Sunday, December 18, 2011

Indoor Brick Oven Construction: The Throat

As stated in the previous posts, the throat will likely be the most challenging part of an oven project.  Even on cob ovens (see previous blog), special attention is given to the mouth and, when desired, the throat.
What goes into the mouth as fuel should, after burning, pass into the throat and out, otherwise, as is true at fraternity parties, it will spew out of the mouth and mess up the face.
 The first arch created the mouth. The second arch creates the throat.
In this oven, the same form was bulked up with blocks so that the identical arch could be extended outward to support the bricks at this larger and higher dimension.
Shims raise the form off the floor and a layer of cardboard makes removing the form after mortaring easy.

Full length firebrick is cut to form corbels, a stepped-in series of bricks that take the wide opening of the throat and bring it to its intended 9" by 8" dimension.
The next step in this oven will be constructing a flue channel that runs over the top of the oven so that the chimney, when installed, is set back from the face.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Indoor Brick Oven Construction: Part 3

The point where the dome meets the mouth requires the most custom attention. 
This oven has the angled brick mouth that allows easy access to the cooking area. This means that the bricks that 'spring' the arch need to be cut square to the face of the oven (an interesting geometric exercise). The tall butress brick assures extra strength to the side of the spring bricks.
If the mouth was constructed with angle-iron, the dome will be meeting the mouth along a straight plane.
If the mouth is an arch, it will meet the dome along that curved plane.
Either way, the goal is to make the meeting points rest vertically on the mouth and allow the dome to complete the circular shape that makes it strong.
As shown, I take advantage of the open front to bring the dome as high as practical before closing the front with the mouth arch or angle-iron. I then bring the bricks forward to meet the mouth, custom cutting the bricks as I go.

Eventually (next blog) the second arch will define the throat bringing the construction to the face of the oven.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Brick Oven Mouth Construction

How appropriate for an object that makes food to have a mouth. One oven I repaired was fashioned in the shape of a turtle and the mouth was the mouth.  But seriously, very seriously, the mouth and throat of a brick oven presents the most challenging masonry techniques.

The requirements of the mouth and throat (the area just above the mouth in this case) include:
1. The easy and safe introduction of fire to the oven interior.
2. The smooth passage of smoke from the burning fuel out the chimney.
3. A shape that allows handling whatever is cooked in the oven with ergonomic logic.

The construction of a mouth that meets the above requirements varies. Many of my portable ovens have angle-iron lintels that carry the load and shock of a masonry unit in motion on the road.
The most appealing mouths have brick arches, usually with a slot above that is the throat. In both cases this throat area is larger than the chimney and channels flue gases up and out rather than having them spill in front of the face (the outer front) of the oven.

My original portable oven, although white stucco on the face, is still white after four years of frequent firings.

Angle-iron lintels are easy. The three heavy angle-irons lay level on top of the side bricks of the mouth.
Arched mouths must be built with an arch form and need sufficient side support to contain the outward force of the curved arch bricks.

Some ovens have deep mouths that prevent easy access to all areas of the cooking space within the dome. After observing ovens in Italy and France as well as baking in my own oven, I began building oven mouths that angle considerably from back to front. This allows the baker to access all edges of the interior of the oven without expanding the actual oven opening beyond the recommended proportions for efficient firing and heat retention.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Indoor Brick Oven Construction: Part 2

Most brick oven domes begin with a straight course of vertical bricks so that the perimeter of the oven has the space needed for baking and for a live fire.
By cutting 4.5" by 9" by 2.25" fire brick at an angle through the middle of the brick, I get two identical bricks for the first course that provide the initial angle for beginning the dome.
Over time, I have found that a whipped-cream consistency of high refractory mortar lets me dip the edges of the bricks into a mortar bucket coating the bricks with a thin and even layer of mortar. This speeds up the process of applying mortar and laying the courses.

There is a 'middle process' that accompanies the first courses of the dome: the eventual arch supports for the mouth and throat.
These will addressed in the next blog in detail as they require some planning and may be built simply or elaborately.

