How To: Making a fireplace less obtrusive, resoldering a pewter candleholder

July 27, 2011

Q. Our relatively small family room has a large brick fireplace as a focal point. I am exploring ways to make it less obtrusive — maybe stucco, paint or tile? I have been looking for contractors who would be knowledgeable on the subject but have not come across any. Do you have any advice?

—Burke

A. You might want to start by hiring an interior decorator to help you figure out a plan. Then the type of contractor you need will be evident. Many decorators are happy to suggest contractors whose work and work habits they like.

Annette Hannon of Annette Hannon Interior Design in Burke (703-978-1486; www.annettehannon.com) said paint might be the simplest solution. “I have recommended that,” she said. “In a darker space, it absolutely gives the room a lighter appearance and makes the room seem larger. If you paint the brick the same color as the walls, the brick fades.” On other jobs, she’s recommended covering some or all of the brick with drywall and installing a new mantle. Sometimes she’s also added bookcases on either side of the fireplace. Just be sure to keep any flammable material, such as wood trim, at least six inches from the fireplace opening. Mantles that project over the opening require a wider gap, usually 12 inches.

These changes are all relatively simple and inexpensive, but the impact can be huge. “It’s much more fashion-forward,” Hannon said.

If your budget is larger, you can consider larger changes. At her own house, Hannon had a wide fireplace with an elevated hearth that looked dated. She got a building permit, hired a mason and had a fireplace company redo the setup, complete with a new fireplace insert and a stone surround.

“I always urge people to think about the room and how much money is going into it,” Hannon said. “If it’s a family room that everyone really enjoys, spend some extra money.” Be more cautious if it’s a room you rarely use.

Most decorators charge by the hour, so if you just want ideas of how to proceed, the fee might be modest. Many, including Hannon, schedule a free first visit.

Q. I have an 18th-century pewter candleholder that is broken at the base and needs to be resoldered. Where can I get it repaired in the Washington area?

—Bethesda

A. Richard Sisson, owner of Chevy Chase Plating & Polishing in Rockville (301-230 7686; www.chevychaseplating.com), has been doing metal repairs similar to these for about 25 years. Pewter is a relatively soft alloy, so it’s not unusual for a dropped candlestick to break where the base connects to the shaft, he said. Sisson said he often has to strengthen the area by inserting a bushing or shaft. He solders around that, then treats the area so it blends in, for a total price of about $60 to $75.

Modern pewter is usually about 90 percent tin, plus antimony or copper. This pewter is tarnish-resistant. Many antiques, however, are made of pewter that contains lead, which tarnishes over time. Ordinarily, you can retain the charcoal patina or polish the pewter regularly to lighten its color. But when there’s a repair, the solder line will stay the color it’s treated to be.

Repaired pewter is worth less than unmended pewter. But it’s certainly more useable than a couple of broken pieces.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com. Put “How To” in the subject line and tell us where you live.

The Checklist: July is almost over. Read Jeanne Huber’s roundup of home-improvement tasks you should tackle this month.

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