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The Masonry Stove or Russian Fireplace
A Brief Overview
by Thomas J. Elpel, Author of Living Homes

      There is no heat like wood heat. My grandmother cooked on a wood-fired cookstove, and I grew up around that. We still cook on a woodstove today, and I wouldn't trade it for any other kind of stove. We also built a masonry fireplace based on the principles of the "masonry stove" or "Russian fireplace." Masonry heaters are characterized by lots of mass to absorb heat from the fire, plus a snakelike flue to extract heat from the exhaust before ventilating to the outside. The masonry warms up slowly, then radiates heat out for hours or days afterwards.

      Many animals use simple sticks and rocks and leaves as tools, but only humans have learned to use and control fire. It is the one technology that truly sets our species apart. Mastery of fire enabled our ancestors to stay warm and move into new lands, to make pottery, build shelters, manipulate ecosystems and to join hands around the circle of light, singing songs deep into the night.

      Today we have a much greater mastery of fire, and we harness it in many forms, using coal, oil, natural gas, and electricity as substitutes for the wood fires of our ancestors. These substitutes effectively power our industries and run our cities. Yet, for the country home with a source of fuel wood, it is still hard to beat the efficiency and aesthetics of a good old-fashioned wood fire.

      The aesthetics of the wood fire are an important point. It is for that reason alone, not energy efficiency, that builders still put cheap fireplaces in so many condominiums and apartments today. And although I envision a world of houses so energy efficient that they need no heating system, I would not willingly give up my own wood stove! I like to stare at the flames and soak up the warmth on those cold winter days, even when the house is already warm.

      The type of fireplace we built is traditionally called a "masonry stove" or "masonry heater". It is also called a "Russian fireplace," but the idea came from eastern Europe more than Russia. The original designs had solid doors like stoves. The type I advocate are made to look like fireplaces yet function as masonry stoves, so they are best described as "masonry fireplaces." I use the terms stove or heater interchangeably, and fireplace to specify stoves with a visible fire.

      Masonry stoves are designed to burn a hot fire, with the air supply and chimney damper wide open. This results in a clean burn, with little visible smoke. The distinctive feature of the heaters is a series of baffles to pull the heat out of the exhaust. The masonry absorbs the heat of the fire, then radiates it gradually back into the room.

      I first learned about masonry stoves while in high-school through an article in The Mother Earth News magazine (October-November, 1994). A house at Mother's Eco-Village in North Carolina included a masonry stove designed by Basilio Lepuschenko of Maine. Our initial house plans included only a wood cookstove in the kitchen, but later we built an addition to the house and we wanted an efficient fireplace for the new family room. I wrote away for Lepuschenko's stove plans and studied them intently, but the designs did not fit our space. The Missouri Masonry Stove Plans (Free PDF) are somewhat similar.

      We also ordered The Book of Masonry Stoves for more ideas, and we studied the pre-manufactured kits made from refractory cement. The kits cost thousands of dollars and still require brick or stone facing, plus the chimney. We could not afford such extravagence!

      As was often the case, we were forced by necessity to design and build our own fireplace from the ground up. We built the entire core of ours out of ordinary firebrick and faced the front with stone. We light a fire in the masonry fireplace about once a week through the winter, on average. It takes all day to heat up the mass of rock, but then it radiates heat out for the next three days. By the end of the week the house starts feeling a little cool, but we usually put on long-sleeved shirts and wait for the weekend and company before lighting the fire again.

      The plans included in my book Living Homes are based on the masonry fireplace we built, but with a few improvements for a next-generation design. For complete details on the book, please go to: Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction

Build Your Own Masonry Fireplace DVD
With Builder and Author Thomas J. Elpel
Video Companion to
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction

The fireplace and baffle system is built entirely from standard firebricks.

With the brickwork complete for the fireplace and side chambers, we are now beginning construction of the horizontal baffle system to extract heat from the exhaust.

Cardboard creates an expansion joint between the brickwork and the stonework.

The stonework is complete up to the arch. the white spots are beadboard insulation, which will later be cleaned out, leaving holes for pins that will hold the door in place.

Building the chimney up through the roof.

The completed masonry fireplace.

      Build an authentic masonry fireplace with the efficiency of a masonry stove! The baffle system in this fireplace extracts heat from the exhaust, warming up the thermal mass of brick and rock. The masonry fireplace can radiate heat for three days after the fire is out!

      In this video, Thomas J. Elpel demonstrates the step-by-step process of building a masonry fireplace, starting from the foundation and ending with the chimney. Elpel shows how to lay up the brickwork for the core of the fireplace, how to build the arch, and how to build the baffle system. With the brickwork complete, Elpel demonstrates freehand stone masonry, using natural rock to lay up the stonework around the brick core. DVD. 2012. ISBN: 978-1-892784-34-6. 108 minutes.

