Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Masonry Heater :: our primary source of heat

There is no denying it, the Masonry Heater is THE focal point of most homes which have one. They are BIG and ours is the small version. They must be located centrally to efficiently heat a home and they require a solid knowledge of masonry skills and safe chimney installation and this, my friends, is not easy to find. It took a long, hard, trying time to get this structure built - there are not many Masons out there anymore.

Hubbie has wanted to have a Masonry Heater ever since he learned about them. Here is the best condensed explanation of the what's and why's of the Masonry Heater.

About our Masonry Heater...

No feeding of wood all day and night...

The surprising part that was hard to get my head around is that I would not have a  glowing orange fire going all day and night long. At night, I confess I love the blazing flames of a wood stove being constantly stoked with logs but I don't like having to constantly go out and get more logs to feed this fire. A masonry heater is not like a fireplace or wood stove. We have heated primarily with wood stoves until this house. The big difference here is that we burn one big fire - not a constant feeding of firewood like in the wood stoves. You load the heater with the firewood - open the damper to fully open and let the fire blaze like crazy. Once the fire is burnt down to red coals, you close the damper and let the Masonry Heater do it's thing...no feeding of more logs and on days like today, I burn a baby fire and it keeps the house warm for 24 hours. 

the fire box is lined in cinder blocks and the same kind of firebricks used in Pottery Kilns

The firebox is loaded with as little or as much wood as we want, the damper is fully open and fire is left to burn itself out. 

Once there are just red coals (say 30 minutes later) we close the damper and that's it. No more fire for  the day or when it gets colder, a second fire at dinner time.

Imagine my dismay when I realized I would not see this glowing orange for more than maybe 45 minutes - twice per day! Pull out the candles!

How it works...

Beneath that brick and stone facade is a complicated network of chambers and channels which force the heat and smoke of the fire to remain inside that big structure for as long as possible. The smoke and heat are absorbed into the cinder blocks and firebricks and once the damper is closed they heat up more and more. We know that if the house is at 64 degrees when we close the damper, it will easily climb up to 69 or 70 and even more given time and depending on the size of the fire that we burned. All day long that structure is warm as toast and we lean on it, lay our hands on it and I have laundry near it - it dries so fast!

This entire structure is the source of radiated heat so I can't put anything that melts too easily on the mantel (I thaw stuff on the mantle in winter). This is why people build benches and beds into these structures - imagine how cozy to sit on the warm bench in winter...but we don't have the space (or the money!) for such a structure. Take a look at these beauties.

This is the damper! It's a metal plate that blocks or opens the air access - it's pulled-out when the fire is burning and pushed-in for the rest of the time. This keeps all the heat inside the heater and it radiates the heat.

Masonry Heaters require a learning curve...

We were utterly frustrated at first, the fire would not burn, the smoke was coming out of every crevice...Hubbie finally figured-out how to use our heater and now it purrs like a kitten. What we learned is,

  • with our super-insulated house, we need to open a window (just a crack) to create an air flow
  • we stack our wood like we always have (we don't agree with the kindling on the top theory) so we stack the firewood with the kindling on the bottom and with paper on the bottom too. My secret weapon which saves a stubborn 'no, I will not burn'  fire is cardboard. I save cardboard all year long and I assure you that if you add some to your kindling, that fire will catch! 
  • we wait until there is just glowing red coals, not even a tiny little flame left otherwise if we close the damper we are smoked-in. 
  • in the coldest days of winter we have had to burn two consecutive fires in the AM and then 2 consecutive fires in the PM. Otherwise, two fires keep the house warm most of the winter.
  • not just to do with Masonry Heaters but we have finally 'clicked' that there should be a ceiling fan running all winter long blowing that hot air back down to the floor. We used to feel like we were in the tropics in our straw bale house when all the heat flew up to the loft.

You can imagine my situation when I tried to figure out what to use to cover this monster! It had to be visually appealing to us and suit our decor. I selected reclaimed brick.

Growing to love our masonry heater...

We love our Masonry Heater now - it took a while but we understand it and we cannot deny it's a wonderful thing. We are not constantly gathering firewood to feed the fire and the ash is collected at the end of the season instead of my having to carefully carry a pan full of ashes outside in the winter every morning. Definitely an improvement and really, it's beautiful.

The Pizza/Bread oven...

The fires I am burning right now don't heat the oven enough but very soon I'll have plenty of heat in there and I won't bake another loaf or pizza in my electric oven for many months. I bake bread, pizza, soups and stews, root vegetables...all in that oven. So much fun and so delicious.

The pizza/bread oven

Plenty of room in there for a pizza, several loaves of bread and a large soup pot. 

There is an impressive structure beneath this main floor firebox - a cinder block tower to hold this monster up . The Ash goes down through grates in the firebox to the basement where there is a hatch in the cinder block tower -  to access all the ashes. In the Spring, Hubbie cleared it all out and dumped it into the compost. 

So there you have it, the best explanation I can provide about our primary source of heat. We have a backup propane furnace but as the propane delivery guy learned last winter, we are very stubborn about NOT using it unless we are completely out of firewood. He finally asked me to call if I ever needed propane, he was tired of backing into our curvy driveway. We never did call him...


  1. I love it! My parents had an old "Fisher" wood stove, and I still remember the cold winter days were I would walk to the shed outside and collect firewood. I love the cozy heat :)

  2. Wowie...I can't wait to show hubby. He will be so jealous. He spends the entire winter trying (and failing) to heat our house with our tiny wood stove which is really just a decoration since it is not located in an area that heats any real living spaces.
    I,on the other hand am jealous of the bread oven! Mmmmm......

  3. It is beautiful and very cool!
    What is the sq. footage of your home, is the heat able to reach all the corners, and what temperature do you keep it at in the winter?

  4. Wow I am so very jealous of your lovely heater cos you have such a lovely house and it must be so cosy in the winter. And I love your pots with the faces .... where do u get them? xx

  5. Reply from Pinney,

    Well Lizzy, I enjoy all the peeks into your abode and look forward to seeing more if this winter finds you blogging again! The face pots are from a local potter and I dearly hope to see him this weekend for the Thanksgiving pottery show I attend (and so very much look forward to) every Thanksgiving. He was ill with cancer last year and it was very sad to not see his wonderful quirky creations, I go just for him and went home empty-handed. Hopefully he is well and maybe he is potting again. I love pottery and took it up many years ago but it really requires a studio (messy!) and a kiln. Cross your fingers he is there this weekend...

  6. Reply from Pinney:

    IHeartDogs, this is not a big house, we like small homes (and that's why we were so content to live in an RV). It's only one floor so even easier to heat that any other 2 level home we have had. It must be around 1800 square feet and yes, the heat gets everywhere but when I take a shower, I don't feel it gets in that corner bathroom quite enough...brrr! In the coldest winter days the house goes down to the mid 60's overnight and we get it back up to low to mid 70's but I assure you that it is a little too easy to get it past 80 degrees if I want to (oops) Hubbie was shocked when he came home from a biz. trip and the house was rather tropical. We ensured that this time our house had excellent windows and the house is built with SIPS (structured insulated panels) - it keeps cool in summer and warm in winter.

  7. Reply from Pinney,

    Maggie, I love old wood stoves and my dream if it would be realistic in today's world is an old farmhouse with a big old fashioned wood burning kitchen stove/oven. Have you ever seen The Shipping News? Takes place in Newfoundland. I love that whole old kitchen...


    A wood stove is wonderful anywhere it is and we had a wee little one in our sunroom in the straw bale house. It was a magical room at Christmas (truly the only word to describe it) with the Christmas tree in there, the little wood stove and all of us crowded in there. One of the happiest memories I have and that little stove really only heated that room (it stuck out of the structure and need a heat source) As for bread ovens...take a look at this wonderful new wood stove that has a bread oven!