Cast Iron vs Steel Stoves | Best UK Wood Burner Type in 2024

Cast Iron vs Steel Stoves | Best UK Wood Burner Type in 2024

Choosing the perfect wood-burning stove for your home can be a challenge

There are so many specifications you have to consider: size, maximum heat output rating, EcoDesign compliance, Defra approval, ClearSkies levels, efficiency class, and so on.

That being said, the most important single choice you’ll make is the material from which your stove is actually made.

While wood burners can be made from plenty of other materials, such as soapstone, over 98% of the stoves you'll encounter in the UK are made of either steel or cast iron.

Understanding the strengths and limitations of each of these materials is critical to making an informed choice that aligns with your heating needs, lifestyle preferences, and environmental values.

In this article, written by Lekto Woodfuels experts, we’ll delve deeply into the critical differences between cast iron and steel stoves. We’ll provide a comprehensive understanding of their properties, performance, environmental impact, aesthetic flexibility, and suitability for various usage scenarios.

By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll probably know more about the two main stove types than the salesman who will be selling you the stove.

And once you'll get your stove, be sure to take a look at our wide selection of wood briquettes, firewood, and fire starting materials. Being the home of 8-Hour Night Briquettes and Fire Logs, Lekto is the UK's top rated supplier of quality wood fuels.

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Introduction to Stove Materials and Manufacturing Processes

As you might have guessed intuitively, cast iron and steel have vastly different material properties. As a result, they need to be shaped into stove form using a different set of techniques. This has a direct influence on their functionality, appearance, and longevity.

Cast Iron: Traditional & Durable

Cast iron is a time-honoured material used to manufacture stoves for centuries. It is the traditional choice for those seeking durability and a more classic aesthetic.

The manufacturing process of cast iron stoves begins with smelting iron ore. The molten iron is then poured into special moulds. One significant upside of using pre-made moulds is that they allow for the easy creation of intricate designs and patterns. As a result, even entry-level cast iron stoves are often very ornate in appearance. Add some birch logs and kindling to the side, and you'll have the perfect focal point of a rustic living room.

Cast iron stoves are thick and dense, making them heavier and more robust. 

A significant positive side effect of this thickness and density is the ability of cast iron stoves to act as thermal accumulators. They absorb excess heat from your logs as they burn and then radiate that heat slowly, much like the bricks in a fireplace. This means your rooms will stay warm long after your wood fuel has finished burning.

However, the properties that allow for this marvellous heat retention also make cast iron susceptible to thermal shock if heated too quickly. Over time, these thermal shocks can add up and lead to cracks in the stove. Thus, preheating a cast iron stove properly before using it is very important.

Steel Stoves: Light & Modern

In sharp contrast with traditional cast iron stoves for burning wood, steel stoves represent modern technological advancements in material science and metalwork. Steel, an alloy of iron and carbon, is far lighter and more malleable than cast iron, allowing for sleeker designs and assembly line production.

As seen in the video above, the manufacturing of steel stoves involves sheet metal being cut with precision tools like laser cutters or plasma torches. These pieces are then given the desired shape. These shapes are then welded together to create the final product. This results in stoves with far smoother lines and a sleek, modern appearance akin to an upmarket household appliance. From an aesthetic point of view, these look best when paired well with more modern fuels, such as Hardwood Heat Logs and Sawdust Briquettes.

Due to the lower density of the material and thinner construction of the stove itself, wood burners made from steel heat up and cool down far more rapidly than those made of cast iron. This can be an advantage in buildings that require quick heating without the prolonged release of heat, such as a wood cabin you visit a few times a year. Steel's flexibility also allows manufacturers to offer a variety of styles and finishes, making it a versatile choice for modern interiors. A steel stove won’t look out of place even in the most minimalist, upmarket interior.


Thermal Properties and Performance of Steel and Cast Iron

The primary purpose of any wood burner or multi-fuel stove is to provide heat. So, when selecting a wood-burning stove, one of the most critical considerations is the material's impact on the stove's heating performance. As mentioned in the previous section, cast iron and steel have unique thermal properties that affect how they store and release heat. This has a significant impact on their efficiency and suitability for different environments. Let’s delve deeper.

Heat-Up and Cool-Down Rates

Steel Stove Heat-Up and Cool-Down Rates

The main advantage of steel in terms of thermal performance is its ability to heat up rapidly. The material does not act like a thermal buffer. This means that your rooms heat up almost as soon as the stove is ignited, making steel stoves an ideal choice for those needing immediate warmth.

