Living

In From the Cold | Maine Wood Heat Masonry Heaters

For one Maine family, the pursuit of warmth with masonry heaters is more than a way of life — it’s a calling.

By Annie Graves

Dec 27 2019

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Although the family behind Maine Wood Heat is known for masonry heaters that can warm an entire house, “cottage” heaters—like this one in cofounder Cheryl Barden’s home—offer a toasty solution for smaller spaces.

Photo Credit : Michael D. Wilson

The ritual feels as old as fire itself.

There is still something deeply primeval and powerful about the prospect of conjuring a flame, even in our era of techno-wizardry. So when Scott Barden kneels on the cement floor of his family’s 12,000-square-foot workshop—the headquarters of Maine Wood Heat, in Skowhegan, Maine—and brings his hands together, first using the friction of a bow drill on wood, then coaxing a wisp of smoke from tufts of tinder, it feels a little like ancient magic. We gather, visitors and employees. Stare at the shavings. Willing them to burn.

Although the family behind Maine Wood Heat is known for masonry heaters that can warm an entire house, “cottage” heaters—like this one in cofounder Cheryl Barden’s home—offer a toasty solution for smaller spaces.
Photo Credit : Michael D. Wilson

Scratch into the bedrock of New England, and you’ll find remnants of the ’60s and ’70s seeded around, possibly waiting to take root again. People tucked into off-the-map places, embodying the more hopeful aspects of those decades, carrying visceral memories of a time when fierce dreams were remaking the world, or at least aspiring to. Hope is a thing that keeps us warm, but in those early activist days, a young couple named Albie and Cheryl Barden wanted to change the world with an actual heat source.

Beyond that, though, it was a question mark.

The way forward was tangled. Albie grew up in Old Town, 65 miles from where we’re sitting today; he went to Brown and Yale, became an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. But in 1973, feeling the pull of the land, he shrugged off that life and moved back to Maine, where he met Cheryl. The couple moved into a 40-acre homestead that Albie owned in nearby Norridgewock, which they rented out “for exactly what the mortgage payment was: $134 a month,” he recalls. That first summer, Cheryl says, “we lived in the milk shed with a bed, a dog, the rats,” and Albie’s daughter Merrill, while they tried to figure out how to make a living.

“We began selling woodstoves out of the dining room during the Arab oil embargo,” Albie continues. “I was becoming very aware of issues of the earth and a right livelihood. And the fact that we’d lost a generation of wood-burning.”

We are sitting in his upstairs business office, packed in like loose logs: me and Albie and Cheryl and their grown kids, Scott and Anna, plus Dana, the office manager who’s like family. Two dogs, Baxter and Ranger, command the floor space, and a squeaky chew toy is the soundtrack to our conversation. Albie’s trim white beard and stiff gait suggest a ship’s captain, and he steers the conversation with vigor. Cheryl’s warmth weaves through the stories, an anchor of sorts. Though no longer a couple, they share laughs, children, and a business. He leans forward when he wants to make a point; Cheryl tweaks the details.

The Barden family in Maine Wood Heat’s workshop in Skowhegan. From left: mom Cheryl, son Scott, daughter Anna, and father Albie (plus Ranger and Baxter). In the background are examples of both traditional masonry heaters and a newer line of high-end restaurant ovens.
Photo Credit : Michael D. Wilson

When they were young, an early encounter with Peter Clegg’s New Low-Cost Sources of Energy for the Home galvanized the pair. “It gathered everything you needed to know about energy under one cover,” Albie remembers. There was wind, water, solar—but when he turned to the section on wood heat, with its image of a heat-storing fireplace (a Swedish switchback cross-section tile stove), “I tell people I felt a hand come down on my shoulder and kinda push me.” He leans in. “In theological training, you hear about callings. I knew: This was what wood heat really needed to be.”

So what does one do, the day after one is called?

“You start researching, because you realize you don’t know a damn thing about any of it.” He cracks up. Cheryl shakes her head and adds, “Then you gather up your family, stick ’em on a plane, and go to Europe for three weeks, looking for the holy grail of masonry heaters.”

In fact, masonry heaters—massive wood-burning soapstone, brick, or tile stoves that are capable of holding heat for 12 hours or more—are nothing new in Europe, but they never really took off in the New World. Albie thinks maybe it’s because there was so much wood here, no one felt the need to conserve.

But imagine getting the most heat possible from your woodpile, thanks to internal chambers that fold back and forth like well-ordered intestines, slowing the gases released by burning wood. Those gases are where the real heat lives, but generally they fly right up your chimney. “To throw all that heat away is crazy.” Albie practically glowers. “And most fireplaces [and woodstoves, for that matter] throw it all away.” The proof of efficiency? Scott Barden heats his 5,000-square-foot home with two and a half cords of wood a year, and it’s so toasty that “in the evening, we’re in T-shirts,” he says.