History and Revival of the Masonry Fireplace


See also
Living Homes:
Stone Masonry,
Log, and
Strawbale Construction
      In Europe it was still common in the 1600s to burn open fires inside the house. Our forefathers built squared, wood-stucco houses with grass roofs before they built fireplaces or chimneys. The more advanced homes had a raised platform so the women wouldn't have to bend over to cook, and a few houses had plaster spark arrestors overhead. But the smoke flowed through the house and filtered out through the grass roofs or gable ends. The methodology was effective, but when one house caught fire it often took the entire town with it.

      The reason builders did not embrace enclosed fires sooner was a matter of economics. A fireplace or simple stove with a straight chimney ventilates about 90% of the heat to the outside. More sophisticated heaters evolved during the "Little Ice Age," the period between 1550 and 1850 when the climate was unusually cold across Europe. Population increases put more pressure on firewood sup- plies, and tighter housing increased the fire danger. Safe, efficient heaters were developed out of necessity. Efficient heaters were made of thin tiles, cast iron, or heavy masonry, but all shared one characteristic - a series of baffles to extract heat from the exhaust.

      Efficient masonry stoves gradually became popular across eastern Europe, but the idea did not carry over to this continent until recent times. The knowledge probably wasn't that common among early immigrants, and there was little need for efficiency anyway, since the New World was rich with free fuel. American pioneers built inefficient fireplaces and later metal stoves, followed by cookstoves with ovens. Energy efficiency was not an issue in this country until the fuel shortages of the 1970s. Inventors responded to the energy crisis by making "airtight" stoves. The air supply and exhaust in the stoves was tightly controlled, so the fuel slowly smoldered, giving off an even and steady flow of heat. Airtight stoves increased fuel efficiency to about 60%, but there were serious problems. Much of the remaining heat potential was released in the form of thick smoke, clogging chimney pipes and the atmosphere with unburned, cancer-causing particulate. The particulate built up in chimney pipes and often caught fire, sometimes burning down the houses.

      Older stoves were less efficient, but at least they burned wood cleanly. The pollution problem in airtight stoves was eventually resolved with the aid of expensive catalytic converters to burn particulate in the exhaust. Catalytic converters increased the efficiency of airtight stoves up to 85% or 90%. Unfortunately, they wear out quickly, so the stoves get to be just as dirty as airtight stoves after a few years, unless the catalytic converters are replaced.

      The energy crisis also led to a new interest in efficient masonry stoves. Several companies now offer pre-cast, laboratory-tested models as do-it-yourself masonry stove kits. Masonry heaters burn a hot fire with lots of oxygen, so the exhaust is very clean. A well-designed system extracts up to about 90% of the heat potential before the exhaust is ventilated out. The quality of these prefabricated units is exceptional, but the cost is astronomical-usually four to six thousand dollars for the core and hardware. Then you still have to add the stone or brick veneer and build a chimney.

      Commercial units are expensive partly due to the refractory cement used to cast the pieces. Refractory cement is designed for use in high-temperature applications. The cement itself is different from the cement used in regular masonry, and it has bits of steel fibers and broken pottery pieces mixed in for aggregate. You could not buy the cement and cast your own blocks for much less than what you would pay for a factory-made unit. We wanted to buy a kit stove for our home, just to play it safe with the design, but the commercial units did not fit either the available space or our budget, so we designed and built our own.

      Masonry stoves are built in many different shapes and sizes, and you can easily custom design one for your home. As with anything you build, the blueprint is the sum of the criteria. You have to list the criteria, then brainstorm a plan that best fits the criteria. You will no doubt have some specific criteria for your unique situation, but for any masonry stove there are a few universal principles to consider.

      A masonry stove needs a long enough baffle system to efficiently extract most of the heat from the exhaust, but not so long that the smoke doesn't immediately rise through the system when you light the fire. Without an engineering degree, success hinges on a bit of educated guess work. The total length of a typical baffle system is about 20 to 25 feet, in up-and-down or back-and-forth series. Our stove has about 20 feet of horizontal baffles, but it is difficult to compare since it is a split-flue system. The exhaust splits and travels horizontally through about 12 feet of baffles per side, but the baffles are much narrower, so the total surface area is greater. For greater efficiency, I believe we could have added another series of baffles on top (which would have made the fireplace unreasonably tall), or extended the baffles another brick or two horizontally. The Build Your Own Masonry Fireplace DVD details the construction of a second generation, improved masonry fireplace we built in another house. It is similar, but not identical to the masonry heater plans included in the sixth edition of Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction.

