ANDY CREVENNA was known as the Wizard while he worked as a professional auto mechanic. When someone had given up on a car repair, Andy always found a way to get the vehicle back in gear. He later studied fire science at Northern Virginia Community College, where he picked up the subject so readily he again was known as the Wizard. Now he's one of the few experts (and most likely the youngest at age 24) in the Virginia-D.C.-Maryland area at restoring and repairing antique wood stoves. The name of his company? Wizard Stove Works.
Making the switch from auto mechanics and firefighting to wood stoves just followed the natural course of events, as far as Crevenna is concerned.
"I was studying firefighting at Northern Virginia Community College. While I was waiting for my name to come up at the Fairfax County Firehouse list I took a job as a chimney sweep at Nova Wood Heat in Great Falls [Va.]. When the season slacked off, I learned to install some of the stoves they sold and eventually went into retail sales.
"Last year Nova received a collection of 19th-century French stoves, which I started playing with. I taught myself the techniques of restoring the old stoves. Nothing too amazing," says Crevenna modestly.
"Unfortunately," Crevenna continues, whose shop is part of the firm E. T. Long, in Richmond, Va.; "there's virtually no market for antique wood stoves. People usually buy them for looks -- they put flower pots and decorative items on them. Most people interested in working wood stoves buy the new models."
Mark Swan of Top Hat Sweeps in Arlington, Va., agrees. "The old stoves weren't airtight. This is what most people are looking for nowadays, since an airtight stove is more energy efficient." Top Hat Sweeps, like most of the area's wood-stove shops, sells only the modern stoves.
Restoring antique stoves is not easy and no job for an amateur to tackle. Many of the original companies have long since gone out of business. Scavenging parts from another old stove is often the only way to get replacements.
Joe Thaler, vice-president of George J. Thaler Inc. in Baltimore, Md., says that his company may sell a few parts for the old stoves when they come across them, but he doesn't intend to get into the business of restoring. "The patterns for parts just aren't there anymore," he explains. "And the cost to make new patterns is too high. To repair and restore an old stove today might cost you more than $2,000." had requests to restore the old stoves, but we don't do it. Repairing cracks and the like in cast iron is nearly impossible. Steel cracks are not as difficult. But how safe the stoves are to actually use is questionable."
While working at Nova Wood Heat, Andy Crevenna says he saw antique stoves that were in such bad repair that even if he'd fixed them up, he would have hesitated to use them for anything other than decoration. The collection of antique French stoves he restored for Nova were built, he figures, about 80 to 100 years ago. "Some of the stoves can be used for heating and/or cooking, while others are solely for decoration," he says.
In addition to safety factors, Crevenna can understand why some people just want their antique stoves for appearances. "Woodstoves for heating are not for everyone. They're a lot of work. You have to bring in the wood -- two to three armfuls several times a day.The ashes have to be shoveled during the day. And the chimney requires regular cleaning."
Most of the American stoves Crevenna has come across were built in the 1930s and '40s. "A lot of these were coal stoves used primarily for heating, although they often had one or two eyes on them for cooking." The stoves came in two types: cook stoves and heating stoves.
Stove dealer Thaler agrees with Crevenna. "Most of the stoves I've seen around here are coal-burning stoves.Not only was coal cheaper (it still is) but it holds a fire longer than wood -- it's 75 percent efficient, while wood is only 68 percent. With coal you only have to refuel the furnace every 24 hours; with wood you need to add more every 12 to 15 hours."
The majority of the old coal burners, says Thayler, were made by Baltimore firms (S. B. Sexton were designed in the 1930s to replace the Franklin stove and were called Latrobe stoves, named after John H. B. Latrobe, a prominent 19th century lawyer and the son of the Federal-era architect. The Latrobe stoves were extremely popular in Georgetown, but also well-known all over the East Coast, where they were referred to as "Baltimore Heaters," according to Thaler.
