Monday, October 17, 2016

Custom Brick Ovens

Each time I finish an oven project, I stand back far enough to see the unique aspects that emerged during construction.  These tend to be moments when I saw an opportunity for some enhancement of either appearance or function (or when fortunate both).

I just finished this oven in Winchester, NH.  It contains some new insights.

Both came about due to the workspace counter to the right of the oven.  In order to integrate the supporting lintels for the two flat granite surfaces, I veneered the three forward walls with stone to the point where the lintel would sit.

Veneered all around 

6" of insulation before roof

Secondly, the three foot by three foot workspace would have been too deep if covered with one piece of stone.  I raised the rear 12 inches of shelf on its own bit of stonework.

You can be the judge of the results.

Custom brick ovens become a reality when the owner and I have an ongoing conversation about form and function.  And because I quote the projects, neither I or the owner is bound to the unpredictability of "time-and-materials" where "better ideas or methods" end up translating to "more money".

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Before You Build a Brick Oven: A cautionary post

The desire for a wood-fired oven drives the market to create facsimiles (that is something that 'looks' like a brick oven but doesn't work like one).    It occurs in every other commodity; we buy something as simple as a pen or a fishing reel, an ice scraper, or a wheelbarrow and find that it is not built for the purpose for which we need it but for the purpose of being sold.
The reason why I am critical of this with regards to brick ovens is that these are both major investments and contain fire.  In my mind, a major investment should more than adequately compensate the buyer for his or her money spent. Something with fire needs to be safe.  For instance, my truck should run well past the date on which I pay it off and, incidentally, not blow up!

300 year-old Brick oven at Annaberg on St. John USVI, windmill in background

Whether you are building your own brick oven or having it built, attention to materials, both specifications and quality, should enter the equation.

1. Do the plans (or design) fit the traditional and technical standards for oven design?

2. Have the designers and builders taken into account the ergonomics of cooking in one?

3. Are the materials up to withstanding temperature extremes and fluctuations associated with wood-fired ovens?

4. Have the designers and/or builders satisfied the aesthetic potential or wishes of the user/buyer?

Take these one at a time:

1. Wood-fired ovens are thousands of years old.  The design was essentially worked out long ago.  The fire heats a mass, traditionally a dome, and exits the flue at the front.  If any plan or builder tells you that the chimney exits the center of the dome, WALK.
Although you will find ovens built as barrel vaults and sprung arches, they are not the best design.  They came along during the industrial age and require flat walls, front and back, that will eventually gap from expansion.  Sprung arches are contained by steel rods and channel iron; they will degrade long before the brick of the oven, causing the arch to fall.  I examined a very large sprung arch oven in Portsmouth NH this summer.  It was required to be replaced every ten years or so due to the roof sagging in.  Too soon!
Many pounds of beef slow-cooked (note 2 handled door)
Wood-fired ovens need to have a mouth that is no more than 60% the height of the oven vault.  If they are full height mouths, you have a fireplace, not an oven and it will not heat up.
Wood-fired ovens are intended to keep the heat in the oven.   Plans without insulation (or insufficient) under the floor or over the oven will not work well.

2.  The height of the floor of the oven should be at bent-elbow height (varies with user but often 40-44")
The user should be able to see all part of the oven interior.
Accommodations for working space should be made nearby.

3. Most wood-fired ovens are made from two materials: Fire brick or cast refractory concrete.  Fire brick ovens which I build have the advantage of having many joints (very small)  this distributed the expansion when hot.  Fire brick is also designed for the temps found in brick ovens.
Cast refractory concrete, whether made into a solid shell or in sections, needs to be reinforced in order to withstand the temperature swings and any other shock.  Sectional pieces can be damaged in shipping or assembly and fail later.  Cast domes are rarely fully half domes.  The point at which the wall straightens is its weakest point.  Still there are some very reputable products.

4.  All prefabricated ovens are made to look alike; they are the tract housing of wood-fired ovens.  Thousands are made; nothing special.  As I described in the 'competition' post on this blog, you can do better either yourself, or with an artisan mason.
These are ancient devices, unique to each town, castle, and hamlet.  Why wouldn't yours be as custom?

inexpensive cob oven being built
Cob oven in Costa Rica
I have also posted ways to build an oven for very little money.  This post is for the people who will be spending a chunk of  time or money or both.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Stone Arches

I was drawn to stone arches long before I built my first brick oven nine years ago.  An arch, contained or barrel vaulted in an extremely strong structure.   It also echoes the vault of the sky and our general sense that we live in a round (not flat) world.

On my way to an oven build in Winchester, NH, I passed the stone arch bridges in Stoddard.  Built without mortar, these bridges have lasted  almost 200 years and although modern traffic doesn't pass over them, they appear intact.

