Masonry heaters and hard lessons

Around 500 years ago winter came knocking early and stayed late. A dreadful dark dismal den of destruction descended on mankind, a period of icy death and despair unseen for millennia. The gradual warming period which had left us fat and happy, allowed new colonization and prosperous growth and trade gave way to a cooling which threatened to push much of Europe to a slow painful end under frosty bundles of dusty blankets. This quaintly named “little Ice age” had far reaching ramifications throughout the world, one of which, it helped teach a hard lesson to wood hungry Europe. One great development from this catastrophe was a brilliantly simple method to heat ones home more efficiently. Masonry heaters do not rely on constant fires to warm, they transfer a brilliant high heat into a huge warm mass which radiates this heat back slowly, as all good giant conductors should, consequently using much less wood, and producing no nasty byproducts of dampening such as creosote or chimney fires. This seemed perfect for us as we used a great deal of wood warming our tent the last winter. What we failed to realize was the practical marriage of a local vernacular building style with its heat source, but Ill get the that later…

I found a wonderful stove builder offering free plans for a single skin masonry heater, complete with cooktop and bread oven, sold. With a pile of bricks and buckets of clay mortar I set to work, first making a stone footing, then laying brick layer by layer per the plans instructions, only stopping to add a cast iron door or damper as needed. Our heater/cookstove was lovely, and worked exactly as intended. After a 2 hour burn, all the bricks were nice and toasty warm, the bread was cooked, and the stage was set for this ton of radiant mass to warm our workshop over the next 12 hours. What could be better? Of course, physics reared its ugly head, and showed us these type stoves don’t work well with a poorly insulated building such as thin wattle and daub…The stove radiated its heat just fine, but this heat could not be retained by our building, which let it bleed away all to swiftly, leaving us shivering by morning. It was truly heartbreaking, especially for me, who had truly fallen in love with our stove, but there was nothing to do but tear every lovely brick down, and find some massively oversize wood stove on Craigslist and go on with lessons learned….our stories moral, it pays to be careful when mixing building styles from different cultures. IMG_6894IMG_8128IMG_8524

 

 

 

 

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42 Responses to Masonry heaters and hard lessons

  1. gmtool1945@windstream.net says:

    Would you be interested in getting rid of your masonry heater plans if so contact me. Thank You: Merle

    Liked by 1 person

    • mrchickadee says:

      I would not feel right giving away plans given for my use as I did not produce them, however they are free if you email Mr Chernov, at stove master.com, just tell him you are wanting to try the plans for his single skin russian rocket he built at the MHA meeting few years ago.
      Thanks
      Josh

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So sorry the stove didn’t work out, it was lovely…

    I am on the fence with wattle & daub for exactly this reason. I am thinking about experimenting with a home grown panel of plywood – foam insulation board – fiber reinforced (lime) cement / stucco for my first building. It will be used for a tool shed, so it doesn’t really need any insulation but I want to try something to learn a bit. I know that’s not in line with your traditional methods, but would like to hear what you think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mrchickadee says:

      Anything is worth a try, we will be trying “light straw clay” for our house build starting soon. I didn’t hear about this method until after we began wattle and daub, it is supposed to be much better, and German developed long ago so must be good. Many modern Timber framers use OSB panels with modern insulation, Id be suspicious of a modern non breathing infill, sometimes the modern ways cause more problems. It does seem that wattle and daub is less insulated than a single inch of wood boxing as seen in barns, houses used to have double boxing filled with sawdust as well, so thats an option I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We once tore down an old house that had sawdust as insulation. I imagine it would work quite will, but it does settle so I wonder if it would be possible to leave a port to ‘top it off’. There was a full foot at the top with no insulation at all….

        Liked by 1 person

      • mrchickadee says:

        Interesting! Any idea of the houses age?

