Masonry Heater Workshop Fall 2010 | Montana Travertine


John Stacy and Shirl Ireland met me after dark at the Bozeman, Montana airport to drive me to their home in Gardiner, Montana for the recent masonry heater workshop we held there in October of 2010. Getting all the cardinal directions clear in the dark and seeing where we were was difficult because, as usual, I hadn’t carefully studied any maps before this long awaited trip. Driving up the Paradise Valley towards Gardiner we kept a steady lookout for elk which in the fall come down out of the mountains and move to the river valleys for winter feed and protection. Up the valley and up the Yellowstone meant driving South and literally traveling up into the mountains. This may seem normal to Rocky Mountain dwellers where you can go up some mountain from almost any cardinal direction, but in my mind, I falsely had us going South downstream and downhill as most rivers in Maine (not the Allagash) flow South towards the ocean. In Northern Maine, however, beyond the height of land there, some rivers flow North and empty into the St. Lawrence.

Montana masonry heater

We saw a few dark shapes off in the fields which I assumed, and was assured by John, were elk but they could just as well have been cattle, or moose or wildebeest for all the detail I could see. It was dark, of course, when we arrived at John and Shirl’s home in Gardiner and I didn’t really SEE where we were until the next morning when I realized that we were actually perched on the gravel and boulder strewn high river bank of the Yellowstone River which flowed North many, many feet below. The first range of Northern mountains in Yellowstone park loomed directly in front of us five or six miles away beyond dry and sparsely covered sloping land that gave way to trees just at the foot of the mountains. The old flat rail track on the other side of the river which ran to the Park’s Northern entrance is now idle but for joggers and walkers across the river and this line alone was the only man made flat line in view.

Montana mule deerOn the other side of the house, walking into town with the kids to school, one could see many many mule deer of all ages and both sexes in several yards clearly preferring the green watered lawn grass to the naturally brown and sparsely watered grasses beyond the river. In an effort to tame this semi-arid wilderness, residents had unwittingly invited the wild creatures into their town. I was also assured that the football field, green and watered, was a favorite gathering place for elk herds. What happened when someone wanted to play football I was not immediately told. Obviously, some kind of natural time and grass sharing system was being worked out.

Framing driveways and dooryards everywhere were countless random pieces and rubble piles of travertine stone. A motel with a steep bank across the street and a block away from John and Shirl’s house, had covered their entire steep bank with a “rip rap” of travertine stones, 30 to 100 pounds each. John pointed out travertine tailings spilling over the ridge high above the sparce settlements and homes on the opposite side of the road and said that there was a huge abandoned travertine quarry operation on top of the hill that we could drive to.

Original Stacy stone veneer masonry heaterJohn and Shirl had not finalized their pick for a veneer for their heater. Their last heater in Adirondack, New York, had been made with field and other stones they had gathered all summer long along the road with their little pick up truck. They had laid out the rock in four panels on the floor around the heater and bench core we had built together and then had raised the four sides up one stone at a time. That owner built heater (I only helped design the system and build the core and bench layout with them) remains one of my all time favorite masonry heaters. Like this new heater, it was a see-through with glass double doors on both sides, a bake oven on one side and a big heated bench on the side away from the bake oven. I wondered if they were considering the local travertine as their veneer. I was clearly loving it. Blocks and rocks were apparently free for the taking. There were two reasons that John and Shirl suggested that veered them away from the travertine. One was the color. Shirl wanted a stone with some of the same grays and browns that she could see every day looking out over the Yellowstone. As a gifted fine artist, the color palette around her was always subtly and accurately noted and appreciated. They also felt that a light colored veneer would not pick up any solar gain as well as a darker color would. But given the huge amount of South facing glazing they have, plus twelve foot high end and rear walls, which they intended to cover with lichen covered stone veneer, I did not think that a three foot by seven foot South facing end of a masonry heater, light or dark in color, would have much impact on the total solar gain of the living space. I decided not to press the issue. I already knew from emails before my arrival that Shirl and John were leaning towards using a sandstone that they had found that they both liked. In addition, John and Shirl didn’t have any way calculated in their heads to easily turn a largish piece of travertine into a useable 4-5″ thick veneer stone for their masonry heater. Having recently come off the ad hoc field soapstone boulder sawing operation conducted last winter (their summer: March 2010) in New Zealand, the size of the available blocks seemed less daunting to me. For Shirl and John, a rail saw or six foot diameter portable highway concrete cutting diamond wet saw just a phone call away, had not entered into their imaginations and cost calculations. They had found, instead, a sandstone quarry man a couple of hours away with more than one deposit of beautiful stone. With a bucket loader or other similar large piece of equipment, he could move into his quarry and peel up huge sheets of sandstone three or four inches thick and then back at his shop using saws and hydraulic splitters, could turn it into any reasonable modular size one desired.

