the fireplace and chimney itself. There may be a flaw in the design.


The fireplace opening and flue size are directly corrolated ,sometimes the opening may be too large for the paticular flue that is present in the chimney,we can reduce the fireplace opening size with the use of a smoke guard ,the gaurds come in various sizes and the use of one of these will often correct the problem.

Other times we need to look to the top of the chimney ,are there lots of trees in the vicinity ? we need to have a distance of minimum ten feet from the termination point of chimney too any obstruction ,as this will also effect how the chimney draws.There should be a spark arrester on top , is it clogged and blocking the smoke exiting ?

The metal handle you see when you look up your chimney is called the damper ,occasionally the blade of the damper will become rusted and will not fully open ,this may restrict the smoke flow causing the smoke to enter the room.

Alot of prople when presented with a smoking chimney will install a gas log set and think they have resolved their problems , in reality you may have actually made things worse!When using wood and the fireplace smokes we can see it and smell it so we wil obviously correct the situation , the exhaust of gas of a log set that is not achieving complete combustion is called carbon monoxide and this we don't have the ability to smell or see ,if the chimney is still allowing the exhaust gas into the room this could become a serious health and safety My recomendation would be to install a carbon monoxide detecter next to the fireplace opening , we place the detecter as close to the ground as possible as carbon monoxide builds from the ground up,in the event the detecter actually goes off ,turn off appliance and evacuate house immediately , try to open as many doors as you go to allow fresh air into the house when alarm finally stops make sure house has been properly ventilated and make sure alarm is reset .change batteries yearly.

With the new modern home being built to different standards than the older home we are finding fireplaces may sometimes upon start up and cooling down may smoke.

This information from the Buckley Rumford Fireplace web site explains some of the problems and the remedies to resolve the problems

Neutral pressure level: The warm air in the house tends to rise and find a way out somewhere high in the house. In other words the whole house acts like a chimney. In most houses there is a neutral pressure level about half way between the ground floor and the roof. Everything above that level is positively pressurized and air will leak out of any open windows or holes, while below the neutral pressure level the house is negatively pressurized and air will leak into the house through any openings. In old leaky houses the negative pressure rarely exceeds about eight Pascals, which is about the difference in pressure in ten feet of altitude - not much. Furnaces and fireplaces usually do all right pulling against a negative pressure of up to eight Pascals.

Modern houses, however, tend to be more tightly built, wrapped, sealed and caulked. They also tend to be full of powerful kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans. So the neutral pressure level may be higher or maybe the whole house is negative and the negative pressure in the lower areas of a new house can sometimes far exceed eight Pascals.

Wind: Wind can cause turbulence at the top of a chimney or blow down the chimney and cause a fireplace to smoke, especially if there are tall roofs or trees nearby. A far more common way the wind can cause a fireplace to smoke is by de pressurizing the side of the house on which the air intake is located. The wind causes the windward side of the house to be pressurized and the leeward side to be depressurized - by as much as 30 Pascals. It tilts the neutral pressure level so that one side of the house can be all positive while the other side all negative. When opening windows and doors to let in air or locating makeup air intakes be aware of this effect of the wind and make sure air is actually coming in the supposed intake.

Makeup air: For a fireplace to draw well, especially as the fire dies down and little heat is being produced to overcome negative pressure, you may have to let in some makeup air near the fireplace or somewhere low in the house. The six square inch combustion air kits designed to be built into the firebox are not big enough. And they can lead to other problems like creosote or ash smells and enough turbulence to cause the fireplace to smoke. See "Combustion Air". If you have one of these make-up air systems ducted into the firebox, close it. Better to open a window or add makeup air to a cold air return in the heating system or install an air-to-air heat exchanger in the mechanical, utility or laundry room. How much air does it need? See "Calculations and assumptions behind exterior air requirements for fireplaces" below. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Energy concerns: Many people object to opening a window or punching a hole in their house to let in cold air, especially if they have just spent a lot of time and money to see that their home is tight, well insulated and energy efficient. We recommend balance and control of the ventilation system - not necessarily increasing the amount of ventilation. Some houses are full of fans competing with each other to blow bad air out of the house with no provision for make-up fresh air to come in. Make-up air has to come in. It will come in through leaks or backwards through the kitchen and bath vents or down the chimney. Sometimes it's a good thing the fireplace smokes because when the real problem is discovered we find out the furnace and hot water heater vents aren't drawing and are spilling carbon monoxide into the house. A home with a balanced ventilation system with approximately neutral indoor air pressure is safer, more comfortable, and more efficient.

