Tuesday, September 12, 2023

A Whole Lot of o

 I have taken some time off from posting, primarily because this blog contains so many detailed posts on how to build and use brick ovens; I'd run out of sub-topics and I had many projects, that although new and exciting, I felt didn't add to the sum of knowledge I wanted to share. 

I offer this post as an update.  I've chosen to use my energies in my 70's to build only ovens that will get used nearly constantly, for caterers, restaurants, and bakers.  I've also taken time to teach young masons how to build ovens with the detailed knowledge that I've acquired and to offer workshops for people wanting to build an oven for their home use.

There are many FB sites on brick ovens.  I find them a bit frustrating because they either have posts on ovens that are cast refractory ovens (which I don't recommend), or they present ovens that people have built lacking the qualities of a successful oven.  They also serve to advertise professional builders' projects who have a lot of info that the amateur, or failed builders, seem to want help from.

That said, I'm still enjoying the business.  

Shown here are four ovens built in recent times, two entirely by me, and two that required the skills of artistic welders to complete.

This last one was designed to be towed by an average 4-cylinder car.  The rocket shape, aside from being aerodynamic on the road, riffs on early comic book rockets.  It's 32"x 45" elongated dome interior is approximately the same floor space as a 38" diameter dome.   

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

A Wood-fired bake oven from Adobes

 Just before the pandemic hit, I was over the border in Mexico with an old friend I hadn't seen in almost 40 years.  The man has everything, a beautiful family of five with his Mexican wife, a handmade round adobe house, the respect of his community, four old Volvo's kept going with spit and piano wire...

What could I give him?

Just up on street, down another, on the edge of town, is an adobe maker, a woman in her fifties turning out hundreds of adobes a week.  They are laid out on edge drying in the sun; later, they'll be stacked in a scove (a rectangular pile that is both the adobes and the kiln) and fired to maturity.

Our goal, my friend and I, was to build an oven with the least possible cost and of local materials.  We chose green (unfired) adobes.  These would be easy to cut, the very mud that they are made from would serve as mortar, and they were cheap.

We also had limited space and an existing barbecue platform (next to the wood-fired hot water heater).

Vamos pues!

Monday, June 14, 2021

Hybrid Brick Ovens

It is possible to build a partially brick oven.  The reasons vary; you cannot afford the materials for a full-on brick oven, you like cob ovens but want to strengthen the mouth and provide a chimney, or some other local material could also work.

I have encountered and worked with these variations.

  1. Economics: The ovens I build are expensive because I use materials that are both durable and costly.  I do this because those materials work best but also because the exterior finish of the oven is more involved, takes more time, and is worth keeping for decades, if not centuries.  But HAVING AND BAKING in a less expensive oven is a good start and it is better to build on a small budget than not build at all.
  2. mouth and face ready for 
    cob dome
    Cob ovens, made from a mixture of clay, sand, and sawdust are very economical, easy to build, and moderately durable.  The fire exits the mouth directly and the oven needs shelter to protect it.  The cob oven's mouth is especially vulnerable and there is no chimney to direct flue gases away from the user.  Enter the Hybrid.  A brick mouth, face, and flue enabling a chimney to be attached.
  3. Other materials may be available.  A couple of years ago I built an oven in Mexico using raw, unfired adobes.  In some locals, there may be reclaimed red-brick, cut stone, etc.  Castable refractories, though expensive may simplify the process.
cast mouth and face spliced to a dome 
made from chunks of fire brick
over a sand form
Raw adobe oven with red brick floor and mouth
Hip style vault from raw adobe (Mexico) 2019

Stay tuned for more detailed posts on the above.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Future of Brick Ovens

The title of this blog suggests I know the future of brick ovens; I don't.  In the fourteen years I've been building traditional brick ovens, wood-fired ovens have become increasingly popular.  The result being that there are hundreds of 'models' to choose from; ranging from castable shells to lightweight steel fire chambers in a full range of prices.

It is fortunate that a small percentage of the people who want to cook in a wood-fired oven have chosen to build an actual brick oven, either themselves or by others.  And despite the nearly two years since my last post, I continue to get calls and emails seeking advice.  It has been the intent of this blog to provide the best information on building so that good, properly functioning brick ovens are made and enjoyed.

