Heating the Old Fashioned Way

Minnesota couple warm up to vintage cast iron stoves

A collection of Round Oak baseburners

A collection of Round Oak baseburners. Elaborate detail on ornate baseburners started out as hand-carved wooden molds. Nickel plating – not chrome, as many mistakenly believe – adds luster.

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Time was, cast iron stoves were admired chiefly for the heat they generated. Today, though, collectors prize them for their beauty and charm. For Bill McCann, Eyota, Minn., it was a case of love at first sight. Introduced to the hobby while visiting a collector who had more than 40 stoves, Bill was instantly hooked. "We were there for five hours," he recalls. "I just got so tied up in it. I couldn't believe the workmanship, the craftsmanship and artistry."

Since then, Bill and his girlfriend, Chrissy Nord, have built their own collection of stoves, many of which they've restored. "It's turned into quite a passion," Bill marvels.

The pace of global warming would accelerate dramatically if Bill were to use all of his stoves. In fact, he regularly fires up just two, including one in the house (a Garland 25 converted to propane, making it a 30,000 BTU heater), and another (a Round Oak) in his shop, where it keeps 1,900 square feet of space toasty. Bill and Chrissy focus on two primary types of stoves: heaters and base-burners.

Heaters, what Bill refers to as "the common man's stove," are typically simple, utilitarian units with little ornamentation. Many featured foot rings (or "foot warmers") where you could prop your feet to warm them. Heaters burned coal, or with a grate added, wood.

Baseburners, in their day, owned only by the most affluent, were designed to be functional and showy, allowing view of the fire through mica windows on three sides. They fairly sparkled with nickel ornamentation and elaborate finials (the top crown piece) in brass, copper or nickel. Baseburners were designed to burn coal. If you burn wood in them, you chance breaking the mica windows. And if you're thinking of converting a stove to gas, Bill says, baseburners are your best choice.

Cast iron stoves were manufactured by dozens of companies, including Kalamazoo, Favorite, Michigan Stove Co. and Jewel. The Round Oak stove line, manufactured by P.D. Beckwith, Dowagiac, Mich., is Bill's favorite. "They didn't make the fanciest baseburners," he says, "but they're by far one of the strongest companies ever. They're the best-made stoves, and burn really well. Sixty percent of my stoves are Round Oaks. You're going to find Round Oak before you find any others."

From perhaps 1850 to 1900, well before the advent of forced air furnaces and steam heat, stoves were the most common form of heating. "Back in the day there was at least one stove in every home," Bill says.

Prices ranged from as little as $9 for a plain, utilitarian heater, to as much as $50 for an elaborate baseburner complete with nickel-plated ornamentation and mica panels that allowed a golden glow to escape from the flames within. Today's collectors shake their heads at such figures.

Still, collectors remain enthusiastic. "How many things can you use, look at and enjoy, and the value just keeps going up?" Bill muses. "It's one of the smarter investments you can make." Values are tied to rarity: When stoves broke down, they weren't often repaired. Ultimately, many old stoves went to scrap drives. Like every collector, Bill pines for the good old days. "I just wish I had gotten into this 20 years ago," he laments, "when you could buy stoves for $5 a piece."

For Bill and Chrissy, it all began with an old rusty stove they found at an antique store. "I said 'Wouldn't it be neat to fix that up?'" Bill recalls. "We got it for $75. It was a Giant Oak, just an itty bitty thing, no mica, no windows, nothing but rust."

They soon found that stove restoration is not particularly complex, but it is time-consuming and expensive. The average restoration project takes a minimum of 50 hours from start to finish. The couple completely disassembles each stove, sandblasts the parts, applies three to four coats of paint and then reassembles the pieces, using new stove bolts (easily obtained at hardware stores).

Replacement mica can be hard to get, but is available at reasonable prices. Nickel is another story. It can be difficult to obtain and expensive, depending on the amount of work needed. "A lot of plating companies have shut down," Bill says. In general, he says, you're better off to start at the top. "If you can get a stove with the original nickel, that's best," he says.

Extreme caution must be taken with stove parts and pieces. "You're either going to grind out or drill out the screws," Bill says. "Even then, it's like china, it's so brittle. You've got to be really careful when you take those old stoves apart. This is cast iron, and if you drop a piece, there's a good chance that it will break. And it's very hard to weld … there are a lot of tricks to doing that."

When he has to have parts made, Bill turns to Tomahawk Foundry in Rice Lake, Wis. "They'll recast parts, and the work is so good that you can't tell if it's the original or reproduction," he says. Collectors will sometimes loan a part for use as a pattern, he says, but many are reluctant to do so, fearing breakage at any step in the process.

That network of stove collectors is a big plus for Bill. "The people I've met are unbelievable. People like Gary Davis, Chris and Mike Pasquini, David Erickson, they're wonderful friends," he says. "It's so much fun. The treat in this is the people that come with the stoves. Like Bob Wagner in Iowa, everybody calls him 'The Stove Nut.' He's an amazing guy, he just lights up a room. I met him, bought a couple of amazing stoves from him, and he told us about the annual stove convention. Well, it's hard for me to get away. In 14 years in the concrete business, I've never taken a vacation, but I really wanted to get involved, so Chrissy suggested that we go to the convention last July in Maine. It was one of the funnest things we've ever done. We met the neatest people; very interesting and incredible people of all ages who collect stoves."

For Bill, vintage stoves offer peace of mind. "I can have the worst kind of day but when I work with these, it's just a full breath of fresh air," he says. "They just reward you back. I hope this passion for antique stoves lasts a long time for this Midwestern family."

- For more information: 

Bill McCann, (507) 951-0871.

Round Oak: A Good Thing from Doe-Wah-Jack, by Leland M. Haines, 1994 (out of print).