Stacy timber frame home in Gardiner, MT

In John and Shirl’s original home, they had salvaged a weathered timber frame barn for their structure. For this home, John found some wonderful old long uniform lodgepole pine logs that had been part of the structure of an old rail shed and he had salvaged them for all of his posts and ceiling beams. Against this antique peeled log background with plaster ceilings and future lichen covered grey stone walls filling the vertical spaces, they had decided on the slightly more formal and subdued look of the quarried sandstone, to the more random look of any kind of field stone. This choice did not stop an Eastern States stone lover or his two Montana based workshop attendees from wanting to see the old travertine quarry and within a day or two of our arrival, Joel Adams brought me and Clint Dodge, the other attending mason, up the ridge around dusk in his four wheel drive vehicle. Riding with Joel, a hydrogeologist, who is also from the Yellowstone area, I soon learned to keep my stone formation wisdom to myself, but Joel was very gentle in the sharing of the wealth of knowledge that he had about such things.

Travertine quarry

The first time I saw travertine blocks in quantity was in the buildings of the famous Getty Art Museum on the outskirts of Los Angeles. All parking at the Museum is at the foot of the tall hill that the Getty sits on. Smooth automatic rail cars take passengers up the hill to the large cluster of buildings, terraces and gardens. No traffic distracts the viewer from the powerful impact of the magnificent stone buildings. The huge travertine blocks of the museum structures, each placed in a different vertical plane from any of its adjoining neighbors, were absolutely unforgettable. I imagined that the rock probably came from far far away like from Italy and indeed, I believe that it did. I did not know at the time that the coliseum in Rome is made mostly from travertine. I had read that it also has a huge quantity of red bricks in it.

travertine quarry

I have worked with very old limestone blocks recycled from a long disappeared barn with only the foundation remaining in New Jersey. I have seen an inordinate number of lime kilns populating the roadsides of Blairstown in Northwestern, New Jersey. I have visited six or more of these kilns. The largest are twelve feet tall and twenty four feet long with a giant stone bowl shape on the top where limestone chinks and coal were laid in alternating layers and burned from an ignition port below over a period of many days to produce quick lime for agriculture and for mortar. The abandoned travertine quarry site in Gardiner, Montana Travertine quarry stoneseems to cover one hundred acres or more. At the old quarry site we found huge piles of scrap and one block with holes drilled in it and a gorgeous large set of iron feathers and wedge still stuck, rusting, in one of the drilled holes…a block that was never fully split out. We found other large quarried blocks that had never gone to market. At one point in the quarry we stood against a sheer sawed wall perhaps twenty feet tall. This wall, and the block it contained, had to have been cut with a diamond encrusted cable or “wire” saw. Two holes are drilled beneath a large block, one at the face and one at the rear side of the block. The two holes have to line up in the same horizontal plane. Where the two holes intersect, a cable can be fed through one hole and out the other end and then pulled on tensioned wheels to undercut the huge block. Once the cut is complete a third hole can be drilled down opposite the side wall hole from the top. Once the top bore intersects with the bottom shelf cut, the wire cable with diamonds can be fed through again and the vertical cut can be made. When this cut is complete, the huge block “falls” about an inch to the floor of the quarry shelf and the block is now free for further recutting and transport. Our friends at the soapstone quarry in Quebec, at Les Pierres Steatite, now use such a saw to cut out their quarry blocks. They used to have to drill many side by side holes with jack hammers to free a block, with much more cracking and damage than a wire saw ever creates.

