Stoking the Fires

A chilly sailor ends his woes by building a custom soapstone coal stove. From "Hands-On Sailor" in our January 2009 issue

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Ted Romanosky built this soapstone stove to fit into a unique space. He was helped by the donation of steel doors from an old stove. The top and sides are held together with bronze pins.Herb Mccormick

The cozy harbor in Wickford, Rhode Island, is a bustling place in summer, but come winter, it's a haven for a close band of wooden-boat aficionados who keep their classic beauties in the water year-round. New England winters can be more than a little nippy, which poses a quandary: How does one keep the quarters snug and warm through the long, cold season?

Ted Romanosky, owner of the handsome 45-foot cedar-on-oak schooner Good Fortune-a Sam Crocker design built in 1939-decided to take matters into this own hands by designing and building his own soapstone coal stove. "I needed a stove to fit a particular spot on the boat, and I couldn't find one suitable," he said. "I had some soapstone from the troughs in an old cattle barn, so I decided to do some research and realized there was nothing to prevent me from making my own."

For inspiration, Romanosky took note of the dimensions of a Norwegian-built Jotul stove aboard the cutter Ampelisca, which lay just down the dock. With donated steel doors and the soapstone he'd procured for free-anyone considering this project can find a variety of sources for the material by Googling "soapstone for sale"-the cost for a new stove came in at less than $100.

"It's a very easy project," said Romanosky. "You can cut soapstone with wood tools."

With the four walls and top and bottom pieces of the 1.25-inch soapstone cut to size, Romanosky pinned them together with bronze fasteners; the forward and aft sections are pinned to the port and starboard panels, and the top and bottom slabs are pinned to the front and back sections. The joints were sealed with regular furnace cement. "The way it's pinned, the top and bottom hold everything in place," he said. "This allows the stove to work as it heats up."

Romanosky later added bronze angle corners to the piece, with dedicated bolts affixed to the bronze, which he'll then connect with eyebolts to the bulkheads to ensure that the stove stays upright. He's already added carbon-dioxide and smoke detectors above the stove; a fan distributes the heat.

The design itself couldn't be simpler. The doors open into three chambers. The bottom door, with a shaker grate, reveals the ash pit; the middle door opens onto the firebox. In the top chamber, which has a built-in baffle installed about 4 inches from the top of the stove, coal gasses burn off before they're vented through the stovepipe and through the deck via the smokestack, or Charley Noble. The latter pieces were purchased off the shelf at a local chandlery but can also be procured online at an outfitter such as Paul E. Luke (www.peluke.com).

Romanosky tested the stove in his backyard before installing it aboard Good Fortune, maneuvering the roughly 250-pound unit belowdecks using the schooner's forward gaff as a gin pole.

Before it went into regular use, the stove also required seasoning, which is accomplished by putting it through five or six heating and cooling cycles by building a fire and letting it die down.

Over a glass or two of Newfoundland Screech last February, I had the chance to lounge an afternoon away with Romanosky and friends on a bitterly cold day with northerly winds howling through the masts of neighboring craft.

The cabin was toasty, the company terrific. There was only one problem.
"Man, I have to open some ports," said the skipper. "It's getting hot in here."

Herb McCormick is an editor at large for Cruising World.