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MHA News 
The Heater Builder's e-zine

MHA is in good hands

A little early history, what happens
at an annual meeting, and the challenges ahead

By Jay Hensley
Associate Member

A nucleus of savvy, hard-working officers and members
is what has made the Masonry Heater Association of
North America (MHA) fly ever since a small task force
of stove masons met in 1985 to work on an ASTM       
standard for masonry heaters, a far more
difficult undertaking than they had ever imagined.  
   ASTM is the world's largest consensus standards
organization and the development of a heater standard
became an ongoing project.  Before the stove masons
adjourned this first work session, they formed the
MHA.  In addition to developing the ASTM standard,
their two major goals were to share information and,
eventually, to offer a training and certification
program for their members.
   Three of MHA's current officers are stove masons
and the fourth is a modular heater manufacturer.  Born
into the mason's trade 69 years ago, president Jerry
Frisch was six or seven when he went on his first job
with his daddy, and 12 when he was told to join the
union or stop working as a mason. 
   It was almost the end of summer out in Everett,
Washington and Jerry had to go back to school.  He was
inducted into the union the following summer after a
harrowing session in a smoke-filled room "where all
these old guys, 35 or 40 years old, gave me the third
degree and swore me in."   There was never anything
else Jerry wanted to do for a living.
   He began educating himself about masonry heaters in
1979 when a customer asked him to build a "Russian
fireplace," which Jerry proceeded to do under a
Washington State Department of Ecology grant. 
   Nowadays, 90 percent of his business is building
masonry heaters.  The other 10 percent is spent doing
custom stone work, laying up his Frisch-Rosin
heater/fireplace/retrofit unit, and conducting heater
research at his own Lopez Labs out in Everett,
Washington, often in partnership with Canadian stove
mason Norbert Senf.   He's built somewhere between 300
and 400 heaters, 80 of them one-of-a-kind custom
heaters.  "And they all work!"
   Vice-president John LaGamba of Toronto was building
a weekend cabin for his family back in 1989 when he
saw his first masonry heater at a home show.  "The
whole concept was so appealing," he said, "so
practical, so basic--I'd learned in school that the
longer it takes something to heat up, the longer it
stays warm."  He had a Temp-Cast unit with a built-in
bake oven installed in his cottage and found it to be
the perfect heating system. 
   A few years later, when the opportunity presented
itself, he took over Temp-Cast, becoming a
manufacturer of modular masonry heaters.  "And what I
thought would be an enjoyable part-time business
became my full-time passion."  He joined the MHA
shortly thereafter, in 1993, and started attending
annual meetings.
   Secretary Gary Hart of High Ridge, Missouri took up
chimney sweeping in 1979, like many other dreamers,
back-to-the-landers and get-rich-quick hopefuls of
that era.  He was introduced to masonry heaters at
chimney sweep conventions, HPA (Hearth Products
Association) trade shows and articles in SNEWS,  the
independent trade magazine for sweeps. 
   Gary started installing Tulikivi modular masonry
soapstone heaters five years ago, about the time he
opened a retail stove shop.  He soon joined MHA,
learned to custom-build masonry heaters and earned his
MHA certification.   He thinks that selling,
installing and building masonry heaters and bake ovens
is a natural progression for sweeps with masonry
   Treasurer Rod Zander owns/operates New England
Hearth and Soapstone in Goshen Connecticut.  A mason
for 15 years and a cabinet maker before that, he now
focuses on building soapstone masonry heaters, a skill
he learned "by the seat of my pants" and by networking
with other stove masons.  He says, "A lot of research,
hands-on, time and travel, especially to Europe, is
involved in learning this craft." 
   He joined MHA in '91 and over the years has become
increasingly involved in the nitty-gritty of the
organization.  He's now serving his third two-year
term as treasurer.
   Executive administrator Bev Marois of Randolph,
Vermont came to MHA three years ago from a solid
background in the hearth industry, having worked with
Charlie Page at TESS (thermal storage modular
fireplaces) in the '80's, with Tulikivi and then with
the Hearth Education Foundation.
   Outgoing president Pat Manley worked for a
Connecticut mason for two years when he was in his
early 20's, learning to do stonework on houses and
build fireplaces.  He went on his own at 22 in
Washington, Maine, working directly for homeowners,
avoiding contractors "because they get between you and
the people."   A 1978 article by Albie Barden in The
Maine Times in 1978 sparked his interest in masonry
heaters.  Albie, who is considered the guru of stove
masons in North America, was in the early stages of
setting up an international network of masonry heater
builders, writers and business firms.
   Pat spent an afternoon with Albie in Norridgewock,
Maine, soaking up all the information he could.  Soon
he started building masonry heaters, learning as he
went.  He traveled alone to Europe in 1983--to
Amsterdam, up through Finland and back down to
Germany--seeking out tile stoves and the masons who
