Stovepipes: the sensible home-heating solution


What a wintry day it has been for the middle of April! Raymond and I passed through several squalls of snow and hail as we drove to Queensborough from Montreal, and it was freezing (as in 0 Celsius) when we got here. (Fortunately warmer weather is predicted for the rest of the week.)

But anyway, I mention the cold because of course the Manse needed warming up when we got here. The first thing I do when we arrive (in the cold months, anyway) is turn the thermostat up from its Raymond-and-Katherine-aren’t-here setting of about 11C, cranking it to 20 (that’s about 70 for you Fahrenheit-oriented readers). The good old furnace kicks in within seconds, and the Manse’s downstairs is toasty right quick – like, in less than 10 minutes.

Ah, but upstairs is another matter altogether. This house was built in 1888, before central heating. The heat came from wood-burning stoves (I assume; I suppose coal could have been used, but since we are surrounded by woodland I think that unlikely) whose heat was moved throughout the house thanks to a system of stovepipes. What you see in the photo with this post is a reminder of those days: the round pie-plate-type thing on the wall of our bedroom covers the place where once a stovepipe that ran across the top of the room connected to a chimney.

When I was growing up here at the Manse in the 1960s, we still had those stovepipes running through many of the rooms, and the wood stove to warm them. The system worked beautifully, if you don’t count the occasional small chimney fire. (No damage; don’t worry.)

Alas, I guess residential stovepipe systems are a thing of the past. (A fire hazard, you say? What the?!?!) The Manse’s is long gone.

The problem is this: because the stove and stovepipes could be counted on in former times to warm the whole house, not much thought was given to heating vents when things were modernized to allow for an oil furnace. There are several vents downstairs at the Manse, but in the whole rambly second floor there are only two, at opposite ends of the house (and, I might add, neither of them in or even particularly near the master bedroom).

So you see where I’m going with this: while our Manse very quickly turns from chilly to cozy on the ground floor when the furnace is turned up, the upstairs takes a LOT longer. It’s cold up there for at least a couple of hours after we arrive.

How I long for the days when one could walk in the door, kindle a fire in the old Findlay stove, and have the house – the WHOLE house – warm in no time.

Do you suppose there’s any hope for a Bring Back Stovepipes campaign?

6 thoughts on “Stovepipes: the sensible home-heating solution

  1. Great story! I also grew up in a house with such stovepipes, though perhaps a few less than what would be present in the manse you are describing. You are correct that these stovepipes were the primary way of heating the second floor.
    Before the development of the concept of heating with a “central” wood furnace or having the kitchen stove heat the entire house via such stovepipes, one would have had multiple wood stoves in a house the size of this manse–unquestionably two and possibly as many as four. These wood stoves were placed in the rooms where in an even earlier era one would have had individual fire places. Such wood stoves would then have been linked to one of the several chimneys a house the size of the manse would have had.

    • It is interesting that you should make that comment, John. As I was in the process of writing the post about the stovepipes, and taking the photo that went with it, I realized that my memory of the stovepipe system of my childhood must have been slightly off. I had recalled that our wood stove in the Manse kitchen heated every room in the house, but as I examine the setup now, I think there can have been no link between that stove-and-stovepipe setup on the south side of the house and the upstairs rooms on the north side of the house. (Though I could still be wrong on that; maybe something was jerryrigged.) But it did indeed look very much like there must have been, in earlier days, a separate stove to heat the north half of the house, with its own set of stovepipes. (I’m thinking that with a building date of 1888 it would have been too late in the development of “modern” technology for the rooms to have had individual fireplaces.) What I wouldn’t give to be able to go back to 1888 for just half an hour or so – time to have a walk through the brand-new Manse and see how things were set up!

  2. Always nice to connect with fellow restorers of old homes. I too spent much time at our farmhouse when I was younger as it was my aunt & uncles farm. I guess as impractical as it may be I am trying to recreate those memories by restoring the house to its former humble yet dignified original form. It had been modernized and updated with no attempt to retain the unique character that gives these old houses their appeal.
    I was reading about your experience with wood stoves and chimneys on April 20th & Feb 27. We have tackled similar problems and I thought that I would pass on our solutions that might be of interest. I’ll try and keep this brief and not get into too much detail.
    We restored an 1889 one room schoolhouse at The Ridge a few years ago and it now has a bracket chimney almost identical to the one pictured in your April 20th blog. Ours is, however, disguising an Excel stainless steel 6″ chimney. These are light with only i” insulation and easy to install on their steel brackets and with clearances that allow one to make a fake bracket from lumber and drywall that completely looks like the original in your photo. Ours starts just above the backboard, goes up through the attic and then through the roof. At the roof line we again disguise by building a small brick surround chimney using recycled brick that hides the stainless steel one. The appearance is identical to when it was built in 1889 but with an up to code chimney.
    On our farm house we had an ugly block chimney stuck on an outside wall to vent the oil furnace in the basement that had been added in 1970. We replaced it with a new block chimney built up through the house but on the inside of an outer wall from the basement through the living room and bedroom above it to the attic and then through the roof. It contained two stainless steel liners, one for the furnace and the second starting in the living room to allow the installation of a wood stove. The new chimney was in a corner of the living room and went through the bedroom above right beside the original cupboard chimney that was still in place but cut off in the attic. When we coated the block chimney with a thin layer of cement and painted it to match the walls it looked like it had been part of the original wall surface in both rooms. Above the roof line we again used recycled brick to build a tall majestic chimney to surround and cement in the stainless steel liners. This again resulted in a solution to getting rid of an inappropriate addition of the block chimney and allowing the reinstallation of a second wood stove in the same location as the original stove in the living room without having to put a pipe up through the floor to the original closet chimney which would also not pass code.
    Well so much for being brief. Hopefully I can show you some of these ideas, maybe this summer. An old website is still up on The Ridge School. Just google The Ridge Schoolhouse Restoration.

    • Ernie, this is excellent (and encouraging) information on the wood-stove front; thank you! (I will admit that some of it was a bit over my head – me being more the turquoise-decor type than the building-infrastructure type – but I turned it over to Raymond – whose job it is to think these projects through – and he was intrigued and impressed.) I was also intrigued to see that the Quinte branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario had been connected with your schoolhouse project. I joined the Quinte ACO as soon as we bought the Manse but so far it seems to me that its emphasis is almost wholly on southern Hastings County and Prince Edward County. Interesting that at one point at least they turned their eyes northward; perhaps they will do so again sometime. There is so much of heritage interest up here! Anyway, for sure Raymond and I will drive up to your area before much longer; it would be great to meet you and see your projects.

      • I first heard of the Quinte ACO from a small ad or notice in the Bancroft Times about a Sunday afternoon bus tour of North Hastings heritage houses and sites. They always had walking tours of various heritage neighbourhoods and, as you mention, mostly in the south. But they had one in Queensborough sometime in the early 1990s. I remember seeing the quilt lady’s house and watching her work. I don’t know if they still do those monthly walking tours but they have ventured north on occasion. They held a board meeting at our other schoolhouse in Ormsby in 1999 when they also checked out The Ridge Schoolhouse. The ACO helped us mostly by channeling donations to the restoration through their books and issuing tax receipts. They were very helpful and encouraging. I’ll have to hook up with them again.
        I know every old house is different so I don’t expect the chimney work we did would exactly translate to the Manse. I just thought that I’d show you what is possible. I’m sure that there may be more sensible solutions (compromises) but those are for regular houses.

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