Lighting the AGA

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One of the very first things I blogged about almost a year ago was our beautiful AGA stove, which was lovingly restored as part of our renovations (see The magic of AGA). It is a very old anthracite stove so requires quite a bit of tinkering and attention to keep it running properly through the winter. I can get terribly distracted by it, lifting the chrome lids every time I walk past to check if the fire is still burning hot. When the kettle takes a bit longer to boil, I know it’s time to stoke it up!

With a cold front moving through our region this weekend I decided to light it yesterday. My neighbour Jenny is resisting lighting hers because she says that’s the surest sign that winter has arrived and the longer she can hold out the better. For me it’s all part of embracing winter and the slower pace of life it brings. I love the late afternoon ritual of closing all the curtains, getting a roaring fire going, stoking up the AGA and getting slow cooked supper in the oven. Of course our animals love it too, especially Poepsie cat!

I’ve had some questions about how I light my AGA. Newer AGA’s are generally oil or gas run, which must be a lot easier to maintain. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of information about the anthracite versions on the Internet so I will share my experience in the hope that it will help someone.

First, make sure the stove is regularly serviced to keep it and the chimney clean. It will be much harder to keep the fire going if the stove does not draw properly. Our chimney is hidden behind pieces of old pressed ceiling which we can remove easily to sort out any problems. I only scraped out a handful of grime so it still looks okay. [Note: After three winters of full time use I gave the Aga a more thorough clean by opening up the connection to the chimney and cleaning it out. At first we were very puzzled about how to get the grime out, but then Quentin had the bright idea of using the vacuum cleaner. It worked like a charm! We sucked up loads of anthracite residue and I’m sure this will help to keep the fire drawing nicely.]

Aga 010Second, rinse the anthracite before using it as this will minimise the soot deposit on your kitchen cupboards. We had hardly any last year so I think it really does make a difference.

Third, anthracite is very hard to light so you either need to get some red hot coals going outside using a fire starter canister or you can start the anthracite in the stove using a gas flame. I prefer the latter method, because it’s so much easier especially when the weather is foul outside. Also, it’s much easier to restart the fire if it goes out. There is nothing worse than being in constant fear of the fire going out and having to scoop the cold anthracite out by hand! I have a gas bottle with a hose connector and metal rod attachment on the end. I simply stick it in the bottom of the stove and leave it until the anthracite is lit. It works like a dream and gives one so much more flexibility. It can take a good 30 minutes to get things going the first time so just be patient. It’s worth having a torch on hand to look into the drum if you aren’t sure if it’s lit. There must be a good red glow otherwise it won’t work! [Note: don’t be too sparing with your anthracite. You need to fill the fire box up completely and top up the coals twice a day if you want the fire to go 24/7. If you add anthracite at the wrong time when the coals are too low this will just kill the fire. It feels like you are going through a lot of fuel in the beginning, but it soon stabilises out and you also get a more constant stove and oven temperature.]

Aga 020

Aga 021

Fourth, don’t expect it to be hot immediately. It takes quite a long time to heat up properly. I lit mine in the early afternoon and it was perfect by the next morning when Poepsie cat had taken up her position for the winter and I was able to boil the kettle for my morning cup of Rooibos tea. When the coals are glowing red hot top up the drum with anthracite. Be careful to use the right tools so that you don’t burn yourself! Also, keep a metal bucket on hand to scrape out the ash once or twice a day.

Aga 027I would love to hear from anyone with more tips and tricks on how to use the AGA!

23 thoughts on “Lighting the AGA

  1. How lovely to get winter under way. Sadly we don’t have anything as romantic as an AGA in our home although I would really enjoy having one and I am sure our three fur babies would thoroughly enjoy the warmth of it just like your Poepsie cat.
    🙂 Mandy xo

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    • You would really enjoy cooking on it. The oven temperature is a bit unpredictable but it’s great to be able to cook instantly without having to remember to put the oven on!

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  2. I have an Aga and wouldn’t be without it now. Mine is oil fuelled so it’s quite easy to light and keep clean. I have three wood burning stoves that I also love… there is something romantic and homely about real fires.
    I love baked potatoes, rice pudding, slow roast vegetables and roast dinners cooked in the Aga best!

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  3. I’m so pleased my Aga is oil fired; we used to have a wood fired Rayburn that was just as wonderful to cook on, but needed a fair amount of nurturing and went out when I forgot to keep it stoked up. Like May, we have a wood burning stove, which is very homely to sit in front of on a cold night.

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  4. we use methylated spirits to start our. Fill the anthracite full, cut beer can in half to fit directly underneath the anthracite in the ash box, light with a match, leave the door open ,it will take two of these to light the anthracite.

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  5. I have a cream coloured 5 door anthracite fired AGA.I bought it for a R1000 in 1996 from an elderly lady who was selling her house and the new owners wife didnt want ian AGA near her! Growing up in the 60s/70s in the UK countryside I always envied the farmers wives and their Rayburns and AGA’s. Many years later I am here in Oudtshoorn married to a farmer and have my own AGA. I also start mine up with a floor polish tin & Methylated spirits.I have a 6 metre chimney(needed to get through the roof as the AGA is on a inner wall) so at times its quite a challenge to get it drawing a draft when cold especially when the wind blows. The AGA warms this huge old farmhouse and the local farmers are always popping in to have Koffie en Beskuit and thaw out in the kitchen.The main problem we have in the Klein Karoo is obtaining anthracite. It costs about R200 a 40kg bag when you can get it. After 15 yrs of living with AGAtha we still love her in spite of the fine layer of soot end of winter.

