After the initial push to make the boat almost-liveable, I started to prioritize tasks, and make more concrete plans about what I wanted to do with the space I had. One of the first jobs was to provide some real heat. The boat had a lovely Art Deco multi-fuel stove in it, but it was disconnected from the stove pipe and virtually every knob and lever was seized into place. The top of the stove was rusted over, and the rings were rust-welded into one solid piece. A wire brush and a blow-lamp gave me most of the leverage I needed to separate them, and a few gentle taps with a wooden mallet did the rest of the work. Internally, the firebox and flue looked in reasonable condition – a testament to the construction practices of the Art Deco period. I cleaned out a lot of soot, and checked around for any cracks or holes. Everything looked good.
The stove pipe was more of a challenge, and my brother spent a good half hour on the roof clearing the accumulation of rust and debris with a flue brush and rod. The damper at the end of the pipe had broken in half, and the rod that controlled the damper was seized solid. Worse still, the collar that the stove connected to had broken away from the back of the stove and was entirely immovable. Restoring the fire was going to be a huge job, but I was confident that could make some temporary fixes with exhaust repair paste and fire cement that would get me through the winter. A stove pipe isn’t a terribly complicated thing to repair, and I could live without a damper until the weather got warmer. A few splodges of cement later, I lit a piece of paper and dropped it into the grate. The smoke disappeared up the chimney, and all was well with the world. A few pieces of wood and paper went into the next test, and the results were the same. The draw was good, and barely any smoke came out of the stove. Filled with confidence, my brother hauled some wood into the boat, and I brought a bag of coal. In an hour, the chill was starting to fade and we could take off our coats.
“I don’t think that there can be many things more terrifying than waking up in pitch darkness, unable to breathe or see through a veil of choking black smoke. This is exactly what happened to me that night, and I consider myself lucky that I woke up when I did.”
The idea of spending a warm night on the boat was too tempting to ignore. I avoided my usual commute home, and brought some food to cook for dinner. Cooking a meal on the boat would be another small victory. I had a functioning gas cooker, but so far I had resisted the urge to make a hot meal. Sitting in the warm and eating a hot meal felt good. I didn’t have quite enough of the comforts to feel at home yet, but it’s amazing how much more friendly a place can feel when the damp starts to dry out. My spirits were lifted, and I went to bed. As it turned out, I almost never woke up again.
I don’t think that there can be many things more terrifying than waking up in pitch darkness, unable to breathe or see through a veil of choking black smoke. This is exactly what happened to me that night, and I consider myself lucky that I woke up when I did. I was sleeping near the bow doors, and so I pushed my way outside and got a few clear breaths into my lungs. My eyes were still streaming, and the tail end of panic and the cold of the night were making me shiver. I thought at first -still half asleep- that the whole boat was on fire. In reality, something had gone wrong with the stove. I walked along the gunwhale to the back of the boat and opened the rear door. With the wind blowing through from bow to stern, the smoke cleared in a few minutes and I could get back inside to survey the damage. Externally, the fire looked fine. There were no holes in the chimney, and the firebox looked intact. I would have to wait until it cooled down before I could see exactly what had happened.
That morning, I disassembled the top of the stove and examined the whole of the casting with a flashlight. I spent a good half an hour looking around to find a crack or a hole in the casting that would explain why I’d spent the night doing an olfactory impersonation of a smoked ham. Eventually, I saw the cause of my sleepless night: A tiny crack right at the back of the casting that carried the smoke from the firebox to the chimney. I reached in with a screwdriver and scraped away the soot. The crack became a rusty hole about the size of a two pence piece. That was the cause of my sleepless night. That hole would have sucked air into the chimney instead of smoke, and while it had given me a fright it wouldn’t be too difficult to fix. I just needed to scrape away the remaining soot, and patch the hole with some steel gauze and fire cement. Relieved that this wouldn’t be a serious setback, I gave the edge of the hole another scrape with the screwdriver, trying to get back to clean metal. There was a nasty metallic squeaking noise, and the hole tripled in size. By the time my jaw had finished dropping, so had the rest of the casting. The entire flue-box had disintegrated and fallen through into the depths of the stove. The restoration of the fire was going to take much longer than I had expected.
In an ideal world, I would have lifted the stove into a truck and taken it to a workshop where I could disassemble, repair, and even recast the parts in relative comfort. In the real world however, I was forced to work in a poorly lit, ice cold narrowboat with limited tools and a two hour commute each way. On the plus side, sweating for several hours while covered in soot and rust and then walking onto a bus carrying a large iron casting wrapped in newspaper pretty much guarantees that you will get a seat to yourself.
Piece by piece, I got the stove parts into the workshop and repaired them. I dived through the ash cans to find the missing parts of the casting, and I chiselled off steel bolts that had rusted completely through to remove the back of the stove. With the right power tools and the right environment it would have taken me an afternoon to do. With hand tools and cramped gymnastics, it took well over a week. The flue box was essentially a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle. There were radiating cracks and flakes of rust all over the inside of the casting. Each piece was treated with a wire brush and a grinder until it was completely clean, and then the pieces were stapled back together with stainless bolts and a few pieces of Meccano. Any cracks were drilled at both ends to stop them spreading, then sealed with high temperature filler. To finish off, a thin layer of furnace cement was added to the inside using an artists trowel.
Compared to the flue box, the rest of the fire needed very little restoration. A small crack on the top of the stove was drilled and filled with cement before the whole top was blacked with stove enamel. The whole stove was cleaned and the enamel surfaces were wiped down with a detergent. The large metal sheet from the back of the stove was flattened with a mallet and sprayed with a black stove enamel. The damper controls were freed using a combination of penetrating oil and brute force, and then cleaned with a wire brush and detergent. All of the nuts and bolts were replaced with stainless steel equivalents, and the holes in the metal sheet that formed the back of the stove were reinforced with stainless steel penny washers before the back was bolted back into place.
The connection between the stove and the flue pipe was still a problem, since the connecting ring had broken away from the fire and was firmly stuck to the chimney. The ring should have connected to the fire by a pair of cast lugs on the ring, which supported bolts that went into the casting of the stove. The lugs had long since disintegrated, and the head of the bolts that had held them in place were rusted beyond use. I thought of many possible solutions, most of which involved an angle grinder, a sledge hammer, or (when I was particularly tired) high explosives. In the end, I solved the problem by cutting the bolts level with the top of the casting, and then drilling and re-tapping the bolt holes by hand. I then used long stainless bolts and penny washers to clamp the top of the connecting ring to the back of the stove.
So, another hurdle was out of the way, and I’m very glad that I got the stove working again. There were times when I considered selling it, and a few times that I thought I wouldn’t be able to get it working again. In truth, repairing it was a lot more trouble than I wanted to deal with at the time, and it would have been much easier to buy a new multi-fuel stove. But I’m glad that I persevered, as it was a unique piece that I enjoyed every time I stepped aboard, and it was also an incredible money-saver once I got the hang of using the oven.