At the same time, this property makes steel stoves tend to cool down quickly once the fire dies out. This can be a drawback in environments where prolonged heat output is necessary, especially during colder nights.

One way to combat this is to install a functional brick fireplace. Fire bricks are excellent thermal insulators. In fact, they are the material of choice in Northern Europe, where the temperatures routinely drop to -20 °C in the winter. Just make sure you use fire bricks rather than the conventional kind, which will crack at the first signs of heat.

If that’s not an option and you still want to keep your home warm at night, you could use 8-Hour Night Briquettes. Simply put a couple of them on top of dying embers as you sleep, and they’ll still be giving off heat when you wake up.

Cast Iron Stove Heat-Up and Cool-Down Rates

Cast iron stoves excel in heat retention, which means you can do without a fireplace in many scenarios. The dense and thick nature of cast iron allows it to absorb a large amount of heat slowly and release it gradually over an extended period of time. This slow release ensures that the room remains warm for hours after the fire has ceased, providing a consistent and comfortable temperature throughout the day or night.

The initial slower heat-up time might require planning and patience. Your rooms will continue to be cold long after you’ve started the fire. One way to combat this is to purchase an electric heater to keep yourself warm for the 15-20 minutes it takes for your stove to start producing heat in earnest.

Efficiency of Cast Iron and Steel Stoves

Let’s talk about heating efficiency. While both cast iron stoves and steel burners can achieve clearSkies Level 5 efficiency, the way in which they create and accumulate heat makes them most efficient in different scenarios.

Let’s talk about steel stoves first. While steel might not retain heat as long as cast iron, it compensates with its efficiency in reaching optimal operating temperatures swiftly. This quick response can be more energy-efficient in scenarios where heating needs are intermittent and do not require long-lasting heat (such as a cottage, forest cabin, etc). This has the positive side-effect of preventing you from making the mistake many cast iron stove owners often make: putting too much wood fuel into the stove in hopes of making the stove “heat faster”, which often leads to cast iron stoves overheating your rooms.  Steel's efficiency is also notable in its ability to respond quickly to changes in control settings, making it easier to regulate room temperature. This makes it even more akin to a modern household appliance.

Although slower to respond, the thermal efficiency of cast iron stoves is evident in their ability to maintain a stable heat output. If you’ve only used electric heaters before, you can think of them as being akin to oil lamps. They take a long time to heat up, but they will continue providing warmth long after you’ve turned off their energy source. This steady release of heat means that the stove operates efficiently over longer periods, which can be more economical in terms of fuel usage. The consistent heat output ensures that the room remains at a constant temperature, reducing the need for continual adjustments and fuel additions. Sometimes, you may even forget that your wood has already burned out—you simply won’t notice a temperature difference.

Steel vs Cast Iron Stoves: Practical Considerations

Let’s talk practicality. Choosing between cast iron and steel stoves often involves balancing the need for a quick heat boost against long-term warmth, considering your home's typical weather patterns and insulation properties.

Steel may be preferable for its quick heating in milder climates or for use in supplementary heating situations. For example, you could live in a climate where you don’t need too much heating during the year, so you’re okay with using mains gas or electric heat, but there are certain days of the year when you need a heat boost. Steel stoves are perfect for this.

Cast iron could be the better choice in regions experiencing prolonged cold periods, where continuous heat is necessary. We at Lekto Woodfuels have recently conducted a survey that revealed that cast iron stoves are most popular with those Lekto clients who live in Scotland, representing 74% of all stoves.

Aesthetic and Design Options: Cast Iron and Steel Stoves

The choice between a cast iron and steel stove often extends beyond just functional considerations. Aesthetic appeal and design flexibility play a significant role in the decision-making process. Both materials offer distinct visual characteristics and can be crafted to complement various interior styles.

This being said, we strongly urge you to consider the practical aspects first. While the design is important, a stove is, first and foremost, a source of heat. Make the wrong decision, and you’ll not only have to pay for another stove, but you’ll also have to pay three times as much for having your stove installed/uninstalled.

Read our article on the costs of installing a wood burner.

Cast Iron Stove Style: Rustic, Traditional, Ornate

Cast iron stoves are best suited for homes trying to emit a traditional, rustic charm. They have a sturdy, classic, and ornate appearance that is reminiscent of simpler times.

This aesthetic is achieved through the traditional casting process that allows for the easy creation of intricate patterns and details in the design.

Even inexpensive cast iron stoves can feature complex decorative scrolls, arched doors, and embossed designs. In this way, the stove can act as a centrepiece in any room, evoking a sense of timelessness and durability. Their robust, detailed appearance makes them particularly suited for period homes or rooms that aim to capture an old-world ambience.

