Friday, November 30, 2012

The Garden Stage

Imagine that you are the writer and director of a play or movie (no pressure).  In this case, the stage is your yard and the actors are the trees and shrubs and flowers.  Generally speaking, your company has some veterans, actors who have been around awhile but admittedly can play only the roles they are used to.  These are the trees.  You may have one or two stubborn actors; scraggly trees, harassed by deer or ice-broken, who have lost the energy to grow. You’d like to cut them from the company because they mess up their (or your) lines and need to retire but they don’t know it. 
If you’re fortunate you have at least one stellar actor who seems to hold the whole company together no matter what audience shows up and now matter what script you throw at it.  This is your sentinel tree or your specimen tree, the hallmark of your productions.  You might have some young ones who are coming up in the ranks and may someday challenge the veteran for its place, but for now they are saplings standing on the sidelines.
Next come the supporting actors, the shrubbery, as they might be called.  They require few lines but need some pampering and care to perform at their best.  Do not underestimate their value.  There’s many the leading actor that can credit the best performances to the roles of the supporting actors.  You may also think of groups of supporting actors as playing a significant role in the unfolding script that you have written (or are desperately trying to write before the production deadline).
Then you’ve got the extras, let’s call them the color.  Crowds of silent or murmuring perennials or annuals that give the whole shebang flavor.  Sometimes we bring in extra extras when the script needs last-minute help. This occurs around the end of June and coincides with the clearance sales at nurseries. A drive-by pick-up of extras can be a wonderful, curative event.
No production is complete without lighting. A perfect opening scene might include a light fog at sunrise, shafts of sun landing on the blooming shrubs, the backdrop of forest reduced to a soft dark-green veil. Hopefully, sunset lights the garden with the finality of a romantic kiss or a cathartic reunion.
Last year you launched a drama.  After a bright and colorful opening (daffodils, forsythias, lilacs), the script took an ominous turn as weather and somber dialogue had the audience wonder if a tragedy was in store.  However the cast turned out in the end with a rousing (and long) finale that left you inspired and exhausted.
Next year it’s a mystery piece.  Walk around the garden now and pick up the clues.  Step back inside, check the script and perhaps make some last-minute changes in the cast. Break a stick!
Posted in the interest of a 'whole' approach to designing outdoor space. For more on landscape design go to:  and

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Longer Brick Ovens

Strictly square or round brick ovens, although having qualities that appeal to different users, are not the only shape possible.  The 'squirrel tail' Appalacian style oven was built at a masons' workshop (Backyard Oven Workshop with Peter Moore
MHA Annual Meeting, 2006.

Bricks set dry on 'Foamglass' and perimeter of oven scribed
I am currently building an elongated Pompeii dome oven in St. Charles, MO.
Sometimes, space constraints require that the shape of ovens be modified and with careful consideration this can be accommodated.

 The 'stretcher' bricks will be brought up to an elongated keystone but otherwise the oven progresses the same as circular domes with each chain being locked into place by the angles of the bricks.

The arch form and mouth arch come next...
End of Day Two

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Visual Metaphor

The arrangement of plants and objects in the landscape can be metaphoric. A metaphor: that is when something IS the representation of the intended meaning, such as “that tree is my grandfather”.  If that tree was “like” my grandfather, we’d have a simile; enough of English 101.
Deciding to use an object as a metaphor relieves the landscape designer of finding a literal representation. Literal representations, such as garden gnomes, fairies, angels, or Venus’, attach the viewer too securely to one meaning.
Rocks, shrubs, trees (dead or alive) that suggest mythic forms create a stronger and broader effect on the viewer.  A shadowed doorway into a dark woodland cannot avoid suggesting a journey into the subconscious.  This is clearly a different effect than the loud direct message sent by the entrance to the carnival fun-house.
 When designing landscapes, interior spaces, and in the case of TBO, brick ovens, I look for metaphoric opportunities.  These are arrangements that suggest larger visual meaning.  Color, texture, patina can evoke a response from the viewer/owner that is signaled on a non-obvious level.   We tend to really enjoy this (if it's done well and consciously...paradoxically).

Each project I design gives me the chance to employ metaphor.  Metaphor is my friend.

Brick Oven Refinement

Every brick oven I build has some refinement; one advantage of being a custom brick oven builder.

The refinement added to this recent brick oven provides a large work space (when handling baked or roasted products) under the throat of the oven.  It harks back to the true Pompeii style ovens (pictured at bottom from my visit to Pompeii, Italy).

Modern-traditional brick ovens like the ones I build also need more-than-adequate fire-proofing from the surroundings.  In addition to steel framing and cement board enclosure of the oven volume, I surround the oven with nearly three times the industry standard in refractory insulation.  It's an easy equation to see that heat retained is both safe heat and long heat.

bakery-size oven design modeled after Pompeii
The original Pompeii ovens had a shelf that spanned the full width of the bakery and were under the throat and flue of the oven chimney.  I have conjectured (without meticulous archeology) that these lateral spaces were useful for handling quantities of bread on the way into the oven and then out of the oven.

