Saturday, April 19, 2008


Spring may not seem to be the most obvious time to talk about fireplaces, but here in the Catskills the nights are still cool. In the depths of winter, a roaring fire feels like a necessity of life. On a really cool spring night, it's more of a real luxury. Daylight stretches into later hours, and a glowing fire is just the thing to take the chill off the house.

When I was first working on the plans for my house, I thought I wanted a modern wood-burning stove. I was avoiding a full blown traditional fireplace for budgetary reasons, and I had seen some really good looking wood-burning stoves. I had visited Mountain Flame in Arkville, New York, to look at the Rais stoves but ended up being sold on a soapstone Tulikivi.

All of this was about the time that I was having panic attacks over the reality of what it costs to build a new house, but Marcia Olenych, who owns Mountain Flame with her husband Brian, is a wise, soft-spoken saleswoman. After a couple of conversations, she knew what I wanted (and needed) better than I did. Before I knew it, though, I was committing to a soapstone fireplace that was about 3-4 times more expensive than what I thought I was going to spend on a fireplace...or stove.

A few nights later, I woke up around 3am in a panic that I was spending so much more than I had originally planned. But, when I stopped by the showroom on my way upstate the next weekend, my anxiety had diminished and Marcia's calm demeanor convinced me to relax and find a way to pay for the Tulikivi. It's what I needed.

Manufactured in Finland, these fireplaces operate with the precision of a machine and all the wonderful heat and beauty of an open hearth, maybe even more so. My order was placed in early July, and the "firebox" was here and installed by November.

Marcia had helped me select a simple bow-fronted design that Brian customized with a side bench, which wraps around a projecting corner of the living room. The Tulikivi anchors the room and the soapstone surround gives the house a wonderful sense of permanence and weight.

Back in the winter, 3-4 "burnings" would heat up the stone, and the fireplace would radiate a soft warmth for hours. I eventually learned to close the damper after the last wood had burned to coals, and I'd often find the fireplace still warm the next morning. These fireplaces are really efficient. Last summer during a visit to Mountain Flame, I noticed that the Tulikivis in the showroom actually helped cool the space. Protected from the sun, they'd hold the cool of the night when the day heated up. Their stone mass seem to have many benefits. So, I'm looking forward to seeing if the same thing happens here this summer.

But, back to the operation of the Tulikivi, they take a little getting used to. Unlike traditional fireplaces, they offer a couple of ways to control the intake of air, which allows you to really control the burning of the wood. At first, I wasn't sure about the glass doors, but they help radiate the heat and prevent smoke or sparks from spilling into the room. The doors do have to be washed daily when you're burning fires, but the little tint of soot comes off easily with a cleaning spray. I discovered it works better with newspaper rather than paper towel, and it's now simply become a part of my fire-making ritual.

When I lit the first fire back in the winter, the house seemed to come to life and take it's first breath of air. I don't regret one penny extra that I spent on this Tulikivi. I enjoy every minute it's filled with dancing flames and radiating its soft warmth.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


As I've discussed in previous posts, I made a number of compromises/decisions in the building process to reign in costs. At the same time, I've made a point to keep some of the building materials real for "substance." The house has a small footprint, so I knew that I wanted to use the same flooring throughout the first floor. I wanted something natural, pretty and—most importantly—easy to maintain.

In the country, it's inevitable that the outside world will get tracked inside. So, I wanted something for the floor that would disguise dirt. I knew that I liked slate, but all I really knew was that slate can range in color from an almost purple to blue, gray and even black.

A quick Google search led me to, where I found the perfect slate tiles. Here's what I liked about them and what I learned:

- I bought large 18" x 18" square tiles, because I wanted fewer rather than more grout lines. Sometimes bigger is also better in a small space, because it's less busy and cluttered looking. I also had the installer lay them on the diagonal starting at the front door. I think the diagonal plan makes the floor look more expansive. The tiles don't look confined as they might if they were laid square to the the room.

- Slate can range from a very plain appearance to very variegated. I really like the variations of color, although I did make sure that it didn't include the extreme ends of the slate color palette: dark purple and black. I found Brazilian gray slate at with beautiful figuring, almost like marbleized paper. The mud season has started in the Catskills, and the marbleized look of the stone does a great job of disguising light tracks from wet and/or muddy shoes.

- Always order extra, beyond the amount recommended by the seller for breakage in shipping. Given variations in the material, some of my tiles had no figuring at all. After the best tiles were chosen and installed on the first floor, we realized that we had just enough to tile a portion of the basement (the laundry area). Later, the builder advised me to buy an additional box of the tiles to keep on had for possible breakage in the future. If I waited until something was broken, I'd probably never be able to find something similar. It's already a bit of an issue, because the seller in California is out of the product at the moment. So, I'm hoping what he's getting in will be similar. It may be obvious, but stone is quarried and for consistency it's best to get all your stone material from the same quarry...even the same area of a quarry.

- Honed refers to the finish of the surface. It's smooth, but not slippery the way polished would be. Gauged surfaces are rougher.

- I did order the tile over the Internet (after buying a sample to check in person). The material was very heavy, and there was a significant shipping cost, but the price was so good that it didn't price the slate out of my reach. Besides, it was exactly what I had been looking for, and I couldn't find anything similar locally.