Friday, April 26, 2013

New England Vernacular

Brick oven exteriors in different environments beg for different treatments.  The current project at Pietree Orchards in Maine has a stone exterior that will enclose both the oven dome, wood box, tool cabinets, and warming ovens.

The exterior is built with split stone and fieldstone from the orchard itself, giving the final building an historic and real connection to the land it rests on.

The stone work is intended to contain the insulating materials: ceramic fiber blanket and vermiculite.
It is also intended to look like the walls common to the region.  Stone was selected that had lichen and aged surfaces or was originally split from local bedrock.

Shutters, a system of two-by stock that shifts upwards as the work progresses allow the stone face to be backed with concrete, forming a solid wall on the interior.

A steel roof will cap the oven enclosure but be invisible from the below.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Brick Oven Exteriors

Enclosing a brick oven core involves two things:
1. creating a space for insulation.
2. Giving the oven the character you desire.

Number one has been addressed in previous posts on insulation.

Number two is where the world of design opens up.
The current project I am building at Pietree Orchards ( in Sweden, Maine is designed to have a split granite and fieldstone exterior that is much larger than the oven core.
The space beneath the oven will store firewood and have two tool racks.  The space on either side of the face will have proofing cabinets located where a small amount of heat from the chimney masonry will warm the stone cabinets so that bread loaves rise in an even environment.  This is elaborate masonry but well-suited to the purpose.

Other projects stick to the simple goal of practical beauty.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

True Brick Ovens

2006 Bridgton Academy design and build
Change is inevitable.  True Brick Ovens began as an outgrowth of my work as a landscape designer and stone mason.

 I've found that the demand for high quality brick oven builders exceeds the number of masons who do this.  This has meant finding ways of traveling far for projects.

Mason Tim assisting in St. Charles
I'm fortunate to have found sources of materials and locally skilled general masons to assist me when I've gone beyond my 300 mile radius from home.  It has also been a pleasure working with masons in the south and the west.
Gorgonio is a block expert
It's not that what I do is impossible.  I encourage even amateur masons to try their hand at brick oven building.  I converse on the phone to Australia (not goin' there for a build!) and via email to all parts of the USA.
CA wine cave with my Latino mason friends
It's just that a brick dome is a spatial calculus that I've gotten to love. 

Each time I fit the keystone into a dome (and crawl inside for a clean-up and inspection), I get a thrill (not cheap).  I've always seen the arch as an elegant expression of strength.  A bit of lyricism from a mason...but it keeps me going.

I also hope to adapt to the changing and various needs of my readers and customers.  I hope this is inevitable.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Outdoor Residential Brick Ovens

Not all homes can accommodate a brick oven in or attached to the building.  Some locations are well suited to an outdoor brick oven.

Incorporating a brick oven into a residential landscape opens up many possibilities for a dynamic interplay between nature and food (crows and skunks excepted).

An ideal situation might be a garden location where the surrounding ornamental plants also serve as spices and garnishes for the foods cooked in the oven.  This is a Mediterranean approach to practical beauty.

The masonry of the landscape can also extend to the oven's exterior.  As a landscape designer and mason I have a litmus test for overall success.  Unless otherwise desired, nothing in the created landscape should shout its presence.  The whole of the landscape should appear as if it existed in one thought.  See:  and for more on my landscape design approach.

Not much here on brick ovens?  This is because the oven design/style/look is an integral part of the whole landscape.  Each home, owner, and lifestyle is a different mix of factors.  It is the reason that I haven't built two identical ovens.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Return to Pompeii

Side access presumed to be for product handling
The impression that the excavated city of Pompeii left on me remains three years later.  As an amateur student of history, a landscape designer, and especially as a brick oven builder, Pompeii is a landmark in understanding brick oven construction.

