The magic of AGA

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Because it’s winter… because we only lit her this week… because my porridge is busy bubbling on the stove… and because I love her SO much I simply must document the history of our AGA stove.

Kettle on the boil for the first cup of tea!

Since October last year the house at Vastrap has undergone a complete transformation. The biggest change has been the kitchen living area and one of the best additions has been our beautiful anthracite fired AGA stove. There is something about an AGA that conjures the romanticism of farm life. One simply has to have one. Especially in an area like ours that gets extremely cold in winter. The reality, however, is that most farm houses do not have AGA’s anymore. The traditional old ones were hard to manage, made a big mess and were slowly displaced when electric stoves became fashionable. So imagine my disappointment when I arrived at the farm to no AGA….

When we started discussing the kitchen renovation I pleaded with Quentin to find me one. Fortunately his sister Lesley had an old one standing in her garage on her farm, which is about 20 kilometers away from us. Lesley and her husband Gary moved to Mauritz about 5 years ago but before that the house had been empty for decades while Bill farmed on the lands. Quentin can never remember anyone living there so they must have left in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The AGA had been standing abandoned and unused in the garage since then… can you imagine such a beautiful thing treated so badly!

Lesley and Gary very kindly gave us the stove as they had decided not to use it in their house. We were very excited to go and fetch it, but when it got to Vastrap we realised with shock that it was in a very bad state of repair. Full of rats nests, all rusted and the paint peeling off. Stupidly I didn’t take a photo of what she looked like then. I think I was too stressed about the mad rush to get the kitchen finished before our Christmas visitors arrived!

I quickly went to work to find someone who could help us. The AGA was an integral part of our kitchen design so I was determined to fix it. I got in touch with a woman from Pietermaritzburg  called Emmie who travels around the country with her husband Morris servicing anthracite stoves. Given my general experience with building I thought it would take months to get this done, but to my surprise Emmie and Morris arrived a few days later, loaded the AGA onto a trailer and delivered it back fully restored within 10 days. It was the best service I’ve ever experienced… but as Quentin likes to remind me it did come at a price! It was worth it though and we were thrilled with her new look.

The problem is that these stoves weigh tonnes… the following photos show how we used the strength of 9 men to get her into the house and into position.

Morris undoing the straps on the trailer. The bags of sand are poured in afterwards for extra insulation.

Heave ho there we go!

Negotiating a tricky corner.

She isn’t going anywhere now!

In her place with the chimney section kept open so that we can access it for her once a year service.

Of course this was done in December and we didn’t need to light her until winter in June. So we just admired her instead and finished the renovation around her.

Finishing touches… the chimney is covered with panels of old metal pressed ceiling that we sanded down and painted.

On Sunday when Quentin and I returned from being away we decided to take the plunge and light her. Everyone had said it would be difficult, but Quentin made it look like a breeze. The next day she was warm and cosy and gorgeous. I just had to put a kettle on to boil to see her in action. And then yesterday I simply had to boil some eggs for lunch and then just to make sure she was working okay I left a pot of lamb stock simmering the whole day… imagine that heavenly aroma. And again this morning I simply  had to make some porridge. So I can happily confirm that she is indeed working, but I haven’t made bread or cooked anything in the oven yet… it’s only a matter of time though!

Hot coals burning bright.

Farm eggs on the boil for lunch and lamb stock on the boil just because.

Poepsie cat definitely approves of this big new heater in the house. I bet she would even climb into the oven if I let her!

Poepsie cat approves of the new spot.

Inspecting the ovens… the top one is the hot oven and the bottom one is more like a warmer drawer.

18 thoughts on “The magic of AGA

    • Jacquie, her previous owner was a Scotsman and he called her Puss Puss… Quentin didn’t think that would go well in the Afrikaans community!

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  1. Dearest. Loved your piece. Sounds so good to have a toasty warm kitchen! Now for an oven loaf to have with the stock.Interesting choice of name for the cat-old Fassler family name?!
    Dee x

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    • Hi Sharyn, we have two different methods. We either use one of those metal fire starter canisters to get the anthracite going outside. Use fire lighters to get it going then leave outside until the anthracite is red hot. Pour into the Aga and top up with anthracite. The problem with this method is that the fire can go out if you don’t replenish the anthracite at exactly the right time. Then it’s hard to get going again in the morning. Much easier method, which we now use, is to get the anthracite going while it’s in the Aga using a gas flame. We have a hose connector on a gas bottle with a long metal stick on the end that lights up with gas. We stick that into the bottom of he Aga and leave it for 15-20 minutes or however long it takes to get the anthracite lit. The nice thing is you can stick it in at any time when you need to get the fire going again! I’m planning to light ours this weekend so I’ll do a blog post on it. You also need to make sure that your Aga is well serviced so that it draws properly. Good luck!

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  2. Hi there – we have an old stove that needs refurbishment – please can you pass on the details of Emmie and Morris? Thanks so much!

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    • Hi Rachelle, Emmie’s number is 0829656560 or 0317851387. Get a detailed quote from her first because it can be very expensive! Where are you based?

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      • Thanks Marisa! We are in Cape Town so it might well not be realistic for Emmie/Morris to help us. It is very hard to find restorers of anthracite stoves in this area unfortunately!

