Five years ago, Albie traveled in cold weather to Livingston Manor, New York to build a masonry heater and cookstove for Amy and Wes Gillingham and their children Roan and Iris. The land that Amy and Wes live on is about 100 acres of Hemlock and hardwood forest straddling a long bluestone ridge. Their 1/2 mile long driveway leaves Cattail Road and travels down across gravel and glacially scoured bedrock to an old homestead, remnants of which provided Amy and Wes with large flat stones for their heater and chimney caps. Wes’s dad had originally bought the land and an old camp building there. Wes and Amy moved into the off-grid cabin and heated it with a big wood stove while they planned their nearby hand hewn log home a few yards further up the slope. At night, all members of the family donned headlamps for light. Wes cut large pine logs for their new home and Amy’s sister, on a break from her medical practice, supervised the chinking between the logs. Another mason, Mike Lorenz, and Albie came to build the heater and cooker. They shared meals which Amy cooked for everyone and lived in an apprentice cabin a couple hundred yards up the driveway with their own wood stove and a couple mats, sleeping bags and a privy with a wide-open view down the ridge.
In both the masonry heater and the cookstove, we installed stainless steel water jackets. In the heater the jacket is not in direct flame but is rather buried behind a layer of firebrick in the throat and it has a trickle charge effect on hot water production. This type of placement keeps the fire burning hot and clean. In the cookstove, with a much smaller firebox, we typically place the water jacket on the side of the firebox away from the oven as water jackets have been traditionally placed in cook stoves for generations and this water jacket heats up a lot of hot water quite rapidly. A cookstove firebox, being smaller and with the cook top directly above it, is burned hotter and does not get the same long flame path expected in the masonry heater, but we have never had a creosote issue with any of these cookstove water jacket applications. A Romanian neighbor helped them plumb the system up to a 30 gallon gravity fed copper hot water tank standing upright on an antique cast iron stand on the second floor. On the third floor loft Wes installed two one hundred gallon stainless steel tanks. These tanks are filled from their well with electricity generated by their solar panels mounted outside the kitchen corner of their log home. Once the tanks are filled, Wes shuts off the pump. After the cookstove has fired for as little as half an hour, water at the sink flows down hot from the copper tank and the tank is automatically refilled by gravity from the two storage tanks higher up.
When we built the heater and cooker, Wes and Amy had finished another summer as organic tenant farmers on fertile river bottom land nearer the town village, but three floods and three lost tractors meant using this land as the primary growing space for their CSA farm operation wasn’t possible to continue. The CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) generates funds from shares purchased before the growing season begins and pays for all the seeds and production costs and any wages with shareholders receiving a generous portion of whatever food is produced each week.
Amy now has an extraordinary garden and two hoop houses next to their home in one of the few arable spots on their large property and the garden is surrounded by fenced in sheep and chickens. A large white Great Pyrenees dog named Basque keeps all the critters and family safe. Cattle are kept in a neighbor’s field. High bush wild blueberry bushes are everywhere around the house and on the edges where the field meets the forest. Amy and Wes also have a garden dedicated just to fruit bushes where raspberries and gooseberries and other berries grow.
This summer, Amy decided to not have apprentices and to focus on the kids and another big masonry project, a communal oven. After building the heater and cooker and having Mike finish the chimney, Albie cajoled Amy into attending the second annual Kneading Conference on sustainable grain growing, artisan breads and wood fired ovens in Skowhegan, Maine. She loved what she learned at the conference and began dreaming about building an oven, perhaps an oven that she could share with her community.
For a couple of years, Amy dreamed and schemed about the wood fired oven and also worked on defining what her community actually was and eventually realized that the community that she wanted to serve with an oven would be her actual neighbors on Cattail Road. On Cattail Road there is also the Shalom Retreat Center and she met there an entrepreneur (Peter Britton of Brick Ends Farm) from the Boston area with a successful business of recycling organic materials into compost. People pay Peter to take away their compostable waste and then other people pay him to buy his compost. Like others who realize that all the right things cannot be done by one person alone, Peter saw that Amy’s dream was something that he wanted to help realize so he offered to sponsor the oven construction costs for Wes and Amy. This makes Peter an oven angel.
