Tony DaSilva arrived at my off-grid house one snowy February morning to evaluate it for a masonry heater (MH) build. My woodstove, only 1 year out of warrantee, had failed during an exceptionally cold and windy winter, and it was a struggle to keep the house warm. "I don't ever want to be cold again," I told Tony.
All of the MH construction photos I had seen showed masonry heaters being built as part of new-home construction, so I wasn't sure whether building one inside my existing house would even be possible. I had looked into free-standing soapstone heaters, but the quotes I received for materials and installation were substantially more than I could afford.
Tony described how he could pour a foundation under the floor to support the enormous weight of the heater. In order to meet my budget, he proposed a no-frills heater with a plaster finish, located where it could tie into the existing chimney. He explained why he builds double-bell heaters instead of a contra-flow design-I had done my research and his explanation reinforced what I'd read. "I'd like to see these heaters in all new houses in Maine," he said. Tony's enthusiasm for masonry heaters, as well as an integrity I sensed, gave me faith in him.
So I agreed to let a total stranger cut a hole in my floor and turn my house into a construction zone, banking on Tony's assurance that I would end up with a solid, reliable, lasting, easy-to-maintain heater. And that I wouldn't be cold! I won't say that it was pleasant, living in a construction zone, particularly since I work at home. This could have gone very badly! But Tony worked hard to contain the mess and dust. Even more importantly, he was a genuinely nice, easy person to be around. In fact, I will always consider him a friend.
I wanted the heater oriented against the wall, which separated the bedroom from the kitchen. Tony explained that though this could work, the heat from the back of the heater would be "lost," or under-utilized, against the wall. I remembered shivering in the cold northeast bedroom the prior winter, and asked, "Can you make the heater part of the wall, so that the back of the heater radiates into the bedroom?"
The location of the chimney made it impossible to build the heater flush with the wall-it would have to be about six inches forward. Tony's solution was to flank the back of the heater with metal studs and cement wall-board, plastered over to match the heater. The end result looks like an eight-foot expanse of masonry in the bedroom wall, recessed in the center where the heater actually sits. It is an elegant solution that created a warm winter reading nook-now one of my favorite spots.
The next challenge I threw at Tony was to ask him whether he'd ever installed a hot water coil in a masonry heater. I showed him an old copper tank I was hoping to use for wood-fired hot water. He had no experience with using wood heaters for hot water, and was extremely reluctant, owing to safety and liability issues. But, Tony being Tony, he made a contact through his professional organization with a mason/plumber in Alaska who had done many such installations. With an engineering design and specifications from this plumber, Tony built the coil into the heater, and the following summer I had a hot-water system installed that runs off the MH. This is my only source of winter hot water and it works wonderfully.
Heating with the MH was a bit of a learning curve, after so many years of woodstove use. It is like the difference between a large, lumbering beast and a flighty squirrel. It doesn't do anything quickly-heat up, or cool down. You stoke a woodstove when you feel cool. But you must fire an MH when you're already nice and warm, which is counter-intuitive. It uses less firewood than the woodstove did, but it requires a good supply of kindling for starting fires.
I have now lived with my MH for two winters. The MH is a presence. It changes the whole feel of the house. In the summer it is a cool sink, the plain white stucco providing a lovely counterpoint to all of the house's wood walls. In the winter . . . it becomes like a living, breathing being, a mass of masonry that imperceptibly expands and subsides during the course of firing cycles. Rather than the erratic swings of woodstove heat, the house temperature stays moderate and comfortable. No more getting out of bed in a cold house to stoke a woodstove! In fact, after being fired in the evening, the MH hits peak heat output just around dawn, when outside temperatures are at their coldest.
The MH burns so cleanly! I never smell smoke in the house, and don't have all of the fly ash that comes with the constant stoking and emptying of a woodstove. Nor is there a necessity to keep a large stack of firewood in the house. I bring in only enough to fire the heater, and don't have to think about wood again until the next firing, 12 to 24 hours later. If I am gone all day, the house is nice and warm when I return. At night, I no longer go to sleep fearing chimney fires, as I sometimes did with woodstoves.
I love my MH!!! And I recommend Tony DaSilva unreservedly, for his skill, knowledge, integrity, and passion for masonry heaters.
Working with Tony was an education. I found his extensive heater building experience very helpful when placing our heater in the best situation for our heating needs. His thorough understanding of his Russian inspired stove allowed him to alter the heater design for our limited space with its confined ceiling height. We were very pleased with his background in historic building arts creating a stove that was unique with an established finish. Thank you Tony, well done.
Adam Buursma, Jacksonville, VT
Tony built a Russian masonry heater in our home in 2008. This masterful piece of art and craftsmanship heats virtually our entire home. And for just a little more than the price of the standard fireplace. We received superb customer service and found Tony very easy to work with. Tony has become a good friend and we have had him back to our home to assist on several other projects. It's great to have such a dependable contractor working on our dream home. Thanks again Tony!
Mark and Diane Flannery, Oakland, ME
"We love the masonry heater and the wonderful warmth it brings all winter! We built a large stone finished heater for our primary heat source. The natural stone is really a joy to look at and we especially enjoy gazing at each and every fire.
The efficiency is fantastic; We burned just under 2 chord from October through early April our first year of heating our single level 1200 SF home. We have gas backup furnace, but we never seem to use it for heat, only for the range, and the clothes dryer.
Tony was great to work with and is a professional, punctual, knowledgeable, and friendly mason that we would hire again or recommend to others. The heat it puts out is pleasant, even, and steady and does not dry out the house like all-metal stoves can, so no humidifier is ever needed. It's also nice to lean up against the hot stones.
A single (2) hour burn will continue to radiate into the next day. Mileage may vary, especially depends on the dryness of the wood.
The best part is that you can just light it and not mess with it until the end, if you want. But, it is often hard to resist making adjustments/playing and trying to get the flames to make green and blue colors.".
Jim & Kate, Fairfield, ME
We commissioned Maine Masonry Craft in 2012 to build our 3 sided natural stone fireplace and were extremely happy with the results. Aesthetically, the fireplace is just beautiful and where Maine Masonry far exceeded our expectations was the attention to detail. Most contractors were stumped or unable to tackle our project, yet Maine Masonry was able to troubleshoot and provide multiple solutions to build our fireplace economically and make it look and function incredibly. I highly recommend Maine Masonry Craft for their professionalism and because of their passion and love of the trade, directly translates to the high standard of work they produce. Thanks again Tony!
John & Cheri Belgrade Maine