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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Brick floor

For our workshop floor we wanted something durable, easily cleaned, cheap, traditional, and of course, beautiful. Brick saw to our wants more perfectly than we could have hoped in our wildest dreams.

I must say I have never been a fan of concrete. If the smell, complication, price and modernity of this medium were not enough to discourage its use, there is a worry of its sustainability and long term practicality. One transcendent characteristic of long lived foundations around the globe is flexibility, our earth is in constant motion, and this motion does not seem to bode well for cement. How many slab foundations have you seen cracked? Or slab concrete sidewalks, driveways or patios? Most all crack, leak, and deteriorate quite swiftly. Not to mention the price of having a slab poured, as well as the labor and complication of the form work and the actual pour itself.

A traditional brick floor on the other hand, is simplicity and flexibility personified! No forms, no rebar, no ubiquitous gang of heavy booted laborers, and no expensive truck. (the truck alone was a deal breaker for us as we would have needed to spend over 2K in road work to even GET a cement truck to our building site) The brick only wanted a cushy bed of gravel and sand, it flexes gorgeously and can be repaired or even replaced with ease. As we needed around 1K bricks for our masonry heater needs anyway, tacking on a few extra for the floor was no hurt at all.

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Wattle and daub III

Lime is quite an amazing material, in fact the entire process smacks of alchemy or pure old school wizardry. Tiny mollusks, sponges, and corrals create a crusty home for themselves out of aragonite or calcite, die and millions of years later leave their sea bottom home as layers of limestone. You burn this stone, give it some water, make a plaster or wash with it and it returns to stone, covering your home in the same crusty shells our ancestors used millions of year ago. Its the ultimate thrift store recycle, we get to reuse the armor great great grandpa fended of trilobites with to fend off the elements…

All awesome coolness aside, lime plaster and wash have other attributes which lend them perfectly to timber frame dwellings. Unlike modern cements, Lime is wear permeable, allowing the building to transmit excess moisture in or out, preventing rot, and helping the clay daubing to regulate humidity. Lime also is quite deadly to microorganisms as it is highly caustic. Even before we knew what germs were, it was felt lime washing walls was hygienic and prevented a build up of vermin. And of course its just plain beautiful, the brilliant white offsetting and complimenting the ever darkening timbers and heavily brightening any room.

The only true roadblock we found was actually locating the correct type of lime, or anyone who knew what we were talking about…Traditionally limestone would have been cooked in a kiln, producing “quicklime” which was then slaked with water producing a lime putty. This quite random process created a putty which had to be soaked for long periods of time (often generations) to ensure complete hydration of the lime particles. Masons would soak large quantities in pits, the grounds even temperature preventing freezing, literally for their children’s work, then taking cakes of putty from long dead relatives out with them on the job. Having no great uncle laying down our store of lime, we needed another alternative. Fortunately for us, these days several companies produce a hydrated lime which may be used directly, known as type S hydrated lime. The “S” denotes this lime as being special, and altogether different from the type “N” or normal hydrated lime. The type S has apparently undergone a “special” process of steaming and other proprietary treatments lending it to our purposes a perfect regard. We searched high and low for type S lime in our local rural stores, and after many blank stares, and sideways glances at my sad attempts to relay our specific needs, we found a feed store selling a lime not marked as type S by the company but claimed to be the same by their representative. This brand “old castle” apparently produces type S then packages some as that variety for masons use, but also packs some up just as hydrated lime for agricultural use, both coming from the same spout as it were.

Even with modern type S lime, most advocate a minimum of 6 weeks slaking under water before use. We quite recklessly did not, but mixed our putty directly from the bag, with good results, perhaps we got lucky…

In any case our plaster consisted of 3 parts mason sand to one part lime putty, and one half part unraveled manila rope cut into 2 inch lengths to simulate horse hair in the historic recipe. Having this mixed up we misted each wall panel with water to help control suction from the dry clay daub, then applied a half inch layer of the plaster using a pool float from the local DIY store.

I must admit, with time completely against us we were in a huge rush to get any lime work done before winters freezing fingers did their worst to our walls, and so broke most every rule in traditional plasterwork. Amazingly, the walls turned out quite well, did not crack apart and fall into a heap of powder as was my worst fear. Plaster was traditionally applied in 3 layers, a very hairy “scratch” coat, a medium weight “middle” coat, and a thin hairless lime rich “finish” coat. These coats were applied then covered from the sun and wind and dried very slowly, taking weeks to finish, then upwards of 5 coats of lime wash were applied on top. We had barely the time to get one hairy coat of plaster down and 2 washes before our first freezes of the year, but somehow this seems to have worked for the raw nature of our need. I would hope that perhaps the wealthy, or at least the proper homes were finished in the way described as traditionally correct, but many structures were “thrown” up by those less wealthy or prepared homesteaders, and if my theory is true, we count ourselves honored to be categorized along with these more common folk of the past. IMG_6584IMG_6577IMG_6598IMG_6534IMG_6668IMG_6827IMG_6824




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Wattle and Daub II

Oh what joy is clay! Sticky, gooey, lovely stuff great for so many things, we are blessed with an abundance of this underutilized material here in Eastern KY. Mixed 4 to 1 with a bit of local creek sand, and another batch of straw from my neighbors farm, and we had our daub. This mixture we spread and smoothed onto both sides of our wattled panels, pressing the daub to ooze through and lock front to back. Once dry this daubing compares to concrete in toughness, though it retains some flexibility which endears it to a drying timber building. As the timbers slowly dry over the next decades, or swell with humidity swings thought the year, this daub will move with the timbers, and help to regulate moisture in all parts of the building. The dry clay is a huge moisture sponge, pulling excess humidity from the air, or adding it from outside, in fact somewhat air conditioning your building. It is amazing how cool it is just stepping though the doorway on a hot summers day due to this amazing ability of clay. Conversely in winter this same clay helps keep the building warm by soaking up warmth from a heater inside and the rays of a warm sun as well giving thermal mass to the structure. The straw adds strength as well as a bit of insulation value to the walls.