By the time Albie arrived for his second masonry visit, Wes had a large thick concrete floating slab in place along with a concrete block foundation and capping slab. After unloading tools, oven core and insulation and oven grog for additional mass and “insulation” below the hearth and around the oven, a local building supply company delivered solid concrete blocks, cored blocks and mortar and Portland cement on Albie’s hastily assembled materials list.
Everything was stored outside on pallets under large waterproof tarps and plastic. Rain and severe thunderstorms every day slowed our pace a bit. During one particularly strong storm, Albie and Iris saw and heard the crackling lightning strike what appeared to be the center of the garden outside, so close did it seem. But when Wes arrived home later that night, he reported that a ten inch diameter cherry tree three hundred yards up the driveway had been struck and exploded by the lightning with long shards of the tree flung all around it on the ground and into the forest. A smaller maple tree in close contact to the cherry tree with trunk touching trunk had emerged from the strike with no damage what-so-ever. We visited the shattered cherry tree several times and brought back pieces to treasure and whittle on from the “lightning tree” and Wes contemplated cutting a section of the trunk for a bam that could be set as a lintel in the stone work over the wood box opening. This is work on the rock veneer that will happen after Albie left.
Peter also loaned a nicely reconditioned John Deere tractor with a bucket to help with the construction project, but with the very wet weather, the tractor didn’t want to start on cue, and when it did start, had little power to move. As a result, Wes spent a lot of time tinkering on the tractor, but still could not press it into service to gather rocks from their piles at the top end of the field. Wes started up an older tractor of theirs and hooked up a little utility trailer and was able to move materials from the drive to the oven slab.
Albie ran his big wet diamond saw for cuts off of the same large generator that they had used during the previous masonry heater and cooker visit. Mike joined us for parts of two days and added the skills of another mason to the mix. Family and friends helped with the rest. Above the capping slab, Albie started with a dry layout of the oven base course and hearth tiles. We marked small surplus corners on the front and larger surplus corners on the back and then laid out four inch concrete block to this reduced footprint pattern, to save on materials and to potentially provide shelves on the corners at the level of the hearth. Wes and Amy decided to add a layer of four inch solid block to the poured hearth to raise the hearth from a projected forty inches to a taller height of 44 inches. Both Amy and Wes are taller than average so this gave them a better working height while still leaving the hearth available for other shorter users.
After setting the solid block with common mortar, Albie then laid out the 3 inch thick Skamol calcium silicate insulation board above the block and trimmed it to size and recycled the spare pieces to cover the leftover bare spots. We laid the Skamol, which keeps heat from wicking down into the concrete slab dry and then built a masonry dike of block around the Skamol on the sides and rear of the oven. The additional 2 inch strips of material were secured with high temperature silicone on the front edge of the Skamol. This berm all the way around the perimeter of the Skamol left us a shallow space to pour in several bags of Terre Blanche grog as a thermal mass and additional insulation layer under the hearth.
We leveled and vibrated the grog and then started setting the hearth tiles on the grog, starting at the front and center and laying them in side by side, one row at a time, carefully leveling each tile as we went with a level and weighted rubber mallet. If a tile sat too high, we would scrape out a little grog beneath it and reset it. If it sat a little low, we would pick up the tile and sprinkle in a little more grog and reset it.
With the hearth set, we then centered and set the large two piece door opening lintel elements, positioning them far enough back on the front row of tiles to leave room for the fire box throat support element which sits just outside the lintel elements and runs flush to the front edge of the tiles.
There were three courses of tongue and groove voissoir sections to stack up in consecutive layers. We gathered all the flat-bottomed number one voissoirs first and laid them in a circle starting from both sides of the vertical angled faces of the door lintel elements. We left little gaps between each base element so that when we reached course two and three we would still have room for each segment to continue toward the keystone position without overlapping into an adjacent voissoir line.