build them.  He was inspired by all the different
styles he saw.  Back in the U.S. he  attended
workshops, networked with other stove masons and
became a charter member of the MHA.
   Outgoing Secretary Norbert Senf of Shawville,
Quebec was born in Germany, The son of a mason, he
grew up in Toronto, became a mason, then built his
first masonry heater about  21 years ago.  He was
introduced to heaters in the Co-evolution Quarterly
put out by the Whole Earth Catalog people.  Shortly
thereafter he subscribed to The Masonry Stove Guild
Newsletter published in Germany (?), started meeting
North American stove masons and participating in
masonry heater workshops. 
   He laid up a heater in the concrete block house
he'd constructed for himself and his wife Leila beyond
the power lines in rural Quebec, replacing their
woodstove with this far superior heating system.
Building tile stoves for his neighbors gave him
instant feedback on what worked  and what didn't.
Within a few years he was busier than he wanted to be
in his new "craft within a craft," often working far
from home.  
   Masonry stoves were  catching on in Canada, and
Norbert "didn't want to go to the Yukon to build
heaters!"   So he came up with his Heat Kit idea.  He
made a castable model of his own basic contraflow
heater and found a company to manufacture its
components.  He and other qualified masons can lay up
these modular units on site, finishing them with
locally available materials of the customer's choice.
   Norbert has done yeoman service for his association
since its beginnings, including publishing MHA News
twice a year, cramming it with news, technical
information and in-depth articles.   He has also
translated technical
articles from the German and shares them with the
   His Fall '91 issue of MHA News included a  29-page
report on the two-day "Short Course on Masonry
Fireplace and Masonry Heater Emissions Testing Methods
and Combustion Design" at OMNI Environmental testing
lab in Portland, Oregon.  It was this course,
specifically designed for MHA members, that inspired
Norbert and Jerry to get into some  heater testing of
their own.  ("What a boring deal,"  Jerry says, "but
we've learned a lot!")
   In another issue Norbert covered the First
International Conference on Sustainable Construction,
held in Tampa, Florida in 1994.  Eager for information
on masonry heaters, attendees quickly depleted his
large supply of newsletters and brochures. 
     In 1996  he set up a web site for MHA.  This
created a communication avenue for members, a place
for them to display their handiwork, and an
information source for the general public on heaters
and the craftsmen who build them.  MHA NEWS is now on
    As for me, I  saw my first "Russian Fireplace,"
and was completely smitten, at the Boston Energy Show
on a bitterly-cold, windswept day in 1980.  Making my
living then as a freelance writer.  I had just
produced my "Jay Hensley's Woodburning Basics"
brochure, which chimney sweeps were using as a
customer-education handout.   Later, as
editor/publisher of  SNEWS, The Chimney Sweep News
magazine, I wrote articles about masonry heaters
whenever the opportunity arose. 
   I got to know Jerry  in the late '80s when he
started doing masonry chimney repair workshops for
sweeps.  I met both Albie  and Norbert  in 1990 at a
sweep  convention in Albany, New York, where they
offered seminars on the history of masonry heaters and
how to build them.  T here was standing-room-only for
both of their presentations, and sweeps got some
hands-on experience laying up one of Norbert's Heat
   Albie gave me a copy of the wonderful book he
co-authored with his mentor Heikki Hyytiainen, Finnish
Fireplaces: Heart of the Home.  I already had David
Lyle's The Book of Masonry Stoves , and now I could
continue my education on the subject with Albie's
book.  I joined MHA at their annual meeting in New
Orleans in 1990 and have been covering their
activities ever since. 
In those early years MHA scheduled its annual meetings
to coincide with the time and location of the Hearth
Products Association (formerly Wood Heat Alliance)
Expo, where our trade show booth gave us good exposure
to and interaction with other segments of the hearth
industry.   In 1998, deciding we needed a location
where we could do hands-on workshops to improve the
knowledge and technical skills of our members, we met
at Wildacres retreat in the Blue  Ridge Mountains,
about 20 miles southeast of Boone, North Carolina.  We
filled five full days with workshops and taking care
of association business.
   In 1999, again at Wildacres, we launched our
rigorous MHA Certification Program and certified our
first two custom masonry heater builders, Jerry Frisch
and Rod Zander.  Since then at least 10 more members
have earned their certification credential.
   Heater building is an arduous and exacting
discipline.   Craftsmen learn from each other, from
the "old country" stove masons, and through MHA
workshops and seminars.
   Wildacres covers 1,400 forested acres on Pompey's
Knob mountain about three miles from Little
Switzerland Post Office.  Accommodations in the two
rustic guest lodges are satisfyingly comfortable, and
free of three distracting amenities of
civilization--radio, telephone and TV.  The
all-you-can-eat meals, served family-style, are purely
   We met at Wildacres again in the year 2000 and
voted to return in 2001.  Our time there is always
intense, productive, and a lot of fun.

