Living With a Vintage Chambers Stove

Our client Morgan is a certified e-n-t-h-u-s-i-a-s-t.  We loved her energy so much that we asked her to sign on as our web designer.  When she and her husband Phil remodeled their kitchen, their purchase of a Chambers was just one element of their desire to use as many reclaimed products as possible, both for the aesthetics and for the environmental benefits. Morgan never imagined that an old appliance would become the star of their kitchen. After just a couple of years with their white 90C Chambers stove, Morgan knew that she would never go back to a modern range.  Here's her tale of falling in love with "Babs": 

First, just look at her.

Babs.JPG

Babs is beautiful in a way that few modern stoves are. Just like the stunning cars from her heyday, she’s all rounded edges, curved handles, and lots of chrome. That authentic vintage style is a truly gorgeous alternative to the ho-hum stainless steel, white, or black boxes that can be found in appliance stores today. And in my 1915 bungalow kitchen, Babs looks right at home.

Beauty is important, but functionality is paramount. And Babs can do things that no other stove can. The In-A-Top broiler and griddle has been a game-changer for meals at my house. The griddle surface is ideal for anything that you flip to cook – fried eggs, pancakes, pork chops, grilled cheese – or huge amounts of food, like a double batch of Julia Child’s ratatouille recipe, which I make and freeze every summer. The griddle’s generous size is much larger than even my biggest pan, making quick work of any large recipe.

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Underneath the griddle is a broiler and sizzle platter, which has completely replaced my toaster oven for toast, bagels, leftover pizza, and anything else that benefits from a broiling flame. I once broiled a Christmas Eve leg of lamb on the sizzle platter; it’s also great for burgers and steaks, especially when it’s too cold to grill. If you cook bacon under the broiler, you’ll be rewarded with a delicious little pool of grease in the sizzle platter’s gravy well. That grease is absolutely perfect for slowly cooking a couple of eggs.

I’ve also found Babs’ top pilot light to be surprisingly useful.

It’s ideal for melting butter, keeping hollandaise sauce or gravy warm, or softening cream cheese for a baking recipe. I have a set of 3.5” stoneware ramekins that happen to fit perfectly over the pilot, and they retain heat quite well. Between the In-A-Top and the pilot light, I haven’t had any need for a microwave since I got this stove.

Of course, Babs also has three regular burners, all of which are more powerful than those of any gas stove I’ve used before. The burners are perfectly sized for my most prized vintage kitchen tools, such as my 1910 cast iron Wagner waffle iron.

My vintage Wagner waffle iron looks like it was made for this burner. In the center of the range is the pilot light. The Thermowell is directly behind the waffle iron.

My vintage Wagner waffle iron looks like it was made for this burner. In the center of the range is the pilot light. The Thermowell is directly behind the waffle iron.

Before Babs came into my life, my biggest concern about living with a vintage stove was the size of the oven. It just looked so much smaller than a modern stove’s. But I’ve never once wished the oven was bigger. My years-old cookie sheets fit perfectly. Last year’s 12-pound Thanksgiving turkey had plenty of space (and tasted incredible). And since the oven is heavily insulated, you can actually cook with the gas turned off. I haven’t converted my recipes to cook this way yet, but it’s very handy for keeping a meal warm when dinner guests are running late.

If I ever do need more oven space, there is a solution already built in: the Thermowell. Often called “the original slow cooker,” the Thermowell is a small, heavily insulated well at the back of the stove that can serve as a fast-heating oven or warming closet. Chambers used to manufacture sets of kettles that fit perfectly in the Thermowell. With a triple kettle set, you could cook three different dishes at the same time! I own a Thermobaker, which is a device that holds a casserole dish, pie pan, cake tin, or a couple of foil-wrapped baked potatoes. The Thermowell truly becomes a second small oven when combined with a vintage Thermobaker.

The Thermobaker.

The Thermobaker.

I recently stayed at an Airbnb with a slick, modern, and likely expensive electric stove. It was the first time in a long time that I had tried cooking a meal on any stove other than Babs. The pans slid all over the surface. I had to press a button to get the burner started. I couldn’t tell when the surface had escalated from barely warm to screaming hot – or when it was cool enough to touch. The oven was comically large for the dishes I cooked inside – a total waste of energy. During that stay, I realized just how much I missed my Chambers’ gorgeous chrome handles and the satisfying sensation of turning them to light a burner. I missed the sound of the burner coming to life. And I really missed how consistent and visible the heat was, and how quickly it would be ready to use.