Steel Stove Style: Sleek, Modern, Luxurious

In contrast, steel stoves tend to lean towards a sleek, modern aesthetic with cleaner lines and minimalist designs. The malleability of steel allows for more innovation in shape and form, enabling designs that are contemporary and fit well in modern, minimalist, or industrial-style interiors.

Steel stoves can be moulded into cylindrical, rectangular, or even abstract shapes, offering a more tailored look that can blend seamlessly with a home’s current design theme. Regardless of how your rooms look, there’s a steel stove that will fit right in, which is something that cannot be said about cast iron stoves.

The smooth finish of welded steel can also be complemented with a variety of paint or enamel coatings, providing additional colour options that enhance the contemporary feel.

Steel vs Cast Iron Stoves: What’s the Choice of the Rich and Famous?

In our experience, they tend to be the choice of old-money individuals and aristocrats, whereas steel stoves are more often chosen by upper-middle-class individuals.

Wood Stove Customization Options

If your budget allows for it, wood stove customisation can add another layer of appeal. Manufacturers of both cast iron and steel stoves often offer customisation in terms of material finish, colour, and accessory options.

For cast iron stoves, options might include different finishes such as matte, gloss, or enamel. These not only protect the stove but also add to its visual appeal. Enamel coatings often come in classic colours like black and white, but more vibrant options, such as red or blue, are also available. This allows the stove to either stand out as the focal point of the room or blend in seamlessly with the décor.

Steel stoves provide even greater flexibility in terms of finishes, including powder-coated (PVD) options that offer a durable and resistant surface in a wide range of colours. Their nature also allows for other features like glass-fronted doors or integrated compartments that can be styled for additional functionality and visual appeal.

Impact on Room Aesthetics

Choosing between a cast iron and steel stove also depends on the desired impact on room aesthetics. A cast iron stove might be more suited to enhancing the cosy, traditional feel of a room, adding a sense of solidity and permanence. On the other hand, a steel stove can contribute to a more open, airy feel with its less imposing presence and cleaner lines. This makes them ideal for smaller spaces or rooms with a modern decor style.

Durability and Maintenance

A wood burner is a serious, long-term purchase, much like a car. When investing in a wood-burning stove, understanding the durability and maintenance requirements is essential. Both cast iron and steel stoves can offer robust performance over many years, but their longevity and upkeep can differ significantly, affecting their overall practicality and cost-effectiveness. Let’s explore.

Lifespan and Durability

Cast Iron Stoves: Can Outlast You But Only if Maintained Well

Cast iron is celebrated for its strength and resistance to wear. These stoves are built to last and can serve for decades if maintained correctly. But only if they are indeed used and maintained correctly. Cast iron can be brittle, and under certain conditions—such as rapid heating or cooling—it can develop serious cracks. Moreover, cast iron will rust quite quickly if the protective paint or enamel coating is damaged. Thus, it is imperative to treat the exposed iron as soon as a crack is discovered. These factors mean that while cast iron stoves are durable, they demand careful installation and periodic inspection to ensure their integrity.

Steel Stoves: Indestructible But Still Need Care

Steel, being less brittle than cast iron, is generally more forgiving to rapid temperature changes and a lot less prone to cracking. Modern steel stoves are constructed with high-quality, heavy-gauge steel that can withstand high temperatures and heavy use. Contrary to popular belief, steel stoves can corrode and rust if not properly maintained, especially in damp conditions. Advances in manufacturing technologies have improved the corrosion resistance of steel stoves through better coatings and treatments, enhancing their longevity.

To answer a question many of you might have: No, stainless steel stoves are not an option. While the material looks great and does not rust, it is not at all suited for making wood-burning stoves.

Steel and Cast Iron Stove Maintenance Requirements

So what about maintenance?

Let’s start with cast iron stoves. The joints and seals between the cast iron parts can be vulnerable points, requiring periodic checking and resealing to prevent air leaks that can affect the stove’s efficiency. The exterior should be checked for any signs of rust or deterioration, which should be addressed promptly with appropriate treatments such as repainting or re-enameling.

Steel stoves require similar maintenance in terms of regular cleaning and the inspection of joints and seals. However, due to their welded construction, steel stoves often have fewer joints, which can reduce the risk of leaks. The surface of a steel stove may need occasional retouching with heat-resistant paint to maintain its appearance and protect against rust. Additionally, the simpler, more streamlined design of many steel stoves can make them easier to clean and maintain.

