Restoring an old wood stove

When I was a kid, my dad bought this huge wood stove for our house. He was always a cheapskate and I guess running the gas furnace all winter was expensive. He made wood frames covered with plastic sheeting for the windows in the house and put them up every year. I don’t think they helped much. Anyway, I remember the wood stove said “Woodsman” on it, and it would suck air and sound like a choo-choo train when it got going. It got so hot in our downstairs family room that he put up a box fan in the doorway to blow the warm air throughout the rest of the house. It worked so well that he eventually bought another stove for the upstairs, and then he got this antique-looking one for the garage. Every fall, when other kids were going deer hunting, we were loading up a truckload of firewood from Kamas, Utah. Then we had to unload it. And split it, and stack it. And bring it in every morning for the fire. It wasn’t all work though – my brother and I would break off icicles from the roof and stab the wood stove in the garage with them just so we could hear them hiss as they melted, while my dad made Christmas presents for our sisters in the garage.

When I found the same style of antique wood stove that he had in the garage in a craigslist ad for a bar in Nashville, I knew that was the wood stove I wanted for the cabin.

real stove…

Restoring the stove

It was a bit rusty on the chrome. The stove is built with panel sections – the top, sides, back, and bottom are separate pieces of cast iron held together with screws. New stoves are welded, but this one is styled after an antique parlor stove – a small stove for keeping guests warm in the Victorian age. While it is old (I’m guessing at least 50 years), it’s not an antique – it would have to have been made in the 1800’s to be an antique in this style. This one is stamped with “made in Taiwan” on the back, and I wonder if for this style they used the same casting dies as the original stoves – just like Volkswagen Beetles continued to be made in Mexico for many years using the original dies.

And just a word on cast iron – it is prized for cookware because of the way it absorbs heat and spreads it evenly. It is also easy to clean. Cast iron stoves are similar – they radiate heat well into a room. Cast iron is actually quite brittle and will shatter if impacted sharply. It is also quite hard with a high carbon content. This also makes it good for stoves – it is rigid and won’t warp or bend.

The top of this stove is flat and can be used as a cooktop. When the cooktop is not in use, it is covered with a gorgeous chrome plated crown. The crown can be rotated out of the way on a small pivot. The stove can be stoked from either the front or the side. There is a main damper under the front door, and a smaller one on the side. There is also a chrome “boot rest” on the bottom.

The body of this stove had no cracks, but there were some gaps in the seams where the bolts were supposed to hold things together.

The front window on the door had tin instead of mica – at one point, the mica must have worn out and some cheapo person just cut a piece of tin and fit it in there – so now there was no way to see the fire inside when lit. That was important to me to restore.

Buffing chrome plated cast iron

The first thing I did was try to get the rust off the chrome pieces with my steel cone brush. It didn’t look good enough, so then I took the chrome parts to my father-in-law’s instrument repair shop – he has lots of buffing equipment and shined it up as best he could. The chrome parts are actually cast iron that have been chrome plated – “sand cast”, he called it. Sadly, the rust over the years has made pits in these parts. There’s not an easy way to fix those issues, but the parts did shine up pretty well after he got hold of them:

Rust removal

I did as much as I could with the steel cone brush, but realized if I was going to do it properly, I needed to take the stove apart. I used my angle grinder to cut away the rusty screws – these can be replaced with common hardware. Wood ash is very caustic to iron – but only if it gets wet. This is why you’re supposed to wash out your grill often to get the ash out of there, and then rub it down with – well – I use bacon grease or vegetable oil. Oil stops it from rusting. Anyway, the rust came off quite quickly – I was able to get it all off the entire stove on my lunch break.

Replacing mica

Mica is a heat-proof mineral that can be cut into extremely thin and nearly transparent sheets. In antique stoves, it is the crowning jewel of the stove – seeing the fire lit within the “glass” door is the signal that the cold season has begun. Modern stoves with glass doors use “ceramic glass” that is heat resistant, but normally is only ever made in flat plates. Mica is very flexible, so a lot of old parlor stoves have curved mica in the doors. Mine is just flat little pieces. You can cut it just like you would plexiglass – with an xacto blade or even just scissors. I found a lot of this info from the largest and best-known mica reseller: stovemica.com. This is THE place to go to find replacement mica for antique wood stoves. But every piece I wanted to buy was “out of stock”. So I went over to ebay to take a look – and found that stovemica also has a store on ebay. Nice! I bought a couple of sheets.

I was just going to by a 6″ x 8″ mica sheet, but the larger mica pieces are incredibly more expensive ($50) than buying smaller sheets ($7 for a 3″ x 4″ sheet). And also, that’s not the right way to do it for this stove. I ended up buying 4 small sheets to cut and fit to my windows.

The cast iron door on this stove is kind of neat as well – if you look close, you can see little nubs sticking up on the sides and top and bottom and both sides of each window – those are what hold the mica in place. Then you place the chrome grill over the mica and screw it into the door to clamp down on the mica. Very simple, and very effective. I made a video on replacing mica here.