We also centered the keystone over the dome and set it at its proper height so that we could build and fit the three tiers of voissoir segments exactly to the keystone. As in many first tries for inexperienced builders, a little adjustment to the first course placement was made when we saw that the rear elements did not fall on the centerline of the already laid hearth tiles.
Once this adjustment was made and the diameter checked to be sure that it was large enough, we proceeded without any struggle to pass up and lay the next two layers of voissoir segments.
The second tier is grooved on the bottom and tongued on the top and is smaller, of course, than the base tier of elements. The third tier has a bottom groove but no tongue as it will slide up tight against the truncated cone shape of the keystone. Where fit needed to be adjusted, light taps with a weighted rubber mallet and a trowel as a pry allowed everything to fit into place. Once the keystone is in place, the jack and supports under the keystone can be removed as the dome is now self supporting. After removing the supports Albie noted that three segments of the final course had settled slightly, so Albie reset the jack beneath these three elements and eased them up flush to the keystone and left the jack in place until the dome was “chinked” and covered with mortar. We packed folded single sheets of paper towels in any open joints, then sprayed the dome until it was a nice salmon pink.
As many as six or seven family members, masons and friend volunteers worked on the oven at any given moment. One group mixed batches of the proprietary refractory mortar and passed up yogurt containers of the wet mortar for Albie and another person to fill the voids in the gaps over the holes. Once the gaps were filled, then we poured and troweled with rubber gloved hands, the remaining mortar over the entire dome.
One of the volunteers who came and spent a few days with us was an Australian born Permaculture teacher named Andrew Leslie Phillips, who had done gardens and rock gardens in New York City for many years until his curiosity about the stone he was purchasing pulled him to the Livingston Manor area where a near by quarry provided the stone. He became enchanted with the area and decided to stay. He had a great story to tell about his early days in New Guinea working for the government as a field agent basically setting the groundwork for a take over of natural resources from the native people by the Australian government. He had lured his wife-to-be to join him in New Guinea and they were staying in a little hut in a native village when lightning struck a palm tree outside, blew up the tree, much like our cherry tree nearby, and also blew up the roots and turned over a lot of soil around the tree.
A local man came to him with a special adz shaped rock which he said was often found near trees after a lightning strike and was referred to as a lightning stone. Our friend had the rock at his home as his most prized possession but kept forgetting to bring it to show to us. On the last day, when he could no longer help and was on his way, duded up in street clothes, to teach a seminar, he drove by with the remarkable lightning stone which native people believe is literally formed in the strike and has a name the reflects the sound that a lightning strike can make like that of an ax hitting a tree. The stone was very hard, not like blue stone at all, and except for its modest size, was similar to larger stone adzes that were used for thousands of years before bronze and other metals were introduced to Asian cultures as tools. I was stunned when I was in New Zealand earlier in the year at the vast amount of stone adzes of all sizes which had been found and preserved in the Auckland museum. Some of the adzes there were made of jade and all the wood working and dug out canoes, which might be seventy feet long and carved out of a single tree trunk, were all made with stone adzes. We and the Gillingham children made several trips to our own lightning tree to look for such a stone but found none. Interestingly, when he had been living in New York city he had talked about the stone with some men from Nepal, very far away from New Guinea, and they immediately recognized from his story that he had a lightning stone and asked to see it and borrow it. When he brought the stone to the three Nepalese men, they all confirmed that it was indeed a lightning stone and kept if for several days before returning it. We all got a chance to hold it and I took photos of it to share with others.
Our little group of family and friends made trips to the cherry tree to take each a fair share of the special lightning split wood for its memories, and maybe its changed energy and its possibilities to be carved into spoons and other implements. The sense of power and mystery that an event like the lightning strike created along with the story of the New Guinea lightning stone and its eventual viewing anchored this project in a powerful magic that we would never forget.
