Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Archaic Need for Fire?

For many, the experience of a fire is tied to camping or a 'campfire', where both opportunity and permission is given for sitting around burning logs.

This is such a recent event in human history yet it is easy to forget that for most of our species' past fire defined us.  Today, we don't need fires that we build.  The many forms of energy that are spent warming us and cooking for us have all but deleted fire.

A wood-fired brick oven returns our connection to fire and the perfection of burning what has gathered the sun but doesn't need refinement in order to give us heat for cooking.  The present popularity of brick ovens, and perhaps the consideration that a brick oven is a better addition to a house than a fireplace, may stem from our attraction to fire.  The brick oven also gives us a reason we can defend in a civilization that scorns the bother of making things ourselves, like fire and bread.

There are many other aspects to fire that have a place in our deep past; it kept the dark and danger at bay; it consumed our dead; it gave us visions.  These are still in play even when the fire is lit in the mouth of a brick oven.  You will watch it, not for the purpose of management, but for the reverie that fire has always and will always bring.

Friday, January 18, 2019

When a Brick Oven isn't a Brick Oven

TBO 36" with prep counter and gable roof
There are five hundred blog posts that precede this one.  So as I itemize the elements that make or don't make a brick oven, I hope that some of the big vendors of products don't take it the wrong way and I hope that you, the consumer, are better informed as you go after having a brick oven for yourself.


  1. A brick oven isn't a brick oven unless the interior dome is made of bricks, specifically, fire bricks.  A wood-fired oven can be brick or it can be cast-refractory, which is what MOST of the products available as kits are.  Cast refractory ovens themselves come in various levels of quality, mostly according to how well and how thick the cast sections are made.  Some are too thin or fragile for either shipping or use.


    Greek style dome as per customer request


    Owner of this oven 
    sent this photo ("Help").  
    Oven didn't work.
    No mouth. No insulation.


  1. A brick oven may still be made of bricks, but if it doesn't have the flue in the right place, it is closer to a fireplace than an oven.  The typical mistake made by someone building one (even experienced masons) who hasn't investigated brick ovens is the placement of the flue in the center of the dome or arched vault.  The interior of a brick oven needs to be isolated from the flue otherwise the air that burns the wood passes through the oven and cools it.  The flue is ALWAYS in front of the mouth.
  2. Again, there are brick oven plans that instruct you to build your oven in incorrect ways.
  3. Too small; mouth too big.
    • The mouth is too large or doesn't exist.
    • There is no, or insufficient insulation under the floor or above the dome/arch.  Your oven will not heat up and/or will cool down too quickly.
    • The interior is so small that you can't make much food in it.  You'll waste your effort in building making an oven under 36" in diameter.
  4. Do your research.  One website, one set of instructions, or a ridiculously easy way to make an oven, won't insure success.  At least 200 of the posts on this blog will give you information.  Look elsewhere too.  Time spent researching will save you time and heartbreak later.

David Neufeld
True Brick Ovens

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Brick Oven App

App is short for application, generally indicating that the program gives you access to a specific group of resources.

So what would a brick oven app look like?

If I were to design one, it would be most useful to first time brick oven users and save them the trouble of reading the operation manual PDF on my website: truebrickovens.com.

You would point your smart phone at the brick oven mouth and it would know if you had lit the fire.
If not, it would direct you to build a fire under the flue (link to Youtube).  It would then prompt you, using your annoying ringtone, when you should add firewood.

Successive phone shots would feed app the progress you are making until the clever infrared feature on the app would tell you when the oven is at temperature, let's say 800F.


By tapping the kind of food you want to cook (icons on the screen), the app would instruct you on preparing said foods and using the tools (separate app linked to Amazon) to introduce and remove food.



The app would not instruct you on serving or eating the food.  There, you'll be on your own.

OR...

You could experience the cognitive/physical process of using a brick oven without a smartphone.
Think about it and instagram me at: #brickovenbuilder or comment on this post.  Thanks.


Sunday, December 9, 2018

Brick Ovens Worldwide

2000 year old oven in Pompeii

500 year old oven in France
Here are the stats for one week of visits to this blog:
United States
220
Russia
185
Italy
119
Australia
27
Egypt
11
Ukraine
11
India
10
Malaysia
7
United Kingdom
6
Mexico
4

I've never been sure how many of these visits are by humans... but over the years I've been contacted by real people from many countries.  As the purpose of this blog, aside from being a running record of my work, has been to inform potential brick oven builders and users in design, methods, and materials for a successful project.