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Wattle and Daub I

As our building gained his metallic hat, he also shrank back from the truth of his external nakedness and a search for that best brand and fashion of woody overcoat began. Though many a proud New England barn gracefully ages inside its board and batten siding, we felt a covering more Tudor in nature would suit our needs and style a bit better, while remaining “cheap as dirt” to compliment our pocketbook.

Wattle and daub is an ages old technique practiced in some form by most every culture around the globe, proving its raw practicality. The idea is simplicity itself. You start with some framework of wood, weave saplings or other thin length of wood between this framework and cover this “basket weave” with a mixture of subsoil and straw. Once dry this “daubing” becomes extremely strong and flexible, and may be further weather proofed with a lime plaster coating. This method relies on basically free or waste materials and leaves a most beautiful and picturesque structure reminiscent of a fairy tail cottage everyone wishes their grandmother lived in. We were able to cover the entirety of our workshop with a trailer load of free scrap trimmings from the local sawmill, and about 35 dollars of hydrated lime…


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Workshop roof

Sometimes circumstance is unkind to young innocent homesteaders. Luckily in our case it was not ravenous wolves nor rampaging Sioux which plagued our first year on the land, it was unheard of rainfall, and I mean truly unheard of, even by our neighbors in their 80s…who had, “never heard no tell of such a wet summer, my poor rotted taters!”

Though I can not in any way vouch for the rottenness of their “taters” I can say we lost much time this year due to rain, and an adequately dry roof seemed just the thing to dry out sopping wet spirits…and possibly our moldy long johns  as well!

I must make a small side step in some attempt at explanation of our roofing choice. Many who have followed our progress may wander at the selection of a metal roof on such a painstakingly period correct building as our workshop. To be honest I had every intention of going all the way with a proper Tudor thatch roof…until I found thatching quite hard to come by(in fact the only supplier I found gets their in from scotland at an understandably ridiculous price) which left us with either harvesting our own river cane, which does not grow much in the mountains locally, or wheat, which would be great had we grown it last year and had ready at hand…

The next obvious choice would be an oak shake roof over pole purlins. I really had every intention of going this route as well until I started hunting for the good sized straight oak logs to split. This proved both difficult and morally suspect…their not being much in the way of 100+ year old oak straight and knot free around our land, what is to be had, should it not be used in a more sustainable way? Would felling a 200 year old oak to produce shakes which may last 50 years make ecological sense? The general rule most observed and applied to sustainable forestry I have read goes, “A product made from a tree should last at least as long as that tree took to grow, preferably longer” So no shingles were out, or at least out until some horrid storm would give us the chance to salvage large logs which might be burned in someones wood stove!

So we were finally left with but few options, and the most practical and affordable seemed to be a metal roof over wood decking. As it turned out our neighbor did have a rather large Yellow Poplar fall in a summer storm, and he graciously gave us the wood to use.


Reclaimed rafters from a house built circa 1918…


with just a touch of the Jack plane…


give up their aged beauty to the light!


Bucking poplar for the roof sheathing


Sometimes rest is good for a man…


Nails reclaimed and reused from the same old house


Green poplar sheathing going up


Adding a bit of elegance


tarpaper goes on


Then some metal


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The Raising

The day had finally arrived! After 6 weeks of hewing timbers, and several more weeks hand carving all the joints, our little frame was ready to spread her arms and reach for the sky! Needless to say I could hardly contain myself…my wife was far more pragmatic, thankfully she keeps me grounded.

This day historically would have been an event concerning much of a community. Women would begin before daylight preparing a mountainous heap of delicious foods, while men arranged long tables and endless chairs. Many burly hands would grasp white knuckled to thick ropes, as some men prepared to ride the tops of bents being drawn skywards, ready to thrust the first pegs into waiting tenons…

We would have none of this, for we were three, and one was the cutest 5′ nothing Peruvian wife, and another a small dog with a pink hand stitched dress…

We did not despair however tempting it was, after all, we had a stout lifting shear, a homemade tackle block, a capstan, and enough 3/4 inch manilla rope to lasso a good sized Russian Boar!


Each bent was laid flat on the foundation, tested again fro square and fit, then bored, pegged and lifted up into place.


Our lifting shear, with hand forged S hook, and hand maid tackle blocks


Our Capstan and snatch block


First bent is up and secured temporarily with a tacked brace


A small block nailed to the sill timber helps keep the post from slipping past its mortise.


Bent two is pegged to bent one, locking them together forever


Bents one and two up without a hitch!


Peg made from old tobacco stick goes in


Offset holes in mortise and tenon help pull the joint tight and keep it that way


Bent three is ready to go up


Setting the top plate down on its three post tenons. Half lap dovetailed wind braces will be let in later between the posts and top plate.

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