Saturday, April 19, 2008


Spring may not seem to be the most obvious time to talk about fireplaces, but here in the Catskills the nights are still cool. In the depths of winter, a roaring fire feels like a necessity of life. On a really cool spring night, it's more of a real luxury. Daylight stretches into later hours, and a glowing fire is just the thing to take the chill off the house.

When I was first working on the plans for my house, I thought I wanted a modern wood-burning stove. I was avoiding a full blown traditional fireplace for budgetary reasons, and I had seen some really good looking wood-burning stoves. I had visited Mountain Flame in Arkville, New York, to look at the Rais stoves but ended up being sold on a soapstone Tulikivi.

All of this was about the time that I was having panic attacks over the reality of what it costs to build a new house, but Marcia Olenych, who owns Mountain Flame with her husband Brian, is a wise, soft-spoken saleswoman. After a couple of conversations, she knew what I wanted (and needed) better than I did. Before I knew it, though, I was committing to a soapstone fireplace that was about 3-4 times more expensive than what I thought I was going to spend on a fireplace...or stove.

A few nights later, I woke up around 3am in a panic that I was spending so much more than I had originally planned. But, when I stopped by the showroom on my way upstate the next weekend, my anxiety had diminished and Marcia's calm demeanor convinced me to relax and find a way to pay for the Tulikivi. It's what I needed.

Manufactured in Finland, these fireplaces operate with the precision of a machine and all the wonderful heat and beauty of an open hearth, maybe even more so. My order was placed in early July, and the "firebox" was here and installed by November.

Marcia had helped me select a simple bow-fronted design that Brian customized with a side bench, which wraps around a projecting corner of the living room. The Tulikivi anchors the room and the soapstone surround gives the house a wonderful sense of permanence and weight.

Back in the winter, 3-4 "burnings" would heat up the stone, and the fireplace would radiate a soft warmth for hours. I eventually learned to close the damper after the last wood had burned to coals, and I'd often find the fireplace still warm the next morning. These fireplaces are really efficient. Last summer during a visit to Mountain Flame, I noticed that the Tulikivis in the showroom actually helped cool the space. Protected from the sun, they'd hold the cool of the night when the day heated up. Their stone mass seem to have many benefits. So, I'm looking forward to seeing if the same thing happens here this summer.

But, back to the operation of the Tulikivi, they take a little getting used to. Unlike traditional fireplaces, they offer a couple of ways to control the intake of air, which allows you to really control the burning of the wood. At first, I wasn't sure about the glass doors, but they help radiate the heat and prevent smoke or sparks from spilling into the room. The doors do have to be washed daily when you're burning fires, but the little tint of soot comes off easily with a cleaning spray. I discovered it works better with newspaper rather than paper towel, and it's now simply become a part of my fire-making ritual.

When I lit the first fire back in the winter, the house seemed to come to life and take it's first breath of air. I don't regret one penny extra that I spent on this Tulikivi. I enjoy every minute it's filled with dancing flames and radiating its soft warmth.

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