Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Community Brick Oven

Community Brick Oven in Audrix, France on market day
TBO Portable oven modeled after the Audrix oven belonging to 50 Local of Kennebunk, Maine

People occasionally ask me if I've built any 'community ovens'.

We agree that these are brick ovens intended for members of a neighborhood or small town who want to gather and bake bread together.  This is a very old tradition.  I stayed in a tiny town in the Dordogne region (Perigord) of France that had a functioning brick oven that was fired weekly for the farmer's market day.  France has a network of paths that wind through woods, fields, and towns.  These 'randonnee' are marked and easy to follow.

Sheehan Gardens' TBO portable oven 

I found it remarkable that upon entering even the smallest village, the community brick oven was identifiable, even when it hadn't been used in a century.  Some brick ovens were associated with the town church and it is reported that there was a 'fee' for townspeople to use it.

Going forward to NOW, it is difficult to imagine most organized towns funding and permitting a community brick oven.  We are a mobile population.  We buy our bread at primarily from supermarkets, sometimes from bakeries, and rarely from farmer's markets.

Baking in a TBO oven at the Kneading Conference

I recently spoke to someone interested in the community oven concept.  I recommended a portable oven of sufficient size to allow approximately 60 loaves of bread to be baked in three consecutive batches.

Portability would allow the oven to be transported between 'member communities' either weekly or even from one day to the next.  A portable oven might be paid for by a small group of organizers or a single patron, thus eliminating the tedious process of finding a site, building the stationary oven and then protecting and maintaining it.

In many climates, the oven could be stored for the 'off season'.

A brick oven for public use could help us rediscover community and the pleasures of fresh baked bread.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Annaberg Sugar Plantation Brick Oven

Annaberg has one of the most highly visible and easily visited historic brick ovens in the US Virgin Islands.  I recently sailed there.   Less visible ovens can be found everywhere in the islands, beside roads, in many old buildings in Culebra, St. Croix, Tortola, and St. Thomas.  I found them in Antigua,  Guadeloupe, and St. Maarten.

 These oven follow traditional forms yet some, like the one shown here at Annaberg Sugar Plantation, are relatively rustic.  Others are spectacular elements in towns, obviously part of the daily life of inhabitants.
Note that the interior of the oven has recent ash on the floor and a roof that is low.
The Annaberg oven continues to be used for historic festivals.  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Fact Checking Your Brick Oven

What are the real stats on your brick oven?

  Excluding appearance, which can range from industrial through space age, there are five stats to pay attention to when comparing brick ovens.

#1 Shape.  The shape and proportions of a brick oven effect function.  Dome height can vary from Napolitano 'low vault' domes
to classic 'Pompeii' shapes.  Low vault domes are
best for broil situations and are suited to pizza.  Pompeii or higher domes are more versatile, encompassing pizza as well as all other baked, roasted, slow-cooked, and smoked foods.

#2 Mass.  The thickness of the dome is where the heat of the fire is stored and released.  Cast refractory domes that come in kits tend to have thinner shells thus less mass.  This will work if you want quick high temperature.
Fire brick domes, such as the ones I build, are 4.5" thick and store a great deal of BTU's.  For restaurant and bakery ovens I double that thickness (9") creating an oven that will stay very hot, loosing only 100 degrees in 24 hours.

#3 Insulation.  The BTU's (heat) that the wood fire puts into the mass of the oven will be lost to the atmosphere.  Slowing the loss down requires more insulation.  The floor of the oven MUST be isolated from the heat-sucking masonry it sits on.  I use 4" of Foamglas, a porous high temp block.  One inch ceramic board insulation turns to mush when wet.  A less expensive below-floor insulation can be cast using vermiculite and Portland cement.  Most commercial oven shells come with 2" of blanket insulation.  I recommend 4-6".  The extra expense is repaid in efficiency.  This is true for your home but that's another big topic.

#4 Draft.  Ovens that have flues need a chimney that will draw the smoke up and away from the user.
The height and diameter of the chimney determine the draft.  For interior installations, I build make-up air channels so that the combustion air is coming from outside the house.  Without these, other devices in the house may suck air down the oven flue causing smoking.

