You can love your radiators, hide them, even replace them with something less obtrusive. Those upright Victorian cast-iron beasts, often with ornate castings, can be downright ornamental, and take to decorative paint effects. Then again, the old radiator may be an unfortunate eyesore or taking up valuable space. Perhaps all it needs is a shelf. Set on top, a remnant piece of marble or Corian (or perhaps a precut marble saddle for door thresholds) looks elegant and won’t warp, but it will get warm when the radiator is pumping. You might hang a shelf on the wall six inches above the radiator. Another solution for reclaiming the space is to tuck a narrow console table on legs around it. Those with scrolled or plain iron legs and a stone top look particularly good and won’t warp.
Radiator cabinets are nothing new. Companies like ARSCO Manufacturing and Monarch Products offer metal radiator covers in the cloverleaf, cane, and Grecian patterns of the 1920s and ’30s. Several companies are making stock or semi-custom wood covers and cabinets, some with integrated shelves or bookcases. Radiator-cover manufacturers have considered optimum heat output, offering insulated tops and sides, and often a radiant sheet to go against the wall. Grilles in front direct the heat into the room.
A finish carpenter or cabinetmaker can create a truly custom solution, building a wood cabinet perfect for the room’s trim and period style. Solutions go beyond the simple radiator cover: the radiator may be hidden under or beside a window seat, tucked below a staircase, integrated into an entertainment cabinet or wall of bookcases. The Wooden Radiator Cabinet Co. specializes in custom units that look like furniture but are perfectly spec’d to maximize heat output and minimize warping.
Baseboard heating units, so often bent and rusted, may be “slipcovered” with a decorative cover or sleeve. These, too, come in wood as well as metal. On the other hand, you may want to replace an upright radiator with a modern baseboard unit; these are quieter and less obtrusive than the 20th-century versions.
Another option for replacement is with a European-style radiant unit like those made by Runtal. These close-to-the-wall radiators are available with horizontal or vertical fins—efficient, attractive, and easy to clean. Under the window in a tiny bathroom, it will disappear. A larger unit hung higher on the wall—in one of their designer colors—makes a modern statement.
The Naked Radiator
U.S. Boiler still makes Burnham cast-iron radiators, a classic updated for functionality, for hot-water or steam systems. These can be overpainted or glazed and wiped for decorative effects. Plain and unobtrusive radiators may be painted to make them stand out or blend in. You might consider a brass, bronze, or silver paint, flat black, or the wall color. Inexpensive Krylon metallic spray paint is fine. Studies show that the type of paint and its color have little effect on radiant performance. Before you paint, remove rust and chipping paint with a wire brush, rough sandpaper, or chemical rust remover. Remove oil with a degreaser or denatured alcohol. Lightly sand the surface and wipe with a tack cloth. Apply multiple light coats of paint for the best results.