Testing with smoke: The engineering can be complicated but it's easy to see if you have the indoor pressure under control. Use a smoke pencil or some incense or a candle, and hold it up in the throat of the fireplace to see if the smoke goes up the chimney. If it does, great - no problem. But if the smoke blows down and out into the room, indicating there is a down draft in the chimney, that means the room is too negatively pressurized and the easiest way for makeup air to replace the air being lost up high somewhere in the house is down the chimney.

Note: Once in a while we have discovered a very tight house that doesn't leak in or out so there is no down draft in the chimney, but when a fire is burning the fireplace creates the negative pressure that won't allow it to draw properly. In such a case (when no down draft is observed without a fire burning) first open a window or door and build a fire in the fireplace. Then slowly close the door or window and go through all the pressure sleuthing smoke tests.

Find a way to neutralize the down draft. Open a window or door low in the house. Turn off a fan or the furnace. Close the skylight or upstairs window. Do these things one at a time and give the air enough time (a couple of minutes) to turn around and reverse itself. See what it takes to control the pressure so that there is no down draft in the chimney even before you light a fire in the fireplace. The specific things you try depend on your house but always think of reducing the air escaping high in the house and increasing the air coming into the house on the lower floors. The cold air return in the room with the fireplace may need balancing, it may make a difference which window you open or close, especially in a breeze. But you want to let more air in low in the house so when you open a window, check with the smoke pencil to see if air is actually flowing into the house.

Once you've closed off as many leaks as you can high in the house and found out where and how much makeup air you have to let in low in the house, then you can think of a permanent solution like makeup air into the cold air return or an air-to-air heat exchanger that might be more comfortable and more efficient than opening a window. You may have tried some of these solutions already, but if there is still a down draft, as shown with the smoke pencil test, or you need to keep a window open for the fireplace to draw properly, then you need more air.

Calculations and assumptions behind exterior air requirements for fireplaces:

The 1979 ASHRAE Handbook reports on empirical studies which show that modern masonry fireplaces require a minimum average face velocity or 0.2 feet/second in order to exhaust all the products of combustion.

According to this calculation, a fireplace with an opening of 6 square feet would need a minimum of only 72 cfm so in our code proposal we exempted fireplaces smaller than 6 square feet in opening area from any exterior make-up air requirement.

This same fireplace, with a 12"x12" flue at one cfm per square inch of cross-sectional flue area would, from TABLE 2116.12b in the IRC, require 91 cfm. A four foot wide fireplace with a 16"x20" flue would require a minimum of 214 cfm makeup air.

While these fireplaces might actually require more air with a brisk fire, the greatest potential for spillage is when the fire is dying down and the draft and required makeup air volumes are reduced, so we think sizing the minimum makeup air requirement to the flue size (one cfm per square inch of flue area) and based on the ASHRAE formula is about right and easy to regulate without having to go beyond the IRC code.

Pressure Controlled Make-up Air Systems up to 1000 CFM

Rumford Technical Discussion
Buckley Rumford Fireplaces
Copyright 1996 - 2006 Jim Buckley
All rights reserved.

Chimney - Fireplace Problem
When you clean out the grate you find debris with the ash.


This could be lumps of mortar, pieces of brick red clay flue lining or stone.

Debris coming down the chimney indicates a decay in the structure which may or may not be dangerous. It is normally associated with old age. and the chimney probably would not have a spark arrester


The problem of the brick and mortar falling is generally the result of an unlined chimney structure ,This is a serious problem and the chimney should not be used until you have a professional inspect the chimney ,the older chimneys generally never had a flue lining and were plastered by hand with mortar .over the years rain and wind as well as the acids in the creosote have eroded the plaster away leaving exposed holes between the brick joints ,if there were any kind of chimney fire the wooden frame of the house is located directly behind the brick and has the possability to ignite very quiclkly .The the wood is very old and dry and can prylosis over the years which means its ignition flash point could be as low as one hundred and forty degrees, if we find peices of the red flue tile in the firebox this is also very dangerous as it shows the lining is no longer intact ,homeowners can often have a chimney fire without even realising that they had one and often after a fire there are some serious problems created which make the chimney unsafe too use , one of the consistent problems is that the flues will crack , even if it only shows is a hairline crack it is a potential fire and safety hazard, in the event of a fire these cracks can expand quite significantly causing significant problems.

The Solutions:

With an unlined system we can remove the old firebox and replaster the smoke chamber , we drop a liner down the chimney and seal it at the bottom ,we would then build a new concrete crown to stop the elements reentering the chimney and causing more damage ,place a spark arrester on top of flue and a top mounted damper to enable the chimney to be closed when not in operation.We would then rebuild the firebox.

