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.
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.
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.
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.