With heavy rain coming nearly every day, and our workspace being essentially outdoors, we did a lot of maneuvering under our tarp and kept all the mortar materials dry under other tarps until we could cycle them into the project. For extra mass around the oven we mixed the equivalent weight of the oven mass itself in Terre Blanche grog with a modest amount of Portland cement and troweled and shoveled the grog layer on to a thickness of six inches, equivalent to the dome thickness itself. The base course of the extra mass began with solid concrete blocks back filled with the grog, as it is almost impossible to make such a weak wet mix stick to a nearly vertical surface.
After many layers, we built up the grog to the double thickness of the dome. With the extra mass on the oven we dropped down once again to the hearth level of the oven and using two inch mineral wool as a thermal break, started building up a solid four inch thick concrete block wall around the oven core, leaving four inches between the wall and core to laky in a double layer of two inch thick mineral wool.
Many new hands joined this exercise in block laying and despite a nervous fussiness on Albie’s part, did a nice job in laying and plumbing these soon to be hidden solid block walls. Because we were building a faceted shape around the dome, a lot of cuts were being made several feet away on Albie’s big wet diamond saw, but piece by piece, the wall came together until we reached the top. With the poor weather, the budget limitations and a stubbornly silent tractor, we did not ultimately attempt to lay any of the stone veneer around the block foundation and inner veneer wall. This, Amy and Wes decided would be a good project for the community to have their hand and ownership in. Amy felt that ultimately, her community should be her neighbors on Cattail Road, not a bunch of commuters from miles away. She wanted this to serve as a local resource. The oven would be something people could actually walk or bicycle to or drive a short distance and share skills and food and build an interdependence and heart which is so fragile and easily lost in our modern culture.
On most days that we worked with Amy and Wes and their kids and friends, some neighbor or friend would come by with a beautifully prepared lunch so that the oven crew could just keep working and be served when they were hungry. We folks from away got to meet several members of the community in this manner and also had some evening meals with special friends who came by to see our progress. One day at the beginning of the project, Iris and her young Aunt who was visiting, spent hours gathering berries and then making a gluten free oat meal crust for a fabulous berry pie which was to die for. The first pie was so gratefully received and rapidly consumed that later in the week a second pie miraculously appeared and experienced the same grateful fate. The gift energy of home schooled Iris and Roan was truly remarkable and we were also treated to Roan’s already extensive knowledge of local hawks and he preceded to do some hawk calling of his own with a wonderful hawk voice.
Communal projects of this sort are all too rare now and yet they are the fundamental glue of co-operation and heart that is the lifeblood of our connection to one another and to the local land. It was a great gift to work with Amy and Wes and Mike and the kids again and to see the oven dream come true. The rocks have been going on the veneer we assume but the oven was ready to use actually as we left with a shed roof to go over it and a class A chimney pipe section to penetrate it. There was pizza and bread and all kinds of other foods to make and a bunch of hungry neighbors on Cattail Road about to enter a new phase of their lives.
The same wonderful apprentice cabin and outhouse was put to good use again. The farm pond, which Mike and Albie hadn’t been able to use in the winter project, was used by all members of the work crew in twos and threes and fours, in boy and men’s groups and in girl and women’s groups and in mixed groups. We bucketed up water and soaped up with Dr. Bonners and then rinsed clean before entering the lovely shallow pond and then just simply basked in the beauty and peace of it all as another part of Wes and Amy’s dream came together.
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A beautiful story of dreams being fulfilled, good food and fellowship, and working together outdoors on a personal project yet to be a community coming together to for cooking and baking and eating together….a neat idea! God bless you all and I’d love to get up there sometime to see this big oven, Lord willing!
Dekalb Jct, NY
My name is Mad Coyote Joe. Iâ€™m a food writer and TV cooking show host. I surf around the web and check out blogs, thatâ€™s how I found you. My blog is more of a lifestyles page from the high Sonoran desert in central Arizona. Content wise itâ€™s food, green building, wood fired oven construction and use, and my daily life including chapters from my up coming novel â€œWillieâ€ building our cooking school, my open mic night, music, chiles and tequila. Check us out at
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Mad Coyote Joe