This will make the chimney safe to burn a fire.

Another problem with the older chimney may be that it is designed without steel. Steel is integral in the construction of modern chimneys for the earthquake protection factor.the older chimney cannot be retrofitted to accomodate steel as it must start in the foundation and be intergrated in side the entire vertical structure.So while the relining system mentioned above is perfect for rehabing an older fireplace to use safely again to burn fires it does not conform to modern standards and adds no structural strength.

If the chimney had flues that are cracked we generally have to take the chimney down to the point where the last flue is cracked , replace the damaged flues and rebuild the chimney.

Chimney - Fireplace Problem
There is a damp discoloration above your fireplace and/or near the sides of your fireplace.


This is called "damp" from rain and condensation and may be caused by:

Weathered Masonry: Rain will penetrate open textured masonry, faulty flaunchings, and cappings. It will run down inside the chimney to a ledge (or other obstruction) where it will cause a damp patch.

Faulty flashings: If the flashings protecting the outside of the chimney are faulty, water will get in and may produce damp patches on the walls and ceilings. These are normally seen to be worse after heavy rainfall.

Un-vented flues: Most masonry is porous and un-vented flues will trap moisture, which may then appear on the chimneybreast as damp.


Following a complete inspection of your chimney and fireplace we can determine the cause or source of water damage and make recommendations for repair. Repairs may be minor or major depending on the extent of water damage that has occcured.

Did you know that water which is absorbed into the bricks and mortar, causes deterioration that damages and weakens your chimney. Over years, if this kind of deterioration continues, it can eventually lead to partial or complete chimney collapse damaging your roof. This is a dangerous situation to both property and people alike. This can be an expensive major repair including rebuilding the entire chimney.

However, most of the time, we frequently see that the reason for the water damage is often a relatively minor repair to the chimney crown and cap beginning at the top of the chimney.

CHIMNEY CROWN REPAIR: The chimney crown is a sloped structure, usually made of mortar, that protects your chimney by diverting rain water away from chimney bricks. If the chimney crown has deteriorated this could allow water to leak into your chimney and into your home. Repair is just a matter of removing damaged mortar and rebuilding the crown with new mortar, assuring the proper slope and thickness for maximum protection.
CHIMNEY CAP REPLACEMENT: A chimney cap helps to prevent rain water from entering the inside of your chimney. Newer chimney caps with flashing are multi-functional and do a great job in preventing water from entering your chimney and fireplace, come with spark arresters, and deter animals and debris.

BRICK REPAIR, TUCKPOINTING, WEATHERPROOFING:Again, depending on the inspection we can advise you if more repair is necessary especially if we find damaged mortar and bricks. This will need to be repaired and/or replaced. Long-lasting waterproofing can then be applied over the chimney top to assure years of protection.

FLASHING REPAIR:Flashing is the weatherproofing shielding put around your chimney on the roof to deflect water away from the seams. Over time flashing may deteriorate allowing water to penetrate into your home between your chimney and a wall appearing as a "damp" or "water-stained" discoloration near your fireplace. Sometimes it may appear intermitantly like after a strong rainfall. Persistant discoloration is more serious, indicating immediate diagnosis and repair to prevent mold growth in the wall and more damage to chimney masonry.

In a properly designed and well functioning chimney and fireplace it is important that the chimney flue is well ventilated, meaning that warm air constantly rises in the flue drying out the chimney avoiding water condensation.

Water condensation can combine with "creosote", a by-product of the burning process, and form weak acids. These acids can actually cause major deterioration ("sulphate attack") of the flue itself, motor joints, and brick. Sometimes the condensation will even penetrate the brick appearing as a tary or efflurescent stain.

Remedies begin by diagnosing design errors in the original construction. Repair may include a new flue liner all the way to reconstruction of a new fireplace and chimney, depending on the damage.

Chimney - Fireplace Problem
Your chimney is leaning. Bricks are damaged or missing. Smoke appears to be comming out of the sides of the chimney.


WARNING: Your chimney may be unsafe.

Your chimney may have sustained external and internal damage. External damage occurs from water and wind. Internal damage occurs from acid deposits which can corrode the brick on the inside of your chimney and therefore weaken the structure.

In San Diego the first thing to do after an earthquake or "seismic event" is to see if the chimney has been damaged. A damaged chimney could fail to exhaust the gasses or protect the house from fire. > more info


-A CHIMNEY THAT IS LEANING ABOVE THE ROOF LINE- A chimney that extends way above the roof line and is leaning is a potential safety hazard. The leaning is usually caused because the mortar on one side has deteriorated more than the other and is probably an older style chimney not reinforced with steel rebar. A chimney that has a severe lean, most times needs to be completely rebuilt at the leaning top section.