I feel a bit sorry for the Airbnb hosts who purchased that brand-new, gee-whiz electric stove. I imagine that they were lured in by the range’s sleek digital presence, and by the idea that a new stove must be so much better than an old one.

Well, when I was planning my kitchen remodel, I could have gone that way. I could have spent far more on a brand-new stove. I could have prioritized shiny newness over vintage charm. And I could have made do with just four burners and a huge oven, the way most people do these days, and I likely never would have known that I was missing out on so many other cooking possibilities. But I’m so glad I didn’t. In my mind, you just can’t improve upon the infinitely repairable, simply built, versatile, and gorgeous Chambers stove.  

THERMOSTAT FAILURE? MAYBE NOT...

Last week it happened again:  I returned from a service call without installing the newly rebuilt Thermostat I had deemed necessary for a malfunctioning oven.  Great for the customer, but I was left holding the bill for a rebuilt T-Stat that was all dressed up with nowhere to go.  That's twice in the last 6 months.  Time to pass on some hard earned wisdom:  the next time your oven won't light, or is difficult to light with burner flames that don't get very high resulting in a 24 hour slow cooker rather than an oven, don't jump to the conclusion that your 60 year old Thermostat's gotta go.   

To keep things simple and understandable for the qualified gas appliance repair professional you have engaged to fix your oven, I will lay out the basics of the problems I encountered above.

One stove had been in storage for a year or more.  When the owners hooked it up, they immediately realized their oven had a problem.  The other oven had been in everyday use when it "suddenly" stopped working. 

One stove had a Constant Pilot Safety System:  it's pilot light was doing fine, and its oven burner would light, but the flames were very small. 

The temporary pilot in the oven without the Safety System would light, but not the burner:  there was absolutely no gas going to the burner.

The common symptom:  both had difficulty passing gas.  This is actually good news:  the signal that something other than the Thermostat may be at fault. 

The very first thing to do with this symptom is to isolate where in the system gas is being restricted, and the very first place to check is the Thermostat.  Why the Thermostat?  Since there are many places in the system where obstructions can occur (between the supply pipe entering your kitchen and the gas jet entering the oven burner), the highest-priced component in that pathway is the Thermostat.  So have your repair person isolate and test that first.  If human breath can be made to flow freely through the completely disconnected Thermostat, then the restriction lies elsewhere:  in the pathways supplying or exiting the device.

In my client's stove that had been stored before use, insects had somehow entered the system and completely clogged the aluminum tube immediately before the oven burner gas jet (the oven pilot, running on its own small-diameter gas line from the Thermostat, was not affected).  After determining the cause of the problem, I cleared the line with a pipe cleaner).

In the other client's stove, the clog was at the tip of the gas jet itself, an accumulation of mineral deposits:  it was cleared by simply loosening the cap and using a toothbrush to clean the tip.

In my experience, a malfunctioning Thermostat is most often characterized by an oven that easily lights but who's heat is high and uncontrollable by the Thermostat dial.  If your oven won't light easily or won't light at all and has very low temperatures, look to obstructions that are restricting the gas supplying or exiting the Thermostat.

REGULATIONS AND THE REGULATORS THEY BEGET

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In the past five years Chicago residents have witnessed one of the largest, most widespread and often irritating infrastructure improvements in the city's recent history:  the upgrading of the natural gas distribution system by the local utility People's Gas.  Streets and parkways are torn up, parking can be disrupted and restricted for weeks, gas meters are relocated from inside to the outside of many houses, often requiring rerouting of inside gas lines.  To top it off, the different phases of the work in any block can be spread out through a year or more, with very little communication provided on what work will be done and when it will happen.

For many owners of vintage stoves, including Chambers, the change can have drastic implications.  This is due to the fact most vintage stoves built prior to the mid 1960's do not come equipped with built-in gas pressure regulators.  People's Gas employees are directed to disconnect any stove not so equipped.