#5 Fire.  Dry hardwood is a must.  Wet wood is inefficient.  Softwoods, such as pine, spruce, fir, hemlock, and cedar have very light ash and short-lived embers.
Since you want the fire in your oven, rather than consuming your house or yard, conforming to code standards regarding distance to combustibles is essential.

Whatever oven you end up with should have the best aspects of the above factors.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

136K Brick Oven Visits

doug's dome
doug's dome via phone and email
This blog gets about 2000 visits a month.  Most of those are to posts dealing with construction of true brick ovens.  I've provided information on every detail of the process so that owner-builders who want to tackle the job can do so with accurate guidance.

David S.'s oven with TBO help
136,000 blog visits does not make me an internet star.  It doesn't even register on the meter.  Yet, for a  niche market such as brick ovens, it adequately acknowledges the 300 plus posts to date.

I've gotten hundreds of emails requesting advice, concerns, and once in a while regrets on ovens built without the technical knowledge to make them work properly.  I respond either by email or phone.

complete oven with woodbox
I also understand that in the SPAMified world we live in, people who might leave comments or send me the results of their application of information found on these posts, shy away from making their addresses visible.

I don't like getting emails that I haven't asked for and I don't broadcast offers, solicitations, or birthday greetings to blog visitors I don't know.  If you comment on a post or if you pass on thoughts (as happens in forums), I'll thank you once and be silent.  That's the promise.

Comment examples:

Built by a bloke in Western Australia
after we talked on the phone
I wanted to go to a village and see the beauty that a stone roof can give to all the houses there. I love the fact that it’s more durable and that it adds to the curb appeal of the house. Your photos are getting me excited about the roof installation that will start next week in my new house. I wish I had a stone roof. Haha! 

“If your oven is stoked properly, you will use very little wood but get a very fast temperature rise.” – This is one of the things that you must consider in making your own brick oven. Proper stoking of the oven will make it more efficient and allow you to maximize your wood.

Such a nice information about authentic brick ovens. I also got some information about high temperature insulation. Which is very helpful for my upcoming project.

 I hope this helps up the comment column count from about 30 to who knows.  You can even comment on this post, like, 'Stop whining Neufeld and write more posts!"

David Neufeld
Spring 2016

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Brick Oven Fictions

Tuscan Room an oven by TBO
Building a traditional baking device into a modern house requires some fiction.

As in all good fiction, the plot must be plausible.  Often I begin with what is evident, the site, the style of the home, the era of the home, and other aspects of what in fiction is called 'setting'.

TBO oven in Ventura CA, with stone roof

Stone oven building in Audrix, France

Pietree Farm brick oven
Even in the most modern homes, there is a line
Art Deco design oven by TBO
of reasoning that went into the design.  As a designer (aside from builder), I am accustomed to noticing the elements of the space that are key in the home design.  These can be carried into the design of the brick oven.
Pietree stone building by TBO
Stone, stucco, and slate cottage by TBO

Older homes, even historic homes, offer clearer clues.  Matching brickwork, woodwork, and detailing from a house might be incorporated into the oven design.

clay oven in Costa Rica
In some instances, an owner wants an 'old world' look and feel to the oven and its environment.  This is fun and interesting. Having traveled to many countries where brick ovens are common, I have a visual memory of the 'look and feel'.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Brick Oven Advice

Some of these posts are advice; most are instructional.  Advice is closer to opinion; instruction is close to factual.

When I write that brick oven domes are stronger/better than sprung arch vaulted brick ovens, that's opinion based on tradition and experience.  When I write that more insulation below and above a brick oven is needed, that's factual, based on heat retention, safety, and conservation.

I've been happy to give advice and limited instruction to people who find me through this blog and on the TBO checklist on my website:

When people begin the conversation with me about the oven they want, I ask questions.  Some of the answers are facts, such as the purpose of the oven, the anticipated output, the placement, and the cost.
Other answers are subjective: What are their aesthetic tastes?  Does their family have an historical association with brick ovens or baking?  Will the oven become part of their daily cooking life?