Y2000 meeting & workshop
   A brief review of last year's meeting will give you
a pretty good idea of what goes on at one of these
   A cold rain and fierce April winds buffeted us that
first day.  Bundled up against the storm, heads down,
we scuttled to and fro.   This was quite different
from the warm and breezy days of May we'd experienced
in previous years!
   Most of us arrived on Sunday April 16 in time for
dinner and left after breakfast on Saturday.  There
were 22 in all, 20 voting members plus administrator
Bev Marois and me.  For an organization with 48 full
members and seven associate members, that's a huge
turnout.  Those who traveled the farthest were Albie
Barden from Maine, Jerry Frisch  from Washington
state, Norbert  Senf from Quebec, and Ernst Kiesling
from Nova Scotia.  Other attendees included Pat
Manley,  Rod Zander, Dan Fisher (Pennsylvania), Gary
Hart, Ben Hurd (Missouri), Ron Karson (Ontario), Peter
Solac ( Minnesota), Walter Kelly (Pennsylvania),
Martin Pearson (Massachusetts), Ben Sotero
(California),  Rebecca and Dan Carnes (North
Carolina), John LaGamba,  Tony Cuoco (New York), and
Tim Custer (Ohio).   Tom Trout, long-time member who
lives nearby, popped in and out as often as his work
schedule allowed.
   We met each day around the big table in the library
in the building across from our guest lodge.  Our
bricks-and-mud sessions were held  outside the old red
barn a short way on down the mountain.  Close
attention to business matters was interspersed with a
work session on designing a kachelofen for the space
it will heat, building a pizza oven, laying up a
generic masonry heater and then safety testing it for
a worst-case scenario.   
Designing & sizing a heater
   Ernst was our instructor on heater design.  He and
his wife Maria own and operate Canadian Kachelofen,
Kiesling Wood Fired Heating System Ltd. in Blockhouse,
Nova Scotia.  Ernst designs and builds the heaters,
cook stoves and bake ovens.  Maria makes the unusual,
colorful and often free-form tiles that help turn each
Kachelofen into a unique work of art.
   He passed out copies of the thick manual that would
be our workbook.  His system had already been adopted
by the Austrian masonry heater guild to start their
computer program on heater design.
   "All my heaters are done with these calculations,"
Ernst told us, " and it works, and it will burn clean
if you use the right firewood."
   He explained in great detail the technical
calculations he has worked out for making sure each of
his custom heaters suits the space for which it is
designed.   His calculations assume two firings a day.
 In a technology as old as the hills, a kachelofen and
other variations of masonry heaters soak up the heat
from one or two hot fires a day and release it slowly,
like sunshine, over a 12-to-24-hour period.  
   Ernst discussed combustion basics for heaters,
adding a few words on customer education.  "I educate
everyone, show them how, all of the process, but they
don't do it!  So I get calls at 8 o'clock, saying,
'What do I have to do starting the fire?'"
   He emphasized the importance of the chimney, which
needs a certain cross section area, must be of at
least a minimum height and should be an interior
chimney.  Other essential information to gather
includes:  average climate temperatures, location of
the heater, construction details and height of the
chimney.  Is the whole house to be heated, or just one
or two rooms?  What exterior finish does the customer
want?  Bricks, stucco, soapstone, ceramic tiles?  Does
he want a bake oven incorporated and/or to heat water
for the household?  You need a floor plan of the house
and precise measurements (square footage, height of
rooms, etc.), type of construction, R-value of
insulation, type and size of windows. . . and on and
   Step by step Ernst led us through the complicated
process as we dealt with page-upon-page of data and
the graphs generated by them.  Without the technical
background, knowledge and hands-on  experience of a
stove mason, I was lost.  But I understood the
principles at work here.
  Ernst: "Making all these calculations also gives
something to someone who inspects our heaters to see
that we have a clean-burning stove."