Here's the back story:  All gas stoves and other gas appliances are manufactured to operate with a uniform standard pressure of gas:  If that pressure is exceeded while the stove is being used, the burner flames will be drastically higher.  If the stove is not being used, certain components of the stove, mainly the valves used to turn the gas on and off, can be overpowered and raw gas will escape past them and into your kitchen. 

Avoiding this problem was originally the sole responsibility of the gas utility, which utilized the "gas supply regulator" installed on a home or apartment building.  It's a disc-shaped device (about 10" wide) attached to the building's gas supply pipe just before it enters the building.  You can see it in the photo on the upper left.

Some old regulator installations are inside the building.  There may be a meter between the regulator and the building, or the meter may be inside. 

The purpose of the regulator is to "regulate" (decrease) the pressure of the gas from the high pressure "street" supply, to the lower standard pressure for a building's gas appliances.  It also prevents any accidental "spikes" or "surges" of "street" pressure from entering a building's gas lines and appliances.

Since the mid 60's, all gas stoves (as well as furnaces and water heaters) must by law have their own regulators built-in for safety redundancy.  The reasoning is this:  if the utility company's supply regulator fails, allowing high pressure gas into your house's gas pipes, the stove's regulator prevents the surge from entering and overwhelming the stove's components.

Many old neighborhoods in Chicago still have low pressure gas supply systems that date from the original installations of the late 1800's to early 1900's.  For various safety and efficiency reasons, those and many mid-century systems are being replaced with a new high pressure supply, and when they are being replaced, new exterior "supply" regulators and meters are being installed.  It's at this point in the process when your vintage stove will be tagged and disconnected.

When the gas company upgrades a building, they must first turn off the gas supply, attach the new equipment, then turn the gas supply back on.  Before they leave the building, the utility's personnel are required to enter each residence to relight any pilot lights on water heaters, furnaces, and stoves.  They must also check any vintage stove to check to see if it has its own built-in regulator and modern flexible connector (stainless steel or plastic coated).  If not, the stove is summarily disconnected, the supply to the stove plugged, and the owner is told that it cannot be reconnected until one or both have been installed.

Fitting a regulator to your Chambers is a fairly straightforward job that any plumber should be able to handle in an hour, two at most.  If you don't have a modern yellow plastic coated flex line and an on/off valve between your stove and the pipe coming out of the kitchen wall or floor, now would be the time to update everything.  You can buy all the parts for about $100, though regulators are not usually available at hardware stores:  check professional appliance supply stores in your area. 

Of course if you are not qualified to work on gas systems, leave this upgrade to a professional.  If you need this work done and you haven't had your Chambers looked at in a while, please give me a call. 

A TIMELY ITEM

For many years, anybody who'd listen has heard me spout on about how great a stove a Chambers is:  Retained heat cooking, the Thermo-Well, the cooktop griddle and broiler.  Oh yeah, and that great little dial timer too.  

A Chambers Model B timer, all cleaned up.

A Chambers Model B timer, all cleaned up.

Four months ago I removed our timer to fix it and, well, you know the old saw about a cobbler and his kid’s shoes:  we’ve been without the thing ever since. Its absence has been conspicuous, and very enlightening about the role it plays not only for cooking on the stove, but for our family dynamic.  The effect has been so noticeable that my perspective about the timer and the stove has totally flipped. Now I tell people that a Chambers is a fantastic timer, which just happens to have a great stove attached.  Here's what that new perspective is about.

Free-floating Lux timers, or kitchen timers (some people call them egg timers) aren't anything new or rare:  they are absolutely ubiquitous, have been around forever, and as far as I know Lux still makes most of them.  But just where is yours at the moment?  Mine?  Well, I do have one somewhere around here.  Uh, let's see, where’d I put it last?  Hmmm, not on the countertop, where it's supposed to be.  Maybe the "miracle" drawer.  Nope, at least not in the top layer.  Maybe behind the toaster.  Nah.  Well, my son used it for his science homework...  Oh, right, he's not home.  No way I'm gonna go in his room:  a water buffalo would be hard to find in there by sight or smell.  Let's see... did I leave it in the basement workshop?

You get the point:  rather than the convenience they are meant to provide, those free-floating little buggers are so easy to misplace that they become a stress generating nuisance! 