Order Direct from Thomas J. Elpel / HOPS Press, LLC
See the Package Discounts below for big savings!
Living Homes.
Living Homes
$30.00

Slipform Stone Masonry DVD.
Slipform Stone Masonry DVD
$25.00

Build Your Own Masonry Fireplace DVD.
Build Your Own Masonry Fireplace DVD
$25.00

Package Discount
Living Homes and Direct Pointing to Real Wealth.
(Save $10.00!)
Living Homes
Direct Pointing to Real Wealth

Total = $40.00

Package Discount
Living Homes and Slipform Stone Masonry DVD.
(Save $10.00!)
Living Homes
Slipform Stone Masonry DVD

Total = $45.00

Package Discount
Living Homes, Sllipform Stone Masonry DVD and Build Your Own Masonry Fireplace DVD.
(Save $25.00!!!)
Living Homes
Slipform Stone Masonry DVD
Build Your Own Masonry Fireplace DVD

Total = $55.00

Tom,

      Thank you so much for writing such an inspirational and thorough book!

      I am finishing up designs on my strawbale home and I've decided to include a masonry stove as my only source of heat. My strawbale dreams have taken a long time to formulate into plans and action, and I'm so glad that I got your book before I had a chance to begin. I bought the book for the masonry stove plans, but I was surprised by the information on slipform for the bottom of my walls and the information on terra tiles. I am inspired and grateful for the chance to include these ideas in my designs.

      Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Andrea Kay Smith


The Book of Masonry Stoves
Rediscovering an Old Way of Warming
by David Lyle

      Masonry stoves have been widely used in Europe and Asia for centuries. The stoves provide clean combustion at a high temperature to avoid pollution and creosote build-up. These are efficient and very safe heating systems.

      The Book of Masonry Stoves represents the first comprehensive survey ever published of all the major types of masonry heating systems, ancient and modern. Through this book you can learn about the origins of the masonry stove and see many examples past and present. The book includes plans for building one style of masonry stove, with enough cut-away drawings of other stoves to give the reader many more ideas and inspirations.




Masonry Heaters
Designing, Building, and Living with a Piece of the Sun
by Ken Matesz
Reviewed by Thomas J. Elpel

      Masonry Heaters is a beautiful book filled with scores of vibrant color pictures show-casing the infinite possibilities of custom-made or prefabricated masonry heaters. The book details the history, benefits, and advantages of masonry heaters, then provides guidance to design and build a masonry heater of your own. Author Ken Matesz outlines the principles to calculate the heating requirements of a home, how to determine the best location for a masonry heater, and how to design the heater itself.

      One chapter of the book goes into detail on the construction of a masonry heater, showing the materials and steps involved in building the heater, followed by a chapter on building codes, clearances, footers, and foundations. The remainder of the book is about living with and using a masonry heater - providing details about gathering, curing, and storing firewood; how to use a masonry heater, along with the bake oven and cookstove (if included), and finally how to maintain a masonry heater.

      While I learned about alternative materials and methods that will shape my next masonry heater project, I was nevertheless disappointed that it wasn't the bible of masonry heater construction I imagined it to be. And while an accomplished mason successfully could design and build a masonry heater from this book, I'm afraid that the common do-it-yourselfer would find the text lacking in the details necessary to proceed. It would have been better if half the book included step-by-step diagrams and photos from multiple different projects.

      My conclusion is that Masonry Heaters is not an end-all book in itself, but one more good book to draw upon in the process of designing and building a masonry heater. The masonry heater plans in my own book Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction are much more user-friendly for the do-it-yourselfer, but could be improved upon by substituting some of the materials from Ken Matesz' book. Paperback. 326 Pages. Chelsea Green Publishing. 2010. ISBN: 978-1-60358-213-1.


Masonry Fireplace and Chimney Handbook
Third Edition
by James E. Amrhein, S.E.
Reviewed by Thomas J. Elpel

      For thousands of years fire has been a focal point of human existence, providing warmth in cold weather and light in the midst of darkness.

      As recently as a few centuries ago, the typical European house had an open fire for cooking and heating, where the smoke rose up inside the house and filtered out through the thatched roof. But over time the open fire was replaced by more familiar fireplace designs to better control heat and smoke. As cook stoves replaced the open hearth, the fireplace became more of a fixture of living rooms and fireplace designs were refined to maximize heat out-put while minimizing smoke problems inside the house.

      The Masonry Fireplace and Chimney Handbook is especially oriented towards providing the essential technical details to construct a traditional masonry fireplace for optimal performance and code requirements. Multiple fireplace and chimney designs are included in the book, with concise architectural drawings, tables, and supporting text. Also included in the book is limited coverage of metal fireplace inserts, masonry stoves, gas log lighters, and outdoor barbecues.