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    • Thank you for sharing your story Yolanda! It is my morning ritual to shake out the ash and fill her up with anthracite. We are lucky to have Lesotho nearby so a 50kg bag is only R110! I usually rinse the anthracite before we use it to reduce the soot. We also have a high chimney but ours draws well because there is a metal contraption at the top that is supposed to improve heat conduction. I’m sure we’ll eventually have to do a good chimney sweep to keep her going well. Here’s to a happy and warm winter with AGAtha! 😊

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  6. Could you please explain what the circle of tin foil is for? I am moving to a house with an aga at the end of July and I am an newbie! There is NO info on the Internet which explains how to “drive” an anthracite aga. I have learnt more from your blog than in a month of trawling google. Thank you so much xx

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    • Hi Julia, how lucky that you are moving to a house with an Aga! I know what you mean about the dearth of information so that’s why I decided to share my experience. if you are referring to the circle of tin foil in my photo that was just something i used to hold the ash residue i cleaned out of the chimney. Our temperature regulator also doesn’t work so I actually use a piece of folded tinfoil to regulate the airflow into the fire box down below. Don’t stress too much because it’s basically just a big anthracite fire box, which is fairly easy to keep going once you get the hang of it and if you have a good draw on your chimney. Let me know how it goes!

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  7. We just bought a farm in Middelburg eastern cape,I still have to start it up for the first time,I will keep in contact ,hope we will get it right ,I wish my grandmother was still here to help
    The house has a beautiful aga in ,but by the look of it I don’t think it was used in years

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    • Hi Adele, that sounds really exciting! There is nothing better than reviving something special that hasn’t been cared for in a while. You may need to service your Aga to get her working optimally. I can give you some suggestions if you send me an email. Otherwise if you follow the steps I used you shouldn’t have any problems as long as you have good ventilation through the chimney. Good luck!

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  8. Hi Marisa, we have been lucky enough to buy a house with an anthracite Aga in the Free State. Like some of the others Ive never owned one before and really need help firing it up for the first time. You mention rinsing the anthracite, I know this sounds silly, do you rinse it with a water?

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    • Hi Kim, thanks so much for your question. I’m so glad that we can share our experiences with our Agas here. Yes, we just wash ours with water and then put the clean ones into smaller bags that are more manageable to carry. You can also just shake off the excess dust. If you notice some residue building up in your kitchen cupboards then you can try washing the anthracite before using it. If your Aga is working well it shouldn’t let out any smoke into the kitchen but I just don’t want to take a chance. My neighbour has to clean her kitchen cupboards after winter, but they discovered that the drum inside their Aga is cracked so that might be why it’s making a mess. Play around and see what works for you. Keep warm! Hope you get it started nicely.

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  9. Hi Marisa! I was looking around for some information when I found your site – we live in Sweden (home of the original AGA!) and have an old coke-fired Aga, which we light every winter. We rake out the ashes and top it up every morning and evening, and it is lovely to cook on! I find our ovens hold the temperature very well. Our top oven holds around 225° C and the lower one 100° C, which is perfect for slow-cooking stews and porridge, and I can leave things in over-night to find them cooked to perfection in the morning. It was installed in the 1950s and is still working well! It’s a different model to the one you have though, but the same principles apply I assume.
    We have an instruction booklet too somewhere, how to care for it and how to cook large dinners…!

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  10. Have just got our old aga lit after nearly 50 years.. its about 70 years old. I was giggling at when you said initially when you walked past yours you checked everytime to see if it was lit.. thats me.. havent used ovens yet as they need to dry out and air ( a little bit rusty) what is the best setting for cooking and overnight burning. I know the range has to settle too and get it used to the heat slowly. Would appreciate any advice as the internet is limited with help. Ours is 4 ovens.. dating back to late 1930’s early 40’s.

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  11. Hi Marisa. We have just moved into a house with a very old 5 door Aga. It hasn’t been used for years. I’ve cleaned it to the best of my ability. We filled it with anthracite and tried to light it with the gas iron. After about an hour a bit of smoke came out of the chimney but if we take the flame away it goes out. The anthracite is very big, some like the size of my fist. Do you think this is the problem. Thanks. Julie

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    • Hi Julie, thanks for getting in touch. I lit my Aga for the first time this winter yesterday. It was red hot last night, so I closed all the air vents because it was too hot!
      Your problem is most likely that the chimney is not drawing enough. You can test your anthracite by trying to light it with some fire lighters in one of those braai chimney starters. If it doesn’t start in that then you know what the problem is. You can try and stick some brooms on long poles down he chimney to clean it. Also make sure the temperature regulator is set at maximum so that the air vents are open wide.
      Let me know when you’ve had success! Good luck.

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  12. Hi Marisa. We eventually got the Aga going. I took the big anthracite out and used smaller ones? It’s now so hot it’s unreal. I found a lady called Emmie Heathman she’s called the Aga Whisperer. She goes around restoring and repairing Agas. I’ve asked her to come and check mine out. Would hate to burn the house down. Thanks for your help.
    Regards
    Julie

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