The second course is laid flat against the angle of the first. From there up, pre-cut firebrick wedges and pre-cut angles on each brick provide tightly fitted joints. The wedge shape of each brick locks each course into place giving the dome an almost indestructible shape while allowing expansion and contraction to act in all directions at once.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Indoor Brick Oven Construction: Part 1

I have become an advocate of interior brick oven installation (see October 31 blog). The next number of blogs will take you through the process of placing a brick oven in a residential kitchen setting. The construction is not that different from outdoor ovens. There are times (later this winter in an colonial era house) when a masonry base makes sense and the support already exists below the floor.

In this case a well-framed base and support beneath the floor combined with lightweight insulation materials and a lightweight exterior treatment permit the oven to sit as safely as any comparable weight appliance (such as a hot tub).

Foamglass, Fiberfax, firebrick
The materials used here are 2x half inch cement board over plywood base cover, 4" of Foamglass, and 2" of Fiberfax panel insulation board.
The base was measured and built so that standard counter-top widths and heights meet the exterior of the oven volume. A setback of the oven floor will accommodate a stone working shelf in front of the oven mouth.

In order to provide maximum space in the interior of the kitchen remodel, the outer framing of the oven enclosure utilized unused space in the corner of the garage (about 18" by 5') and a small bump-out on the back of the building.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Building Your Brick Oven: Option 3

Some of us have seen the humorous (not) placard in auto repair shops that reads: labor rate: $40/hr, if you watch: $50/hr, if you help: $60/hr.
Putting a different spin on that approach, I offer Option 3.
Option 1 of course is that I build your brick oven and many people like this (the same way that I like to keep my hands grease-less, and my knuckles un-skinned by handing my vehicle over to qualified mechanics who like to do that stuff).

Option 2 is where you gather information (from this blog and others), get the materials together and do the project yourself (a character building experience suited to many). You may also choose to build your first oven from cob, making the whole experience cheaper and faster, though less durable (see previous blog).

Option 3 allows you to build the oven of your dreams with an expert mason's help (me for instance). I've done this on occasion and in many ways I recommend it. Not only does it save you money (unlike the car mechanics) but you get to have a hand in the making, something that you will relish over the many years that you use your oven.

I'll pin-point a few reasons that this is a good option.
1. You won't need the special tools for cutting brick.
2. You  won't need the truck that carries the heavy materials.
3. When you come to a particularly gnarly point in the process, there's your friendly mason to guide you.
4. Sometimes, it's darned hard work and two is better than one.
5. It's the way we humans are intended to work and learn.

There are different kinds of investment. Time, money, and friendship. Option 3 saves you on the first two and adds to the third.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Eternal Arc

Arches National Park
Penn Station NYC
Roman Aqueduct
The arc of the heavens reflected in buildings, art, and geography exerts a special effect on humans. Not insignificant in the design of spaces and objects around us, the arc shows up everywhere: L'Arc de Triomphe in Paris, The St. Louis Arch: gateway to the West, geologic Arches National Park, Il Duomo in Florence as well as countless cathedrals, and as 'Arco iris' or rainbow in Spanish.

That there is both beauty and strength in the shape makes it perfect for incorporation into building and nearly universal in brick ovens.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Fire Within

Fire fascinates me. That anything burning can create both heat and random patterns of beauty must have led our distant ancestors to near-worship of fire. I burn wood to heat my home. I once wood-fired pottery to white-hot temperatures in a down-draft kiln, gazing through the ports as the glaze shimmered.
Now, I continue my fascination as I fire up the wood-fired brick ovens I build.
It can be fairly said that we humans have not psychically changed much in a million years. We seek the warmth of other creatures, are drawn to the sound of water, cringe at nearby lightening, stand in awe beneath a star-dusted sky, and gaze reflectively into the flames of a wood fire.
No doubt, this is why wood-fired brick ovens hold a magic beyond the fantastic food that we can cook in them.
Although the tradition of brick ovens goes back some thousands of years, it is the draw of the flame that provides the primitive backdrop to our brick oven experience.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Recent developments on the American War on Obesity seemed to target PIZZA as the culprit. That's a lot of mozzarella, if you ask me.

