See also: photo report
Special to MHA internet NEWS
Up close and personal at a heater-build workshop. . .
The story behind the masonry heater
at MHA headquarters in Vermont
By Jay Hensley
(Photos by the author unless otherwise noted)
For eight years Bev Marois, administrator for the 82-member Masonry Heater Association of North America (MHA), has been promoting masonry heaters and the craftsmen who build them. But until this past fall and winter, she and her husband Dick had no such heater warming up their own lives at Fox Brush Farm outside Randolph, Vermont.
During an MHA workshop last summer, their 20th Century fireplace was replaced by a 17th Century masonry heater officially recognized today as state-of-the-art for the 21st Century! Over 70 percent efficient and based on an ancient technology, masonry heaters rely on wood's capacity to give off tremendous heat quickly, cleanly and the ability of masonry materials to soak up that heat and release it slowly over a 12-to-24-hour period.
Visitors are now being treated to a sterling example of the heater mason’s craft there at MHA headquarters. The antique brick heater with built-in bake oven and soapstone accents was designed for the Marois' two-story log house by Certified Heater Mason Rod Zander of New England Hearth and Soapstone in Goshen, Connecticut.
THE WORK CREW
It was hand-built by a crew of MHA members, who converged on Fox Brush Farm from nine states and Quebec "to build a heater for Bev." They arrived by work van, pick-up truck, car, canoe and moving van (rented by Rod to transport soapstone and heavy equipment).
They ranged in age and experience from 26-year-old graduate student Jean-David Morneau, Quebec, who would butter his first brick at the workshop, to Certified Heater Mason Jerry Frisch of Lopez Quarries in Everett, Washington. MHA president and veteran mason, Jerry would celebrate his 72nd birthday with us. He co-honchoed the 11-day workshop with Rod, who is MHA treasurer.
Hearth industry companies contributed a large share of the masonry and chimney renovation supplies and funding for the workshop. MHA members donated a variety of heater parts, tools and accessories. Rod even gave a large share of his design fee to the MHA.
The first wave of workshop participants arrived Friday evening, July 23.
DAY ONE (Saturday, July 24): We had settled in the night before at Lilac Hill, the lovely old restored farmhouse Bev had rented for us nearby. After fixing ourselves a hearty breakfast, we were ready to head for the work site.
Our start-up crew that morning included Rod, Jerry, Certified Heater Mason Gary Hart and his son Korey of Aarons Ltd. Alternative Energy in High Ridge, Missouri, and me, Jay, from Kentucky, with my cameras and “fat lil’ notebook.
The guys protected the floor with homosote, isolated the work site with plastic sheeting, installed lights and a heavy-duty exhaust fan, set up a wet saw on the side porch. Then, up went the scaffolding, courtesy of local Chimney Savers sweep Gene Bianco.
From the balcony, Rod and Jerry studied the side of the massive two-story TESS (Thermal Energy Storage System) fireplace to be replaced.
"We'll unzipper it here," Rod said. Later that day, using a portable masonry saw with a 12-inch diamond-blade, he would cut down through the 4-inch brick facing from ceiling to floor on both sides in the process of separating the chimney cavity from the fireplace.
Set-up crew evolvede into wrecking crew. The din was horrific. I stuffed Kleenex in my ears, grabbed a hardhat and dust-filter cone, and went on clicking the shutter. Gary, Korey, Jer and Rod whaled away at the formidable masonry mass. They filled bucket after bucket with debris, handed down and lugged to a waiting dump trailer by Dick, his long-time buddy “Fuzzy," Gene and his employee Rob Lumbra. (Fuzzy, Gene and Rob donated their services throughout the workshop.)
Jerry estimates that 6 to 8 tons of masonry rubble from that fireplace ended up in the farm's landfill.
This was dirty, dangerous, grueling manual labor. Through the clamor, the dust, the flying chunks of brick and concrete I wanted to holler, “Hey, guys, are ya havin’ fun yet?” Actually, they were!
Meanwhile, Steve Bushway, Massachusetts, had stopped by to install his Ultimate Ridge Hook scaffolding system on the metal roof with the help of William Davenport, Vermont. Both are Certified Heater Masons. (All Certified Heater Masons are "graduates" of the rigorous heater-mason certification training and testing program put in place by MHA in 1998.)
