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Heat up your decor

Cheap and chic covers turn ugly radiators into furniture you can live with

By Ami Albernaz
Globe Correspondent / January 29, 2009
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When it comes to your home's interior, few things are as aesthetically offensive as radiators. (Unless you have a big stinky dog crate in the middle of your dining room . . . but we digress.) Radiators clash with decor schemes and, if they're old enough, they hiss and clang to boot, especially these days when it's frigid out. Moving them is rarely an option (try heaving hundreds of pounds of cast iron or steel or, on second thought, please don't), and some radiator covers do little to help the problem, seeming only to emphasize what's underneath. What is a design-conscious, radiator-hating Bostonian to do? We have some ideas for you.

Make it blend in
The right wooden cover can turn a radiator into a comely piece of furniture. The Bookcase Factory Outlet (378 Beacon St., Somerville, 617-491-7665, and 157 Galen St., Watertown, 617-924-7665) offers custom-made covers in four styles - shaker, traditional, vintage, and contemporary (check them out at www.bookcasefactoryoutlet.com) - and in five woods (maple, red oak, birch, pine, and cherry). The cover can serve as a window seat, or, if you're more ambitious and have more to spend, as an extension of a bookcase or hutch.

Just as there's no standard-size radiator, there's no standard-size radiator cover. At the low end, a small, 24-inch-by-24-inch cover in the contemporary style costs $116; at the higher end, a 60-inch-by-36-inch in the vintage style goes for $626. (Pricey cherry wood is 50 percent extra.) To prevent warping, veneered plywood is used for the sides and top, and solid wood for the frame and slats.

The finished covers are not only aesthetically pleasing, but can make a room safer for curious toddlers. "A lot of people are buying covers because they have kids," says Barry Rothman, Bookcase Factory Outlet owner.

Bostonwood (1117 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-783-1536, www.bostonwood.com) and its Watertown sister store Evergreen Unfinished Furniture (57 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown, 617-924-7412) also build custom wooden covers with slatted, cane mesh, or metal grill facades. Though any wood can be used for the covers, pine is by far the least expensive, with an average cost of around $200. The covers can be easily stained (a polyurethane should be applied to seal it), or the store can have them finished for an extra charge.

Some of the best wooden radiator covers are practically unnoticeable. When he was planning the library of a show house in Lincoln in 2003, interior designer Gregory Van Boven had a carpenter build a cover for a "hideous radiator" in the room, so that it could blend in seamlessly with a wrapping bookcase he'd designed. "The idea was to make the ugly cast iron piece totally disappear without affecting heat output," Van Boven says.

Gussy it up
If you're looking to give your radiator cover some real personality, look to Sandcastle (210 N. Harvard St., Allston, 617-783-5100, www.webuildstuff.com) in Allston. Co-owners Sandi Castleman and Dan Gilbey use touches like decorative knobs, funky fabrics, and colored string to turn radiators into works of art.

"What I try to do with people is tell them, 'If you were going to add a piece of furniture to the room, what would you like it to look like?' " Castleman says. "Then they get it."

Customers might want the cover to match something specific, like a picture frame, or to just fit in with the color scheme of a room. Castleman and Gilbey, who have also designed custom displays for pushcarts, kiosks, and stores, use birch, maple, mahogany, cherry, ash, and oak. If they use fabric or string, they stretch it on a wooden frame inside of the front of the cover, "so people can get rid of it if they want."

The covers start at around $250 or $275 and are guaranteed for life.

Go retro
With their intricately patterned grills, metal radiator covers with the right paint job can fit in handsomely with retro design schemes. Waltham Wallpaper and Paint (591 Main St., Waltham, 781-893-3732, www.walthamwallpaperandpaint.com) sells two metal models, both with Grecian screens: a simple one that comes unassembled and unpainted (but can be assembled and painted for an additional $40), and a slightly more ornate model that comes intact and with a baked enamel finish.

The simpler models start at $40.95 (for a 14-inch-by-22-inch enclosure), though the average price for Waltham Wallpaper and Paint's metal covers is roughly $175-$250, says store owner Alan Rice. The store can paint the covers any color, though anything other than white or off-white is an extra charge.

If you choose to paint a metal (or wooden) cover on your own, first use a primer, and then let your imagination take over. India Halcrombe, creator of the home design blog Apt. 528 (blog.apt528.com), chose a citron green for a metal cover that came with her Roslindale apartment.

"It's next to a green accent wall, so I painted [the cover] to match," she says. "I didn't see any reason to hide it."

Halcrombe keeps a favorite 1950s radio on top of the radiator, and says besides looking good, the radiator cover helps spread heat more efficiently - a definite plus in Boston winters.

Do it yourself
If you're crafty and undaunted by drills and saws, you can save money by making your own radiator cover. Instructions abound on the Web, with "This Old House" (www.thisoldhouse.com), HGTV (www.hgtv.com), and proud first-time builders chiming in.

Much of what you need you can find at Home Depot or Lowe's: plywood or medium-density fiberboard, sandpaper, primer, and paint or stain. You can also find sheets of decorative perforated metal for the grill, for around $25-$30 for a large sheet.

If you don't have a workshop in your basement or a saw, don't fret: The folks at Home Depot, Lowe's, or most lumber stores can cut it for you. The most important thing to remember, besides keeping your fingers intact, is to allow extra space in your measurements for ventilation.

Make peace with your radiator
The most cost-effective solution to coexisting with an unsightly radiator is to try to give it new life with a fresh coat of paint. If you go that route, it's best to use a thinly applied oil paint, as latex paint will curl up or peel, says Justin Gatie of Johnson Paint Company (355 Newbury St., Boston, 617-536-4244).

Oil paint has its drawbacks - it will discolor slightly, especially if it's white. You could use a heat-resistant spray paint for the job, Gatie says, though color choices tend to be more limited.

Before painting a radiator, you'll need to remove any old paint or grime, and if the radiator is heavily rusted, apply a rust-inhibitive primer.

If your decor allows, you could achieve a more antique look by bronzing the radiator using a metallic powder mixed with bronzing liquid or varnish. The mixture produces a rich, decorative finish that recalls the era when radiators were considered stylish. (The technique works best on radiators that have not been painted, Gatie says.) Johnson carries metallic powder for $38.99 a pound and varnish for around $15 a quart, and a premade metallic product for $26.99 a quart.

One downside to painting a radiator is that getting the paint into all the nooks and crannies takes time and patience. Another is that it's probably best to wait a few months to do it.

"Paint it in the summer," Gatie recommends. "Don't do it when the heat is on and off. You want a cure time."

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