I also imagine that the bakery ovens of Pompeii never cooled down until (ironically) after Vesuvius buried the town in 79 CE (Common Era also A.D.).

The bakery oven pictured below is one of the  more decorative brick ovens uncovered when Pompeii was excavated.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Then and Now

This ruin in County Clare, Ireland on a 'soft' morning in March was photographed by me just as one of the common local hares unconsciously ran towards me, stopped in its tracks and did an about-face.

I have found that people have a attraction (perhaps even a fascination) with old stuff.
In the world of stone, ruins offer some of the most attractive examples of what is left when the beams, rafters, and roofs have fallen.

The garden house constructed by me this past summer incorporates some of the visual qualities found in northern European stone buildings.

The brick oven in Audrix, France, which I get to visit when I'm in the Perigord,  is an example of local stone work incorporating worked limestone and rough fieldstone with concealed mortar joints.

Having cultural models like these adds to my visual vocabulary when designing brick ovens, stone buildings, and outdoor environments that give the owners a taste of the 'old stuff'.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Symbolic Power of Objects

We instinctively know that when we see a single standing stone, it marks something (or so we believe).  Two posts create a gateway, three a family, four a room, five a counsel and many, well many are likely to be grouped in subgroups of one, two, three, and four.
If we contemplate the one stone, we sense authority and before long a paternal, maternal, or authority impression of the stone creeps into our heads.  The two stones or posts appear to be guarding an entrance and we approach knowing that we may have to ask permission to pass.  Three (let’s say of varying sizes) gets us identifying father, mother, and child.  And four, depending on their placement will present an organized entity whether they enclose a space or provoke you to ask (as you would a panel of judges, sages, or grandparents), “what do you want?”
We do not need to work hard to perceive the symbolic nature of objects; their meaning will jump out at us if we let it.
Cliff-face houses in Ravello, Italy
As a stone mason and landscape designer, my eye/mind is always on the prowl for visual prey.  This carnivorous approach to the world around feeds itself; the more I notice, the deeper I can see.
Applying the strength of observation gained from this exercise helps when I am challenged to design in an environment that is new or strange.  Call it visual survival skill.
It also connects me to the anonymous ancient designers of the stone age through the present, not a bad way to time-travel.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Brick Oven Turkey

My portable brick oven sits, most of the time, in my backyard.  I hope to build one in my sun-space so weather will not be an issue.
Thanksgiving weekend is rarely warm in northern New England but for the second time in the last three years, the turkey got cooked in the brick oven.

Over time I have streamlined the process of heating the oven to any desired temperature.  In total, I may have spent twenty minutes getting the oven to an even 439 degrees Fahrenheit.  It also took very little dry firewood, placed in successive large pieces allowing long burns and a relaxed firing.

The word from the kitchen was, "Start the bird at 425 for an hour and bring the temp down to 325 for the remainder of cooking."
Got it.

Just before I put the turkey in (on a rack in a roasting pan), I placed a large chunk of applewood against the coals at the rear of the oven.  The turkey went in and the door was shut, choking the smoldering applewood and trapping the smoke and heat where I wanted it.

When the timer went off an hour later, the internal oven temp was 336 F.  An hour later a meat thermometer showed the internal temp was 165F.    
The turkey came out on time, moist, delicious, and gently sizzling.

We could have baked the rest of the meal in the oven but the wind was blowing 30mph at about 40F so the comfort zone for outdoor cooking had long been blown SE by the NW wind.

Wood-fired ovens are often thought to be labor intensive but with practice, it's possible to cook in them with a minimum of 'work' and a maximum of 'satisfaction'.  

Bon appetit!

Thank all of you who came to this post.  It's 2016.  I built eight brick ovens this year, two for bakers and chefs and six residential.  I hope the ovens are host to a number of well-deserving turkeys:)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Human Spatial Response

Most people are drawn to the open sky.  We orient ourselves to open spaces where the sun can shine and we can consider the forests or cliffs the boundaries of our habitable world. 
Folktales portraying loss of consciousness (sleep, death, enchantment) do so with trees, thornbushes, or vines overgrowing the civilized place.  In my part of New England, Maine, the woods are full of foundation holes, paddocks, and wells from a time when light shone on plowed or grazed homesteads.  When we walk toward a clearing, it is the form of a homestead that we are drawn to, knowing that it means there are living, working, things about.  These living things may amount to an ancient ant colony or grazing cattle.
In the vast open spaces of the American plains and deserts, it is the opposite; we gravitate toward the copse of trees.  During the year I lived and worked for the Park Service in Death Valley, California, I spent my time off painting landscapes.  At first, I would always head for an oasis or clump of palms that signified a spring.  I would paint the contrast between the green that my woodland mind felt safe in and the bleached landscape just beyond the fringe of leaves.  Perhaps four months passed before I could see and paint a desert devoid of trees.  For most people, open space disturbs and it is not just the instinctive protection from predators that we seek in the shelter of trees; it is shelter from the eye of God.  Or to put it another way, wide-open spaces force us to introspection at a scale most of us are unequipped to manage.
Landscape design allows us to apportion the degree to which open space effects us. The dimensions of a clearing or the use of an open field will direct the emotional/spiritual quality of the space. A glade will be private, a lawn public, a hundred-acre expanse of open ground and invitation to journey outside of our bodies.

