Sunday, June 30, 2013

From Concept to Cooking: Part One

EVERY brick oven project I've done started as a concept.  There might have been a central desire for a brick oven as a decorative cooking device OR the desire for a connection to past traditions.  OR both.

I use CAD programs because they help me calculate measurements, but I prefer a pencil and paper or a collection of photos from which to reference details.

Concepts are important tools for planning.  They frame the visual and practical aspects of the brick oven.  As with my work as a landscape designer (, I listen to the future oven owner for clues that will give me a starting point for sketching their project.  These clues come in the form of experiences they've had with brick ovens or cultures where brick ovens are commonplace and also the home that they live that they presumably like.

Splicing a place with a person (or persons) leads to some interesting translations of traditional brick oven forms.  Suggested materials may influence the design and location effects the practical side of the design.

There does come a time in this back-and-forth of ideas when I am asked to 'take over'.  The recognition that my design skills may be more developed than the owners is often the reason that I am hired in the first place. 

At this point, I mention all the best ideas I have, even ones which may be considered in 'left field'.   My goal is to present the client with a project that exceeds their own imagining but with their unique situation included.

Once the concept is clarified, the construction can begin.  The concept will remain, be rechecked, and applied to changes, improvements, and the final product.  

More posts to follow on this subject.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Brick Oven Smoker

An entire smoked dinner, shellfish, lamb, and vegetables

Expanding the use of any appliance we have makes that device both more economical and the space that it occupies for efficient.

Since brick ovens are also beautiful objects capable of cooking most foods, smoking food in them gives us yet another reason to build one.

Turkey after 2hrs in the oven
Smoking in a brick oven is simple.  The fire we build, as we would if we were heating it for pizza, is allowed to burn until the dome temperature just reaches baking temp (400F).  The coals are pushed to the back of the oven and a chunk of apple wood (or any other fruit wood available) is pushed against those coals.

The food is placed in the oven in a tray and the oven door is shut.  Depending on the meat or fish being smoked, the work is done until the meat reaches safe temperature for consumption. 

Smoking food while grilling is even easier since the flavors of the food are determined by what green material you place on the coals.  I have used apple tree trimmings, rosemary sprigs, and hickory chips.

What $14K Buys

Williams-Sonoma will sell you this pizza making rig for $13,499.95.
The interior cooking area is 24" by 18", it is gas fired, and rolls around your patio.

An oven of more accommodating dimensions (such as a 30" interior dome) built by me or other qualified masons from real masonry materials would cost about the same.

An oven of much bigger dimensions built as a family or community project would cost much less.

The pictured oven here has these advantages:
  1. No burly masons working in your yard.
  2. Instant set-up (almost)
  3. No messy firewood to cut, split or burn.
  4. Your kids can ride on it.

Disadvantages you might consider are:
  1. You can make only one small pizza at a time.
  2. In x number of years it will be delivered to your local dump.
  3. You spent $14K (the cost of an economy car) on pizza?
  4. No great-smelling wood smoke to entice your guests.
  5. Your kids can ride on it.
As a mason, I can only say that the word 'Artisan' used to describe this device makes it possible for R2D2 to be an artisan mason if the robot had the right firmware.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Barrel Arch Option

Last fall I posted a blog on a friend's colonial era home built by his great-grandfather.  It had huge granite 'arches' in the cellar supporting the chimney and their original fireplaces and masonry cooking gear.

We designed a brick oven to fit the space in the original kitchen where the original hearth had been and needs of the present home and preserved architecture.   H
e pursued some details that I have found illuminating.

For one, all my ovens have been domes but this one, because of space restrictions, needed to be a barrel arch.

His sense of proportions led him to create arch forms and arches that had multiple radii, a traditional look that makes this oven unique.

We used the same techniques and materials to insulate and mortar the bricks and are the point of attaching the stainless steel adapter that will connect the flue to the existing chimney via insulated stovepipe.
Proportions for the height of the oven interior to the mouth and the flue size were kept in line with working ovens.  The next steps will surround the oven with fiber insulation and exterior brickwork that will result in a very colonial look for his kitchen.

Please note that my friend is already a meticulous person who has experience in welding, house repair and machinery upkeep.  Although this is his first masonry project, he brought his attention to detail to the job and over the course of the winter, has built the oven he wanted.

To other owner/builders wishing to try building an oven, time and care and the primary factors.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Brick Oven Wish List

I've met hundreds of people who want a brick oven.  Not all of them will get one.  Actually, the ratio is about one out of one-thousand (of the people who wish).

The biggest obstacle is... money.
TBO custom brick oven
This does work

TBO portable
cast refractory

By defining what you want from a wood-fired oven, the odds dramatically increase that you will get one and that it will satisfy your needs.

cob oven construction
clay oven
Since wood-fired ovens span every culture and historic period, there are also a wide range of materials, methods, and costs for building one.

Compare it to this: Would I like a fifty-foot schooner to sail around the world? Or would a twenty-five foot cutter sloop that I can afford now get me out on the salty sea?