Safety testing a heater
   Down at the bricks-and-mud site Monday afternoon,
members began the construction of a generic masonry
heater under Jerry's leadership.  They finished it
Tuesday and built a break-in fire.  Over the next two
days we would safety test it for a worst-case
scenario, such as:  (1) During construction,
carpenters and workers grossly over-fire the heater,
burning lots of scrap wood and trash, or (2) Teenagers
left on their own build one fire after another in the
heater as they party.   Blatantly abused, even this
safest wood heating system in the world could
conceivably cause a house fire.
   Testing included firing up the heater with one
50-pound load of seasoned cordwood after another, four
and five times in a row.  Participants recorded
surface temperatures at regular intervals to see if
the heater ever got hot enough to endanger a
combustible ventilated wall four inches away.  Each
load of cordwood was tested for proper moisture
   Although the results were skewed somewhat by the
cold wind a'blowin' one day, we still learned some
important things on our way to developing a testing
   In essence, it would appear from our testing that a
properly-built masonry heater observing the stipulated
4-inch clearance to a combustible wall poses no danger
to the structure, even under a situation of extreme

Web site draws 200,000 hits
    Norbert  reported that our MHA site drew 200,000
visitors and inquiries over the past year, with about
100 megabytes being downloaded.  Our on-line
bookstore, where titles by members are highlighted,
does a brisk business. 
Pizza party!
   Pat Manley was the instructor and chief mason on
building and operating an outdoor bake oven.   Our
Thursday afternoon pizza party was a great success.
As he handled the dough, Tony Cuoco belted out a tune
from an Italian opera, while Pat took charge of
turning the pizza every few minutes for an even bake.
In a black oven such as this one, you bake in the
firebox itself--push the hot coals to the rear, clear
out the ashes, sprinkle cornmeal on the bottom of the
oven, and slide the pizza in.       
   Wildacres chef Thomas Broadway soon joined us, made
most of the pizzas thereafter, and was delighted with
the bake oven.  As he created a delicious cheeseless
vegetarian pizza for me,  I learned that a REAL pizza
chef  just barely brushes the dough with tomato sauce
and also rolls over and seals the edges of the pizza.

   "This is perfect, "Pat said, "exactly what I had in
mind!  Everyone standing and sitting around eating
pizza and talking.  I'll be interested to see how many
of these guys tell us about the bake oven they built
in their backyard after they got home!"

Stove mason's worst nightmare
    Friday morning, the discussion turned to how MHA
should handle any complaints against one of our stove
masons. We agreed on the need to set up a
professional, streamlined method of dealing with that
rare dissatisfied customer.  It is also important to
be supportive and helpful to the stove mason. 
   We worked on a procedure for Bev to set in motion
when  she receives a complaint at MHA headquarters. 
Ben Hurd  said, "The most important thing is to keep
the attorneys out of it and get it settled fast.
It'll never get better!"

Heater owner's survey
   Bev reported that our new Board of Advisors, which
reads like a Who's Who in the Hearth Industry, has
recommended we do a survey of masonry heater owners to
find out how they use their heaters, whether or not
they have any problems with them or special concerns,
etc.  To facilitate this, Bev asked members to supply
her with the names of their heater customers.   To
date we now have around 500 names and work  on the
questionnaire for the survey has begun.

