Finishing Touches

Hand-crafted chimney caps, finials, and cupolas can add a touch of distinction to any home.



Last year, when a squirrel toppled down our chimney and ransacked our living room, I propped a ladder against the house and tied some wire mesh over the chimney. Not a very attractive solution, but it did keep the squirrels out.

There are better ways.

Chimney caps, crafted from copper or galvanized metal, offer a more effective — and certainly more attractive — means of keeping both squirrels, raccoons, birds, bugs, and other critters out of your fireplace. What's more, they also protect your home from water leaks and add a definite look of class to any home.

But it's not a simple matter of just tying them in place.

"The first question I ask is if the chimney is real or false," says Jim Rawlings, owner of Memphis-based Metalaire Louver, a company his grandfather founded in 1952. Sometimes builders place chimneys on houses just for looks, he explains. "But if it's a real chimney, then we need to know if it is built on bricks or wood, and the location and size of the flue [the opening at the top]."

The National Fire Protection Agency, he says, has very strict rules for the openings in the size of chimney caps, so they don't restrict the draft from the fireplace. Reducing the draft could cause dangerous levels of carbon monoxide to build up inside a home when the fireplace is being used.

Then the owner needs to decide what style cap to use. Metalaire produces about a dozen base styles, in the shape of cones ("The Roosevelt"), octagons ("The Lincoln"), arches ("The Jefferson"), and even hipped-roof "houses" ("The Hamilton").

Some of the caps are installed with wire mesh to prevent intrusion from animals. Others are specifically designed to shed water with a series of baffles; water can get in the top, but it runs out slots in the sides, while still allowing plenty of room for ventilation and drafting.

The caps are attached by mounting them directly to the chimney with masonry screws, or are glued down with a tough tripolymer adhesive.

Prices depend on the size, design, and materials. Copper is the most expensive, with prices exceeding $2,500 for a large or specially designed cap. For that reason, many customers opt for galvanized metal, which can then be powder-coated in a wide range of metallic shades and colors, ranging from the simple "gloss silver" to the more exotic "black stardust" (black and sparkly).

"Powder-coating lasts a long time," says Rawlings, "and it would take 1,100 degree heat to burn it off" so even in Memphis summers, the coating would endure.

And customers can also order a galvanized-metal chimney cap and have it powder-coated in copper paint. That way, it never ages.

"I don't know why, but there are a lot of people who don't like copper," says Rawlings. "When copper ages, it develops a patina, and I think that old green looks really nice, but some people actually have their chimney caps cleaned and polished every few years or so. With powder-coating, they look like shiny new copper all the time."

After chimney caps, the next most popular feature to enhance the roofline of a home is a finial — an ornamental spike.

"Finials are strictly for decoration," says Rawlings. "They serve no function, but they do dress up a house."

His company is installing a lot more than in the past. "Builders used to put two on a home, one at each end of the roof, and now they are putting four and five," says Rawlings. "They are definitely getting more popular, and they definitely make your house more distinguished, especially if you add copper ones."

Metalaire offers nine standard styles, with Greek-inspired names like "Atlas," "Apollo," "Helios," and even "Zeus." Over the years, the company has created more than 20 other designs.

"We can custom-match anybody's architectural plans," says Rawlings, "and I have computer software that makes the design job a lot easier."

A cluster of new finials in Rawlings' showroom seems excessively tall, but he explains, "They visually shrink when you get them up high. We have customers who say they want a 24-inch finial, but the standard height is 42 to 48 inches. They don't look four feet high from the ground."

Because of their complex design and construction, finials are rather expensive, with copper ones starting at $300. Almost everything is made from Revere Copper from Pennsylvania, which has a mirror finish and Rawlings calls "definitely top of the line."

Finally, there are cupolas, four-sided structures with vents that are designed to exhaust air from the attic of your home.

"About 60 percent of the ones you see in Memphis are strictly for decoration, but we manufacture every single one for functionality. It is the best way to ventilate your home, with the exception of attic louvers."

Metalaire's versions come with tops shaped like bells, pyramids, even pagodas, but the basic design is the same: Each of the four sides has baffled slots that are designed to withstand wind and resist water. As with chimney caps, they have wire mesh inside to keep out animals and insects.

"And the good news is that all of these — the caps, finials, or cupolas," says Rawlings, "are maintenance-free products that will last the life of your house."

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