Listed here are the choices in ascending order of cost for wood-fired ovens that you may build or own tomorrow (metaphorically):
owner built
  1. Cob oven (see former post)
  2. Stone and mud oven
  3. Red brick oven
  4. Owner built fire brick oven
  5. Cast-refractory oven (see former post)
  6. Custom built Pompeii style brick oven (what I build) 
These ovens range in cost from $100 to $ky's the limit.  Safe to say that the Navajos didn't spend a dime on their ovens.

My first oven was built with salvage fire bricks from a pottery kiln.
I didn't want to be the other 999 people who just wished.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Revisiting Community Brick Ovens

I have recently heard from two cities requesting assistance in building a community brick oven.

To put not too sharp a point on the peel, they're having a hard time.

My communications in the past, and a bit of research, show that two factors come into play when community groups try to build a brick oven for public use.

1. The community cannot raise the funds for a brick oven.
2. The local government/regulators/planning boards make permitting a wood-fired brick oven difficult.

Number one:  Medium to large brick ovens can cost $20-50K.  That is a significant sum.  In the best of times, local food and farm groups have had difficulties attracting sponsors with deep enough pockets to fund a project like this.  I can't help with this except to suggest attracting sponsors through their interest in the traditions of brick ovens.

In a relatively small geographic area, such as a neighborhood or semi-rural town, the use-cost ratio makes an oven difficult to justify.  Expanding the project to include 'visiting' communities to use the oven can assist in both fundraising and community-building.

I have suggested in the past, that a mobile community oven would permit transport of the oven to different communities in a given radius from the home location.  This also solves the problem of an investor/sponsor stipulating that if the group desiring the oven disperses, the ownership of the oven would default to the sponsor.

Mobile brick ovens do not need to look like the commercial mass-produced ovens available online. Customized designs that use traditional materials such as stone veneer or brick coupled with some innovative concealment of the trailer can make a mobile oven appear permanent.

Number two:  Local codes permit fireplaces, wood stoves, pellet stoves, and conventional furnaces but have not always caught up with brick oven specs.  In one location in southern CA, the local permitting person saw a brick oven as the same as a chiminea and said, 'no permit required'.

On the other hand, the following excerpt of an email came from a group in Minneapolis, MN attempting to build a community brick oven.

'The "Development Office" for the city, which handles zoning, has taken the position what it will prohibit outside wood-fire ovens anywhere in the city.  They took one look at it and decided that because there is "fire" that makes an oven inherently dangerous.  That, despite the fact that city parks have open grills that anyone can walk up to and build any kind of fire he or she wants to.'

Local codes may change the permitted height of the chimney, as with outdoor wood furnaces, but if it is possible for a code person to see a brick oven in use somewhere else, they may make a provision for a community oven.
OR  let it be treated as a fireplace and go with codes governing that device.

Remember also, that local officials have different takes on what 'community' means.  Despite a quantum leap in the maturity and wisdom of community groups since the 70's, there may be a lingering distrust of organized collections of community-minded people.

"An oven is a story magnet. People rarely pass by the park oven when something is baking without stopping to talk."  Jutta Mason
Search this blog for past posts on Community Brick Ovens.
Below is a link to White Bear United Methodist Church Community Oven.
When on sabbatical in Tuscany attending a bread School, Pastor Bryce Johnson baked bread in a one-hundred –year-old, wood-fired brick oven. In Europe during the 1800 and early 1900s, brick ovens were the centerpiece of village life. Once or twice a week the community oven was fired, and villagers brought their homemade bread dough to the center of the village to bake. As they waited for the bread, villagers conversed with each other and politics debated. The bread was essential for building strong bodies; the oven vital to building strong community.
One last comment:  ALL brick ovens become community ovens.  Only we put the limits on our community.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Controlling the Fire: Low-tech Brick Oven Methods

Brick ovens do not typically have controls to adjust intake air the way a woodstove does.

A simple method of controlling the draft and providing good circulation of gases in and out of the oven interior is shown here.

Tiles, or slices of firebrick are placed so that the bottom of the oven door is raised above the hearth.  With the door set away from the plane of the oven mouth, the draft is controlled.  This works especially well once the fire is well established as the chimney is already inducing draft.

The door and slot below can be infinitely adjusted by changing the thickness of the tiles and the distance the door is set from the face bricks.

Doors are also needed to keep the heat in for smoking and for heat retention.  However, during a firing, the combustion of the wood needs to be kept steady and clean.  Adjusting the door gap to match the quantity of wood in the oven will result in steady climb of interior temperature.

This also works well when quirky winds and downdrafts force air in ways that either cool down the oven or create unwanted smoke.  The above stone door is recommended in hurricane and tornado locations;)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Keeping the Heat In a Brick Oven

high temp insulation (yeah!)
I'm often asked if a brick oven will heat a room.  It is the intent of a brick oven to contain heat and the hope of a brick oven baker that the heat will stay in the oven for a long period of time.  To this end ovens need to be insulated well. 
outer door with double handles
I use 'Foamglas' beneath the floors and 6-8" of ceramic fiber blanket around the dome.

stainless steel inner insulating door

This leaves only the mouth as the exit point of BTUs.  The recently completed oven at Pietree Orchard has both a steel outer door and a stainless steel inner door.  The inner door contains 3" of ceramic fiber insulation.

Tests over the next month will graph the retention of heat that we are able to attain.  Stand by for details.