This indicates that the foundation or cement footing that the fireplace sits on is settling away from the house and taking the fireplace and chimney with it. The foundation needs to be inspected for deterioration, cracking, and water damage.

NOTE: Many people ask us about a quick fix for this situation. Can you pull the chimney back to the house and strap/bolt it to the house? NO!
This is not a proper repair, for two reasons:
(1) If it is a very large chimney, as the foundation keeps settling away from the house, it may start to pull the house out of square. (2) With a small or medium size chimney, as the chimney foundation keeps settling away from the house, and with the chimney braced to the house, the chimney could be severely cracked at the base.

Bottom line.........a leaning chimney is dangerous and requires immediate attention! In most cases it is necessary to rebuild the entire chimney beginning with a new footing, checking for proper water drainage near the footing, and reinforcing the entire structure with steel rebar.
Suggested Reading: The Homeowners Guide to Chimneys, Fireplaces, and Woodstoves by By JIM BREWER & ASHLEY ELDRIDGE

Rampart General Fireplaces
Chimney Replacement Service


WARNING: Rampart General Fireplaces

Thousands of Pre-cast concrete fireplaces built by Rampart General are unsafe. They are all condemned and need to be torn down and rebuilt as the only solution to repair them.

Rampart General was a system of concrete factory-built fireplaces produced in Santa Ana and installed throughout southern California. The company has long since gone bankrupt.

Rampart General pre-cast fireplaces are unsafe because of cracks that developed while in transit and these cracks can pose a severe fire danger.
Repair is not allowed, and the entire fireplace must be replaced.
For more detailed information on Rampart General Fireplaces, download Dale W. Feb's informative article (.pdf) or, visit his web site at

Rampart on-site inspection fee $350.00 
This will give you a written report .Sent via email .With the results of the report and the cost of repairs
Why is my fee this price?
Rampart inspections are very unproductive from a time perspective for my company.
They typically involve a fairly long drive for me and almost no job return.
I stay involved with them from a professional perspective , as there are few solutions in the market for the public concerning these types of systems.
I would generally prefer not to be involved with inspecting Ramparts and precast chimneys , as the repairs are expensive and do not lead to actual jobs for me .

Internet report and cost of replacement fee $175.00
If the chimney has already been inspected and the chimney has been condemned I can do a report over the internet.

1. Please send photos from the inspector directly ,via email only.Plus the inspection report.
2. Please add the property well as your name ,present address and best contact number .
Send to

What people are saying!

From Todd Faust: 03/02/2011

"Thanks Paul, you went above and beyond by taking the time talk with me about my Craftsman fireplace and the steps I need to take to ensure its safety....all the while knowing that I live outside his service area and the conversation would most likely not result in a sale.
I am a real estate broker and property manager who deals daily with contractors and can tell immediately from our quick phone exchange that you run a first class operation!"

Thanks again......... Todd Foust

FOUST Real Estate Sales & Century 21 Discovery Regards, Todd Foust (DRE lic # 01488032) FOUST Real Estate Team & C21 Discovery (714) 686-6946 FOUST Real Estate Website


San Diego Masonry Contractor: Paul Walker
Trained in England, he has 24 years of experience in masonry construction. The first five years were in and around London, where he served working with tradesmen who passed down their skills and knowledge acquired from previous generations.

Paul has been building fireplaces in San Diego since 1992 and is a recognized expert in fireplace refacing, fireplace repair, and relining chimneys to prevent fire hazards.  

He is trained in all areas of masonry construction focusing mainly on the comprehensive aspects of  fireplace and chimney construction, including outdoor cooking ovens and barbeques using real stone stonework, True stone, Rox Pro rock, Eldorado and Cultured stone.

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"We take pride in our work and guarantee quality craftsmanship."

- Paul Walker

  • New construction masonry fireplaces
  • Chimney inspections
  • Acquire permits from city
  • Reline existing chimneys
  • Reface with brick, tile, veneer stone, precast mantles
  • Repair existing chimneys, crowns
  • New dampers, Spark arresters, Heat shields
  • Custom Masonry Barbeques
  • Expert Masonry brickwork, wainscots, piers
  • Eldorado and cultured stone specialist Truestone,Rox Pro rock
  • >Masonry cooking ovens
    (Pizza Ovens)

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licensed C29 masonry contractor # 851233
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