Filling Gaps

While removing rust, I happened to shine my work lights into the stove to see if I could find any more gaps – someone did a bad job filling them last time, and I was chipping out the old cement and kept finding new gaps. They make a special 2,000 degree “stove cement” to fill in gaps on old stoves like this one, which are common. You want to fill in the gaps because air flow determines how well the stove works – you want to allow air flow, but only through the right vents in the stove. Air coming in from other places can be dangerous. Notice I’m not saying “cracks” – the cast iron on this stove is in great condition – it isn’t cracked anywhere. This is a very good sign that the cast iron wasn’t cheaply made. Even though it says Taiwan on it, I have to assume it was in a Taiwan from years ago when they did good quality work. Nowadays, you can see cheap cast iron if you buy non-“Lodge” cast iron pans – a lot of times, they are made in China, and you can often find cracked cast iron pans right out of the box. Anyway, on my stove, the work lights showed me there’s a slight gap on the bottom plate, giving me a 1/8″ gap on one corner, but it wasn’t warped, I found out – it was just corrosion from the bolts. After chipping away the rust and adding new screws, that gap tightened right up.

Once the stove was screwed back together, I was then able to go back over the gaps – now a lot smaller than they were before after removing the rust and buildup – and fill them in with furnace cement. This can also be done while putting the stove together – just add the cement to each edge and then screw them together and wipe away the excess. It’s not a bad idea to seal every gap and seam. I left the cook top alone because it’s supposed to be removable. The stove gets one more coat of paint over the cement.

Paint

I used flat black high temp (2,000 degree) Rustoleum spray paint. Paint the whole thing except the chrome, of course. It’s best to take it apart to paint it – then you can be sure you get all the bare metal protected from rust. You can also go crazy and buff in between coatings, but I think it looks just fine without it. You can also get stove polish and make it shiny, but I don’t like that look either. My goal with painting it was to protect the metal from rust. The corrosion on this stove was minimal, so I feel lucky there.

After painting the whole thing, I stuck it back together and gave it another coat of paint.

Putting it back together is a little like putting a puzzle together.

Gaskets

They make special fiberglass “rope” to seal the doors – further insurance for air flow and efficiency. Mine had none when I got it. I decided to use 3/8″ thick white rope at first, but found it was too thick for the doors to close properly. So I bought some 1/4″ online. It comes in black, which looks better with an all black stove. You “glue” it in place around the doors with a special caulk. Modern stoves usually have a track you push it into.

Burn in

Once you paint the stove, install the gaskets, and the mica, you have to burn it in. A lot of people install it and burn it in inside their home, but as the paint and furnace cement heats up, it lets off a lot of fumes, and we didn’t want that in our home. So I took the stove out in the back yard and lit it up. The furnace cement says to heat it to at least 500 degrees within 30 days of applying the cement. Since I knew now I wasn’t going to get the chimney and hearth completed in that time, burning it in in the back yard made sense.

I hooked up a length of pipe – 6′, installed the damper, laid some firebricks in the bottom, and let her rip. I used my laser thermometer to check the temp, and within 30 minutes or so, the stove reached 512 degrees. It was a beautiful sight seeing the flames through the door. One thing I noticed checking for leaks was that it was smoking a bit through the cook top. There were a lot of fumes from the cement and paint as well. Glad I did it outdoors. I researched the smoking top though and found that one of the biggest causes of smoking is a chimney without enough draft. They say 10′ minimum length. My test run was 6′. The final chimney will be about 28′, so I think the draft will be super awesome at that length. Also, a straight chimney drafts better, so we have that one nailed down as well. I decided not to worry about the smoking at this point. If it’s an issue when we move in, I’ll stick this stove out in the garage, and get a more modern one for the house.

Morning after the burn in. Shows 6′ single wall pipe.

Next Steps

It’s a beautiful stove; a great example of the Victorian period where common household “appliances” were made to be functional as well as beautiful. In that regard, this stove doesn’t disappoint. It was enjoyable to work on as well – bringing an old stove back into proper usage – I could see this being something I would do maybe as a hobby someday.

At the same time I was working on the stove, I was also planning the chimney pipe installation and collecting parts for it, trying to get good deals. I’ll make a separate post about this.

Also at the same time, my wife was learning everything she could about laying bricks. I found an “old timer” video on bricklaying – there are some neat things to know about getting the gaps right. She was excited to learn that, once again, her quilt making skills (like eyeballing how things fit together) will be useful in laying bricks as well. I’ll make a separate post about the hearth as well.

Also, yes, this is a Parlor Stove – not meant to heat an entire home. But my theory – and I’ll let you know how it works out – is that my log home is going to be extremely efficient at holding heat, so this stove might actually be the right size. Also, it’s Alabama – not Alberta. Sure, we drop into the single digits for a week sometimes, but it’s not our main thing.

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