Soapstone Stoves; A new dimension to heating

Roland Baker might well be considered a throwback to a former generation. He's a Yankee craftsman in the best tradition, so proud of the product he makes that he signs his name to it when he is finished.

Baker makes soapstone stoves (wood- or coal-burning) for the Hearthstone Corporation here, one of two manufacturers of this type of stove in the United States. The other is the Woodstock Soapstone Stove Company in Woodstock, Vt.

Both companies make handcrafted products using a basic material that puts their stoves on a par with the much-heavier tiled ''kachelofens'' of Austria.

Soapstone has some very special qualities which add a new dimension to heating homes with wood or coal. Those who have these stoves sing their praises. To quote one user (a pharmacist whom I approached seeking directions to Hearthstone): ''It sends out a sort of gentle heat that warms you beautifully whether you are next to the stove or on the other side of the room. It sort of embraces you in comfort.''

On a snowy day in mid-January I experienced that same ''embrace of comfort'' when visiting the Woodstock company. Near or far, the warmth felt the same. It was all that the advertising said it would be.

The unique qualities of this pale-gray stone, which earlier generations knew so well (who doesn't have a grandparent that did not take a slab of warm soapstone to bed on a cold winter night or use boot and glove warmers made from this smooth rock), is slowly being rediscovered by today's generation.

Steatite, to give it its technical name, occurs all around the world, but in few places more abundantly than North America where one vein runs from Nova Scotia through Quebec, Vermont, and New Hampshire all the way to Alabama. Alaska also is rich in this material and outcroppings occur all through South America.

It is commonly called ''soapstone'' because it has the feel of dry soap when first cut from the quarry.

The great value of soapstone is its thermal capacity. Soapstone has twice the heat-storage capacity of iron. As a matter of fact, it stores more heat for its weight than any other naturally occuring material apart from water.

If man had wished to manufacture -- create, if you wish -- the perfect stove material, it would be durable, capable of storing quantities of heat and then radiating it out for long periods; it would be able to withstand great fluctuations in temperature with little expansion or contraction so that fittings could be made tight, and it would be attractive.

Soapstone has all these qualities and has given to the smaller New England stoves the sort of performance figures that are otherwise found only in the larger and heavier tiled ''kachelofens'' of Austria.

In 1861, a geological study of New England found soapstone had a ''superior ability to hold heat'' which made it highly suitable for ''lining furnaces, kilns, fireplaces, and arches.'' But many years before that, Benjamin Franklin had recognized the advantages of soapstone and incorporated it in some of his fireplaces.

The original design of the current Woodstock stove was patented in 1779.

It was the Eskimos and Indians, however, who first recognized the stone's special values more than 1,000 years ago. They called it ''pot stone'' because it was soft enough to be readily carved into bowls, but was much more durable than clay.

When heated over the fire the soapstone pots absorbed so much heat that they could be removed from the fire and would still keep the food simmering for some while. The Indians and Eskimos also found that heated soapstone stones, immersed into a pot of water, would keep the water simmering for up to an hour.

An easy way for the layman to appreciate the superior heat-holding qualities of soapstone is to place a slab of it on a hot iron stove. Long after the fire has gone out and the iron stove is cold, the soapstone will remain warm to the touch.

In one test, which anyone can readily duplicate, a firebrick and a piece of soapstone of equal size and shape were heated up to 400 degrees F. After four hours the firebrick was cold but the soapstone remained warm to the touch.

The soapstone stove manufacturers say that their stoves can hold a fire for 12 or more hours and will continue to radiate warmth into the room for several hours thereafter. Indeed, if there is any disadvantage to soapstone as a stove material, it is this: It is all too easy to forget to reload the stove until long after the fire has gone out!

Both Vermont companies manufacturer a product that is every bit the equal of the best imported stove with one advantage which the imports do not have, and that's soapstone.

If you want to explore the soapstone option, write to: Hearthstone Corporation, RFD 1, Morrisville, Vt. 05661, and Woodstock Soapstone Company, P. O. Box 223, Woodstock, Vt. 05091.

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