Homeowner's Manual
   Jerry passed around copies of homeowner's manuals
for a masonry heater and a bake oven, adapted from
ones he uses with his own customers.   We worked on
these at the 1999 annual meeting, after which Jerry
and Bev incorporated out suggestions.  We proceeded to
do a final editing.  Both manuals are now available to
members and should prove to be very useful handouts,
with individual masons adding some instructions
specific to their heaters.
   We also worked on the final revision of our
four-color MHA brochure.  This has since been printed
and is available through MHA headquarters and our web
   And we gave attention (again!) to updating the ASTM
standard for masonry heaters--a laborious, complicated
process that has been going on for almost 16 years,
with MHA members working on ASTM committees and
attending meetings.  References to heaters are now
included as a "guide" and the goal of our current
efforts is to have them upgraded to a "practice."  The
guide has proved very useful, since it is referenced
by the building codes and gives the building inspector
something to go by.
   There were reports from members who attended the
Masonry Products Caucus at the HPA show, as well as
the recent meeting of MACS (the Masonry Alliance for
Codes and Standards,) which works on all sorts of
issues relating to masonry. 
   We decided to schedule two masonry heater workshops
before the next annual meeting to give instruction and
experience to members and other masons and also raise
some money for the association.  Two possibilities
were a very successful workshop Albie was subsequently
able to schedule last September at a customer's home,
and a workshop at Jay's (that's me!) new house, if she
got that project going in time.  (I did, and the
workshop was scheduled for the first week in  May,
just before our annual meeting 2001 at Wildacres.)
   Albie noted that "you get maximum learning from
building a custom heater from scratch."
   On the last day we tore down the masonry heater and
bake oven and stored the bricks 'til next time.  One
evening we were treated to Pat Manley's slides and
report on "Masons on a Mission."  He was part of a
group of North American masons who traveled to
Guatemala at their own expense in the  winter of 2000
to build very basic masonry cook stoves for poor
families driven from their home village by hurricane
and flood.  These new stoves replace the unvented open
cookfires that filled their one-room corrugated metal
and wood houses with smoke, causing severe health

MHA accomplishments
   Over the past 16 years the small but mighty MHA has
accomplished a great deal:  Sponsoring, helping to
fund and/or run safety and emissions testing of their
stoves; holding heater-building workshops;
participating in masonry heater presentations at
hearth industry conventions; convincing building code
officials in some areas of the U.S. and Canada to
allow masonry heaters in new construction; taking
group trips to Europe to visit tile-stove masons and
factories where heater components are manufactured;
exchanging information and heater designs with
European craftsmen; and setting up and manning booths
at trade shows to educate people about their product
and their craft.

The challenge ahead
   Ernst Kiesling feels an urgency most of us share
about getting the word out to more people on the
merits of masonry heaters.  "The main problem to solve
is how to convince people that this is not a dangerous
way to heat, as some people want to tell us.  This is
environmentally friendly, and this is the best way to
heat the house from the standpoint of health.  We need
to create the market awareness.  Over the next 40
years we need to make the change, because we won't
have oil!"
    This means educating not only the general public,
but also the air quality regulators, code officials
and other powers that be, many of whom still lump
masonry heaters in with woodstoves and fireplaces and
try to restrict their use accordingly.
   Norbert reminds us that a new awareness and
enthusiasm for masonry heaters will also make
necessary a "quantum leap" in our ability to produce
them in sufficient numbers--custom-built heaters,
modular cores and manufactured units, all three.
   Right now spiraling fuel costs and serious power
outages are highlighting masonry heaters as the
intelligent alternative.  "All of a sudden we're
finding a lot of customers," John LaGamba told me
   Sustainability, a sense of independence, a
shortening pay-back period, safe and healthy heat, a
clean burn, economical use of firewood--all this can
look pretty good to people faced with brownouts,
blackouts and outrageous utility bills.
   Even though folks in Europe have been warming up
their lives with masonry stoves for centuries,  North
Americans who do so feel like pioneers, leading the
way into a technology as old as the hills, , , and
also as new as tomorrow.
o  o  o
   Meanwhile, here in Kentucky, two HEAVY packages
with my name on them have arrived via UPS--a masonry
heater door of his own design from Norbert Senf and a
bake oven door from Finland, via Albie Barden.  These
are handsome components for my very own masonry
heater.  Jerry Frisch has custom-designed it for my
"new" (being remodeled) little A-frame house outside
Berea  and will lead the MHA training workshop to
build it.  I can hardly wait. 

ęCopyright, Jay Hensley, 2001

This page last updated on April 3, 2003
This page created on June 4, 2001

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