Masonry Heater: The Russian Fireplace

Build a stone masonry heater as a home heating device, including masonry tips.

| November/December 1983

As alternatives to the notoriously inefficient open fireplace, steel and cast-iron wood stoves have a deservedly strong reputation. Unfortunately, the rise in popularity of the metal heaters seems, in some cases, to have left the impression that masonry is an inherently inferior material from which to build a wood burning appliance. Not so!

As a matter of fact, steel and iron have a number of disadvantages when it comes to providing a housing in which efficient, clean combustion takes place. For one, neither material has a high heat-storage capacity when compared with any cement mixture. Consequently, the output of a metal appliance all too closely mirrors the inconsistent burning conditions inside the heater. Furthermore, steel and iron have a high rate of heat transfer. Now that's a fine thing in the right place (after all, you do want that warmth to get into your house, not out the chimney!), but inside the firebox too rapid dispersion of heat can result in reduced combustion efficiency-possibly even quenching the flame sand increased pollutant emissions. And finally, metal heaters have a relatively short life span, while — as anyone who lives in an old house with fireplaces can attest — masonry products survive very well under the adverse conditions of coal or wood burning.

Heat for the Masses 

Those of you who are regular MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers are probably already aware that a Russian fireplace solves many of the problems inherent in metal wood stoves and provides an effective source of heat. A massive masonry heater is efficient, clean, and requires a minimum of upkeep. Still — as you may also remember — our Russian fireplace is built of more than 1,000 bricks, and has developed a number of cracks (none yet leaks smoke, though). Properly assembling such a huge heater is a complicated and time-consuming enterprise. Indeed, in many parts of the country today, masons are charging upward of $3,500 to build one.

All of this leads to a have-your-cake-and-eat it question: Is it possible to have a good masonry heater that's not too troublesome or costly to build? That's what puzzled Fred Fitzpatrick, an apprentice of Albie Barden (who's one of the renowned experts on massive masonry wood burners). Fred learned the liabilities of brick as a material for building Russian fireplaces when he assembled more than a dozen such heaters in his Groton, Massachusetts area ... including one (which Albie helped him erect) in his own living room. So Fitzpatrick — a fount of energy who builds masonry heaters as a sideline from his vocation as a biology teacher at a Boston inner-city school and from his avocation as a naturalist and leader of river trips in the region — began looking for a better approach. And what he's developed, we think you'll agree, is just that!

Masonry for Nonmasons 

Fred had a clear set of goals in mind when he began to search for an alternative to the common brick: First, he needed something that would allow a masonry heater to be built quickly in spite of its convoluted heat exchange path. (With all of his occupations and hobbies — including cooking gourmet meals for a budding family, raising livestock, and maintaining an ambitious garden — this man doesn't have time on his hands!) An equally important constraint was the need to cut down the two- to four-month curing time required for brick heaters. In addition, the material had to be easy to work with, since Fred had already determined that his own masonry bent was more structural than decorative. And last, the ideal "ingredient" would also be capable of withstanding greater thermal stress than brick can, to allow rapid and extreme heating without attendant cracking.

8/8/2016 3:22:54 PM

Hi there, I too am looking to get in touch with Fred Fitzpatrick. I am building an energy efficient home in Upstate NY. Thanks in advance for your help. I can be reached at

5/6/2016 4:56:01 PM

Does anyone know how I might contact Fred Fitzpatrick? I would love to have his help designing and or installing a Russian fireplace in a new energy efficient house I am building in New Hampshire.

11/17/2014 8:15:02 AM

I designed and built my low cost version of a masonry stove. It has an preheated outside air intake and a glass door.It also heats our domestic water. Sundug

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