Monday, May 28, 2012

Casa Caponetti, Tuscania, Italy

My friend and fellow sustainable food advocate, Don Lewis spent time at Casa Caponetti in Tuscania, Italy.  His enthusiasm for the the food, the connectedness of growing food and dah, brick ovens brought us together.  Don took these photos during his stay in at Casa Caponetti.

He and I will be at the 2012 Kneading Conference in Maine in late July.
Laura Caponetti Brezzi's background as hotel and restaurant consultant (i.e. Villa D'Este at Cernobbio and Costa Smeralda Hotels), a University degree in Italian Gastronomic History, and years of practical application, give her a unique pedigree to teach the secrets of her own cooking and of Italian "eating culture".

The arch on this oven seems unusually high but has a rectangular door frame permitting closure. It is a great example of a brick oven cooking multiple dishes, often simultaneously.

Wild Hive Farm was founded by Don Lewis (his arm is shown in the photo at right) in 1982, focusing on commercial beekeeping and selling honey at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City.  Wild Hive then began producing bee products and honey based baked goods and subsequently products using locally produced flour and selling these breads and baked goods at other farmers markets.  Don hired and trained employees to mill flour and bake, thus expanding milling operations and sales.  Eventually the operation was producing enough flour to also be able to sell it to the public.  He currently supplies all the organic flour to Eataly, in New York City.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Brick Ovens in Progress

I am currently working on two brick ovens.  The first one, shown here, is set on a piece of ledge and required forming the base to the ledge as a monolithic pour.

The second one is attached to a screen porch and will have a huge brick face on the room side with an arched wood storage and of course, over the oven mouth.

The herringbone pattern matches the pattern of brick on the patio I constructed around the ledge.  The angled mouth which gives great access to the baking area inside the oven means that the double arch has to be sprung from two parallel brick supports shown here. Buttresses will be built off the front face to provide strength.
Thanks to the owner for the photos.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Steve Jobs' Biography

Walter Issacson's biography of Steve Jobs is also a historical timeline for all the digital technology I am using today.  It also provides a sharp and often sad insight into one of the most influential geniuses of our time.
Here's how it interfaces with building brick ovens:
The term 'widget' comes up repeatedly in the lingo of Apple to describe the continuity of thought that went into Apple's and by inference, Steve Jobs' most dramatic inventions.
With brick ovens, as with Apple products, making the entire product a result of inside-to-outside beauty and integration as well as providing the 'software' (in the case of brick ovens: the traditional context) specifically made for the individual oven.
True Brick Ovens' David Neufeld isn't a Steve Jobs.  He is however a proponent of having technology meet the arts (another theme of Apple and Steve Jobs).  In the case of ovens, the technology was simplified and perfected centuries ago with the domed brick oven and the art continues to evolve as civilization moves towards a future where our connection to who and where and what we are can be elusive.
As a landscape designer (, David Neufeld has half a lifetime of experience arranging the pieces of the larger puzzle of our surroundings into one cohesive and satisfying whole.
It is hoped for, and often is true, that a brick oven can change your life.  A sizable claim perhaps, but look at the digital hardware you carry around and say that a device isn't capable of changing lives.

This post was written on a MacBook Air.  Wonders!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Monolithic Brick Oven Base

Nearly all the foundations for brick ovens I've built have either been constructed of concrete block on a concrete slab or on trailers for portable ovens.
The accompanying photos show a monolithic base formed to an irregular outcrop.  It took a bit of effort to scribe and cut the forms where they meet the ledge but the entire base, sides and top are one solid reenforced unit.
Holes were drilled into the ledge for rebar and the forms were made, whenever possible with full-length two-by stock so that it could be reused in other applications.
The top slab was half-filled with concrete (reenforced with rebar and wire mesh) and then filled in the center with vermiculite and Portland cement mix for insulation purposes.  The fire brick floor and all the rest of the masonry will go above.

Pushing the concrete mix to the edges of the form allowed us to place the insulating mix in the center where it would be under the oven floor bricks.