Environmental Impact and Sustainability

As environmental awareness increases, the sustainability of home heating options, including wood-burning stoves, has become a significant factor for consumers. Both cast iron and steel stoves offer distinct environmental impacts and sustainability features that can influence a buyer's decision.

Recyclability of Cast Iron and Steel Stoves

Cast iron is highly recyclable, and its ability to be melted down and reformed into new products with relatively little energy expenditure makes it a good choice from a sustainability perspective. Many cast iron stoves are made from recycled iron, which further reduces the environmental impact. The long lifespan of cast iron also means that products made from it are less likely to contribute to landfill waste. This being said, the initial manufacturing process of cast iron, which involves high temperatures to melt the iron, can be energy-intensive.

Steel is one of the most recycled materials in the world. Just like cast iron, it can be recycled multiple times without degradation of its properties. Steel stoves often contain a significant percentage of recycled material. The production of steel, especially when recycled steel is used, can be less energy-intensive than that of new cast iron. However, the environmental benefit is offset if the steel is not sourced or manufactured using sustainable practices.

Steel wins this round, but only by a small margin.

Cast Iron vs Steel Stoves: Real User Reviews and Testimonials

When choosing between cast iron and steel stoves, user reviews and testimonials can provide invaluable insights into the real-world performance, durability, and satisfaction associated with each type of stove. Gathering perspectives from actual users can help potential buyers form a clearer picture of what to expect from their investment.

Cast Iron Stoves Customer Reviews

Users often praise cast iron stoves for their classic aesthetics and robust build quality. Many owners appreciate the slow and steady heat output, noting that it creates a comforting warmth long after the fire has died down. However, some reviews mention the weight and complexity of assembling or installing cast iron stoves as potential drawbacks. There are also occasional mentions of the need for careful maintenance to avoid issues like rusting or cracking.

Testimonials frequently highlight the timeless look of cast iron stoves, with many users feeling that these stoves enhance the charm and character of their homes. On the practical side, users value longevity and the perceived value over time, with many cast iron stoves lasting for several decades.

Steel Stoves Customer Reviews

Reviews for steel stoves often focus on their modern design and efficiency. Users appreciate the quick heat-up time, which is ideal for quickly warming a space. The lighter weight and usually more straightforward installation are also commonly noted advantages. On the downside, some users point out that steel stoves may retain heat less than their cast iron counterparts, requiring more frequent reloading in colder weather.

Steel stove users frequently comment on the sleek, contemporary look that fits well in more modern interiors. The ease of maintenance and the ability to integrate into various decor styles without dominating the space are also significant positives noted in user testimonials.

Professional Endorsements

Professionals typically endorse cast iron stoves for their durability and traditional heating capabilities, often recommending them for homes that value aesthetic appeal alongside functional performance. Meanwhile, steel stoves are usually highlighted for their modern features and adaptability to rapid temperature adjustments, making them a favourite in homes prioritising energy efficiency and style.

Conclusion: Steel vs Cast Iron Stoves

Choosing between a cast iron and steel wood-burning stove involves carefully considering multiple factors, each crucial in determining the best fit for your heating needs and lifestyle preferences. As we've explored in this article, both materials offer distinct advantages and nuances that cater to different priorities, from aesthetic preferences and heating efficiency to durability and maintenance requirements.

Steel vs Iron Stove TL;DR:

  • Material Properties. Cast iron stoves are celebrated for their traditional aesthetics and superior heat retention, making them ideal for prolonged heat output. On the other hand, steel stoves are appreciated for their modern designs and rapid heat-up times, catering well to contemporary living spaces requiring quick and efficient heating solutions.
  • Design and Aesthetics. The choice also extends to design preferences. Cast iron offers ornate, classic designs suited for traditional décor, while steel provides sleek, minimalist options that fit modern interiors.
  • Durability and Maintenance: Both materials require specific maintenance routines to ensure longevity; cast iron needs careful handling to avoid cracking, whereas steel requires protection against warping and rust.
  • Environmental Impact. Sustainability factors also play a role, with both materials offering benefits such as recyclability and energy-efficient performance, though the choice may depend on the specific practices of the manufacturer and the user’s commitment to sustainable fuel sources.
  • Safety and Regulations. Compliance with safety standards and local regulations is paramount. Each type of stove has specific installation and operational guidelines to ensure safe use.

Ultimately, whether you choose a cast iron or steel wood-burning stove, the right decision comes down to aligning the stove’s features with your specific needs and preferences. By focusing on the combination of efficiency, aesthetics, safety, and sustainability, you can select a stove that not only heats your home effectively but also enhances your living environment and conforms to your lifestyle.

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