Wood Burning Stoves 2.0 & How to Build Rocket Mass Heaters – A Review of 2 New DVDs

The latter part of 2013 saw the release of two new DVDs on rocket mass heaters – one, a 4 DVD set called Paul Wheaton’s Wood Burning Stoves 2.0, featuring Erica & Ernie Wisner; the other, a single DVD – titled How to Build Rocket Mass Heaters with Ernie and Erica.

I was interested to see how these videos complimented the already available material on rockets and to see what, if any, new developments were happening in the world of rocket-powered heat. Seeing as both videos feature Ernie and Erica, I though folks might be interested to learn the differences between the videos beyond what appears in their respective movie trailers. As the videos are more different than similar, I’ve reviewed each separately. I’ll leave it to you to decide if they’ll be useful for your particular rocket-powered journey.

Paul Wheaton’s Wood Burning Stoves 2.0, featuring Erica & Ernie Wisner

In 2013 Paul Wheaton launched a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising $92,772 to produce the 4 DVD set called Wood Burning Stoves 2.0. The set retails for $125 CND through Amazon and includes the following DVDs: Wood Burning Stoves 2.01) Fire Science, 2) Sneaky Heat, 3) Boom Squish, 4) Hot Rocket (more on each to follow).

What To Expect From the DVDs

The footage, which totals nearly 8 hours, comes primarily from a workshop that was taught by Erica and Ernie Wisner in Montana in 2012. Cut throughout the videos is discussion between Ernie, Erica and Paul, either debating the merits of certain elements, or an extrapolation on what you just saw in one scene or another…or what you didn’t see. The vast majority of the content is filmed by Paul on a hand-held video camera, which shows in the quality of the video and audio. The audio can be especially trying at times. To be fair, the videos open with Ernie likening the videography to “America’s Funniest Home videos without the funny”. It was put on DVD to get the information about rockets out to the public, not so Paul could wow James Cameron.

From the trailer it would be easy to assume that you will learn how to build a rocket mass heater, heat water with a rocket mass heater, cook on a rocket stove and more and that you’ll be front row at the workshop, almost as though you were there.

It should be made clear that Wood Burnig Stoves 2.0 is not a step by step guide on building a rocket mass heater.

At no point in the DVDs is there a do this, then this component. Although the elements of what goes into a RMH are covered throughout the videos, it is left up to you (the viewer) to piece the information together to make sense of it all. Even when you get to the part about the guts (the inner core) of the RMH, the fiery part made up of the feed tube (where the wood goes in), the combustion chamber (the primary burn area), and the heat riser (the chimney inside the steel drum), which is a relatively simple assemblage of firebricks, they reveal a pre-cast prototype “rocket core”. This “big reveal” is a cool development but not so if you were hoping to learn how to put the most vital part of the stove together with that pile of firebricks you already have. So what is included?

A Brief Summary of Each Video

Fire Science this DVD discusses how fire works, different fuel types, the difference in “feel” when you heat people instead of air, and what makes a good fire…and what doesn’t. It touches on Rumford fireplaces and contains a discussion about the merits of a fresh-air feed to new wood stoves and how this can be interpreted as moronic, especially as most houses are akin to “ziplock bags”. Why give fresh air to the stove when it’s the occupants that need it?

Sneaky Heat

– this is the DVD that most focuses on the rocket mass heater. There is information about placement, load/weight considerations, proportions of the system, the theory behind why the system works the way it does, clearances to keep your home from burning down, system layout considerations, the reveal of the “rocket core”, and toward the end you see the “portable” rocket mass heater get put together, though it’s shown using time lapse video. It goes by mighty quickly; more for effect than an instructive piece on assembling the unit.

Boom Squish

– named so because heating water with a rocket (or any other fuel), if done incorrectly, will yield a big “boom”, followed by a “squish”…followed by a quick death. The goal of this section is to show that you can use rockets to heat water but they are deliberately vague on how to do it. They show a system coming together and you get a sense of what’s going on but don’t expect instruction on this part. The emphasis is on this message: heating air is one thing but heating water is in an entirely different league, with zero tolerance for making mistakes. Ernie and Erica (and special guest Caleb) discuss things that obviously don’t work, with some ideas on what could work and what should be part of any system (safety valves, etc.), but you’d be hard pressed to piece a system together based on what’s relayed in the footage.

And because the RMH in the Sneaky Heat section was not set in cob (which RMHs often are), they use this section to describe cob, with a brief description of how it’s made. They cap things off with a discussion regarding snorkel stoves for hot tubs and ideas on how these could be improved.

