Masonry Heater: The Russian Fireplace

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

| November/December 1983

Firebrick Flue

Smoke rises from the firebrick flue, curls down the sides, and exits from the bottom rear.

Photo by MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
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

11/16/2014 1:18:24 PM

By the way - thank you Fred Fitzpatrick wherever you are. My house is always warm and this stove is a pure joy to live with. I would highly recommend a masonry woodstove to anyone. Combine this woodstove with passive solar - and you eliminate all heating expenses in Pennsylvania.

11/16/2014 1:14:47 PM

I have one of these stoves. Fred Fitzpatrick drove down from Mass. to PA and built one in a morning for me. Incredibly comfortable - the heat is radiant heat, like the sun. You can lean on the woodstove when it's at it's hottest. I've never paid a penny to heat my house in the seventeen years I've lived here. The stove is so efficient, I have burned poplar - what most people consider a "junk" wood in PA....and they give it away for free to who ever wants it. No idea if Fred is still in business, however.

1/14/2010 11:06:08 AM

The best resource for do-it-yourself masonry stoves is You will find plans there and many excellent examples of masonry stoves. Also, the organization (the Masonry Heater Association) sponsors several workshops every year.

1/14/2010 9:38:37 AM

We do not have the plans for the masonry heater from this 1983 article. See the note at the end of the article for information on DIY plans.

7/12/2009 11:59:42 AM

Please persuade Fred to put together a how to book on building the Siberian fireplace. I would be his first customer.

2/18/2009 5:01:34 PM

How can I recieve plans for this stove? jim

10/28/2008 1:06:07 PM

You can find the construction illustrations in the Image Gallery at the top of the article.

10/28/2008 1:01:56 PM

any body know how to get plans for this fire place????

10/27/2008 9:12:11 PM

I've been using one of Fred's Siberian Stoves in my house for the last 20 years. It is by far the best investment I ever made. I light one fire a day most days--two on the coldest days of the year in Pennsylvania where I live. The mass of the Siberian Stove takes about 3 hours to begin radiating the heat out into the house. But it does so for nearly a full 24 hours after the fire was built. The heat is gentle and you can lean against the stove when you come in from the cold to get warmed up. It never gets overly hot to the touch. Aside from solar heat, which I also use, it is the best source of heat...and the best $2500 I ever spent. 20 years service without any problems at all!

4/21/2007 6:58:59 PM

I have been trying to get plans for the Siberian Fireplace. Can I get the kit. Please let me know. Thanks, Ken Holden

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