Knocking off at noon, Gary, Korey and Jerry were soon on their cell phones out in the bright sunlight. Korey checked on his phone messages. Gary, wearing sandals and borrowed clothes, called the airline about his lost luggage; and Jerry was talking to his wife Lou ("Hello, Darlin’!”).
We appreciated that delicious, hearty lunch Bev had waiting for us under the canopy in the bake-oven and barbecue-grille complex. After an interlude of relaxation and camaraderie, back to work!
By 3:30, desperate for a "power nap," I slipped away to Bev's daughter Tracy's house nearby. With work proceeding at a snail’s pace. what could I possibly miss?
But this was to be no short nap. I fell sound asleep, blissfully unaware of what was happening back at the work site. Right after my departure, Dick appeared with an 80-pound Bosch jackhammer. Within about 90 minutes, most of rest of the fireplace came tumbling down, exposing the chimney cavity. I returned to find the site deserted, the scaffolding down, the room swept clean, the place eerily quiet . . .
The guys had gone back to Lilac Hill for much-needed showers, and I had missed the photo op of the workshop!
“I had to scrub grease off my legs where I was riding that monster," Gary told me later. "We stood right on top of the TESS and hammered it down! Gene and Korey each rode that sucker for a long time . . . I started out with it, but Korey took it away from me pretty quick because he was afraid I’d wreck my back.”
DAY TWO (Sunday): Soon the scaffolding was in place again and down came the cracked clay-tile flue for a woodstove in the cellar, leaving in place the sound flue to an oil furnace that would be used for back-up heat. The damaged clay-tile flue to the TESS had been knocked out earlier.
Gary’s wayward luggage was delivered that afternoon. He immediately swapped his sandals for work boots and retrieved his camera.
Four new recruits arrived: timber framer Glenn Overk and his employee Gary Wagner, New Jersey; mason Walter Kelly, Pennsylvania; and Jean-David, Quebec. Walter is a delightful fellow who truly loves his trade. Glenn, a big, burly man with a thick mustache, is an optimist very open to people and to whatever life brings. He had already built his own handsome soapstone heater, with the help of mason and fellow MHA member Brian Klipfel.
With a degree in literature, Jean-David was working on a graduate degree in storytelling. This ties in with his affinity for children, "who need more wonder and magic and myth in their lives." He likes to dress in medieval costume and tell the story of Merlin's childhood to elementary school students.
He plans a career as teacher. As a serious environmentalist, he would also like to build low-cost masonry heaters "for ordinary people" some day.
Newcomers were absorbed into the group like mortar into wet bricks, and the work continued. Now there were two bucket brigades going—one upstairs where more masonry debris was being created, and another in the cellar, where they hauled out ashes from cleanouts to the fireplace and a woodstove.
Upstairs, the guys were soon installing a cleanout T and its door, accessible from the cellar steps.
DAY THREE (Monday): Out by the barn Gary Hart’s crew -- Gary and Korey are chimney service pros -- prepared the 8-inch insulated stainless steel flueliner for the heater. As they were winching it into place from below, the cable broke. Not to worry, folks! Strapping a leather belt around the pipe to protect its insulation wrap and provide an easier grip, the guys twisted it around into position and strong-armed it up the chimney, inch by inch. (Earlier, Gene had poured a new crown at the chimney top. Later on, after the workshop, he would be called upon to install the venting system for a new woodburning stove in the cellar.)
Setting the stage for laying up a front wall to the chimney, Jerry and Rod put plumb lines in place. Out in the barn the mortar mixing began. When the flat-bed truck arrived with its load of bricks and masonry materials, Walter was so happy. "I'm getting all excited now!" he said, and soon he and Jer were hard at work laying bricks. The bucket brigade of trash carriers was now replaced by hod and brick carriers.
Member John LaGamba of Temp–Cast Enviroheat Ltd., Toronto, drove in that afternoon with his 13-year-old daughter Paula. He donated a handsome firebox door, which features an air wash that keeps the glass clean. The two of them joined us for our catered dinner at Lilac Hill.
DAY FOUR (Tuesday): Work progressed on the chimney wall, with everyone given plenty of opportunity to lay brick under the watchful eye of the pros. Mortar mixers, hod and brick carriers kept busy all day.
Rod stirred up a special super mortar, a chemical bond that dries quickly, perfect for the decorative brick corners he was creating for the heater.
Certified Heater Mason Norbert Senf, Quebec, arrived Tuesday evening. On the cutting edge of wood-heat technology, he's always a storehouse of information and new ideas for the rest of us. He is MHA’s internet site webmaster (mha-net.org).
Firefighter Scott Goodman from Rush, New York also joined our ranks. Due back at work on Monday, August 1, Scott would keep delaying his departure until after the last soapstone cap was set in place late Sunday afternoon.
DAY FIVE (Wednesday): Here came New Jersey mason Brian Klipfel on foot, carrying his canoe. He had paddled in on the third branch of the White River that marks the West boundary of the farm. After returning to the river bank for his backpack, he joined the work crew.
Rod now went over his heater design with us, pointing out such features as the by-pass damper required by the length of the heat-exchange channels; a gas slot for the escape of carbon monoxide; the 4-inch space between heater and chimney that facilitates the flow of convection heat from room air coming in under the bench; the placement of clean-outs; the use of cardboard for expansion joints; the gradual “necking-down” of heat-exchange channels on their long journey from firebox to flue in order to maintain the same velocity of flow as heat is absorbed into the masonry mass. . . . and more.
It had been a big design feat to calculate heating the specific space of Bev's home and incorporate all the features she wanted. "It was more complicated and challenging than usual!" Rod told us.
After marking off a footprint for the heater and setting plumb lines in place, Rod, Norbert and Jerry started laying it up.
"This is the first brick I've laid in two years!" Norbert confessed. After hand-building hundreds of custom heaters over the years, Norbert is now designer-manufacturer-installer of his own modular heater-core kit.
"Anybody got knee pads?" Jerry asked, and Glenn came up with a pair. Later on, Jerry called for cardboard for expansion joints. As he slipped sheets of it between the firebrick of the heat-exchange channels and the outer brick wall of the heater, he explained, "Air doesn't get to the cardboard, so it just dissolves under high heat."
As the guys took turns laying up the heater, Gary Wagner and Jean-David also learned how to build brick arches under Norbert's instruction. They watched Gary Hart mortar the arch in place for the bench, fitting end bricks in to make a flat surface for the soapstone cap. The next arch to be set in place was the one for the firebox door, which featured a soapstone keystone; and later on, an arch over the bake-oven door.
Korey left that afternoon.
DAY 6 (Thursday): And so the heater kept growing. Everyone had a chance to mix mortar, lay brick, place cardboard expansion joints, parge those inner surfaces, tuckpoint, and wet-saw or chip bricks into shape for special applications.
Any problems they ran into were solved with ingenuity and good humor. The by-pass damper for the bake oven is a case in point. They scavenged parts from odds and ends in the barn and dog kennel, adapted a handle from an old fireplace tool in the cellar, had it welded at a shop in town.
And always at the end of each day came those clean-up chores -- buckets, mortar boards and tools scrubbed clean, all debris carried away, the floor swept.
DAY SEVEN (Friday): "A lot of fussy stuff awaiting us today, " Rod said as he came down late for breakfast, setting a leisurely pace for the day.
They worked out the damper controls for both the main flue and the bake oven. "Apprentices" learned how to mix refractory cement, pour it into the forms, and reinforce it with high-temperature fiberglass mesh, producing thick refractory slabs for use inside the heater.
After more odds and ends, the guys took the afternoon off to visit a granite stone quarry at Barre, Vermont. We regrouped at Bev's that evening for great pizza from her outdoor masonry bake oven. Pizza from any other source never tastes as good as pizza from a masonry bake oven. Guaranteed!
DAY EIGHT (Saturday): With the end in sight, the pace of work slowed. The crew was shrinking. More brick laying, more parging, more tuckpointing, more special firebrick cuts for Jerry and Rod by mortar-mixers and hod carriers Brian, Scott and Jean-David; fitting the refractory top for the bake oven and seating its by-pass damper; more work on the damper controls.
By 2 pm Jerry was standing on top of the bake oven to lay brick, his mortar board resting on the balcony floor.
DAYS NINE thru ELEVEN (Sunday-Tuesday): Almost finished now! Complete the flue-gas channels, do more tuckpointing, set a piece of soapstone into the floor in front of the bake oven.
On Sunday afternoon, with Brian and Jerry taking turns on dust control, Rod cut the two large soapstone caps to size. The guys toted them (oof!) into the house and carefully lifted them into place on the heater. Rod discovered he needed to make some alterations on the topmost cap, and that took some time to accomplish.