Gardiner travertine Had I been in charge of the Getty Museum project, I think I would have lobbied hard for using the Gardiner travertine, if there had been enough of it, because of its beauty and its American origins. The Gardiner travertine came in shades of white and pink and beige. One block clearly had a blow hole from a steam vent in it, on an identical but smaller scale to the old steam vent holes looking like a beached whale head we had seen at the Boiling River hot springs a few miles away. It suddenly struck us that the same process going on at the Boiling River had previously happened here many centuries earlier. In addition, the rock seemed to contain evidence of organic forms in it, like the calcified skeleton of a coral reef. How life could co-exist in the formation of travertine depositions and boiling hot water and steam remained for the moment a mystery. We brought back in Joel’s vehicle a few choice souvenirs from the old quarry knowing that they were too heavy to carry back along with clothes and a precious few mason’s tools in a bag with a fifty-pound limit. For a mason who normally travels with a three quarter ton pickup truck full of tools, I had sent John a long tool shopping list of my needs and had packed a tiny bag inside my larger bag with a torpedo level, three carbide tipped tool bits, three trowels, a grinder blade, a mason’s ruler and my favorite diamond covered grinder blade, dust masks, ear plugs, glasses, and a small nylon weighted hammer.

Old FaithfulDeep below Yellowstone Park are fissures connecting to the molten lava far below. The lava works its way up through the cracks to a point where it encounters calcium rich ground water and sends this water under pressure up through more fissures and steam vents in the ground. Old vents are constantly closing and new vents are constantly opening. This is a dynamic process. Witnessing the changes makes one wonder about the uniqueness of Old Faithful which has kept a reasonably steady schedule now for hundreds of years.

In our masonry heater we used quick lime in our mortar mix and we used a wonderful insulation block made in Denmark called Skamol (Ska=Scandanavia¬†¬† Mol=Insulation) made out of calcium silicate. Like the calcium carbonate travertine rock formations, the manufactured calcium silicate block insulation is full of millions of tiny holes. The calcium forms the skeleton around the holes. It is the air trapped within the skeleton which plays such a big role in insulating the mass above it. In our own bodies, our skeletons and bones are also constantly being worked on until we begin to lose calcium. Our bones, like the travertine and the Skamol board, are also full of holes, with our own body’s life building fluids moving around in them. My brother, Howard, for years worked as a senior scientist for a firm in Wisconsin called Lunar which measured bone density with sound waves. This equipment came to be used around the world.

I learned from John that he had built his previous heater and the foundation for this heater using only Portland cement and sand. Lime added to the mortar gives it more plasticity and flexibility and setting time, but John’s own evolution in isolation as a heater builder had not produced any problems for their earlier heater or for this foundation. His experience provided us with a good lesson of how following an independent evolutionary path can sometimes produce good results.

