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How Do Fireplace Bellows Work?

Chad Hunter

Bellows are instruments created for the purpose of pushing air in a controlled manner to a specific area. They have had several uses, including blowing air in instruments and even in clockwork. Bellows have been applied in metallurgy, air-based instruments and even early forms of cameras.

Fire bellows date back to 930 B.C. and ancient times of the early Chinese, Roman and Greek civilizations. Fireplace bellows once were mainly hand-crafted wooden bellows but today, can fall into the category of more advanced battery operated bellows. Early American settlers from the 1600's were popular for using fireplace bellows and would construct them from an animal-skin stitched bag. Europe has a long history with fireplace bellows covering over a century of use. Blacksmiths were known to use the tools for quick ignition to the smithing process. While having wide applications of use, the more common purpose has typically been for stoking flames to life in fireplaces.

Fireplace bellows are built with a triangular design and function as a single air pump tool. Most fireplace bellows consist of wood-carved handles with a leather expandable middle. They consist of an air chamber and a valve (or nozzle.) The air chamber has an accordion like design which allows it flexibility to grow and contract with use. Bellows have two handles which, when pulled, force the chamber to "inhale," drawing air inside itself for storage. When the handles are pushed downward, the air chamber forces the air out through the nozzle. Air blows out of the nozzle and onto a small fire or smoldering log to stoke the flames. As the handles are repeatedly lifted and pushed, the air is drawn in and pushed out, allowing for regular puffs of air.

There are two categories of bellows: the common single-acting piston bellow and the double-acting. The single bellow functions by bringing air in and expelling the air in two different and distinct motions of the handles. The double-acting piston bellows allow for air to be blown out in both strokes of the bellows' handles. They are considered stronger and deliver more air than the tradition single piston bellows.

If taken care of by cleaning and oiling of the air chamber's materials, fireplace bellows can last for decades. Some antiques are centuries old and still in working condition. However, if the metal has been left to rust and the wood to rot, the fireplace bellow is nothing more than a poorly conditioned antique.