Now, that same timer, attached to a Chambers…  It makes all the difference in the world, an incredibly ingenious convenience.  But to those who don’t own a Chambers, that timer dial is sorta like George Smiley, of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:  so common looking, so mundane, so invisible.  But so very, very affective. 

I had no idea about that ten years ago when my wife and I first installed our Chambers.  As we lived with it, we of course loved it, but until the timer's recent absence we really didn't fathom the specific elements of our appreciation.   But boy, we sure did use that timer a lot:  thirty minutes for piano practice, son.  Having a tantrum about it?  20 minutes time out, mister!   Okay, gotta rustle up some grub:  Rice will be done in the ThermoWell when the timer dings in ten minutes.  Just the right amount of time for pre-heating the broiler.  Pop in the chops and for another 8 minutes and it'll be time for dinner.  Please set the table!  30 minutes until the Bull's game starts.  


Now, having lived four months with the goll-blasted free floating egg timer, we realize how perfectly simple, predictable, reliable, and reachable the Chambers timer is, and what a quantum leap in usefulness over a free-floating timer these qualities provide.  Absolutely no amount of psychic stress precedes or accompanies its use.  It can be located and set blindfolded.  It's there...  We set it...  We don't even think about it.  At home, the rhythm of our lives depends on it.  

That's not all.  Another infinitesimally perceptible quality about the timer, as fantastically mundane as it is profound, is this simple fact:  

It requires only one hand to operate.  

Not impressed?  Let me put that another way...  Let me "quantify" that:  it requires 50 percent fewer hands to operate than a free-floating timer.  

Laughing, are you?  Well, before you guffaw too much, let me set the scene: 

It's Saturday, 5:15 pm.  Meatloaf’s for dinner so my hands are full of raw eggy, raw meaty, soggy bread-crumby meatloaf schmutz.  I suddenly remember that I MUST call my car mechanic before they close in 15 minutes to make sure that they have put my wife's car outside the shop for her to pick up tonight, so she’ll have it for work for Monday morning.  But first I gotta get this mess o’ meat into a pan and in the oven.   Here are my choices:

Scenario A:  Chambers stove timer:  Grab a paper towel with my right hand, set the Chambers timer for 10 minutes, live to see another day. 

Elapsed time:  10 seconds.  Stress level:  1 on a scale of ten.   

Scenario B (free-floating timer):  Scan the kitchen countertops.  Well, scan the chaos on our kitchen countertops.  Scooch the piles of school papers, bills, magazines, toys, glasses, gloves, cat toys, photographs, etc. around with my elbows.  No good.  Rummage with either hand for the timer through the Miracle drawer, spreading gobs of weapons-grade salmonella throughout.  Spy the timer. Pick it up with one hand, set dial with the other, schmearing it thoroughly with death slime. 

Elapsed time:  5 minutes plus.  Stress level:  6 on a scale of ten.    

Scenario C (free-floating timer):  scrape meatloaf mix off both hands, wash thoroughly, search for and hopefully find the timer, then forget what the heck it was I wanted it for in the first place.  Until we are at the table an hour later and my wife sits and ruins a perfectly cooked meatloaf dinner by asking if she can pick up her car at the mechanic’s. 

Elapsed time:  eternity.  Stress level:  Off scale.   

You can now appreciate the beauty of a Chambers timer:  knowing absolutely where the timer is, and the unfettered ability to set it by one hand. 

We’re still not done.  Did I mention acoustics?  Give me a classic mechanical egg timer any day over a digital version.  I like their sound, enjoy their action, and value the fact that they do not require or consume batteries.  However, stand in a kitchen and listen to a free floater, then a Chambers timer.  The difference is significant. Some may say that it is more a matter of esthetics rather than practicality.  Well, sure, but, between a toy violin and a Stradavarius, what would you prefer?  Doesn’t the phrase “Quality of Life” apply here?

I would also argue that the sound of a Chambers timer does offer practical advantages.  It is, after all, attached to a 475 pound, 2’ deep by 3’ wide by 4’ tall hollow metal sound box.  The reverberations from that timer have lots of surface areas and interior spaces to resonate within and project from.  Its sound is way louder and more far reaching than any dinky, plastic, free floating timer. 

There you have it.  The real perspective on why owning a Chambers timer with attached stove is the timely thing to do.  I better take a few minutes to get that thing fixed and back in place.