        Liked by 1 person

      • House’s age, that’s a good question. I really don’t know, but if I were going to hazard a guess perhaps it was built in the early 1900’s, say 1910-1920. Just for fun I did a search and found a restoration in Red Wing of a house built in 1893 that had sawdust insulation. Also saw an article stating that it was used as late as 1950. I would be surprised if the house was as old as 1890’s and it certainly was not as new as 1950.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Abe Anderson says:

      This somewhat modern notion of insulation being important is usually wrong. In temperate climates thermal mass is far superior, which is the whole point of earthen building. Of course when it comes to a standard roof thats hard, but with apropriately thick earth mass walls the need for energy intensive heating & cooling disappears. I recommend looking at permies.com for info on casting rocket mass heaters. They can be very effecient when done correctly & when prices to modern equipment are compared they are very reasonable. I don’t remember if a mortor recipe was mentio ed in the build video, but most brick & mortars also don’t handle heat well over time. Thermal cob does ok & is easily repairable.

      Like

  3. jlough8788 says:

    Bummer! That masonry stove was immaculate. Sorry it didn’t work out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mrchickadee says:

      Yes, truly broke my heart to pieces tearing it down, reminded me of when Homer had to eat his pet lobster on the Simpsons…I will try to reuse the parts and brick for our house cookstove. Live and learn.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. alexander says:

    love all the work your doing. inspiring for a young hopeful timber framer with roots in rural switzerland hoping to eventually get back to the land myself. I’m heading into carpentry school for a little over a year and then possibly some cabinetry work on top of that. once finished, i will pursue timber framing full time and construct many great structures! hopefully i can travel and work with cool inspiring people such as yourself while a journeymen. so i have a question. while your work is my main interest, those pants you’re rocking with the suspenders are amazing! are they very durable? i have had trouble finding tough outdoor work pants and I’m in love with your dungarees! please share your pantaloon secrets with me. thanks again for inspiring and leading by example. ill keep watching!

    alex

    Liked by 1 person

    • mrchickadee says:

      How awesome to be in that gorgeous region filled with natural beauty and great examples of timber frames which have stood the test of time! Also great you can study framing and cabinetry at university there, these are forgotten crafts which are difficult to learn in the US which has thrown out tradition for modernity. Please do come visit and hew with us when you can, it will be fun.
      As to the pants, I find normal pants such as modern jeans to be of a weak and thin material, and also be made too low riding. Also with only a belt I find them uncomfortable for bending and general rough dirty work (i.e.esposing things when not wanting too) I found my original pants online from a brand called “Frontier Classics” they are made from heavy canvas and are very tough. More importantly they have a high waist made with buttons for suspenders. After a year of hard use I did find the metal buttons tended to rust, so on our last trip to Peru to visit my wife family, I took one pair and had a local tailor make me a copy with 12 once denim and plastic buttons, these are very thick and even stronger than the canvas frontier classic pants. Im not sure what you can find in Switzerland, it might be best to have a tailor make you a pair, bring a pic of old style high waisted pants made to be worn with suspenders. They should figure it out. Go with the toughest fabric you can get, or sew leather on the knees.
      Thanks for commenting!
      Josh

      Liked by 1 person

  5. waterflogger says:

    I wondered about the insulation capabilities of the wattle and daub – but figured you were in a part of the country where cooling was more important than heat. Check out Green Building Advisor (http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com) for discussions of insulation and, especially in reference to your comment about ‘non-breathing’ infill, how and why to control interior humidity. You will find it enlightening. That aside, I’ve really enjoyed the videos of your progress . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • mrchickadee says:

      Cooling won’t be an issue, it seems we built a large fridge! It really stays at least 10degrees cooler inside on warm days. Ill check that link out. With a good wood stove it is toasty warm, and there is some amount of thermal mass at play it seems. Thanks for the comment.

      Like

  6. msjoy1234 says:

    That masonry heater was so beautiful. I can only imagine how brokenhearted you were to dismantle it. The “new” stove looks like it will do the trick. I know you look forward to having an oven once again to make your delicious bread! I am so glad you are living your dream, son.

    Like

  7. msjoy1234 says:

    Also the alliteration used in your writing is downright awesome. Hum, did anyone ever tell you that you are a good writer?

    Like

  8. cdanjo says:

    Josh, It’s been so interesting following your progress. After watching the posting of your door, I thought you might want to check out this method of clinching nails. http://www.theenglishwoodworker.com/cliching-and-the-tool-chest-video/
    Really enjoy your videos!

    Dan

    Like

  9. Rachel Monk says:

    I appreciate your honesty and acceptance of the situation. It must have been heartbreaking to tear down something you loved and had worked so hard to create… I also appreciate your willingness to post your successes as well as mishaps, so that others can learn from your wide range of experiences.

