A blast of heat from the past

Decidedly low-tech, updated woodstoves combine back-to-basics appeal with modern energy-saving features

Gabriel Daher demonstrates the features of a Hampton noncatalytic stove at August West Chimney Co. in Pembroke. Gabriel Daher demonstrates the features of a Hampton noncatalytic stove at August West Chimney Co. in Pembroke. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By James O'Brien
Globe Correspondent / February 8, 2009

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To borrow a famous advertising phrase, this is not your father's woodstove.

The venerable cast iron hot box has come a long way from its familiar drab black cube. From gleaming finishes in such twee-sounding colors as "Bordeaux" and "Biscuit," to pedestal-mounted cylinders that would look at home at the Jetsons', woodstoves today are as much a part of the decorative style of a house as they are of its heating source.

"It can be the best-built thing in the world, but if it's not attractive to people, nobody's going to buy it," said Bruce Keltie, owner of Commonwealth Fireplace and Grill Shop in Norwood.

Yet despite its high style and fancy finishes, the modern woodstove remains, at heart, a throwback to an earlier era. It's a rustic low-tech machine that requires high maintenance.

"Some people who never thought they would like woodstoves end up being like, 'I love this thing. I love having the woodstove for the ambiance,' " said Gabriel Daher of the new customers who walk into his shop, August West Chimney Co. of Pembroke, where he is retail director.

So enamored of the whole wood-burning experience are they, "they're willing to put in a stainless-steel chimney through the wall or through the roof. They're willing to deal with stacking and storing wood," said Daher. "They want the real, natural fire."

In Scandinavia, where woodstoves are a product of both form and function, manufacturers aspire to the strikingly hip. Danish maker Morso's futuristic takes include model 7648, a $3,200 cylindrical firebox on a tube-shaped pedestal centered on a disk. Even the more traditionally shaped models look just a little bit different. The $1,200 Morso 1440 "squirrel stove" is a sleeker version of the familiar stove, perched on two flat-panel legs and featuring a relief on its cast-iron side panels in the shape of a . . . squirrel.

Even makers of more classically shaped stoves pursue modern styling. One of venerable maker Vermont Casting's stoves, the Defiant, can be finished in seven different colors of enamel coating to complement the palette of any room - with colors ranging from standard black to Vermont Classic Green to Midnight Blue. The finish adds $300 to $500 to the cost of a Defiant, which, depending on color, retails for $2,644 to $3,091.

"It's going to be worth the extra money," Daher said of the enamel finish. "If you live near the ocean . . . that salt is just going to eat away at your stove."

Not that they are dainty, mind you. At Common wealth Fireplace and Grill Shop in Norwood, service technician Darin McDonnell recalled when a co-worker once accidentally dropped a traditionally shaped Morso model 3610 off the back of a delivery truck, and it suffered only a minor scratch.

"These things are put together with a tongue-and-groove design," McDonnell said. "Another stove would have sheared its bolts. I mean that's about 250 pounds and about a 3-foot drop. This one, just a little scratch on the back."

As environmental regulations have tightened over the years, stove makers have had to adapt to lower emissions, and yet the stoves have not sacrificed efficiency: They throw off a lot of heat.

The basic stove falls into two types, convection and radiant. A radiant stove sends heat in all directions; a convection stove funnels heat out out through vents position at its front. Little heat is wasted out the sides and back.

This makes the convection stove a perfect choice to slip into an existing fireplace, tying into a masonry chimney. Whether its a Morso, or a more conventional-looking Hampton H200, Daher said a convection stove can save anywhere from $3,500 to $6,000 by not requiring owners to install stainless steel chimney liners.

The 1992 mandate for clean-burning stoves by the Environmental Protection Agency prompted makers to adopt catalytic and noncatalytic technologies that use up more of the gases thrown off by the burn, reducing airborne pollution.

In a catalytic stove, a ceramic or stainless-steel honeycomb laced with platinum or palladium draws in gases and particles at 400 to 500 degrees and subjects them to a secondary burn of up to 1,200 super-efficient degrees. You get a hotter stove, and the environment gets a break from emissions.

However, the honeycomb chamber gradually wears out and will need replacing every five or six years, at a cost of $150 to $300.

The industry now favors noncatalytic stoves, as their baffles don't need to be replaced as often.

Noncatalytic versions have insulated fireboxes, small holes that introduce more air to the burn, and large baffles at the roof of the stove that provide a big surface for the gases to burn longer and hotter. A baffle should last at least 10 years - fewer if you overheat the stove and damage it - and costs $30 to $100 to replace.

Woodstoves do have one distinct edge on the modern world; having wood to burn means never having to worry about winter ice storms cutting off your heat. Higher-tech gas and pellet stoves require electricity to spark their flames. A woodstove requires only a load of logs, some kindling, and a match. Daher reminds owners to schedule regular maintenance: "If you burn at least a cord of wood in a season, it's smart to have the chimney inspected and cleaned annually."

And whatever you buy, take advantage of the government's tax credit for choosing a clean-burning stove. That's $300 if you buy a woodstove with a listed combustion efficiency of greater than 75 percent.