As with U.S. students' drop in world literacy standing, obesity is linked to junk input and non-engaging activities. Although most of this non-living takes place outside the school, targeting America's favorite food is like asking the kids to throw away their cell phones.
Studies have shown that sugar rich soft-drinks contribute more to obesity and diabetes than pizza.  Still, if you consider that a student eating pre-made, fat-enhanced, sodium-heavy, cafeteria pizza at school and the same types of food at home (washed down with soda) with little or no activity in a 24-hour day might be prone to weight gain, you can see that the problem of diet exists.

Here's what I've noticed about PIZZA when and wherever I've demonstrated making it in my brick ovens:
1. People love thin crust.
2.They love some crunchy whole grain in the crust.
3.Making, then watching their own pizza bake makes them happy.
4.The stuff that goes on the pizza is personal, fresh, and also makes them happy.
5. Pizza inspires people to get involved with making food.

So, if we know that people love pizza and we are concerned with the level of health in our children, why can't we get them more involved with their food.  Making pizza can lead one down the road to growing the vegetables, making the dough, getting friends together, and making good food choices.

School programs that connect students to their food sources stand a better chance of changing the dietary future of our young people. 
Obesity is a result of industrial foods. Enough said.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Low Cost Wood-Fired Oven

For some, the cost of a true brick oven (even just the materials) is 'over-the-top'. I'm a strong proponent of not giving up. In that spirit, I pass along to anyone the reality that for less than $100 you can build a wood-fired oven that will get you baking.  This kind of oven can also be built in a day or so.
With this small investment of time and effort you may discover a passion for wood-fired cooking that will lead you to build a brick oven or simply get friends together for a party.
using a broken ski pole to fan flames

My friend, Jesse Cottingham took the initiative with his oven. I gave him some spare red brick and firebrick and following his experience at the 2011 Maine Kneading Conference with Stu Silverstein, (see his book: Bread, Earth. and Fire) made himself a small oven.
Click on his link to see how he built it.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Five Reasons for an Indoor Brick Oven

Reason number 1- Frequency of use: Brick ovens will be used at least twenty times more frequently if they are in a sheltered location. This can be under a larger roof, in a three-season room, or in the main kitchen itself.
Reason number 2- Weather: Except in certain locations in the world where temperatures are generally mild and dry, a brick oven is simply more fun if you are not running through rain, snow, or high winds to tend and bake your food.
Reason number 3- Bugs: Most places in the world have bugs. Mosquitoes can make an outdoor cooking experience less than pleasant. Placing an oven in a three season room or a screened structure makes the baking experience your experience of food, not the bug's.
Reason number 4- Economics: Once we commit our financial resource to a brick oven we tend to view it in the long run in proportion to how much it pays off, that is the ratio of money spent to amount of use. So we purchase an RV if the cost will outweigh hotel expenses (an accessibility). A brick oven that becomes part of your weekly cooking experience will justify it's expense.
Reason number 5- Your cooking life: A brick oven, placed within easy use of your living space, will become a natural part of your cooking life.  The process of starting a fire, roasting food in the oven mouth as it heats, and baking for up to 30 hours after firing will become an easy rhythm. The initial fire will ad beauty to your living space while preparing the oven for cooking temperatures.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bavarian Brick Oven

Just a short post to show an oven in Bavaria visited by Beth Hayes recently. It is interesting to see the similarities and differences between ovens in various European countries. In this instance the flue for the oven is the entire workspace in front of the oven, thereby making the wall smoke-blackened. Clearly, most of the baking was done in a semi-outdoor environment, unlike the Pompeii bakeries which were inside a building.
Then there's the bread.  With customary Bavarian decorative extravagance, the loaves have been adorned with wheat and leaf motifs, which were glazed (likely with egg white), begging that age-old question (often associated with birthday cakes); which do you eat first, the decoration or the bread?
Thanks Beth for the photos.