Hearth of stone

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Building wood-fired ovens seems to be all the rage. Locally, I’ve read first-hand accounts in The Boston Globe and Edible South Shore. You can get detailed instructions from Mother Earth News or Sunset Magazine. Kiko Denzer’s book, Build Your Own Earth Oven, is in its gazillionth printing and still selling briskly.

And small wonder. The idea that you can use found and natural materials to create an oven that makes better bread and pizza than whatever stove you have in your kitchen is vastly appealing.

Mortar covers a multitude of sins

In a nutshell, this is how you do it. You create a platform at a comfortable working height. You lay a floor of firebricks. You use sand to sculpt a mold that’s the shape of the oven’s interior. You build the clay oven around the mold. Scrape out the sand, cure the clay with a low fire, and you’re good to bake.

I’d read reports of people building these things for less than twenty dollars. Sand and clay, the key ingredients, can usually be dug up right out of the ground. Firebricks, you probably have to pay for, but even they can sometimes be salvaged or scavenged.

A wood-fired oven for twenty bucks! And not only that, you can build the thing in a weekend! Count me in.

That was last fall. We have now been working on the thing, off and on, but mostly off, for almost a year. This week, we broke the thousand-dollar mark on materials.

I blame Kristen.

No, that’s not really true. I only blame Kristen for half.

It’s like this. Kristen’s family runs a business called Drywall Masonry Supplies, with three locations in the area. By the time we first showed up in their South Yarmouth store, the wood-fired oven had already acquired a life of its own. I’d spent the first $500. on two pallets of stone, out of which I painstakingly built the base of the oven. We’d gotten to the point where we had decided to build a concrete base for the hearth, and we were looking for refractory mortar.

How did we get from building a simple clay dome on firebricks set in sand to building the kind of oven that requires a base of refractory concrete? That’s a damn good question, and I have no satisfactory answer.

We walked into the store, which caters to contractors and builders and other types who know what they’re doing, and asked the guy behind the counter whether they had refractory mortar. He wasn’t sure, and he referred us to Kristen, who came out of the back office to help.

Kristen is the kind of woman who exudes competence. From the moment she told us that she didn’t have the refractory mortar, but could order it for us, I knew we were dealing with someone who knew what she was doing.

She asked us what we were planning to do, and we explained. We told her we weren’t quite sure how to use the mortar – what proportions we use it in, how liquid it should be, how long it takes to cure. She told us she knew people who’d built wood-fired ovens, and she started making phone calls.

I was amazed. Here’s a business that must get the vast majority of its business from professionals who buy in large quantities. Yet, when two shmendricks with a wood-fired oven walk into her store, Kristen takes the time to help us figure out exactly what we need and exactly what to do with it.

The kiln shelves that didn't quite work out

But it gets better. One of the people Kristen called was a mason named Tony. Tony had built his own wood-fired oven, and knew all about it. She got him on the phone, and after five minutes of relaying my questions to him and his answers to me, she handed me the receiver.  Tony asked me about our oven, and then started to tell me exactly what to do with the concrete. After a few minutes, though, he stopped. “Are you at the store?” he asked. I told him I was. “We’re only ten minutes from there. Would you like to come by and see my oven?”

There are lots of things I miss about Manhattan, and lots of things about small-town living that chafe. But this was the kind of experience that shows small towns in their very best light. The proprietor of a local business took the time to put us in touch with someone who could help us, and that someone promptly invited two total strangers to his home.

Of course we’d like to come by and see his oven!

Tony turned out to be not just helpful, but interesting. After college, he’d spent many years in Europe, playing professional basketball. When he came back to the United States, he discovered both that desk jobs didn’t agree with him and that he loved working with stone. It’s fitting that his two careers have been basketball and masonry, because they’re two of the jobs where it’s a real asset to have hands the size of dinner plates. If he gets tired of masonry, I think Tony’s got a future in rodeo, or maybe fingerpainting.

He showed us his oven, which is a beautiful thing. I wish I’d had my camera so I could show you. It’s a brick dome over a brick floor, built on a bricked platform, and it’s surrounded by a structure that protects it from wind and rain.  It was obviously built by somebody with real skill.

The firebrick hearth. Not perfect, but serviceable

As soon as Kevin saw it, all thoughts of Kiko Denzer and Mother Earth News went the way of all flesh. Clay would not suffice. We needed brick.

It was all over.

From there, we needed the castable refractory mortar, the fireclay, the masonry cement, and even the sand. And bricks. Bazillions of bricks.

We thought we were going to get away with just the bricks to build the dome. We’d inherited some kiln shelves from Diane Heart, a potter a few towns over, and we were planning to use them for the hearth. Unfortunately, they weren’t as flat as a hearth, ideally, should be, and when we set them on the concrete base we’d poured, they didn’t seem viable, so we decided to put a layer of bricks on top of them to try and flatten out the surface.

That’s where we are now. The deck is done, the dome is coming. We’re $1000. and one year in. This pizza better be good.

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Comments

  1. for the sake of argument, when you do the sand positive….. are you going to inject it with c02? its what makes it solid so you can brick over it easily. (its a sandcasting trick). I guess you COULD do it with just highly compacted wet sand….. curious what suggestions you’ve gotten.