So I'll start with five points that anyone lighting a piece of wood that will fuel an oven should consider:

  • What will you cook?  If it's just pizza then an oven with enough space for the pizza of your dreams and the heat to cook it is sufficient.  More varied products like broiled vegetables, bread, roasts, pies, ribs, smoked meats or fish, or dehydrated fruits need an oven with more mass.
  • How much can you spend?  You can build a cob oven from clay, sand, and sawdust for very little.  I built an oven from Mexican adobes for a friend in Mexico for less than $100.  I recommend investing in some durable materials for the mouth and flue of even cob ovens (See Hybrid Ovens post coming soon).
  • Where will you build it?  Brick oven bakers want to use their oven all year.  This is only possible if either your climate is mild or the oven is in a moderated space where the weather won't prevent use.  Half of the forty-five ovens I've built are indoors. 
  • Where does the heat go?  Ideally, you want most of the BTU's from the wood you burn to stay in the oven.  This happens when the design is correct and the oven is insulated; otherwise, that heat is flying away and the oven cools soon after primary use.
  • Is wood-fired cooking easy?  Both firing up the oven and cooking in it will become relaxed and fun after the first few firings.  Brick ovens are social magnets and may be the only cooking device around which people want to gather to watch.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Where Have I Been?

Friends and interested brick oven enthusiasts, I have not written a post since August; no excuses.

Actually, I have both an excuse and an invitation: I have been consulting on owner built ovens extensively, including traveling to Spain to assist in the construction of a 4 meter square double chamber baker's oven.  
I also built one just 25 miles from my shop in Maine with the assistance of two expert masons (How fun is that?).

But, another reason stems from my wife's retirement and my spending more time with her.  I still take on projects that don't interfere with our schedules but far fewer than in the past.

AND, I here introduce you to a photographic project that I am touring nationally: www.mergings.net

To all of my loyal blog followers: please take a look at Mergings; you may add that to your list of frequently viewed blogs, OR you may continue to sift through the 475 past posts for the information about building and using brick ovens.  Future posts will be written when new and essential details are added to the lot.

I still welcome questions about brick ovens and I have projects in the works for the future including continuing to bring my portable oven to the Kneading Conference in Maine.

David Neufeld

Saturday, August 3, 2019

A Bake with Daniel des Rosier

A couple of weeks ago at the Kneading Conference of the Maine Grain Alliance in Skowhegan, Maine, I managed my portable brick oven for Daniel des Rosier of Boulangerie des Rosier in Quebec (https://boulangeriedesrosiers.com/home/#).

Daniel and his workshop participants started working earlier than anyone (5am) and continued through the three days culminating in a bake.

Because Daniel does not use a brick oven at his bakery, he depended on me to provide both the oven temperature and atmosphere and an oven that could accommodate multiple bakes on one firing.

Without an undue amount of self-congratulation, I nailed it.  I don't generally due the baking in my family; I'm the fire maker.  Twelve years of experience firing brick ovens has honed my sense of the fire/temperature equation.  Add to this, my advocacy of building ovens with sufficient mass AND excess insulation and I make ovens that will satisfy a demanding (but fun) baker like Daniel.

I was up at 4:30 on bake day having banked the fire the night before.  Daniel had the 520F oven for his four-batch bake of 70 loaves.  Throughout the day, I adjusted the oven for others, sometimes bumping the oven up to 700F for Kerry Altieri's focaccia and back to the 400-500F for more of Daniels breads.  We finished with pastries at about 380F.  A pleasure all around.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Catching the Flue

The placement and the design of the brick oven flue is critical to the function of the oven.

I have heard and seen many mistakes made in this area, mostly due to the assumption that a brick oven is some kind of fireplace.  It isn't.

The goal of the brick oven is to contain the heat from the fire in an isolated chamber.  If air passes through the chamber on the way out of the oven i will be difficult, if not impossible to get the oven to temperature.

Some historic ovens in some cultures don't have flues.  The smoke simply pours out of the chamber and drifts off.  This is okay if the oven is located where abundant smoke doesn't effect the baker.

But nearly all European style ovens, the design that was brought to north America, have flues.
The white oven above is a traditional old Greek oven, no flue and low to the ground.  The oven at the top of the post is one I designed and built for a customer who was born in Greece and wanted it to feel like ones she remembered.  It incorporates a flue so that the baker isn't cloaked in smoke.

Technically, the flue is the hole at the top of the arch between the mouth (the dome entrance) and the face.  The mouth arch allows you to shut the oven entirely with a door.  The dimensions of the flue are in proportion to the oven and the chimney  For instance, if the chimney is to be an 8" by 13" flue tile, the opening needs to match.  If it is a stainless steel insulated pipe, then the area needs to match.

Indoor ovens, as I design them, have dampers (and not incidentally channels that bring air from outside of the space).
Indoor ovens need to have a good draft as excess smoke is not welcome indoors.  Both the diameter of the flue and the height of the chimney contribute to good draft.

Often, you can feel the natural draft even before you light the first fire or you can light a candle and watch the flame being pulled upward.

The actual techniques for constructing the flue opening vary depending on the size of the oven and the materials.  Refer to past posts for details on arches, mouths, faces, cutting bricks etc.

Good draft means no soot on the face