Scott left for home shortly after that second cap was finally set in place. He missed out on the fantastic dinner Bev and Dick treated us to that evening at Three Stallion Inn a few miles down the pike. Still hanging in there were Rod, Jerry, Gary, Jean-David and I. It was a treat to see Rod so cooled out and relaxed that evening.
On Monday, Rod oiled the soapstone caps to a mellow charcoal gray finish. They inserted the neoceramic glass into the firebox door, and, finally, Rod lit a kindling fire to test the draft. Ah, perfect!
Advice to the new owner: Rod now instructed Bev to keep all dampers open to ensure air flowing through the heater. This speeds the curing process. In the fall, before firing up the heater with a full load of wood, she would need to burn a series of small break-in fires to further dry out the heater. This procedure must be faithfully adhered to before each heating season begins.
On Tuesday morning, with Gary and Jean-David now departed, came those final chores -- gathering items for the lost-and-found (tuckpointer, brick hammer, Glenn’s knee pads, an MHA cap, Korey’s jacket), cleaning up, hauling out the heavy stuff, packing up . . . Then big hugs, goodbyes, and it was over.
* * * * * * *
Reading through my journal and workshop notes, I relive those 11 days of camaraderie, hard work, good food and the Marois’ exceptional hospitality. Jack Russell dogs kept things lively with their endless enthusiasm for life, horses cavorted in the pasture, everybody seemed to be having a fine time, and the weather was mostly grand.
It had been hard saying goodbye as one after another of the crew departed. What a great bunch of housemates they had been. We ate our own "home-cooked" breakfasts at Lilac Hill and usually our catered dinners, too, watched spectacular sunsets from the front porch, talked and talked, asked endless questions of the heater masons among us, and heard about Jerry’s life and times, master storyteller that he is.
* * * * *
After building the mandatory two-week series of small break-in fires, Bev and Dick fired up their heater in November with a full load of well-seasoned firewood, laid up in the top-down mode, and settled back to enjoy it. One fire a day is all that is usually needed to keep their house warm.
During the bitter cold weather that descended on them in mid-January, it took two fires a day, and occasionally three, to keep the house warm. Their back-up oil furnace seldom cut on. When their fuel supplier made his rounds, he was amazed to discover that their fuel-oil tank was still almost full.
“The warmth and beauty of our new masonry heater adds to the lifestyle we love here in Vermont,” Bev says. "The brick surface never gets to hot to touch, and we have a working heater to show friends and prospective customers for our heater masons."
Dick is content: “Now we can not only talk the talk, we can walk the walk, as they say.”
Bev likens the heat generated to “sunshine on a cloudy day.” She adds that "even a fierce ice storm that takes down trees and power lines can't disrupt our new off-the-grid heating system. We can count on it to keep us warm and safe all winter long!"
Want to know more? Visit www.mha-net.org. and www.rodzander.com. Contact Bev at 802-728-5896 or firstname.lastname@example.org for dates of upcoming workshops.
Writer/photographer Jay Hensley saw and fell in love with her first masonry heater ("Russian fireplace") at the 1980 Boston Energy Show. She is a long-time MHA associate member. She heats her small A-frame outside Berea, Kentucky with a hybrid masonry fireplace/heater custom-designed by Jerry Frisch and built by a crew of MHA members, including five who participated in the Vermont workshop -- Jerry, Gary and Korey, Norbert, and William Davenport.
* Ahrens Chimney Technique, Sioux Falls, SD (Monty Lutz) --
chimney supplies, large clean-out door
* Arthur Whitcomb, W. Lebanon, NH -- antique bricks (facing),
* Chimney Savers, Randolph, VT (Gene Bianco) -- staging and
other local supplies needed
* Deer Hill Masonry, Cummington, MA (Steve Bushway) -- Ultimate
Ridgehook roof scaffolding system
* Elmer's Pipe, Auburn, ME -- stainless steel relining system
* Harbison-Walker Refractories, Orange, CT-- all refractory
* Maine Wood Heat, Norridgewock, ME (Albie Barden) -- bake-
* Masonry Stove Builders, Shawville, Quebec (Norbert Senf) --
* New England Hearth & Soapstone LLC, Goshen, CT (Rod Zander)--
heater design, soapstone, masonry equipment, tools, supplies
* Solid Timber Construction, Bloomsbury, NJ (Glenn Overk) --
* Temp-Cast Enviroheat Ltd., Toronto, ON (John La Gamba) --
gold-plated heater door & accessories
* Turtlerock Stonemasonry, Berlin, VT (William Davenport) --
diamond saw blade