  2. Hi there. We are trying to plan out a wood-fired oven where the wood is not inside of the oven, but rather just heating it from below- underneath the oven rather than inside. We have lots of pine available and would prefer to use this wood, but if we make an oven where we make the fire in the actual oven it won’t work out with pine. I’d be very curious and interested in your design if you are going with the “out of the oven” route. We want to do it not only to use pine but also for efficiency reasons. If you aren’t doing that, I’d be curious about your reasons for making the “in the oven” route.

    (Sorry, once I’m around I pester, feel free to give me the “shoo!” and I’ll be out of your hair. I’m just very interested in other folks’ attempts at sustainability and want to encourage as much sharing as possible. When we figure out a good design for our oven we’ll put it online for all to use. The ONE guy that has made an oven that we want to re-create is unwilling to share his design, arg!)

    Te mando un abrazo, I send you a hug, saludos, greetings,
    Marie

  3. It will be a great pizza, even if you burn the crap out of it.

    I very badly want an outdoor oven; and my husband is leaning toward the permanent masonry type because of our wet weather, but as he sits pretty hard on his wallet, I may never see this thing come to fruition. I’m not sure I could get him to part with a grand.

    But he does really like making pizza at home….

  4. Oh my … I think you’ll need to go into selling pizzas for a while to make this one pay for itself! Just a thought!

  5. Please invite us to the party when you serve your 80th or 100th pizza–if you’re at all like me, you will be counting the pizzas until you reach the number which you believe all hard work has paid off!!!

  6. Amanda — What a cool trick! If we were going the clay route, I’d say that would be the thing to do, and you’d have to tell me how to go about it. Since we’re doing the bricks, it’s not so essential to use the sand. You can use it to prop up the dome while you finish it, but it’s there more for structural support than shape.

    Marie — I haven’t seen designs where the wood isn’t in the oven chamber itself, but I suspect that’s because I haven’t been looking. I love the idea that you can use pine — we, also, have a lot of it and no good uses for it. One of the appeals of the kind we’re doing, though, is that the smoke is in the oven with the food, and I think you get a particular kind of flavor that way. We also want to get very high temperatures (for pizza), and I think that’s easier when the fire is in the chamber itself.

    As for pestering, not a chance! This blog is so much better when it’s interactive, and leaving your own experiences, questions, and insights in the comments is the best thing you can do for me.

    Paula — Go with clay! I think it has lots of advantages, and you really can build one for almost nothing. As for the climate, one nice thing about building something cheap and easy is that, if it only lasts a year or two, you’re OK with that. Do it! I’ll bet Steve will be gung-ho on the project — great baking, little outlay, happy wife! How could he object?

    Fiona — This is one where we’re just not going to get the money back. But we’re in it for the pizza, so that’s okay.

    Dina — It’s going to take us at least that long to get good! And then, pizzas for everyone!

  7. I am so excited you shared this information. My H and I are planning on doing this in the future, as we have ample wood on our property and we adore pizza.

    By the way, your blog is one of my favorites. Greetings from across the country in Oregon!

  8. Don’t despair on the cost – it’s not just a “pizza oven”, it’s a general purpose, highly efficient, wood burning oven that will last hundreds of years.

    You can do all sorts of cooking and baking … and OMG – wood fired bread! Our family oven is also used for cooking Christmas dinner (so the inside oven doesn’t warm up the house – Southern Hemisphere Christmas is hot Hot HOT). So once you have it built, and done a few pizzas, invite some friends over and roast a whole pig.

  9. Don’t think of it just as a cooking device…think of it as another fabulous “hook” for reeling in those of us who eagerly await your posts! Oh, all the pizzas you will craft-lobstuh, crab, smoked bluefish, tomato and basil, roasted chicken and feta, wild mushroom…we can’t wait!

  10. Amy — That was exactly the calculation we did — lots of wood, love of pizza. I hope you’ll keep me posted when you build yours.

    Kingsley — That sounds like the voice of experience. We’ll definitely try other things besides baking. We had a favorite restaurant in Manhattan, Apizz, that cooked everything from lasagna to desserts in its wood-fired oven. But a whole pig! We hadn’t envisioned that, but now that you’ve planted the seed …

    Saundra — Those are some great combinations. I was just thinking about the tomato and basil, as I took exactly those two ingredients out of the garden today. (And thanks for the kind words. They’re always appreciated.)

  11. Marie, I think what you may be talking about is a Rocket Stove. Google Homegrown Evolution, November 20, 2007.

  12. Chris — Thanks for weighing in here. I’ve read about rocket stoves — there was a New Yorker article a year or so ago. They’re designed to be an efficient, clean (relatively) alternative to open fires in the third world. Marie, if that’s what you’re talking about, I want to be invited to the oven-warming.

  13. I would LOVE a slice of pizza. You guys rock!!! Thank you for the plug. I have been telling people to go on your blog to read about how you built your pizza oven. I have had quite a few people come in to ask how to build one!!! You could be my pizza oven source!!!!

    Kristen