      Although traditional fireplaces are not nearly as efficient as masonry stoves, which are built with baffles to absorb heat from the flue, the technical details and emphasis on code construction will assist the builder with any fireplace, masonry stove, or chimney project. Published by the Masonry Institute of America. Third Edition. 2004. 172 pages. Please Note: Some copies of this book have scuffs on the covers from flaws in the printing process.


The Sunstone Superstove
A Safer, More Efficient Way of Heating with Wood
by John Lago
Reviewed by Thomas J. Elpel

      The Sunstone Superstove details a low-tech, super low-cost way to build a thermal mass stove. In essence, it is a cheap metal barrel stove inside an insulated box filled with rocks. A fire in the stove heats the rocks. A thermostat on the wall blows that heat into the house as needed, including long after the fire is out. This is a low-budget, do-it-yourself project for the alternative crowd, especially for those who live outside the system without regular employment or a predictable paycheck.

It may be possible to improve the efficiency somewhat by winding the chimney pipe through the rocks, so less heat is lost up the flue. But otherwise, this is a sweet little book with detailed step-by-step instructions and numerous illustrations, backed by twenty years of field testing. Paperback. 103 pages. Loompanics Unlimited. 2003. ISBN: 1-55950-237-1.


The Bread Builders
Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens
by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott

      Creating the perfect loaf of bread--a challenge that has captivated centuries of bakers--is now the rage in the United States, from Waitsfield, Vermont to San Francisco, California. The resurgent village baker is at the center of this trend, leading the way to a crusty future while maintaining a firm foothold in the past!

      The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens profiles the people, technology, and procedures for creating world class bread in masonry ovens. Thoughtful, informative, and spirited, this book helps the reader understand how to bake superb and healthful bread, covering everything from the consistency of the dough to the mortar in making your own brick or stone masonry oven.

      The Bread Builders explains grains and flours, leavens and doughs, the chemistry of bread, and the physics of baking. Unique among bread books, it includes a step-by-step guide to constructing a masonry oven. The authors also profile more than a dozen small-scale bakers around the U.S. whose businesses embody the holistic principles of community-oriented baking using whole grains and natural leavens.

      About the Authors: Daniel Wing and Alan Scott are both seasoned bakers and builders (one an amateur and the other a professional). Dan, a biologist and physician by training, has written for publications as various as Fine Homebuilding and The Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. He travels out from his home in Vermont in a gypsy wagon of his own construction, and naturally he built how own bread oven on wheels. Alan Scott is a craftsman and meaphysician who combines a lifetime's experience in metalwork, farming, and masonry oven-building with a constant awareness of the spiritual dimension of our activities on this earth. Originally from Australia, Alan lectures and leads workshops throughout the US, under the aegis of his oven building and consultation firm, Ovencrafters, which is based in Petaluma, California.


Build Your Own Earth Oven
A Low-Cost, Wood-Fired Mud Oven:
Simple Sourdough Bread: Perfect Loaves

by Kiko Denzer

      Build Your Own Earth Oven is a fully-illustrated handbook for making a simple, wood-fired, masonry-style oven. It provides clear, step-by-step instructions for building and firing the oven, as well as complete directions for making sourdough bread in the best (and simplest) artisan tradition.

      Earth ovens are as simple as a southwestern horno or European bee-hive oven and every bit as effective as a fancy brick hearth or modern, steam-injected commercial oven. The dense, three-to-twelve inch thick earthen walls store the heat of the fire. After the hot coals are removed, the hot walls radiate a steady, intense heat for hours. The resulting steamy environment is essential for the crisp, flavorful crusts of true hearth loaves, and you can easily build it for less than the price of a couple of fancy dough-rising baskets.

      If you like to cook outdoors, an earth oven can also transform fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs into delicious pies, pizzas, and other creations. Pizza cooks to perfection in three minutes, and you can even use the residual heat to dry your surplus garden produce or incubate your home-made yogurt!

      Building with earth is safe, easy, inexpensive, and extraordinarily effective. Good building soil is usually right under your feet! Many will find it in their back yards. Use it plain, or mixed with sand and straw. Build the simplest oven in a day! Adding a roof and foundation makes it permanent. The simple, round shape makes a beautiful garden sculpture, or can be sculpted into a fire-breathing dragon!

      It is a project that appeals to bakers, builders, and beginners of all kinds: The serious or aspiring baker who wants the best lo-cost oven for their bread; gardeners and outdoor cooks who want a centerpiece for a beautiful outdoor kitchen; people interested in creative uses of low-cost materials and simple technologies; and teachers who want a multi-faceted, experiential learning experience for their students.

      Illustrated by the author with over a hundred drawings and photos, it includes color pictures of sculpted ovens and their builders, as well as further references on food, baking, and building.



Go to: Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction.

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