No Stove Like an Old Stove: Buying and Refurbishing Vintage Ranges

Sep 20, 2001

The Bottom Line Stoves made in the 1950s and earlier are much better crafted than those available today, and come in a variety of styles to suit any decor.

This article has been updated for the celebration of kcfoxy’s second anniversary with epinions. She is an amazing woman, an incredible writer, and one of the first people I got to know through this site. I wish her all the best, and hope that you’ll read the reviews of the other fine writers participating in this tribute to her:

kcfoxy • viper1963 • curtisedmonds • mrsfitts • drlolipop • beecharmer • cornelia • lernerj • suzer • blackelve • quasar • awoolcott • mshawpyle • lynnzop • LorinSilver • sparkospunky • psychovant • ifif1938 • kristinafh • NolleQueen • dchefsours • nwinston • TheUnknown285 • Barefooter • isinga • lunadisarm • Bonies7 • marytara • Workingmomof2 • nobody_knows • auldbawl1 • repulsemonkey • howard_creech • e_burrell • Donnie013 • sunkah • gransurfer1 • joubert • MagnumForce • i_culookn • begood_ca • GinaHill • coldsteel7 • pogomom

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Whenever I get to see a movie, an all-too-rare occasion since I became a parent, I love to check out the domestic details evoked by the art director. Say what you will about Hollywood's impact on the art of cinematography, America's film industry employs some of the finest design talent in the world, and much of what is expressed on the screen represents the cutting edge of the domestic visual arts.

We're certainly all aware of the influence films can have on fashion--from Bonnie and Clyde to the national Vaseline shortage precipitated by Rudolph Valentino's hairstyle, but the cinema's impact on interior design, if less widely remarked upon, is no less forceful.Trends spotted in films often show up years later as ``the latest thing'' touted by Architectural Digest or House and Garden.

There are many movies where, in fact, the sets' overall design statement is far superior in quality to the screenplay, acting, and all other production values. A case in point would be Apt Pupil, a film based on a Stephen King story, the plot and execution of which were entirely lame. The set dressing and art direction on the other hand were, to me, worth the seven bucks otherwise blown on my ticket.

What got me was the kitchen, especially the stove--a mint early '50s Chambers range, if I remember correctly. That it served in this film as the place in which the old Nazi broiled the neighbor's cat is beside the point. With its chrome "elephant trunk" knobs and its gorgeous cream-colored paintjob, the appliance itself was a work of art.

And how, you may well be asking, does this redeem the price of my ticket? The answer is that I'm renovating a house, and want to make sure that the upgrades I make are not passe before I get this place on the market. I need to know what the ``coming thing'' is in terms of, for the moment, kitchen design--especially in my choice of large appliances. Catching the visual wave before it crests serves me in two ways: one, I won't get stuck having to unload the aesthetic equivalent of a matched set of Harvest Gold kitchen behemoths, and two, stuff is a helluva a lot cheaper before it becomes wildly popular. If you're in the market for anything after it's been discovered by Martha Stewart, you'd better have a trust fund.

So, given the fact that I haven't seen Demi Moore ``cooking'' anything on a stainless steel restaurant-style stove since Ghost, I think it's a safe bet that the whomping big industrial look is going to go the way of the SUV in our three-bucks-a-gallon world. Increasingly, in your average movie kitchen, Terminator ranges and Pumping Iron Sub-Zeros are being edged out by older, mellower appliances--or reasonable facsimiles thereof. There are now companies springing up which produce vintage-style new stoves and refrigerators--Elmira Stoveworks, for instance, not to mention at least one very high-end German company-- and they aren't letting the product go for peanuts, let me tell you.

If movieland stoves alone don't convince you that high-tech kitchens are on the way out, consider that Pottery Barn has been featuring beadboard wainscoting and trim in its catalog--at roughly three times the price it currently goes for from Home Depot. Open shelving on decorative brackets, painted white, is replacing cherry and maple wall cabinets in a good number of shelter mags. Then, of course, there is the huge resurgence of interest in real linoleum as a flooring medium--edging out the vinyl stuff that was once touted as its modern replacement.