    Keep your head up and know your work is valued by many.

    With all the sincerity in the world — I thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • mrchickadee says:

      Thank you for your comment. It was a difficult write up, not so much due to my embarrassment, but I knew many people loved the heater as much as I did, and I didn’t want to disappoint them, or cast the heater design in a negative light. I remain convinced that in a very well insulated and designed house this heater would be great. If others can be spared any hard lessons, it would be a true triumph in the end!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Sean says:

    Straw Bale would go so well with what you’ve already achieved on your homestead, it would also go a long way to keeping you and your wife insulated in the cold weather. Then you could give that russian stove we all love, another try. Regardless, I’ll be watching and reading, can’t wait for the next video!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. In a not-creepy way, where do you buy your work pants and puttees? The WW1 looking ones?

    Like

    • mrchickadee says:

      Not creepy at all. I started out wearing “frontier classics” brand, which are very durable canvas. After a year of rough use, the metal buttons started rusting however, as did the metal on my first suspenders. After that I cut off and replaced all the metal buttons with non metallic ones, and my wife began sewing me custom suspenders. I had two new pair of pants made by a tailor in Peru last time we visited my wife’s family, those are the new denim pants seen in recent videos.

      Im sure thats all you ever wanted to know about pants haha.
      Thanks
      Josh

      Like

    • mrchickadee says:

      Oh the leggings were WWII vintage from Ebay.

      Like

  12. Tom says:

    What do the old oak buildings in Strasbourg , France use for insulation?

    Like

    • mrchickadee says:

      No idea, maybe thicker daubing?

      Like

      • Tom says:

        They sure look pretty though. There is one hotel / restaurant that is the oldest building in the city. Possibly older than the cathedral which was bombed in one of the World Wars. I think the Crypt of the cathedral is pretty old though.

        Like

      • mrchickadee says:

        yeah they are great, thats what we modeled our workshop after, the style. Nothing wrong with it, just not the right fit for a mass heater. With thicker walls, maybe. Ive seen that in traditional houses in Russia they used log homes with sawdust in the cold attic giving good inflation, but also had small rooms, and might only heat one room, different quality and type of life back then, just like here in the states folks had log houses with snow blowing through cracks in the wall…a tight, well insulted house is a very new thing in human history.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. knaturalbuilder says:

    Couldn’t you have just fired it more often?

    Liked by 1 person

    • mrchickadee says:

      Unfortunately no, once the brick all gets hot, more firing does nothing and in fact over stresses the masonry, you need at least SOME insulation to hold in the heat, was a dumb idea but a good lesson!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Geordie Webb says:

        so, if i’m understanding, the amount of masonry was insufficient to store enough heat to keep the house warm overnight? perhaps a bigger masonry heater would do the job? i have been using estimates by igor kuznetsov to estimate the size of the masonry heater to put in our home in southern (colder) australia. it is interesting that the thermal mass can max out. i’d never thought of it this way.

        Like

      • mrchickadee says:

        Not quite, the stove was not the issue but the lack of insulation in the building. The thin wattle and daub walls have near zero R value, but some U value, they are like a slim stone or brick wall, when its -20 outside they are frozen cold. That coupled with the lack of roof insulation and single pane windows, its basically a barn or outbuilding. The masonry heater delivers a lot of heat, but the building could not contain it, so if heat loss is infinite, it just won’t work. Our cabin has a lot of insulation, and our much smaller masonry heater built there keeps its toasty warm with very little wood. In summation, not the stoves fault the buildings lack of insulation.

        Like

      • mrchickadee says:

        Much better and easier than building a larger masonry heater is just increasing efficiency of the home, adding insulation and thermal mass. We did this in our cabin build which has a much smaller masonry heater, and more than double the inside volume of the workshop, it stays toasty warm with very little wood used daily. If you wish traditional methods, I would search for “light straw clay” a german invented technique which can be used in concert with timber framing to give super insulation. I would advise against a cathedral ceiling by experience, a traditional insulated ceiling with cold attic above is much better, easier to build and more efficient.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. PeterMcdermott says:

    Great videos on YouTube ,fascinating watching you & your wife,dog & kitten.
    Thanks a lot, Peter Coventry UK.

    Like

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