AlbieCore wood burning masonry heater

One evening after work, when Clint went off again to the Boiling River Hot Springs, Joel Adams and I drove a bit further into the park at dusk for Joel to show me the living travertine formations at Mammoth Hot Springs. Ready for winter, about to rut elks were everywhere taking over the lawns of the buildings at Mammoth Hot Springs. Large bulls were few in numbers but each had generous harems of cows and calves in their care. The green grass lawns, not the tourists, the cameras, or cars were the attraction for the elk. They put up mostly with all of this nuisance for the grass but would occasionally push a visitor into one of the Elk in Gardiner, MT buildings if the mood struck them. Orange vested Park Rangers posted themselves near a pair of sparing bulls to keep the people away from the action and to protect all the players. The gift shops in the park are full of gorgeous wildlife photos of elk and grizzlies and buffalo and wolves for hundreds or even a thousand dollars or more, so all of my snapshot efforts, by comparison were a little silly. On a drive back one night through Mammoth Hot Springs after dark, we found the big elk that John had been looking for but my camera, without a red eye mini blink, made basically a wild guess as to what I was shooting. Only digital enhancement could make a real photo out of the image. So much for my efforts to document a big bull elk. John Stacy told me of a hike he and Shirl had taken within view of their home and within the park. There on the high plateau were hundreds or thousands of elk antler drops.  All of them belong to you and citizens such as me, and every antler is illegal to remove. Just seeing such a boneyard would be enough of a gift for me.

Mammoth Hot Springs

At dusk at the end of an October day in Mammoth Hot Springs, the crowds have thinned out considerably. On the boardwalks snaking around and through the hot springs there is a German couple with their beautiful daughter. A Japanese photographer with a tripod is carefully crafting some memorable shots. I am quietly overwhelmed by the beauty and magic and mystery and wonder of what I am seeing.

Terraced growing deposits of travertine stone are everywhere covered with steam and a thin sheen of rippling moving water that has emerged deep from within the Earth. It is also a ghost land of sorts. Trees give way to the heat and die but stand as skeletal sentinels where they once in turn grew. But the stone is not the white or grey or pink stilled travertine that we saw in Gardiner. Here, the living deposits are teaming with heat loving algae and bacteria giving a huge array of living sherbet colors to the soft fountain displays in front of our eyes. Now I can see why some of the rocks I picked up at the Gardiner quarry above John and Shirl’s home seemed so full of life. They had been alive. They were formed with living creatures fully participating in their manufacture. Calcium rich water deep in the Earth comes to the surface as a steam and these creatures live in and on this water and in and on this stone as it precipitates out as calcium carbonate.

Mammoth Hot Springs

We stood mesmerized alone at one twenty or thirty foot diameter breast shaped mound above. From atop the mound, a clear, very warm liquid bubbled out and shimmered and rippled down the flanks of the mound, sighing and whispering as it moved. From her fire and water belly deep, deep below, this Great Mother was sending her hot fluid building blocks of life to the surface, and life at the surface was abounding with these extraordinary pastel living sherbet colors. Again, we were stuck by how the living and dying around us are combined. The trees give way to steam and rocks and algae and bacteria. Other forms of water and algae and bacteria worMammoth Hot Springs ked in the trees when they were building their cells and leaves. This living and dying at Mammoth Hot Springs brings us mere humans to this place in droves from all over the world. Some of us are foolish enough to think that this is just another five-minute photo opportunity on the way to the next fast food steam stop, but it is much more than this. Sixty percent of the world’s thermal spring and steam vent activity is going on right here in Yellowstone Park. This is wonder, a deeply, deeply humbling wonder that we feel. What springs feed the calcium beds in our bodies? What powers the limestone in our mortar to workable lime? What form of calcium was transformed by technology in Denmark into remarkable non-toxic hand sawable insulating block? How does a masonry heater heat not only our homes and perhaps some of our hot water but also feed the waters of our hearts and souls? John and Shirl knew that it would do all of those things. They had lived with such a heater before and when it came time to leave Adirondack, New York, one of the hardest parts of leaving was to walk away from their masonry heater.

Now they have another masonry heater underway. In a region rich in basalt and travertine and sandstone, John and Shirl had chosen standstone for their heater. While I write this blog, John is finishing up the sandstone veneer. All the pleasures and comforts that they recall will come to them again soon this winter and for many winters to come in their home perched above the Yellowstone River.

Yellowstone River


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