The proliferation of new kitchen sink designs which mimic the old soapstone and farm kitchens with "apron" fronts is also a tipoff. I got an original of one of these, the type of white porcelain kitchen sink which has a high backsplash, a wall-mounted faucet, and is designed to rest on legs rather than be dropped into a countertop, from a salvage place for $75 two summers ago. I saw one for sale in my favorite classifieds magazine last week for $500. Don't say I didn't warn you.

My guess is that domestic design has begun to reflect the fact that everybody hangs out in the kitchen at any decent party, moving the household focus from formal living and dining rooms to large, integrated eating and cooking areas. As this trend has developed, people have grown tired of being overwhelmed by honking big cold gray stainless objects looming over them. Yes, that's what they have in restaurant kitchens. It is also the reason we do not pay gobs of money to eat in the kitchen when we go to a restaurant--it's just not very cozy, people.

The design "concept" for a trendy vintage kitchen is baking cookies with your grandmother (or her cook, if you're from a Driving Miss Daisy background), rather than getting precious and twee with Mary Engelbreit. If you are interested in creating this kind of welcoming, traditional space, the first and foremost thing to consider is your stove--the visual anchor of the whole shebang. Refrigerators can be made to blend, either in terms of color or, with higher end models, by replacing the front panels to mimic the room's decor, but a stove is its own self and impossible to disguise.

This is actually fortuitous, since technological innovation has greatly improved the function of the old icebox, while stove design and quality has suffered over the last few decades. Up until the mid-50s, stoves were pretty much handmade. The older models' resulting high quality, when compared with their contemporary brethren, makes them an excellent investment.

Gas and electric models have been manufactured since the early years of the last century. They may need to be tweaked to come up to current code--gas models most often requiring the installation of a pilot light or electronic ignition in the oven, for instance. Once fine-tuned, the superior materials and craftsmanship of these appliances ensure that they will serve magnificently for decades to come. Even the beautiful old cast-iron models built to run on coal or wood can be updated to gas or electricity by a number of old stove aficionados around the country, though of course you can expect to pay more for this level of work.

Some brands to consider are O'Keefe and Merritt, Chambers, Roper, and Magic Chef. There are at least a dozen companies here and in Canada which sell fully refurbished and updated stoves from all eras--prices for fine stoves which are basically "turnkey" appliances to install usually range from $1000-$3000. You can save some money, and I think have more fun, searching out your own stove to have spruced up. Sources can include classified ads, online merchants, and even some thrift stores or second-hand appliance shops. Several websites, listed below, feature outstanding classifieds--many stoves appearing in the Old House Journal classifieds and are free for the taking.

When purchasing a stove used, keep in mind that a number of cosmetic issues can be dealt with: bakelite knobs can be buffed and polished back to their original color and sheen, chrome parts can be replated, thermostats can be re-calibrated, and any chipped porcelain coating on the stove's exterior can be patched. One of the most important things to check, however, is the condition of the enamel on the interior of the oven and broiler, which is extremely difficult to patch or repair.

And, of course, the overall structural integrity of the piece is important--rust is a no-no, and replacing missing parts on an older stove, even knobs and dials, can be prohibitively expensive. Another thing to pay attention to is the sides of your actual gas burners. These are sometimes made of crimped metal--looking something like a honeycomb. If these have been dented, part of the the metal may be flattened over where the gas should be coming out. This is very difficult to repair, and next to impossible to replace. Ideally, you can find a stove with cast iron burners, which are much sturdier, but the crimped type is fine as long as it's not mashed up.

As far as style, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the variety of stoves on the market. Early models are usually of cast iron, with nickel trim. These stoves are black, massive, and often set on small feet, like an old bathtub. They require extensive updating, and can overwhelm any but the largest room. If you're working with Spanish style architecture or are big on heavy Mission pieces, this style might be right up your alley.