Because of his knowledge of firefighting, Crevenna can't stress enough the precautions that must be taken when putting an antique stove back into use. "One main problem is the structure -- all cracks and rust must be taken care of.Also don't ever forget that you have a very hot fire going on inside that metal vessel -- a lot of people ignore this.Nothing separates you from that fire except that metal. And if you're burning coal, the fire's even hotter. It's also very important to have the stove professionally installed, since clearance requirements differ from county to county."
"Clearance" is the legally required distance that must be kept between your stove and the nearest combustible service -- walls, floors, etc. A copy of the National Fire Protection Association's Code and Clearances is available through your county government offices or in several books on wood heat. (Crevenna recommends two books by Dr. Jay Shelton of the New Mexico Solar Energy Institute: "The Woodburner's Encyclopedia" and "Woodheat Safety.")
John R. Anderson, manager of the general engineering division of the National Fire Protection Association says:
"The problem with antique wood stoves is that you're dealing with an unknown quality. The new wood stoves have to be tested (for size, casting strength, etc.) before they're put on the market. Clearances are set in accordance with these tests. The old stoves were never tested, so we can only guess as to what the proper clearance should be."
Anderson adds: "People today think those old timers really knew how to efficietly heat a home. But let me tell you those same old timers burned down houses with great frequency!"
Most knowledgeable stove dealers will tell you to let a pro install your stove. Bill Warr, a part owner of Nova Wood Heat, says, "Unless you really know what you're doing, we don't recommend it. There are just too many things that can go wrong. These mistakes can lead to an inefficient stove, a living room full of smoke, or even a flashing red-light, siren-screaming four-alarmer."
According to a recent study by the National Bureau of Standards, 87% of woodstove related fires are due to improper installation, maintenance or use.
Restoration begins with a check for cracks in the stove's structure. Crevenna puts a bright light in the stove, shuts the door and turns off all the lights in the room. "If any light comes through -- except through the crevices of the door opening -- you probably have a crack."
"In the old days, they didn't worry whether a stove was airtight or not. But today we know how much more efficient wood heat is when the stove is airtight," says Crevenna.
If the crack is small he sometimes fills it with mortar. But if the crack is very large, Crevenna says he can't repair it with mortar. "I won't even attempt to weld it since cast iron is very difficult to weld and make safe again," says Crevenna. When the piece contains large cracks, he tries to have it recast at a foundry where metal castings are made. E. T. Long, Crevenna says, has just brought out an old stove supplier so antique parts are now available at the store. He thinks E. T. Long's collection is the largest on the East Coast and maybe in the country. (The person to see for the antique parts is Henry Sargent.) Long's also has a foundry.
When screwing a disassembled stove back in place, Crevenna is careful that screws and bolts are fastened securely, but not too tightly. "Cast iron doesn't expand or contract like steel. It doesn't bend or warp. However, as a result, it can be very brittle. If the nut or bolt is over-tightened the cast iron may crack."
Worn ornamental trim of nickle plating on the legs and handles can be repaired by a metal worker or professional nickle-plater.
Many of the old European stoves had tile or porcelain surfaces. Crevenna says if these surfaces are damaged, they're very hard to repair. "You may have to have the stove completely re-surfaced by a creamicist," he says. If undamaged, the tile and porcelain can be polished to look like new -- Crevenna used car wax to polish the porcelain stoves at Nova.
When Crevenna repairs an antique to be used only for show, he usually applies stove blacking, a polish rubbed into the metal and buffed to give the stove a high gloss. "Unfortunately," says Crevenna, "it burns off when heated. So for stoves that people plan to use I use a high-temperature paint instead. It doesn't peel off when the stove heats up."
"It's ironic," says Crevenna. "We seem to have come full circle: In the old days people chopped wood for heat. Later on they used coal and even later, kerosene. Once electricity was developed homes were entirely heated electrically -- remember the gold medallion homes? When electricity became too expensive, we turned to oil. And now that oil prices have skyrocketed, we're going back to wood."
Since the stove craze, wood prices have doubled and tripled. "What next?" we asked the Wizard.
"Well, I guess that puts us back to coal."