Each time I build an oven, I am incorporating the arch, in the mouth and face, and circularly in the dome.  It makes the oven durable into the unforeseeable future.
2000 year-old Bakery Oven in Pompeii, Italy

6  year-old TBO 54" oven at Pietree Orchard in Sweden, Maine

Monday, September 19, 2016

Brick Oven Cost: the competition

TBO 36" in Ventura CA
Up front, let me state that I am a very small company.  I have one part-time assistant.  I am the mason who builds your oven, brick by brick.  So, in making comparisons to the giants of cast refractory ovens (kit and assembled), I harbor no illusions of competition.

That said, I am always (ALWAYS) confronted with the cost constraints of potential customers.  I have empathy with those who do not have the budget for a custom brick oven.  I encourage, even supply, would-be owner-builders with ample information on this blog.

So, how do my base prices for 36", 42", and 48" interior diameter custom brick ovens compare to the leading (and original) importer of cast refractory ovens from Italy, Mugnaini.

Andrea Mugnaini has written my favorite brick oven cookbook, which I include with every oven I build.

Here are their prices: Medio=      from $7550.00
Mugnaini Prima 100
                                   Prima 100= from $8950.00
                                   Prima 120= from $9550

It is assumed that this does not include shipping, or the slab you need in your backyard to put it on.  The metal base, though easy for a machine to move, will rust.

I could not discern what from meant aside from shipping.

Here are my base prices, which include the ground slab, the woodbox, the oven floor with insulation, the dome with insulation, and the face and flue:
                                          TBO 36=  $8000.00
                                          TBO 42= 10,000.00
                                          TBO 48= 12,000.00

It's easy to see that value-for-value there is no comparison.    What my customers get is a permanent installation with not just plug-and-play customizations.
TBO 48" Baker's oven in NH

TBO 36" in home
I recently built a TBO 48" for a baker, who later told me that the same oven would have cost more from Le Panyol without the customizations we agreed on.

Again, I cannot compete with the factories that make refractory wood-fired ovens; I don't want to.  I can offer a true brick oven at a cost that, at least, makes a buyer think twice: do you want a manufactured import, or do you want a brick oven mason to build it the 'the old way' but with 'new thinking'?

Just found this: an oven made by hand in Naples, Italy.


Getting a Stefano Ferrara oven can be a challenge. For one, importing an oven from Naples is expensive. Here's at look at what it costs in US dollars to buy a Stefano Ferrara oven, untiled and not including shipping fees, with data provided by Denver-based importer Wood Fired Pizza Oven. Though there are more sizes available, this table displays the costs of the 120, 130, and 140 centimeter diameter iterations as they are the most commonly found in restaurants:
Stefano Ferrara fixed oven
120 cm$16,693
130 cm$16,693
140 cm$17,410


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Bakery Brick Oven- Part Six

These posts might go on a while as the baker has already fired the oven for hearth loaves twice.  However, a final shot of the oven with tools at the ready is posted here.

It has always been my intent to advise brick oven customers on ways to maximize their enjoyment and use of the brick oven that I build for them.

The primary was is to have it be part of a living space.  No every home or business can or wants to do this.  Portable brick ovens have advantages as do outdoor ovens: an unlimited number of people can enjoy them and they provide an alternative space to the home kitchen or restaurant kitchen environment.

Monday, September 12, 2016

New Hampshire Mushroom Company

Chef Stephanie, Kaylan and Fiore owner Pat
Every Spring I bring my 45' portable brick oven to the Northern New England Home and Garden Show in Fryeburg, Maine.  The oven is run through its paces by chefs at Meet the Chefs pavilion.

NHMC owner Eric Mulligan

TBO portable at NHMC
One of those is the New Hampshire Mushroom Company.  After the show this year I offered to leave the oven in Tamworth at the headquarters of NH Mushroom Company for the summer.

They have set up an outdoor kitchen where professional chefs prepare dishes with mushrooms each weekend for guests.

It has been a good collaboration.
Kayla at work in Tamworth

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Bakery Oven- Part Five: curing

the baker's daughter lights the first fire
The penultimate step in building a brick oven is the curing of the oven.  A slow firing allows the water contained in the masonry to escape before it reaches explosive steam.

This is also when the draft is tested.  A cold chimney needs warming before it will draw well.  Dry wood and patience at the start of a cold start-up firing pay off with a clean burn.  Once the oven temp and the fire are established, draft will improve.
Using the door as a baffle also assists this step.  Make-up air channels on either side of indoor installations insures that air for combustion comes from outside and not from within the room.

Note: air channels on either side of mouth.

The door controls the amount of air coming into the oven