Stoves from the 20s and 30s tend to be set on slender, high legs, often with extremely tall backsplashes (some containing overhead ovens, warming drawers, or broilers). A good number of these stoves will have a largish tank on the side, which was used as a water heater. If you're fond of Hoosier kitchen cabinets, this is probably the era which will most appeal to you. You can expect to find colors such as deep ivory, beige, or white, with trim and pinstriping in black, jadeite green, brown or red. Usually, there's not a lot of chrome on these, which can make refurbishment costs lower. Stoves of this era often provide integral "counter space," since they were meant to be freestanding, but on many models I find the burners to be rather small and cramped--a bummer at Thanksgiving.

I am most fond of the stoves from the 40s and early 50s--they're more solid-looking than the Depression-era stoves, with a comfortable amount of cooking area, but aren't the hulking behemoths of last century's teens and earlier. Chrome is as ubiquitous on these pieces as it was on the cars of the time. Many of these stoves seem to imply the presence of tailfins, and would look entirely appropriate were Elvis to suddenly appear, wanting to fry up some bacon for a peanut butter sandwich.

In some senses, stove designs seem to lag about a decade behind other aspects of the design field. Stoves didn't really get Moderne looking--the hallmark style of the 50s--until the 60s, for instance, while Deco didn't seem to really hit until the 40s. This can be an important thing to keep in mind if you're going for an overall "period" look--though it will be historically inaccurate, you may want your stove to be about ten years newer than the era of the cabinet and flooring style you choose.

The stove I recently purchased is a 1953 Magic Chef--white, with a lot of chrome and some red accents, such as a red bakelite disk with a little white chef incised in it which is set into the tall backsplash. The oven and broiler are side by side, with pull handles which look like two halves of a hubcap. When the broiler door is opened, the wedge-shaped broiling tray slides out with it, as it is attached to the door rather than the oven interior.

Older stoves have a lot of cool innovations like this that have gone by the wayside--one gorgeous Glenwood I've seen, a very high-end fire engine red 50s model, had a periscope going from the backsplash down to the oven, so you could check on your baking without bending down or opening the oven doors. This model also had a burner recessed deep into the stove, about a foot below the cooking surface. A set of special pans came with it, which could be set one atop another over this low burner, so that a variety of dishes could be steamed or cooked at once, utilizing the heat of a single flame. Gaggenau has just started marketing a steamer that drops into a counter for the same purpose, but the Glenwood is a whole lot cooler.

To give you an idea of current prices, my stove itself was $200, while re-chroming the bezels, large backsplash inset, and trim from around the glass piece on which the brand is painted cost $310. I did have a bad experience with a stove restorer in Littleton, Massachusetts (the guy had my chrome parts for seven months and never sent them out to his plating guy in California, while claiming that no one in the Northeast could re-chrome things due to tight environmental laws here. I found a car guy who would do it in the next town after making two calls from the yellow pages),

Luckily, I've found someone who will come to the house to bring the stove up to code, once the gas fitting and plumbing are done in the kitchen. Try to handle it this way, if at all possible--transporting a stove to someone's shop is either a huge pain or a huge expense. I was referred to this man by an appliance service also listed in the Yellow Pages. When I asked the manager of the first place I called if his company ever did work on vintage appliances, he said "we don't but I know a great old guy who's semi-retired--he's been in the business for fifty years and he loves getting his hands on the oldies..." I had a great time on the phone with the man he recommended, and look forward to meeting him.

One last thing-- please remember to photograph the stove before you disassemble it. When I got my backsplash parts back from the chrome guy seven months after I'd taken all the pieces apart, I would have had less luck getting it back together than I've ever had with a Rubik's Cube, had I not had ``before'' photos. Any screws or small parts needed for reassembly I put in zip-loc bags to be stored in the oven. And, yeah, I've still got a couple of these left over, so I know I didn't do it exactly right, but that's a lot better than having too few.

If you'd like to check out cool refurbished stoves in the movies, I can recommend three recent videos for you to rent, in addition to the afore-mentioned Apt Pupil: the remake of Lolita, Driving Miss Daisy, and The Princess Diaries. I found the art direction in all of these to be hugely inspiring, and hope they've helped me beat Martha to the punch.

