Masonry Heater

We ended up going with a masonry heater for our great hall. I didn’t know what these things were before I started this process so I had to learn about them.

Originally what I wanted was a double sided see-through fireplace. The problem was we couldn’t find one that would work with our situation of having a very tall flue. The taller your flue the more draft it has, which means wind passing over the top sucks air out faster or something. Modern wood burning appliances are tested to function within certain parameters for flue (chimney) height, there is a concern they will get too hot and cause a chimney fire if the flue is too long.

I ended up cutting the fireplace in the basement for this reason. But I wasn’t going to go without a wood burning option in my great hall, I mean, come on, it is a great hall.

So a masonry heater is not a metal fireplace box or wood stove, but as the name suggests, built entirely out of masonry. And additionally the smoke’s path goes up, then goes down, then goes back up, so they’re making it even longer, all out of masonry. There is a firebox, then above it a secondary combustion chamber, and then the snaking masonry passage for the smoke. Mine also happens to send some of the flue gasses through a pizza oven, so yay!

The point of all this though is to make the firebox super hot so it burns up all the flammable smoke. There is no creosote buildup because the creosote burns up before it collects anywhere. It gets super hot and generates an immense amount of heat on only a small amount of wood. One or two fires is enough for heat to radiate from it all day…. and there are no flue height restrictions so bingo.

So I got a double sided see through masonry heater, with an attached pizza oven, and it fits the space well because of the width required for the down then up flue channels. However, the one downside is it doesn’t have that epic large opening you might think of in a castle, something you can throw a whole pig into or something. My builder was concerned about this fact, he felt the door was too small compared to large open fireplaces. Overall this is much much larger than any fireplace, but most people just see the door and wouldn’t realize that. But I was sold on having one of these, plus pizza oven.

This won’t heat the house alone, but I’ll be able to put my 20 acres of oak and hickory to use providing a super comfortable radiant heat during the winter, and of course pizza. It will get epically hot enough though that there is no way we will be able to use it to cook pizza in the summer.

I shopped around quite a bit for this, and ended up buying it from Maine Wood Heat (it also of course required a skilled installer). They had the best option I found and I also really liked some of their door styles with their gothic arch detailing.

If you’ve never seen a masonry heater before I recommend doing a Google image search, there are some really neat ones out there.

Masonry Heater

Masonry Heater

Mine still needs to be all dressed up with stone, it is sort of naked now, but the guts are all in.

Castle Great Hall Feast Table

I have ordered the top for my table. I have always dreamed of have a big slab table, and I love walnut, how you get the different colors between the sap wood and the heart wood, so it was always going to be a walnut slab table top.

Walnut Slab Today, Great Hall Table Tommorow

Walnut Slab Today, Great Hall Table Tommorow

I got this from Goby Walnut. I’m sure there are other places one can buy a giant walnut slab, but I have not found them. This slab is 4 and a half feet wide and 14 feet long. It should sit 16 people, possibly more if people get friendly. One of the dreams I’ve had is being able to host my whole family for a holiday, parents, in-laws, brothers (I have 3) with their families. Getting everyone around a single table would be special.

14 feet is just about the perfect size for my great hall. Currently in my existing house we have a semiformal dining room (I hesitate to call it formal considering what the kids do to it) and we have a nice 6 foot mahogany inlaid table that can grow with the aid of leaves to 10 feet, and it barely fits with the leaves but it is nice for parties, this slab will be both longer and wider, and it’ll not feel crowded because the room is so large in the castle. It will also be heavy, so heavy it is unlikely to ever be moved. The top itself is 800+ pounds, once the legs are on it’ll go up more.

Sometimes you see these slab tables and they’re finished with a very modern sort of look, ultraflat, ultrasanded, etc. I’m hoping to achieve a more rustic finish, some degree of unevenness on the top (not so much though that cups will be spilled). I am not sure how we’ll finish it, other than not polyurethane. Possibly a penetrating oil of some sort so that the wood continues to wear and age and get character, or maybe a shellac. I like natural wood finishes, polyurethane and similar finishes never look authentic.

I as of yet have not picked out chairs for my great hall. I sort of like these beefy rustic chairs but I could also see going with something fancier like this but in a different color of course. Whatever I choose I am going to need like 20 of them so it will not be a small purchase.

Curved truss beams for a timber framed great hall

Every castle has to have a great hall, a tall ceiling room with a roaring fireplace and a large table. My castle is no exception. In more contemporary architecture the great hall, still found in a wide variety of homes, is built with a sloped roof, and there are no certainly no floors above it, the hall simply has a ceiling as high as the structure in which it sits, be that commonly two stories, or rarely three stores. So while the timber framed great hall look is prevalent in many homes, of different styles and types (log homes or lodges especially), the trusses used to frame the ceiling (ostensibly to support the roof, but they’re often not structural, merely decorative) are peaked. This was not going to work for me.