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  3. I don’t have an AGA but I light my (much smaller) Welcome Dover often in winter. Here is my fail proof method:
    Blitz (fire lighter – looks like dense foamalite dipped in some fuel) at the bottom – sometimes I use chipboard dipped in paraffin (that’s kerosene for you foreigners).
    Then about 8-12 pieces of charcoal brickets packed around & on top of the fire lighter (the stuff you put in a Weber).
    Then I stick my one cleaning tool, which is basically just a straight rod, through the open plate on top of the fire box down all the way close to the fire starter (and through the ash pan). This is because if you just fill it up recklessly, you could clog up the whole airflow which then will cause smoke in your house and thefire ro not starting properly. This can happen especially if you’re using the last bit of anthracite in the bucket, and is a problem because you have to re-pack the fire, and are losing time.
    Now I fill anthracite top to bottom (full up!) using biggest pieces I can, because again, smaller pieces can more easily clog up.
    Now I remove the rod and close the plate.
    Then I set my flaps, and light up!

    Some notes:
    – I tried the metal pipe but didn’t like it because it takes really long and uses a lot of gas, and when you’re done the fire is still a long way to “up to speed”. I think the gas also consumes all the oxygen so even if you leave the gas on for longer, your own coal fire does not really get going until you remove the gas.
    – This way works 100%, but it still takes at least an hour before the coal is completely ignited, and the stove starts getting warm.
    – I don’t subscribe to the “start small & add more coals later on when it’s going” fraternity because it binds you to a time table, and because each time you add coals you cause smoke (up the chimney – which neighbours can smell if they’re close) until the new batch gets heated up, and because adding coals causes a dip in your fire temperature.
    – I don’t refuel any more (because if you wait too long you can kill the fire instead of re-kindle it), but my stove can give me 5 hours of strong heat per load, which is fine for heating the house & making a very slow potjie & baking a bread, etc.
    – Here in Cape Town my theory is that the grade of “anthracite” we get here is really low grade coal – lots of ash – difficult to keep “the same fire going all winter” without having to clean out the ash & start again. Those old anthracite heaters had such small ash pans, they were obviously made for a much higher grade of coal than what I have used here in Cape Town.

    Now if anyone still believes their AGA is too much effort, let me know, I will gladly take it off your hands and break out a wall or two to get in into my house!

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    • Hi Leon, thanks very much for your detailed feedback!

      I lit our Aga on Sunday and it’s now going full steam. We wash our anthracite before using it to take away all the dust. I also gave the chimney and Aga a good vacuum inside before using it to take away all of last year’s debris. The chimney seems to be drawing beautifully. We use the top-up method simply because it gets so cold here in the mid-winter months that we want it going all the time. It’s our main source of heating for the whole house. I used to get it wrong by trying to use anthracite sparingly, but that way I often killed the fire. Since last year I haven’t held back and just top it up twice a day to keep the temperature relatively constant. It does vary of course, but that’s part of the joy of using a old stove like this. You can see instantly how hot the fire is by how fast the kettle boils! It really makes the winter more bearable having a nice warm stove, I just love it!

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      • Hi Marisa,

        I have had my AGA for 6 plus years now and it has been a problem from day one, I eventually called Emmie and followed her advice, now, having insulated the chimney to the top, fitted an anti downdraft cowel and topped up the vermiculite filler inside it is doing much better. I riddle and top up with anthracite twice a day at 7.00am and 7.00pm sometimes a little later or earlier so the stove would go for 12 to 14 hours between top ups. The huge problem is that there never seems to be hot enough coals to keep the top up alight although I do fill it well, I have tried little bits at a time to give it a chance I have also left the ash pit door open as well as the plate plug off to get the draw going faster (Emmie says not to do this). a bit at my wits end as I really love the stove and would like it to work seamlessly ! any advice on keeping it going ? would love to hear from you.

        Kind regards,

        Rodney van Breda

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      • Hi Rodney,
        Thanks so much for your questions. It’s taken me a while to get the feel for this. In the beginning I often topped up too late when the coals were too low and then ended up smothering the fire and having to light it with gas again. You need to get it going strongly first and rather top up when the fire is still burning very hot to make sure the new coals take. Does your fire ever really get going well i.e burning red hot and shooting some flames out the top when you open the top plug? If it does then that says to me that your chimney is drawing fine and perhaps you are just waiting too long before topping up or you need to close the air vent at the bottom a bit to help it burn more slowly. If it never really gets red hot then there might still be a draw problem with the chimney.

        I must say, I find it hard to stick to a very rigid routine, but I do shake out coals and top up twice a day in the morning and evening before bed. Initially I burn it very hot and after I’m sure that it’s going nicely I fine tune a bit, which may be after a day or two. When it’s burning very hot it seems to use a lot of coals so I actually then turn it down a bit by closing the air vent at the bottom with a piece of folded foil. I think the quality of anthracite also affects how well it burns so you have to get to know when the remaining fire is hot enough to ignite the new coals. It’s a bit of an art, but rather err on the side of more coals sooner than less. It eventually settles down though. I use about one of those old brass coal buckets a day.

        I’m not sure if this will help you at all, but please feel free to trouble shoot until you get it right. You can also inbox me photos.
        Good luck!

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  4. so wonderful to hear all your stories – I am thinking of buying a Moderna, which is a wood and coal stove, not antrasite – definately not an Aga, I agree, but more suitable to my budget at this stage of time. Emmie really helpful, stunning woman!

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