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Masonry Heater Association, Annual Meeting

Masonry Heater Camp at Wildacres!

By Justin Bailey

The Masonry Heater Association of North America (MHA) had its annual meeting at a retreat center called Wildacres in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina from April 11-17th. The word ‘meeting’ doesn’t adequately describe the week-long festival. I’ve started to think of the experience as “Masonry Heater Camp.”

Accommodations are simple, but comfortable. Everyone shares a simple room with a roommate, and there are enough beds for about 120 attendees.

I first heard about MHA and Masonry Heater Camp when I took a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep Review course from Rich Rua 2014, in Columbus, OH. Rua mentioned that he’d been to the MHA annual meeting as a part of his overall education in the chimney trade. I asked him about it later, and I put it on my bucket list.

But I never had the opportunity to get seriously involved with masonry heaters until last year, when I got a call to look at a gigantic masonry heater, an Austrian “Tile Oven,” built from scratch in the 1990’s. The heater sits in a ski lodge called the Bavarian, at Taos Ski Valley, 10,200 ft altitude. In 2013, a billionaire bought the ski resort, and the masonry heater came with it.

I looked at the heater, asked lots of questions, scanned the flue, and it became clear that I needed more information and knowledge. 8 or 9 years ago, I learned, they burnt some green firewood in the heater, and it hadn’t worked ever since. Nobody could figure out how to fix it. They’d hired a local mason, who just made it worse.

I knew where the firebox was, and where the chimney was, but what lay between them was a mystery. There were no readily accessible soot doors, like Tulikivi heaters have. The heater was massive. I needed a plan. I needed information.

Thanks to the NCSG and the course I’d taken with Mr. Rua, I knew there was somebody out there I could call for help. A google search led me to the MHA, and I got executive director Dick Smith on the phone. He suggested I join the organization. The cost of a full voting membership was $300.00 per year. That’s how much I charged the billionaire for the initial service call/inspection, and I became a full voting member of the MHA. It turned out to be a pretty good investment.

After making some calls and talking with a couple of masonry heater builders from the association, I felt like I could at least write an estimate to fix the thing. I stated clearly in the proposal that there was no way for me to know how long it would take me to fix the heater, or how much it would end up costing. I found space in the estimate to mention that there was exactly one member of the MHA in New Mexico.

I got the gig, and soon enough, I was on the phone with one of the founding fathers of the MHA, Jerry Frisch. Jerry spent over an hour on the phone with me, that first time we talked. He asked me about the heater, and had me take photos of it and email them to him. He said that it sounded like there was a blockage in the flowpath. He told me how to find the masonry cleanouts, and how make the penetrations through the masonry material to access the passageways. When I offered him money for his consulting help, he refused.

“I just want to pass down the knowledge,” he said. “I’m only going to be doing this for another 20 years. My wife and I talked about it, and we agreed that we’ll do this for 20 more years and then we’ll talk about it again.”

“That’s very generous of you,” I said.

“I recently got remarried,” he said. “My first wife passed away. I just turned 80.”

With phone help from Jerry, I was able to get the heater working, test it out, clean the glaze from the flowpath and chimney, and install cleanout doors. I was fascinated and excited with the project. I felt grateful to have the job and the opportunity, and to have the help of the guys from the MHA. The first time we fired up the heater, with glass taped over all the cleanout openings so we could watch the smoke pass through the passageways in the heater, the manager of the Bavarian was happy to see how it all worked.

When I called Jerry Frisch to thank him for his help, he invited me to the World of Concrete (WOC) Trade Expo in Las Vegas, NV. “We’re going to build a masonry heater in the parking lot,” he said.

“Count me in!” I said.

Las Vegas and WOC were a blast, and got to see a masonry heater built by an expert from the ground up. I also helped build a wood fired pizza oven.

Fast forward a few months, I found myself at Wildacres for a week of Masonry Heater Camp. There were masons from the US, France, Russia, Canada, Germany, Finland, and Japan, all of them building heaters on site, answering any question you could think of. Of the 120 attendees, 7 of the masons own and/or operate their own testing labs. The CEO of Tulikivi International had flown in from Finland. Founders of other European startups were there. I’d signed up for the HMED course (Heater Mason Education & Development Program) which was developed by Jerry and Jim Frisch. Jim, Jerry’s younger brother, taught the course.

The classes and seminars included a bricklaying workshop, Chris Prior’s class on masonry arches, a course on emissions testing, and several history courses. I wasn’t able to attend many of them, because the HMED took up the majority of my time. Most days, the last class or seminar would let out around 10:00 p.m., and the festivities would already have begun.

And yes, they have an auction too, kind of like the CSIA action the NCSG convention.

By the time Friday rolled around, the newly built heaters were all fired up and running, including the large pizza oven. Pizzas started coming out of the oven in time for dinner - the best pizza I’d ever tasted in my life.

By nightfall, a group of musicians had gathered to play old standards and folk songs, seated on the warmed, L-shaped bench of a rocket mass heater with a cookstove top, where somebody was making crepes. I got to hang out with CSIA’s Darcy Marlett and Ashley Elridge, who were attending. People were dancing and the beer was flowing.

The pizza party was still raging as I headed down the mountain in my rental car at 2 a.m. to catch an early morning flight out of Charlotte.

