ONE OF the nicer places to fall asleep on a cold winter's night is in front of a flickering fireplace. One of the worst places, however, is 10 feet from that same fireplace.

There's a better way to heat a whole room - or the entire house - by burning the kind of fuel you can chop yourself. It's the sweet, nostalgic wood-burning stove. And you can strike the nostalgic. It's back.

Wood burning stoves, unlike fireplaces, do not lose more than 90 per cent of their heat up the chimney. Even the simplest Franklin stoves keep 40 to 70 per cent of their heat, and more expensive "airtight" stoves are said to be 90 per cent efficient.

Area stove sellers say last winter's chills and fuel bills hastened the product's comeback considerably.

"We'll do three times the business we did last year," says Dave Rusher of L.D. Bromwell Inc., in Bethesda. The normally seasonal business of selling stoves started rather early this year, he says, as "people are starting to get panicky."

Hechinger's housewares buyer Sylvia McGrath says the region's outlets sold about 300 wood-burning stove units last year, and "this year we'll probably sell everything we can get our hands on."

Depending on their size and construction, wood stoves can cost anywhere from about $100 to more than $1,000. Be sure to shop around, because prices on the same stove can vary wildly.

What does one get besides a proven, cheap method to heat people (or food, or water)? That depends on your needs, variations of which are probably as numerous as stoves available.

Consider a Franklin stove. While the name is used by numerous stove manufacturers with no real connection to Benjamin himself, the Franklin stoves remain pretty much the same today as they did when developed by the famous Philadelphian in the mid-18th century. A $300 model manufacturered by the King Stove and Range Co., actually called the Ben Franklin, has colonial motifs. It is made of cast iron, like the original, retaining the original's box-like shape with doors that open to allow viewing the fire.

While there are those - and Franklin was one of them - who would sacrifice just about anything to be able to see the fire burning (including warmth), others are finding happiness in one of an increasing number of Scandinavian "airtight" stoves imported to the United States. One such model, the Jotul 602 (pronounced yodel), is called the "Little Giant" by its makers because it will heat a medium-sized room despite its size - 19.3 inches long and 12.8 inches wide. The black cast iron stove, supported on four legs and standing about two feet high, costs roughly $270.

There are stoves you can cook on, such as the Queen Atlantic - which may look just like the one you great-grandmother had because it's made in the original Portland, Maine, foundry from the original pattern - which costs about $1,250. You can also cook on most less expensive box-style stoves (the Atlantic Box Stove costs about $200), or on the Portland Stove Foundry's B&M Potbelly (made of cast iron, hand-cast into sand molds and hand built as they were 100 years ago), which costs about $499.

The wood-burning stove you might like to have may take as long as a year to get - because of limited supply, as in the Portland Foundry's products or increased overall demand or the current East Coast dock strike in the case of some special-order imported models. But area dealers say you can probably find what you're seeking in time for this heating season.

Installation of a wood-burning stove can often cost more than the unit itself, McGrath says, and the minimum installation charge she quoted was about $200. But if the customer does his own installation, or if the stove's flue is to be vented into an existing chimney - many of the smaller stoves can be installed in front of a sealed fireplace - the installation charge is usually less.

Alan Taylor of Acme Furniture & Stove Co., one of the area's largest stove dealers, says installation can be as little as $85. "But any layman with a little carpentry knowledge and the help of a friend can install most units himself," he says. You should know that installations of stoves and fireplaces are stringently regulated by the local jurisdictions, and rightly so when you consider the possibilities of fire. Be sure to check the laws in your township before you do anything.

McGrath said about 80 per cent of Hechinger's stove customers do their own installation. Some 60 to 70 per cent of Acme's customers do the same, Taylor said.

Hechinger's sells four models of wood-burning stoves: the Parlor Stove, the store's most popular unit, costing about $190; a Franklin-style stove for about $190; the Comfort Stove, a taller unit with chrome plating like the Parlor model but with a smaller firebox, for $179; and a traditional cooking box model stove for $99.95.

Acme's most popular model, Taylor said, is probably the Morso 1125, a $650-to-$730 (depending on its decorative features) high-efficiency stove that Taylor himself says he uses to heat his entire home - about 15,000 square feet. The Morso is one of about 8,500 Scandinavian, European and American-made stoves Taylor says Acme sold last year. He expects Acme this year to sell about 12,000 wood-burning stoves, costing from $225 to about $1,100.

"Under certain conditions, in a small home where you install the stove vent into an existing fireplace, the unit will pay for itself within one season," Taylor says, "especially where you had some people last winter paying about $400 a month for fuel bills. Even if it heats only one or two rooms - you'll live in those two rooms for the winter." For the lover of both antiques and wood-fueled heat, D.C. importer and installer of artifacts Jules H. van Marken has a collection of about a half dozen German-made antique wood-or coal-burning stoves at his 950 Upshur St. NW headquarters. The castle-sized stoves, from 6 to 10 feet high, most of which were used to heat public areas such as debate rooms, or cafes, range in price from about $1,700 to $4,000 - and they're all in working order.

Wood burning stoves are explained, categorized and pictured in several recent books, including The Wood Burning Stove Book by Geri Harrington (MacMillan 1977), and The Woodburners Encyclopedia, by Jay Shelton and Andrew B. Shapiro, published by Vermont Crossroads Press in 1976.

The latter is a rather technical evaluation of wood as fuel. Shelton is a Williams College physics professor and some people may think Physics I is a prerequisite for reading his dissertation here, though the book is now into its fourth printing so somebody must understand it. The Harrington book is much easier to read, with much useful information and handsome illustrations.

Both books catalog numerous types of stoves - but the product information in each, as the authors state, is based not on personal research but on data supplied by the manufacturers. The Wood Burners Stove Book has at least removed some of the manufacturers' glowing sales pitch, but the Encyclopedia, listing of mostly New England stove makers, not only reads as if taken verbatim from the manufacturers' brochures but notes that manufacturers paid fees to have their products illustrated. However, both books have their uses in surveying the field, or perhaps we should say forest, of the woodburner's lore.