When Sampsa first contacted me about building a masonry heater in a hands-on workshop, he already had drawings for a custom-made soapstone fireplace with an adjacent oven designed by Tulikivi in Finland. Working off these drawings and measures from Sampsa of available brick and firebrick near his home in New Zealand, I started to do scale drawings of a similar layout to the soapstone complex, but using the thicker walled brick and firebrick materials. Lacking any of the actual materials in hand, I decided to do a full-scale footprint layout of the design using cardboard bricks that I cut with a utility knife. It soon became clear to both of us that the thicker walled New Zealand brick laid flat, versus the 60mm Finnish soapstone, and the design ideas I was working with, was going to create a huge and ungainly heater complex, so we decided to go with the “simpler” design that you now see in the Sampsa heater blogs.
Although we decided to use a firebrick and castable refractory core, with a stuccoed brick veneer with rounded corners, Sampsa had been bitten by the soapstone bug and he kept his ears to the ground for rumors of soapstone in New Zealand. He learned that somewhere in the northern part of the South Island, an entrepreneur had located soapstone and had done exploratory surface removal of some sizable pieces and that the cut offs from this exploratory quarrying had created enough soapstone to fill two or three pallets. The pallets of soapstone were near or at a yard that fabricated beautiful flamed basalt floor tiles.
From a great distance, I was very nervous about thinking that we could fabricate a New Zealand soapstone heater from an untried source of stone with a tight timetable and almost no serious information on the stone in hand. When I landed in Queenstown, Sampsa had, in fact, acquired a rough cut small slab sample of the stone about 40mm thick and thought there might be a possibility of getting the basalt folks to cut up the two or three pallets of stone for us into workable slabs. After chasing tools and materials for three days prior to the workshop and believing that a soapstone bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, I urged Sampsa to just get the stone to the job site as fast as possible and that after looking at it, we would chart a course as to how and if it could be transformed into useable stone for his project. The costs for the unseen pallets of stone were not high and the transport costs seemed reasonable to Sampsa.
With a quick phone call, Sampsa got the stone on the road. The next day, two drivers showed up from the nearby town of Alexandra. One had the stone on board his freight truck and the other had driven an all terrain large forklift up from town a few miles away. The soapstone chunks ranged in size from a hundred or more pounds to a thousand pounds and from a foot to three or more feet in length. Each piece typically had one smooth sawed face and the rest was rough and raw. There were almost no slabbed pieces at all. Our sample had allowed us to do some wishful thinking, but anything we were planning to do with this stone was going to require a lot of work. The drivers off loaded the soapstone pallets and, with the good natured helpfulness that so many Kiwis displayed throughout my stay, agreed to bring up all the pallets of brick and firebrick and mortar that were stacked on the ground below the house to a narrow strip of flat ground just by Sampsa’s back door, saving us many trips up the little hill to his house.
We knew that we could not fabricate a quantity of slabbed and polished stock with the tools we had in hand, so calls were made to a local concrete sawing firm with portable equipment. They were happy to come look at our pile of stone and arrived promptly the next day. They were not in the least bit cowed by the challenge but said that we would need to acquire a large concrete slab to anchor the portable rail saw to before they could come and start the cutting. Sampsa had built his house with two large recycled concrete slab walls in his home so he quickly placed a call to the concrete recycling folks and they had a very affordable reinforced slab six or eight inches thick and about six feet by eight or nine feet long. The slab had a hairline crack in it making it unusable for any purpose other than a creative venture like ours. Sven and Chris quickly hooked up Sven’s utility trailer to his four-wheel drive vehicle and down the road they went to the concrete facility an hour or more away. A couple hours later they were back with a huge concrete slab strapped and perched on pallets in Sven’s trailer. The slab weighed several thousand pounds and we, of course, had no power equipment to unload it, so began a creative process of jacking, fitting rollers, tying straps to the pallets of soapstone and driving the trailer part way out from the slab, leaving it tipping precariously off the end of the trailer. A bit more jacking and shimming and the slab was perched at a good higher angle free of the front of the trailer. Sven pulled his vehicle and trailer ahead. Seconds later, a loud thud and a cloud of dust saw the slab flat on the ground, none the worse for its fall. Sven’s trailer also emerged unscathed. A few more minutes and the guys had it perfectly level and the call went in again to the sawyers to come and join the party.
They arrived the next day with vans and a huge generator and a utility trailer full of blades and a large portable saw and two heavy concrete blocks which we drilled and anchored to the leveled slab. Chris and Sven and Sampsa wrestled slab after slab into position under the blade and using blocks, poles, straps and clamps, anchored each large chunk of soapstone into position and the sawyer with a lovely hand held joy stick, moved the wet saw four foot blade into position and slowly cut through each stone, cutting 40mm to 75mm slabs as per Sampsa and the design team’s instructions. It took a day and a half to cut through the two pallets and Sampsa hoped he would have enough stone not only for his own project and for steam rocks on top of his sauna stove, but would also have some rock slabs left for other guys in the group to access when they built their own heaters.
Inside the home, progress on the heater never slowed down and we were ready for the oven shelf slab before the heavy equipment ever arrived, so for a few hours, Sampsa and Andrew, using a skill saw, grinders, a rotary hammer, our rented diamond wet saw and various sanders, fabricated a large shelf for us from raw soapstone stock. The rest of the trim for the base, the bench stone, and the cap course of soapstone all came off the portable Soapstone Factory production line that we had created. Every available hand was pressed into use to take the raw slabs that had been cut on the big portable saw and to turn them into precisely sized, shaped and polished pieces for the stove. This meant a minimum of four men working with one measuring and designing shapes, one working the l4″ wet diamond saw, and two men sanding and shaping and polishing. This left Matt still free to photograph, Malcolm to tend, Sean and Liam to keep laying bricks, Albie to orchestrate quietly the whole endeavor and try to keep his mouth from falling too far open in astonishment at what the crew was attempting and succeeding to do, and one spare person to step in wherever necessary. I felt like I was at an Amish barn raising. Everyone worked seamlessly and knew that a great deal had to be done and done well in a very limited amount of time and so that is what they did. I worked with Chris Naylor, our gifted builder and wood carver, at designing the templates for a three-piece free form hearth which Chris and I worked together on to cut out and polish. The rest was handled by the Sampsa’s dedicated Soapstone Factory crew.
At the end, we had a soapstone hearth, a soapstone oven shelf, trim around the base and a trim course around the top, rabbited to receive a capping plate of steel and a trim course for the chimney. There was not a lot of useable stone left over. The factory had worked to capacity. The concrete sawyers packed up their gear and left but not before coming in to admire what they had helped create. We made several trips to town to look for the perfect sanding tool for this particular soapstone and finally settled on a kind of dense plastic fiber paint stripping wheel which worked the stone quickly to a modest muted polish without gouging the stone or creating too much mess. Sampsa was very happy with this softer, not high polish, finish. We were confident that once the stucco was up, the gray and the white together would be stunning. We saved some of the soapstone dust from the wet saw to make up a waterglass and soapstone dust mortar for fine line head joints on the top trim course.
My favorite stone from the various blocks we worked had a kind of leopard markings quality to it and I decided in my own mind to call it snow leopard. I brought home a piece of it to carve for a friend who is receiving rocks for his heater from all over the world. With my soapstone chunk and a gift Scutch hammer from the crew and as much wild organic Clyde Central Otago thyme as I could pick and process and bag with labels and even a price to pass through customs, my bag was still under the limit of fifty pounds. Sampsa had proudly realized his soapstone dream and we were all the better for it.