The internet is also a great place to do some research and window-shopping. I've listed several URLs below that I've found useful. If you find yourself becoming obsessed with these cool old appliances, by all means e-mail me. My poor husband is tired of talking about them with me, and I'd love to shoot the breeze with a fellow fan.


Since first writing this article over a year ago, I have sold that house with the 1953 Magic Chef (to an architect and his wife who loved the kitchen, though it was still unfinished), and moved to California. We spent a year looking for a house, and when we finally found a little place in Berkeley, the first thing we did was start working on, of course, the kitchen. The focal point is a wonderful cobalt blue Wedgewood stove with a chrome top that I found on Ebay. Though the oven does not yet work, we just stand around gawking at the thing most days, as it’s just so cool looking. I hope I get to live with this one a while before we sell the place—especially since it has a griddle. I have found people in California to be much more into vintage appliances than the majority of people in the east, which was surprising to me. Thankfully, this means I have a broader group of people who can tolerate listening to me yammer on about my stove.

I also got a wonderful email from a fellow epinioner, David Bennett, who decided to keep the vintage stove at his family’s beach house after reading this piece. He sent me pictures of it, and the thing is truly gorgeous.

Some Vintage Stove Resources:

A & B Restoration
4761 Holt Blvd.
Montclair, California 91763
(909) 625-7755/ Fax: (909) 621-6456

Antique Stoves
410 Fleming Rd.
Tekonsha MI 49092

Antique Stove Hospital
469 Long Highway
Little Compton, RI 02837

Barnstable Stove Shop
Box 472
Rt. 149
West Barnstable, MA 02668
Phone: 508-362-9913

Brunelle Enterprises
203 Union Rd.
Wales, MA 01081
(413) 245-7396

Good Time Stove Company
Route 112 Box 306
Goshen, MA 01032-0306
Toll Free 1-888-282-7506 / Fax (413) 268-9284

Johnny's Appliances & Classic Ranges
17549 Sonoma Hwy.
PO Box 1407
Sonoma, CA 95476-1407
(707) 996-9730

Lehman's Hardware
1 Lehman Cir.
PO Box 41
Kidron, OH 44636
(330) 857-5441/ Fax: (330) 857-5785

Macy's Texas Stove Works
5515 Almeda Road,
Houston Texas 77004
713 521-0934 / Fax (713) 521-0889

Mill Creek Antiques
109 Newbury
Box 156
Paxico, KS 66526
(913) 636-5520

Old Home Supply
1801 College Ave.
Fort Worth, TX 76110
(817) 927-8004/ Fax: (817) 927-8004

Old House Journal
(classifieds and business directory are invaluable).

Olde Stove Works
33507 Thompson Ave.
Mission, BC V2V 2W9
(604) 826-5669/ Fax: (604) 826-9228

Pacific Stove Works
130 N. Salsipuedes St., Suite 3
Santa Barbara, CA 93103
(805) 962-0967

Manufacturers of Vintage-Style Stoves:

Elmira Stove Works
595 Colby Dr.
Waterloo, ON N2V 1A2
(519) 725-5500/ Fax: 519-725-5503

Manufactures ranges, wall ovens, microwaves, refrigerators, and panel kits for refrigerators and dishwashers. Sells through distributors.

Heartland Appliances
1050 Fountain St North
Cambridge, ON N3H 4R7

Heartland Appliances Inc. has become a leader in the high end appliance industry since its founding in 1990. The company's first appliance offering, the Classic Collection, is still popular. Heartland has recently launched two new product lines, the Metro and Legacy Series.

House of Webster
PO Box 1988
1013 N. Second St.
Rogers, AR 72757-1988
(501) 636-4640/ Fax: (501) 636-2974

Makers of the Country Charm electric range; a replica of a vintage cast iron range. The original patterns, made around 1875, were purchased from a foundry in Rome, Ga. Country Charm wall ovens and convection microwaves also available. Starting price on range, $2,395. Catalog, $3. Sells: by mail order and through retail outlets

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