The central square of my castle is 3 stories high, my great hall will only have a two story roof. The floor system we’re using between floors is a steel system that takes up two feet, my first floor has 12 foot ceilings, the other floors 10 foot ceilings, so that makes the overall ceiling height in my great room 24 feet, but it has a flat ceiling, so I needed to come up with a truss design for a flat ceiling.

Easy right? You just make an upside down U, problem solved. Sure, that’d work, but I wanted something fancier. I know that timber framing has a function, but I find it beautiful, evocative of a different era. And indeed in times past much artistic creativity was spent on these structural features, because they were so evident and obvious and would be looked at for decades if not centuries.

Being at this dream for years, I had reviewed many truss designs online and in books, and I knew I liked curved beams. I knew, of course, they would be expensive, but curves are special, on a woman, and on a house. I’m a fan of work like Gaudí’s, though it wouldn’t be appropriate for my castle to incorporate his stylings. I like arches and domes and vaulted ceilings and round windows and curves. My eyes were always drawn to trusses with curved elements, and I wanted to pursue that. But how?

I went through many iterations of what exactly I wanted, one small curved cross piece, curved corbels, and then I hit upon existing work that I loved and decided to copy. This was later, when it solidified that the castle would be gothic, and I started to specifically look for gothic style trusses. I found ones I loved.

Westminster Hall, which is today part of the British Parliament compound, was build in 1097 by the son of William the Conqueror (true story, according to he may be a very distant relation, in as much as you can trust thousand year old information). It features gothic trusses which I really liked.

As you can see though, the ceiling is sloped, so I had to edit them slightly.

Then, could I afford it? My kitchen, being in a round tower, is going to feature a round ceiling beam. My architect had gotten that quoted at a place that would laminate and bend the wood, it was more than my car. Yeoch! I got a quote from Specialty Beams out of Montana, who claim to have big saws and other equipment exclusive to the country and are able to manufacturer big curved beams. They’ve got quite a gallery on their site, and have even supplied beams to Disney World. They wouldn’t do it as one round beam, rather in sections, with each joining area hidden with a corbel, on which they could carve a gothic face (think gargoyle, though they’re called grotesques, not gargoyles, when not used as waterspouts off a roof), which I had requested. Price? Much much more realistic.

So, I sent them my beam idea for quoting and I recently got it back. I need two trusses and it is going to cost me about $4000 per truss, which seems reasonable to me. These are big wood timbers, the biggest being 10x10s, and they’ll be finished with a hand scraped finish to make them look old. They can also add a couple more gargoyle faces for me. Here is what they came up with.

Truss Design for Great Hall

It might look a little funny with the side kickout, but then here is my great hall which may explain it:

Great Hall

So, I did something that is probably a little unique here, but it is an idea I had years and years ago and it always stuck with me. If you’ve read my other blog posts you know I’m trying to build a legitimate realistic castle, or as close enough as I can, and part of that means limiting windows and limiting them close to the ground. However I do not want to live in the dark so I’m putting in a center shaft with a large skylight to bring light to the interior. I also did not put any windows on the side of the building on the first floor, instead placing them high on the walls. I guess, similar to St Peter’s Basilica if you’ve been there. Certainly inspired by the high windows in cathedrals (I call them my cathedral windows). But then I realize that if my first floor is 12 feet and my second floor is 10, I can’t start windows at floor level, so at most I’d have 8 or 9 foot tall windows. That didn’t seem tall enough.

So you see little steps and a little ledge. The steps take you down to 8 feet over the first floor, if I then start my windows a foot or two above the floor of that ledge I have 14 foot tall windows. That seemed to be the scale I need. And indeed, looking at exterior elevations, anything shorter would have looked squat with the gothic arch top. So I’ll have big 14 feet windows, but they won’t start until around 18 feet off the ground on the exterior, which should hopefully maintain the defensive look I am after for authenticity. And if they don’t, well, it is on the side away from the road facing the forest, and I don’t know if the deer are architectural critics.

The plus side here is I get this long narrow storage closet. I mean, we all hate having to drag chairs up from the basement when we have a lot of people over for dinner right? Now imagine you’re in a castle and your basement storage area is quite far away because your house is so large. I knew I needed and wanted more storage near the kitchen and near the dining room, and this was an easy way to get it.

So, the great hall is actually the section framed by this little balcony, but on the second floor level the ceiling goes all the way to the exterior wall. Even though my trusses will not be structural, they need to look structural, or they will look funny (a good rule for these sorts of things, make things look like they’re needed). So the little side kickout “supports” the ceiling above the balcony near the cathedral windows.

On the exterior you see some buttresses, why? I wanted them, my wife has a fascination with buttresses (hardy har har) though she likes the flying ones you see on Notre Dame. Buttresses were an old way to stabilize walls from lateral forces. Much like the trusses on the interior keep the walls from falling in, the buttresses on the exterior keep the walls from falling out. Of course my building will be modern concrete & steel, the buttresses are not need, but they would have been used specifically in these places, between the high windows, to hold up this high otherwise flat wall, as seen in churches and cathedrals all over, so I wanted to include them. I have a thing for architectural details.