In the winter of 1978, armed with a camera, a notebook, a three week Eurail pass, very little money, and a mission to learn about European masonry heater traditions, I, along with my wife Cheryl, and our infant son Scott, landed somehow in Switzerland. We stayed in the timber frame barn/home (einhaus) combination of a young organic agricultural extension agent, Otto Schmid, and his father. The home was heated, of course, with a Swiss tile stove (Kachelofen) that was fired from the kitchen, where it served as an oven. The bulk of the oven/stove projected into the main sitting room and heated that room, and registers in the ceiling heated bedrooms upstairs. A modern wood burning cookstove made by Tiba cooked, heated hot water and also heated a masonry bench through the wall and next to the body of the Kachelofen in the adjacent room.
We took trains to nearby cities and visited museums with collections of both simple and spectacular Kachelofen, some of which were several hundred years old. We visited a country farmer’s commercial bakery, which used a hand built wood fired oven featuring a low broad arch over the oven floor and two levels of split horizontal runs for more heat storage and baking capacity above the oven dome. In the town of Elgg, we visited a business owned by the Mantel brothers (Gebruder Mantel) that had been making tiles for the Kachelofen industry for over one hundred years. We sat comfortably in their lobby on a cobalt blue electrically heated ceramic tiled bench.
Our most memorable and least heralded visit, however, was to the home of a humble living master, or national treasure, by the name of Fritz Gisler. Fritz lived as an old bachelor in a small village, Dallikon, in an unassuming older house patterned after a centuries-old design. Upstairs in the living quarters, heat was provided by a massive green antique Kachelofen. Downstairs and out back was where Fritz worked in his seemingly cluttered indoor and outdoor shop space.
Fritz did not buy his tiles from a tile manufacturer as most heater masons then did. Instead, Fritz kept alive a much older tradition. Armed with a bucket and shovel, Fritz went into the forest to a source of clay and dug it out by hand. Back at his shop in a couple of large rectangular concrete tanks, Fritz pumped the water and clay slurry mix from tank to tank to settle out the pure clay and remove the lighter weight impurities. Inside the shop, the clay body was worked and rolled into slabs which were cut into tile blanks about eight inches square. Coils of clay were extruded from a hand press and rolled out and added as a squared “o” ring on the back of each tile. A full set of tiles, including rounded corner tiles, cap tiles and the rectangular main body tiles, were all shaped by hand and then given an initial firing in a large wood fired kiln.
In addition to the exterior tiles of the Kachelofen, Fritz and his young apprentice, Rico, also made the various shapes of firebrick (chamotte) interior building blocks, starting with the same clay but adding some sand for a coarser mix. Some of these bricks were fired and then broken up into fine bits and then added as “grog” to more clay and sand as the stabilizing element in the final interior brick manufacturing.
Fritz had a large number of stencil patterns that he had laid out and then cut on goatskin panels that he could lay over each tile. Glazes for color and tile decoration were ground on a granite water-powered mill stone in the center of the workshop. Different ground up glazing powders could be mixed and blended in drums at hand for this purpose. A small stream on the hillside above the house had been diverted into a holding pond and from there to a water wheel which developed plenty of power to run the mill stone as well as a small turbine to power a saw for cutting kiln wood and firewood.
Once the initial bisque firing was accomplished in one kiln, glazes were added and the tiles underwent another hotter firing in a second kiln.
In addition to fabricating every masonry component in each Kachelofen, Fritz also designed the Kacheofens and installed them with Rico and then took responsibility for the well-being and repair of the Kachelofen for the rest of his life. When we met Fritz he was probably in his mid-sixties or early-seventies and had only recently taken on Rico as his first apprentice—so that the old craft which he had learned would not die out with his passing. Fritz understood that the world was rushing rapidly past. He was not a media star nor a self-promoter. He was just a humble master, quietly and efficiently doing the work he had been called to do.