Both sets of statements are important.  When we buy manufactured appliances, we are stuck with the technical and aesthetic choices of the manufacturer (within their product line).

It is becoming rarer and rarer for anyone to have an artisan built home or device.  Even the artisans are under pressure to conform to the manufactured product 'look'.  Certainly, the price point. (This is opinion based on experience).

How do we want our future to look?  Will it include old traditions that are worth preserving, like baking our own bread?  What will our grandchildren know of their ancestor's lives other than faded photos?

If you build it, they will return...

Sunday, March 6, 2016

High End Wood-Fired Pizza Ovens

TBO oven (Bello!)
I don't often do 'market research'.  But I am always asked how much a particular size and design oven will cost.  I respond first with questions regarding the baking needs of the customer/chef and soon after we come up with a realistic number.

Last week, I got a typical call from someone about to open a restaurant.  He was looking for a pizza oven and was candid about a budget and the ability to tap artisan friends for some of the finish work.

When, after the set of questions needed to be accurate, I gave him the cost of the oven core I could offer him.  He told me that a high end, prestigious, company that makes oven shells, Ferrara, had the same size dome for two thousand dollars more than the price I quoted for a true brick oven.

I was glad to know that I could build custom masonry with real fire brick that was competitive with a component shipped from Italy, mass-manufactured, albeit, to high standards.

He chose the Ferrara because, as he stated, "People like to have their photo taken in front of a Ferrara."

brick set for a Ferrara dome

Bricks fitted for a TBO dome (500 year warrantee)

I get it.  A brand-name maker's oven, built well, and covered in small tile work, has a recognizable cache.  My ovens, no two alike, appeal to the owner who wants to feel like the oven is theirs alone.

Custom TBO oven in Ventura CA
I thought about where I would put a name on my ovens (presently, they are unsigned).  In centuries past, oven builders didn't sign their ovens; they certainly didn't broadcast their name across the top of the mouth.   And I don't think my name would look as good over the mouth of an oven a the name, Ferrara.

I better understand the demands of the modern market.  I remain, the custom builder, the anachronism...

Friday, March 4, 2016

The New Pompeii

I digress...

Let's consider that we live in the new Pompeii.  Regardless of how you view the origin of climate change, or any other environmental or geo-political event, much time has passed since the volcanic event at Pompeii.
1908 Messina earthquake
Messina Earthquake is one of the deadliest earthquakes in the western world which took the lives of nearly about 123,000 on December 28, 1908. The 7.1 magnitude earthquake jolted the city of Messina with a powerful 39 foot Tsunami destroying nearly 91% of the structures.
That city today is as vacant as the moon of it's native inhabitants.  The millions of people who visit (I as one) experience it as, what? an historic site?, a silent message?, an object lesson?

What is the Vesuvius on our near horizon?  Whether this was an existential question for Pompeiians of two thousand years ago or not, it is for us.  With knowledge of world events, we perceive mountains of looming catastrophes.

On the other hand, we are protected from the myriad of disease, crop failure, and economic fallout that Pompeiians had to deal with.  Did they feel invulnerable?  Did their metropolis seem eternal?

A book I sometimes return to because it is densely packed with thought-provoking history, is Fingerprints of the Gods, by Graham Hancock.  Hancock hypothesizes a lost civilization that existed some 12 thousand years ago (at least) and vanished except for markers left in all of the world's cultures.

The book is intricately researched yet proposes something we may intuit: that our present dominance of the Earth may be temporary; that geological, atmospheric, and astronomical events, unforeseen today may bring about drastic change to our planet.

Strangely, I find this refreshing.  I, like many, don't like to consider that we have built our own Vesuvius.  I prefer to see the natural world as more powerful than what humans are capable of.  Whether this relates to brick ovens or fresh bread, is questionable.  I do something everyday that helps, hurts, or is neutral to a balanced life.  What am I doing while Vesuvius smokes?