P.S. The brick patio surrounding the ledge was also built by True Brick Ovens.  For more landscape design go to:

Friday, May 11, 2012

Brick Oven Specs #5

Mortar used in brick ovens needs to be high-temperature and sufficiently sticky so that one can lay up brick without waiting for one layer to set.
Although expensive per pound, I've found Heatstop brand refractory mortar to perform the best.  This is not an endorsement per se, but my preference.  The powder comes bagged and ready to mix with water.  It contains quantities and materials that one would need to mix their own mortar but the product is consistent.
pre-cut bricks numbered for position in dome
As I have reduced the joints between bricks to one-tenth of an inch, the quantity needed for an oven is not extravagant.  I mix it to the consistency of heavy cream and dip the bricks on the edges.
This speeds up the process of building and produces very even mortar joints.  The stickiness of the mortar allows me to build the dome without forms and clean the interior joints as I build.
Following constructing the entire dome, I coat the exterior with either insulating refractory concrete, or if more mass is needed, add thickness to the dome by mixing grog (ground firebrick) and powdered Heatstop.  The grog acts as the aggregate and controls shrinkage.  If there are large gaps behind the dome bricks the grog mix will fill them with mortar comparable to the bricks.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Brick Oven Brick Cutting

I built my first oven from Internet plans, with some modifications. 
Cutting fire brick is an essential aspect for building domed brick ovens.

I currently use a Rigid brand sliding compound 12" miter saw mounted on a rolling workbench (Rigid brand too).  It is portable so I can take it to project sites and cut custom shapes when needed.
It is the best of the saws I have used but not absolutely necessary.  My first oven was built with a simple Delta chop saw (but this took some mechanical acrobatics in order to get angles and the blade was 7' which was not always wide enough to complete cuts in one pass).  Next, I used an old Craftsman 10" radial arm saw (not a very strong motor but I could run a hose to spray the brick while cutting and speed the cuts).
Now I soak the bricks and cut them wet with either the Rigid or a commercial block, stone, and brick saw.
Cutting angles for each brick on each 'chain' or band on the dome becomes pretty obvious as you go.  Note that there are two important angles. The Wedge shape (as viewed from above) and the Skew as view from the end.   Since my goal was to eliminate internal gaps these two angles were most important (structurally too). The third angle (call it the Taper) is the formed so that the outside of the dome is tight.  I wouldn't recommend this for a one-off oven as it involves a ton more cuts.  In the past I have saved wedges from other cuts to fill behind the bricks so that the dome shape is formed.  Or I used wooden wedges as temporary spacers until the rest of the mortar set up.
Now, I cut sufficient bricks for a number of ovens, setting the angles on the saw and proceeding in the most efficient way to produce the 300 or so pieces needed for a 42" dome.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Brick Oven Building Demonstration

A public demonstration of my brick oven building methods can be attended at the Northern New England Home and Garden Show in Fryeburg, Maine from May 18-20. More info @

Attendees of the this larger event will also see my portable oven in operation, being used by both myself and noted chefs, as well as 300 other exhibitors.  Questions are welcome and the finished 30" oven, built on a pallet, will be transported to a permanent home following the event.

True Brick Ovens will also host a daily Invitational Bread Baking Event in front of Expo One at the entrance to the event.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Brick Oven Specs #4

The most distinctive functional difference between cob/clay ovens and modern incarnations of ancient brick oven designs is the insulation.
In ancient times and as recently as early 20th century brick ovens were heated and kept heated with the acknowledgment that heat would both continue to be supplemented with additional fire and fuel and that the heat would continue to move through the walls of the masonry and dissipate.
Neither of those conditions need to exist anymore.
Refractory insulation in a number of forms can prevent most of the heat loss and prolong the effective time that an oven can bake product.

In order of most economical to most expensive, there is:

Cast vermiculite/Portland Cement mix.  Agricultural vermiculite and Portland Cement mixed to an 'oatmeal' consistency is formed in a wood frame over whatever solid base will support the oven.
Pros: cost per oven is low, materials easily found.  Cons: Smoothing the top requires patience and skill and the whole mass takes a long time to dry.

Pre-bought refractory insulation: Mt. Savage Refractories Company makes a bagged version of the above. The cost is about 5x and the mix is rated to 2000 F.
Pros: Solid, reliable.  Cons: a bit of money.

Foamglass: Four inch thick panels are perfectly flat. Oven floor goes on top.
Pros: A lot of insulating value, can be cut with an old handsaw, and very light.  Cons: Fragile until installed and very expensive.

The first two materials can be used on top of the oven.  Refractory blanket (expensive too) can be laid over the finished dome. If building an exposed dome there needs to be an expansion space between the cast insulating layer and the shell or the heating of the interior bricks will crack the outside of the dome.