I hope this has been the case.  I was recently contacted by a person who bought a cast refractory oven ten years ago from one of the major suppliers.  The local masons enclosed it in stonework and about a year ago it collapsed.  In my mind, ten years is too short a time for an oven to work before needing replacement (that's expected of a kitchen range).  In addition, the expensive stonework that encloses the oven needs to be taken apart and rebuilt after a new oven (a request for a TBO one is in motion) is installed.
TBO 54" at Pietree Orchard in Maine

Although I humorously say that my ovens are guaranteed for 500 years, it is entirely possible.  The integrity of a brick oven dome built from custom cut fire brick is such that it will withstand time and even abuse, aside from the obvious hazard of being buried for 1800 years under volcanic ash.
One oven I built was so extremely over-fired by the enthusiastic owner that the aluminum handles on the door melted; the oven was fine; I now use iron for door handles.

p
Professional baker using my portable oven



This oven survived Vesuvius' (in background) eruption in 29AD.  It would likely survive the next.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Brick Oven Grill

hardwood lumber chunks is all it takes
Once you commit to having a brick oven, you may feel that you'll regret not having a grill OR you may find that your gas grill seems odd next to the oven OR you may consider installing a 'complete' outdoor kitchen.
"Hold the Mayo!"




Grilling on or within a brick oven is easy and if designed to purpose can accommodate equal quantities of meats or vegetables.

Because building a fire for brick oven baking begins with creating a bed of hardwood coals (which takes about 20 minutes), that can be the point when you can begin to grill.  The other timeframes for grilling are at the midway point in the oven firing when the firing is close to a broiling environment and lastly using the coals from, let's say, a pizza firing for front-of-the-oven grilling.

Two changes in the design of the standard brick oven are needed in order to grill:






  • The space between the mouth of the oven and the face of the oven needs to be wider.
  • You need a fabricated grill that can be set above the coals or inside the oven mouth.
Once these changes are made, the grill setup can also be altered to make shish kabob, teriyaki, and other grilled foods.

In some instances, I have built a depression under the flue that can hold coals.  This is covered when not in use.

Grill in place
As with all aspects of brick oven cooking, the grilling, baking, broiling, smoking, and dehydrating opportunities are based in your enthusiasm for fire.

Rosemary on coals adds flavor


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Easy Brick Oven Firing

The initial fire is built under the flue.  Two 'rail logs'
let you put kindling and small firewood that will 
catch quickly and make coals.
One of the biggest concerns that potential brick oven users bring up is the length and difficulty of getting the oven to 'temperature'.

Although, it is not as hands-free or fast as a conventional gas or electric oven, it should be easy, relaxed and efficient.  Here's how:


  • Dry firewood: Wet or poorly seasoned wood requires that the fire first dry it out, then burn it.
  • Good draft: A properly built oven chimney will draw the smoke and flue gases well.
  • Relax: You are not stoking a locomotive train climbing the Rockies. Don't overstoke.
The following photos demonstrate how I fired my brick oven with no more than a laundry basket of wood and no more than twenty (20) minutes of effort to 800 degrees.

When coals develop, push the two 'rail logs' back toward the middle of the oven 
and add two or three small pieces.  The oven is black. 
There's some smoke but the wood catches easily.
Flames are better than smoke.  Too much added wood will slow the firing and create unburned gases.


If you have a removable door, set it up on tiles back from the oven mouth.  This will allow air to flow under it and the flue gases to exit the chimney.  It will also reflect the infrared heat back into the oven and cut down on air exchange.

When the carbon has begun to burn off the dome the oven will be at around 600F.  
At this point I have spent about 15 minutes total on oven management 
and about an armload of wood (standard arm).  
Dry wood will catch immediately.

It goes fast now.  Walk away. Do something else.

Nearly burned, the entire oven is at 800F plus.
If you are making pizza, push the coals to the back,
Sweep the floor and get ready.  Add small sticks to keep flames
for broiling the top of the pizza.  Mangia!  Buono appetito!
 Sometimes it surprises me how easy it is.  Granted, I've done this a good number of times.  Hours after pizza, there's the possibility of bread, then roasts, then beans and/or ribs, until days later, the oven is 200F and ready for the next cycle.  While I'm still relaxed and well fed.

Friday, November 16, 2018

From Pottery Kilns to Brick Ovens

Forty-five years ago I was making stoneware pottery and firing it in a wood-fired kiln to 2381 degrees Fahrenheit (1303 Celsius).

Today I build brick ovens that need not reach temperatures higher than 800 F.  But there is still high temperature material, FIRE and at the end, a wonderful product.






Last weekend, I joined my friend, Willi Singleton in Kempton, PA to fire his noborigama kiln at Pine Creek Pottery.  The twenty-two hour firing brought together Willi's many friends, colleagues, and students for a round-the-clock effort.
Willis starting the fire in a lower chamber

For those unfamiliar with the process of making clay into pottery, Willi's approach is complete.

Willi Singleton
His clay comes from two regions of Pennsylvania and is prepared at his pottery so that it is pliable enough to throw on a potter's wheel.

first fires are stoked in a lower chamber
His glazes are made from wood ashes, corn stalk ashes, and bamboo ash, which all grow around his place.

The wood that fires the kiln is local from sawmills.

Noborigama kilns are built on a hill.  This kiln has four chambers, with the exit ports of each passing to chamber above.  A 25 foot double chimney creates the draft to pull the flames through the chambers.

It is an elemental experience.  The forms, materials and skills are timeless.

Like brick oven building and baking, it is a link to our ancestors.



After a long night, the stoking proceeds to special ports in the pottery chamber itself


a couple of the families
have been helping to fire the kiln
since their children were young






ports are stoppered with clay after the kiln reaches temperature