The next morning, before noon, (according to photos I saw posted on facebook,) all the brand new heaters and ovens had been disassembled and the materials put away in storage. Ashley Elridge pointed out that the masons and students could learn as much or more by taking apart the heaters as they did when they built them.

In all my years in the chimney business, I’d never enjoyed myself more than I did during the week I spent at Masonry Heater Camp at Wildacres. I’ll be back next year, for sure. I hope to build my own masonry heater in my house soon, and I would like to become a certified masonry heater builder. With the HMED under my belt, I’ve taken the first step, but I have a lot more to learn.

If you would like to attend the Masonry Heater Camp next Spring, google the Masonry Heater Association of North America or go to

Introduction to Masonry Heaters with Chris Prior

by Justin Bailey

One of the most beloved and admired members of the National Chimney Sweeps Guild isn’t actually a chimney sweep. Legendary mason Chris Prior, inventor of the Prior Fire masonry fireplace, donates time and energy every year to Sweep’s Week at the CSIA technology center in Plainfield, IN, constructing incredible things out of bricks and mortar. His homestead in Upstate New York serves as the domicile of the New York State Chimney Sweep’s Guild Annual powwow. His Santa Claus beard and the twinkle in his eye have been familiar, reassuring sights at guild conventions for many years. He serves as sort of an unofficial liaison between the National Chimney Sweeps Guild and the Masonry Heater Association of North America (MHA). At the NCSG he and Steve Bushway manned the MHA booth at the NCSG trade show. I asked Prior about his role as ambassador between chimney and masonry trades. “It’s a perfect marriage,” he said of the strengthening bond. He said each group has knowledge that benefits the other group.

Prior’s seminar on masonry heaters at the 2016 NCSG convention represented a new high point in the relationship between sweeps and masons. A giant room at the Rosen Plaza was filled to the brim with chimney sweeps, eager to learn anything Prior has to teach. Although Prior could be seen working on his PowerPoint in the main foyer of the hotel until a few minutes before he presented it, his seminar couldn’t have been better. It was clean, streamlined, informative, educational, and entertaining, and it established him as perhaps the world’s foremost expert on masonry heaters.

Prior began by discussing humankind’s earliest use of fire to stay warm and to cook food. In Western Europe, he said, people were mostly intrigued by the flames themselves, and they enjoyed looking at the fire and getting warmth directly from the flames. In Eastern and Northern Europe, however, people became fascinated with how the heat from the flames could be stored in the rocks around the fire pit. That’s why, Prior explained, as centuries went by, Western Europe turned into more of a fireplace culture, where folks liked to sit around the fire looking at the flames, while Eastern Europe developed the technology of the masonry heater. The Colonial United States was primarily settled by Western Europeans, he said, which is one of the reasons masonry heaters are not very well known in the US. He then launched into the most concise, complete, and informative discussion of masonry heaters I have ever seen or heard. His talk covered the five basic designs of masonry heaters (Finnish Contraflow, Swedish 5 Run, German/Austrian Grundofen, Russian Heaters, and the newest type, called Bell Heaters.) He covered strategies for servicing each kind of heater, and he covered the principles of heat transfer, including conduction, radiation, and convection and how they relate to masonry heaters. As any chimney sweep who has passed the CSIA exam should know, radiant energy emitted from a hot surface travels through the air in radiation waves. What many of us may not know, though, is that radiation waves emitted from a hot metal surface has a short wavelength, whereas radiation from a masonry surface has a much longer wavelength. Longer wavelengths of heat radiation are more comfortable to live with, Prior said. That’s one of the reasons why heat from masonry heaters (and soapstone wood stoves) is so much steadier and more comfortable than the heat that comes from from steel or cast iron wood stoves. A masonry heater is like a battery, he said. When you fire it, you are charging it with energy. Then, the heater does its job and distributes the heat through the space via conduction and radiation over the course of the day. The mass of the heater holds and distributes the heat more evenly than other types of heaters. A typical masonry heater is fired once or twice a day, for about an hour, and keeps the house warm 24/7.

A quick google search will show you all kinds of beautiful masonry heaters, including some diagrams of what the insides look like. But Prior’s discussion gave an in depth description of how masonry heaters work, why they work so well, their origins and evolution, and the fairly recent development of masonry heater technology in the United States. Masonry heaters have
been in use for thousands of years in Europe, they were even used to heat the roman bathhouses in ancient times. Prior did mention that Mark Twain, the great American author who lived in the 1800’s, encountered and wrote about masonry heaters when he was traveling in Europe. Somehow, Prior was able to summon Twain’s ghost from somewhere in the darkness of the audience, and the spirit of Mark Twain, in a southern accent, spoke Twain’s own words to everyone in attendance: One firing is enough for the day; the cost is next to nothing; the heat produced is the same all day, instead of too hot and too cold by turns...America could adopt this stove, but does America do it? The American wood stove, of whatsoever breed, it is a terror. There can be no tranquility of mind where it is. It requires more attention than a baby. It has to be fed every little while, it has to be watched all the time; and for all the reward you are roasted half your time and frozen the other half. Many experts agree with Mr. Twain and consider masonry heaters to be the most efficient way to heat with wood.

The masonry heater association is a valuable resource for sweeps who need help figuring out how to service or fix masonry heaters. Their annual meeting, a week long festival of classes and workshops in the mountains of North Carolina, is growing in popularity. For more information about masonry heaters and the masonry heater association, including a directory of members, go to .

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