After Albie Barden helped install this masonry heater at her home in Harrisville, New Hampshire, owner Michelle Russell customized it by adding a stucco exterior.
Photo Credit : Michael D. Wilson

Besides using a fraction of the wood, picture stoking your fire just twice a day, because all that heat stays stored in the stove’s layers. Albie compares the setup to Russian nesting dolls: core, heat exchange wall, outer veneer.

Albie and Cheryl packed Scott, 18 months, into a knapsack, and took a cheap flight to Europe in the middle of winter. With a Eurail pass, they traipsed from England to France to the Swiss Alps, then to Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, “trying to figure out the status of masonry heaters in each country,” says Albie, while connecting with as many craftsmen as they could find, including an old bachelor in Switzerland who made tiles by hand, ground the glazes, and guaranteed each stove for the length of his life. “It was like going back in time,” Cheryl says. “We were seeing medieval work,” adds Albie.

The holy grail awaited in Finland. Albie sets the scene: “We were cold, we were sick, it was 20 below.” In Helsinki, they discovered that the Finnish fireplace, unlike German or Swiss tile stoves, featured a front center fire in a brick unit. It was a eureka moment. “I said, ‘We can make this work,’” he grins. “New England has a tradition of red bricks and a front center fire. I knew we had a chance with this.”

By the time they came home, they were saturated. Workshops would follow, back-and-forths with experts from Finland, and they also learned from influential stove maker Basilio Lepuschenko, a member of the Russian community that had settled in Richmond, Maine. Albie credits a 1978 Yankee article—“What’s So Hot About a Russian Fireplace?”—with helping to launch masonry stoves in this country.

Along the way, Albie devised his own innovations, including a series of horizontal runs to bring the heat back into the central mass. And though he claims he knew nothing about masonry when the whole adventure began, today he’s built hundreds of heaters around the U.S. and the world (the farthest in New Zealand), coauthored a book titled Finnish Fireplaces: The Heart of the Home, and tutored the next generation of builders, who are “scattered all over the country.”

Albie Barden recently designed and installed this soapstone wood­stove—which does double duty on cooking and heating—in his Norridgewock home.
Photo Credit : Michael D. Wilson

Downstairs, we admire the two massive heaters warming this lofty shop space: One is faced with soapstone, the other with red sandstone, some of which was left over from a project at Yale. Beyond these craggy beauties, I spy a burnished copper dome that hovers like a spacecraft over a Le Pagnol masonry core from the world’s oldest manufacturer of all-natural wood-fired ovens, in France.

This Maine Wood Heat “signature series” pizza oven at the Miller’s Table in Skowhegan is crowned with a copper dome created (and signed) by local metal sculptor Barry Norling.
Photo Credit : Michael D. Wilson

The next generation of Bardens is forging ahead with its own heat technology—creating elegant copper-topped ovens that ship all around the country to high-end restaurants, artisan bakeries, and homes. Scott is just back from Fairbanks, Alaska, where a client cooks pizzas outside in -40 °F. In Minneapolis, Young Joni cracked GQ’s list of best new restaurants with a little help from chef-owner Ann Kim’s Barden-built copper-topped oven. “We made some of the first mobile ovens, too,” Scott says, including a trailer with an optional turntable.

Meanwhile, Albie recently developed a masonry heater for tiny houses. It burns a tiny amount of wood. “The fire builds community,” Albie observes, as we stand beside this latest creation. “And without fire, as humans, we don’t do very well. So if you’re working with fire, whether it’s with a bake oven or a heater, it has to be done with great respect and humility.” His voice cracks for an instant. “In the biggest sense of the word, it’s sacred work.” 

Masonry Heaters: How They Work

Also known as Russian or Finnish fireplaces, masonry heaters have a minimum of two switchbacks to slow down the combustible gases created by burning wood. Most often, these internal chambers are vertical, but Albie Barden’s system of horizontal switchbacks brings the heat back to the central core. These convoluted flues force the heat to spend itself inside the heater, rather than escaping up a chimney.

Slowing the hot gases without lessening the fire’s intensity makes for optimum combustion: 1,200 °F stored in the masonry chambers. Hours later, the brick or soapstone walls—prodigious in their ability to hold heat—keep a house toasty (a potential drawback, in fact, because if a day warms suddenly, there’s no thermostat to turn down). The fire is lit from scratch every 12 hours; a big fire gives off the same heat as a small one, just for a longer time.

And yes, you can still enjoy the view of a crackling fire behind the glass firebox door. “It’s still the best way to heat,” says Albie.