Classic Pompeii bakery (millstones in foreground)

Since then, I have analyzed each oven I build, looking for ways to echo the ancient and essential quality that the Pompeii ovens possess.    The 20+ bakeries in Pompeii, Italy, whose structures survived being buried under meters of volcanic ash in 79 C.E., have features that, to this day, have not been improved upon.

The most obvious features, aside from sheer size, that the ovens of 2000 years ago have in Pompeii is the broad shelf across the front of the oven, a high arch, and very wide throat.

Modest expansion of throat and face
Many residential applications make the dimensions of this design impractical.  For the bakers of Pompeii I surmise that this work space was used for proofing loaves and for efficient work flow of bread in and out.

On each of my recent ovens, I have expanded the throat to provide a more Pompeii-like design thinking that those ovens had to have been the result of previous developments by masons and bakers to build the best design possible.  Universally applied designs don't spring up overnight.

In other words, except for insulation, I try not to mess with a great oven design.
Many oven plans or oven kits fall back on the ease of making the mouth and the face more-or-less the same size.  This cramps the baker.
Pietree Orchard oven
The assumption there is that a larger face will allow smoke to escape past the face.  My experience has been that a wide throat and a chimney with good draft will direct smoke upward, not outward.

So I'll return to Pompeii, in my mind's eye and bring the design of my ovens up to ancient standards.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Brick Oven Portability

My portable at the Kneading Conference
Wood-fired brick ovens have become popular with caterers because the brick oven both cooks for the event and, if necessary, IS the event.

Veraci Pizza on the street in Seattle, WA
Having an active, entertaining food-making going on right in front of  guests makes weddings, festivals, street fairs, and family reunions into memorable times.

Pizza Pie On The Fly Co. Portland, ME
This cannot be said of any other catering device.  People don't stand around the oil tank-converted smoker, the cut-in-half oil drum chicken and steak grill (or the sweating attendants), or the van that has the ovens and microwaves consuming bazillion BTUs of propane and kilowatts.

Therefore... portable brick ovens need to be tough, efficient, and REALLY cool looking.  The assembly-line models offered by some manufacturers may fire up well, turn out the well-sauced pizza but fail to ignite the imagination of the party-goers.
Pizza To The People,  CT

Distinguishing a business starts with the appearance of the signature device.

Before jumping on a prefab portable, decide what distinctive look you want your catering business to present.  Culture, cuisine, and pizazz are possible with a bit of imagination.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Pietree Orchards' Brick Oven: Worth Mocking

The technical details of building brick domes make mocking up an efficient effort prior to mortaring.
A large arch form with cut-outs where the mouth profile matches make handling the form a bit easier.  A face arch this big will also be a boon to the baker while providing a very large throat for smoke to naturally draft out the chimney.

Mocking up arches provides an accurate count of bricks cut to the dimensions that the mouth and throat require.  Cutting bricks in advance isolates the loud, sometimes dusty work to a location away from the build.  Then, mortaring and construction of the dome becomes a fast and quiet process.

The current project at Pietree Orchard:, being a 54" interior oven, makes mocking up even more pertinent.  With double-thick floor and dome mass, planning the buttresses, spring bricks, and throat dimensions while increasing handling, greatly reduces construction time and on-the-fly changes.  The gaps in the arch are there to account for the accumulated thin mortar joints when the arch is made permanent.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Brick Oven Elegance

I recently finished an indoor brick oven in a fourth floor loft.  Aside from the challenge of carrying masonry products up four floors (tall ones), the oven needed to fit into an eclectic mix of classical and modern furniture.  Setting it in a very large space allowed it to be massive while at the same time making it a piece of 'furniture'.

Here's what we got.  Some of the details such as the shelf supports and the fluting on the side counter legs echoed details that existed in the surrounding architecture.

Eclectic design situations are challenging because, although the owner has an internal narrative that connects all the choices of decor, the outside designer/builder needs to tune into that mix or... just go for it.

In the end, my early training as a watercolorist (lightweight art) gave me experience in knowing when to stop adding layers of detail.  Watercolors get muddy if you overwork them.