Does this relate to brick ovens?  Not directly.  I occasionally post these from my landscape design blog: because my work in both areas is related and because (let's face it), I can't always generate pertinent brick oven posts on a weekly schedule.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Brick Oven on the Level

I have become very fond of my set of levels.
In my other work in landscape design and stone works (, I use levels and transits where needed but let walls meander as the land and design demand.
an entirely cast base for an oven
Brick oven building requires a meticulous level of accuracy.  My admiration for a centered bubble grows.

Ultimately, the oven and structure needs to be completed with all edges meeting at common points.  The level makes this possible.   Your level is also used to keep brick faces aligned.  A sturdy two-foot level and a rubber mallet lets you adjust brick faces so that the plane of the oven face, arch face, or throat top are true.

The white stuff around and on top of the oven pictured at the top with me in front is refractory ceramic insulation, essential to keeping the heated mass retain BTU's for days.  The chimney, damper, and enclosure details will be addressed in another post.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Influence of Backgrounds

I often begin a landscape plan by standing back from the site and letting the surroundings tell me the setting in which the ideas will live.
Fire place and ledge island by North Star Stoneworks
I can do this even before I meet the prospective clients. This is the sort of ‘homework’ that enables me to later comment on the neighboring environment and its effect on what we are planning.
Painters often begin a painting by working on the background. This may be a practical approach as it is easier to paint a building, portrait or tree over a background than to paint the background around them. It also serves to tune the foreground objects to the color and texture of the background.
In landscape design it is doubly important because we can’t go in and move a mountain or building after the fact.
Chapel Fountain at Franklin Memorial Hospital by David Neufeld
Sculptors too must be aware of the surroundings their work will be placed in. A niche in a building is very different than a town square.
In some instances, the background becomes the heart of the plan and the materials and plantings are placed to enclose the landscape.  Fences, walls, and tall planting obscure whatever was formerly the background. Thus we create a new world within. 
The same applies when designing a space for a brick oven.  We can't ignore the building, its history, and the people who live there.

We can also infuse the space with new meaning.  I often find three-season rooms (or screen porches as they are called in New England) remarkably neutral (adverb use intentional).  Adding a brick oven both jumps the purpose of the room ten-fold but also lets the owners use the oven almost year-round.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Dig

Every garden is a story.  In an abstract way our garden is our story, expressing our unique connection to the world. Like our familiar languages, the story is composed of a vocabulary that in varying combination produces different meanings. 
              We spent our childhood playing in landscapes animated by season, geometry, and space.  We hid under bushes, sat atop lookout boulders, ran along paths to our favorite destinations.  Before we were adults we created multiple worlds from mud, sticks and grass.  Those worlds were sound archetypes, if not structurally durable.  When we come to make a garden we carry the sensory vocabulary that we collected over our lifetime.  It contains memories, images, sensations that are uniquely our own.  Sometimes it is an organized collection, easily reviewed.  Other times it requires an archeological expedition to uncover.
You may hire a landscape designer, an interior decorator, or an architect to help you realize your vision.  These professionals come with training and vocabulary.  Sadly, not all listen well.  
I have enjoyed my design consultations with both landscape design clients and prospective brick oven customers.  I ask questions, I listen, I reflect back to them what I perceive and offer some ideas for that they may react to.  I am looking for the deeper visual narrative.
I find it liberating to be unattached to a certain style (although I have distinctive aesthetic opinions).  The result is most often a collaboration between the artist in the client, however hidden, and the artist in me, hopefully practiced.
Sometimes, it requires that the project be set in motion to clarify details.  I understand that some people start with a hard-and-fast blueprint and others engage in a journey of discovery.  That is why I build into each of my projects and contracts the freedom to re-evaluate and improve the project without necessarily making it more expensive.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Building Brick Ovens

By far, the most visited posts on this blog have been on building brick ovens.  Occasionally I get calls or emails from viewer who are building an oven and want some guidance.  Great!  Happy to help.

Each time I build an oven (and situations are rarely identical), I use my acquired experience to improve either my efficiency or my precision or a design feature, often all three.  I encourage first-timers not to be stopped by the apparent complexity of building a dome from rectangular bricks.  The project may be slow and meticulous but the results are unparalleled.

The photos here show an indoor oven now in  progress in a large loft space.  The old industrial building had floor framing built for multi-ton fork lifts and the existing chimney offered a simple solution to exhaust (after lining the chimney with stainless steel liner.)

When building arches, I raise the front one about a half-brick higher than the one that exits the dome.  With correct draft no smoke escapes and the view to the interior is clear from the top and sides.  Oven floor height is determined by the height of the baker's bent elbow from the floor.  This usually falls within 40-44" from the floor.

These last photos are from a man who met me a couple of years ago and got inspired.  With over 30K visits, there might be more ovens out there. If you have built an oven using some of the information from this blog, I'd be glad to see the results.  Thanks.

-David Neufeld