Masonry Heaters 101
This winter, the chilling Vermont weather won't have Bev and Dick Marois shivering at Fox Brush Farm, the idyllic place they call home just outside of Randolph. Thanks to a custom-built, antique brick heater with soapstone accents, recently created by a crew of volunteers, they'll stay warm and comfortable.
For the past eight years, as administrator for the 82-member Masonry Heater Association (MHA), Bev has promoted masonry heaters and the craftspeople who build them; however, she didn't have a masonry heater of her very own. To alleviate this problem, MHA treasurer Rod Zander of New England Hearth and Soapstone in Goshen, Conn., custom-designed a heater for Bev's house, and they scheduled a 15-day workshop for the benefit of the MHA members. Now, at last, she and Dick have a masonry heater in their own living room to show prospective owners.
Volunteers at the workshop ranged in age and experience from 26-year-old Jean-David Morneau from Quebec, who would butter his first brick at the workshop, to Jerry Frisch, 72, of Lopez Quarries in Everett, Wash. MHA president and veteran mason who co-led the workshop with Rod. Both are MHA-certified heater masons.
Hearth industry companies contributed a large share of the masonry and chimney renovation supplies and funding for the workshop, while MHA members donated a variety of heater parts, tools and accessories. Rod brought along the soapstone and most of the heavy equipment needed.
We had settled in the night before at Lilac Hill, a lovely restored farmhouse Bev had rented for us. After fixing ourselves a hearty breakfast, we were ready to head to the work site.
Our start-off crew included Rod, Jerry, Gary Hart and son Korey of Aarons Ltd. Alternative Energy in High Ridge, Mo.
The guys protected the floor with homosote, isolated the work site with plastic sheeting, installed lights and a heavy-duty exhaust fan, and 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. Using a diamond-blade 12-inch grinder later that day, Rod would cut down through the four-inch brick facing on both sides in the process of separating the fireplace from the chimney cavity.
Set-up crew morphed into wrecking crew. The din was horrific. I stuffed Kleenex in my ears, grabbed a hardhat and went on clicking the shutter of my camera. The crew whaled away at the formidable masonry mass and filled bucket after bucket with debris. 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?" They definitely were.
Meanwhile, Steve Bushway of Massachusetts installed his Ultimate Ridge Hook scaffolding system on the metal roof with the help of William Davenport of Vermont.
Knocking off at noon, we were all ready for the hearty lunch Bev had ready out under the canopy in the bake oven and barbecue grill complex. A bit of relaxation and camaraderie, then back to work!
That afternoon, Dick rented an 80-pound Bosch jackhammer and within a short time most of rest of the fireplace came down, exposing the chimney cavity. The room was swept clean and the guys returned to Lilac Hill for much-needed showers.
Soon the scaffolding was in place again, and down came the cracked clay-tile liners for the fireplace and a woodstove, leaving in place the sound flue to an oil furnace.
Four new recruits arrived this day: timber framer, Glenn Overk, and his employee, Gary Wagner (" Gary W."), of New Jersey; mason, Walter Kelly, of Pennsylvania; and Jean-David.
Soon there were two bucket brigades going one upstairs where more masonry rubble 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 also installing a cleanout T and its door, courtesy of Aarons Chimney Technique, accessible from the cellar steps.
Out by the barn, Gary Hart's crew prepared the eight-inch insulated stainless steel flueliner, courtesy of Elmer's Pipe, for the heater. As they were winching it into place from below, the cable broke. Strapping a leather belt around it to provide an easier grip, they twisted the pipe around into position and strong-armed it up the chimney, inch by inch.
Setting the stage for laying up a front wall to the chimney, Jerry and Rod put plumb lines in place, while out in the barn the mortar mixing began. When the flatbed truck arrived around noon with its load of bricks, block and other masonry materials, Walter could hardly contain himself. "I'm getting all excited now!" he said. Soon he and Jerry were at work laying bricks. Hod and mud carriers now replaced the bucket brigade of trash carriers.
Later that day, MHA member John LaGamba, owner of TempCast Enviroheat Ltd., of Toronto drove in to deliver the handsome gold-trimmed firebox door he was donating.
Work progressed on the chimney wall, with other crewmembers getting plenty of opportunity to lay brick and receiving good instruction from the pros. Mortar mixers, hod and mud carriers kept busy all day.
Rod stirred up a special super mortar with a chemical bond that dries quickly, perfect for the decorative brick corners he was creating. Norbert Senf of Quebec arrived Tuesday evening. On the cutting edge of wood-heat technology, he's a storehouse of information and new ideas for the rest of us. Firefighter Scott Goodman from Rush, N.Y., also joined our ranks.
That morning New Jersey mason Brian Klipfel arrived, paddling in on the third branch of the White River that marks the West boundary of the farm.
Rod went over his design with us, pointing out such things as a gas slot to allow for the escape of carbon monoxide, the placement of clean-outs, the use of cardboard for expansion joints, and the gradual "necking-down" of flue-gas channels on their 15-foot journey from firebox to flue in order to maintain the same velocity of flow as heat is absorbed into the masonry mass.
Then Rod, Norbert and Jerry started laying up the heater. "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 of his own modular heater-core kit.
As the guys took turns laying up the heater, Gary W. and Jean-David, under Norbert's supervision, learned how to build with brick. They watched Gary put one arch in place over 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; later on, one for the bake-oven on the kitchen side of the heater.
And so the heater kept growing. Everyone had a chance to lay brick, place cardboard expansion joints, parge the inner surfaces, point, and wet-saw or chip bricks into shape for special applications.
Always at the end of each day came those clean-up chores buckets, mortar pans and tools scrubbed clean, all debris carried away, the floor swept clean.
"A lot of fussy stuff awaiting us today," Rod said.
They worked out the damper controls for both the main flue and the bake oven bypass damper. The crew's "apprentices" learned how to mix refractory cement, pour it into the forms they constructed, and reinforce it with high-temperature fiberglass mesh, producing refractory caps for use inside the heater.
After more odds and ends, the guys took the afternoon off to visit a quarry. We regrouped at Bev's for great pizza from her outdoor oven.
With the end in sight, the pace of work slowed and the crew was shrinking. More bricklaying, parging, special firebrick cuts and work on the damper controls took place. By the afternoon, Jerry was standing on top of the bake oven to lay brick, his mortar pan resting on the balcony floor.
Days Nine Through Eleven
Almost finished now! The remaining crew completed the flue-gas channels and pointing. They set a piece of soapstone into the floor in front of the bake oven and cut two large soapstone caps to size, setting them into place. The soapstone was then oiled to a mellow charcoal gray finish. After inserting the neoceramic glass into the firebox door, we lit a paper fire to test the draft. In the clear, we swept and cleaned up once more, and then following big hugs and goodbyes, it was over.
After having small "break-in" fires for the first two weeks, Bev and Dick fired up their heater with a full load of wood and settled back to enjoy it.
"The warmth and the beauty of our new masonry heater adds to the lifestyle we love here in Vermont," Bev says. "The heater surface never gets too hot to touch, and the warmth it generates is like sunshine on a cloudy day. It saves us money, burns clean and keeps us warm and safe."
And Dick is content: "Now we can not only talk the talk, we can walk the walk, as they say."
For more information about the MHA, visit www.mha-net.org. For workshops open to non-members, call (802)-728-5896.
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