Hot Rocket

– this was probably my favourite of the DVDs, though if you didn’t see the other videos you might feel it jumped around a bit. Here, Erica spends a few minutes describing her own rocket mass heater, followed by a section on tool selection, both of which may have been better placed in the Sneaky Heat DVD. Plenty of variations of pocket rockets are shown and they give a good explanation of their use and construction. You also get to watch a rocket stove vs. propane heated turkey fryer challenge to see which boils water faster. The result is surprising. Pocket rockets can also be used for blacksmithing, as Ernie demonstrates. I may be inclined to use a few more safety precautions than is shown but, hey, it’s only 1500oF metal we’re talking about. Erica puts wood stoves on trial, providing a great rant on why regulations favouring portability and ease of use forces people to make poor choices in how they burn their stoves to make them a bit more effective. At the end you see some of the workshop attendees playing with various brick configurations for rockets (as opposed to the “rocket core” revealed in Sneaky Heat) but there isn’t really any explanation of what’s going on here, what’s ideal, or, especially, what not to do.

Final Thoughts

Wood Burning Stoves 2.0 provides a shot-gun overview of heating with wood. There is a lot of information in these videos but the delivery is a bit convoluted (like the flue pipe in a RMH!) and the debates sometimes stray, feeling a bit tedious and unnecessary.

So is it worthy of the $125 price tag?

Your expectations will ultimately determine whether or not this DVD set is a good value. If you were hoping for an instructional video on build a rocket mass heater then you’ll probably be disappointed (read the next review for this). If, however, it convinces you that there’s a better way to heat with wood, then $125 is not a bad investment. You’ll save it in firewood in no time. If you are excited by the idea of immersing yourself in the world of Ernie, Erica, and Paul for 8 hours, and delight in any discussion that involves fire and wood heat, then you’ll probably get a kick out of these videos. It’s all about perspective.

I’ll close by saying that watching the videos is not the same as being at the workshop. It’s a fraction of what a workshop will cost but you only get a fraction of the experience. Attending the actual workshop would provide a much more visceral experience and you would have gotten a very good sense (and first hand experience), for instance, of how a rocket mass heater is assembled. The video experience falls short. If you want to really learn how to do this stuff, well, you’ve got to get in there and do it and see it first hand. I’m confident Ernie and Erica would agree on this. It’s why they teach workshops and it’s why we teach workshops. Most people learn by doing.

How to Build Rocket Mass Heaters with Ernie and Erica

How to Build Rocket Mass Heaters with Ernie and Erica is a nicely produced step-by-step walk through of how to build a rocket mass heater from start to finish. The 117 minute DVD retails for $47 USD and can be purchased through Village Video, the production company responsible for its making.

If you’ve watched the trailer, then you already have a good sense of what you’ll see in the video.

The video covers the building of a rocket mass heater in a space reminiscent of a typical living room, complete with big bay windows and a hardwood floor. The thermal mass component, in this case a long cob bench with a built-in day bed, is suspended over the wooden floor, demonstrating that you don’t need to live in a cob house to benefit from a rocket mass heater. The video is easy to follow and broken into the following sections:

  • Planning: this section goes over placement, structural considerations, weights, building codes and permits, and working with a contractor to add a stove to an existing structure.

  • Tools: this section provides a tool by tool list of what’s needed to put a rocket mass heater together from hand tools to the components of the heater itself.

  • Building: advice on mock-ups, outlining the stove in its intended place, and a walk through of the assemblage from the footing to the plaster is covered.

  • Finishing: Ernie and Erica talk about plasters, pigments, finishing oils, decorating the bench, treating the barrel for longevity, lighting the stove, and cleaning it.

Final Thoughts

This video delivers on what it promises. It provides a step-by-step overview of a RMH build from start to finish. Don’t expect it to cover rocket stoves for cooking, variations on design, using it to heat water, etc because it doesn’t. It is an overview, however, so don’t expect to be an expert after having watched it. If you’ve read Ianto and Leslie’s book Rocket Mass Heaters (the new 3rd ed is out next month), the visuals in this DVD will nicely compliment what you’ve already read. If you haven’t read the book, I’d encourage you to do so. We’re dealing with fire after all, so the more you understand about how these things work, the better you’ll be for it.

And as I said in my other review, books and videos help to clarify matters but they are no substitution for direct experience.

To really appreciate these systems you have to get dirty. Only by hearing the “rocket” sound with your own ears, seeing the smoke (or lack thereof) whirl out the chimney with your own eyes, smelling the exhaust with your own nose, and putting your own two feet into the cool wet cob will you really know what works and what doesn’t. First hand experience is a powerful teacher and most of us learn by doing. If you’re at all hesitant, look for a workshop in your local area. You’ll be glad you did.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *