Ever since a young age I have had a fondness for the delicious mixture of ingredients known as pizza. Being the type of person that I am, I made it my goal to master the creation of a delicious pizza. I failed many times, not using the right flour, not measuring correctly and usually ending up with a sauce covered cracker rather than a delicious slice…
It wasn’t until college I realized I could build my very own wood fired pizza oven. After extensive research (I like to do research!) I found that a wood fired oven was the one true way to cook a real pizza. I figured the best place to do this was on the shore of the pond I grew up on and spent countless summers enjoying as a kid.
It took a long time for the oven to take shape, both mentally and physically have to give a lot of credit to a book titled “Build Your Own Earth Oven” by Kiko Denzer. This book is an invaluable resource when it comes to building these ovens.
The process of sculpting this oven took many years and many hands. I started by digging a hole in what I call foamy root hell. The type of soil you find near this pond is not rich with worms. It is made up of decomposed leaves, wood and roots and more roots, did I mention roots. I threw everything I had at it. Shovel, pick axe, chain saw, you name it. I only made it about two feet down before I conceded to laying down a base of sand to set the first stones on.
Being my first oven I went with a design simple in nature. I wanted a stone base about 3’ high, a basic 22” fire brick lined cooking deck, and a 16” high arch door to create the perfect fire draft without a chimney.
I sourced the stones from a stone wall dumping ground. Let me tell you that is not the place to get stones for building a foundation. The stone dump is like the island of misfit rocks literally, they are odd shapes and none of them fit together… But it is what I had and it was free.
Arch & Cook Deck
I used firebrick which I picked up at my local hardware store. I chose to use the larger ones for optimal thermal mass and heat uniformity. The bricks are made of ceramic and measured 9”x 4.5”x 2.5”.
I wanted to use local material as I felt it would be more fun to have the authenticity of an “off the land build”. However, I dug a few holes and found nothing but sand. I did, however, find out through a friend that there was a private sand pit nearby that could help me out. I drove Big Red my family’s pick up truck over there and found a man taking a rest in his front loader.
Me- “I need some clay!”
Sandpit man- “How much?”
Me- “I dunno enough for a pizza oven?”
Sandpit man- “I don’t want to break your truck”
Me- “Well just fill it up but not too much”
At this point he takes off on his machine to go find some clay, mind you the bucket of his front loader is big enough for me to live in comfortably. After rummaging around like a kid in his playroom looking for his favorite toy to show off, the gentleman comes back with a load of what looks like clay and gets out and looks at it and says “hmm I think there is some better stuff else where…” and gets back in and takes off again. Finally, he comes back with some pure gray pay dirt (‘clay’) and fills up Big Red to the brim.
I walk over to the front end loader and look up at him and yell.
Me- “How much do I owe ya!?”
Sandpit man- “How’s $5 bucks sound”
I tossed him a 5 and headed off happier than a seagull with a french-fry.
Luckily the sand was something I had plenty of, this was mixed with the clay to add strength as well as act as a mold for the beehive dome! Just down the pond road is a large sandpit! The pit was full of course sand, the perfect stuff for shaping and mixing with clay.
These came in big bails from the local farm supply store. Commonly used for bedding in the animal stalls.
Glass bottles are easy to obtain, just throw a party and the next day you will have plenty 🙂
I went to my local hard wood supplier and picked out the thickest piece I could find. The piece ended up being Poplar which in retrospect was not the best choice but it works fine. I cut the wood to shape on a band saw and sanded everything down smoothly then added some fancy metal work.
Brick Mixing and Making:
This is the hard manual labor that nobody enjoys and is best done at the end of the summer when your feet have toughened up!
Sift the sand of all large stones. This can be done though a large screen. It may seem tedious, and I don’t blame you, but you will pay for it later as I did.
Lay out a large tarp and pour out 2-parts clay 1-part sand. It is always best to build some test bricks and let them dry to ensure your mixture is just right! Now add some water and start doing the jitterbug in the mixture with your bare feet. Bumping the tunes helps with the pain. Now mix up all that sand and clay like a giant pizza dough. You want the texture to be nice and smooth, but not runny. Keep adding water and mixing until you reach this texture. If your feet are dying because you didn’t sift the sand and left in large pebbles, fear not! Grab a corner of the tarp and pull it to the opposing diagonal corner like you are folding a napkin. Now let the big blob of clay and sand roll over as you pull the tarp. This technique is hard but effective. If you have friends invite them over for this stage and when they complain remind them that you will soon feed them pizza to their hearts content.
Now pack the bread pans that you stole without permission from the kitchen with some of this glop and use a butter knife from the same origin to stab the brick to release air bubbles. And you have your first brick!
One of the major advantage to having a pizza oven is how efficient it is. For the oven to be efficient you need to ensure that it is very well insulated. I used one of the best insulators, trapped air! This is done two ways, one with wood chips and two with empty glass bottles. The wood chip insulation is packed around the bottles to ensure that the air in them is trapped.
To make the wood chip insulation flow the steps below,
Fill a wheelbarrow with wood shavings.
Fill a bucket a third of the way with clay.
Fill the rest of the bucket with water.
Get your handy dandy sheet rock mud mixer and your most powerful drill and go to town making chocolate milk!
Once you have the thick consistency of chocolate milk pour it into the wheelbarrow full of wood shavings and get your hands dirty by mixing it up into a yummy sticky wood chip dough.
Alright back to my oven build J
The build process was slow. This was due to lack of free time and the need to wait for the clay mixture to dry in-between layers.
Once I had the foundation walls built, I back filled the foundation with loose scarp rock, stone and sand. This all together created a fine base for the construction of my pizza palace.
Next up I started the build of the oven itself. I used the bread pan technique. Like a six-year-old making a snow fort I used some bread pans to mold the bricks. I started by making a one brick high wall. This would be the outer parameter of the ovens base. The base consisted of the round part of the oven and the little hearth entry way where the arch would sit. Inside this ring I laid as many glass bottles on their sides as I could fit without letting them touch. Around the bottles I packed in the insulation mixture until it was level with the first ring.
On top of this I built a form which would be the foundation for the cook deck. I did this with 2×4’s and filled the form in with the brick mixture. I used an old piece of wood to ensure the top was level and smooth. I then built a ring of bricks up so that they were level with the top of the form. I filled the space between the brick wall and the form with glass bottles. I then removed the form and back filled right up to the cook deck foundation with insulation material and smoothed it all out, nice and flat!
Brick laying time! I laid the bricks out on top of the foundation. This was the easy part! Made sure they were all nice and level. Next was the fire brick arch. I am not an experienced mason by any means so this was a stretch, but I felt pretty confident after doing some research and pretending I was Roman. I built an arch form from some plywood and 2×4’s. I made the form about a ¼” shorter then I wanted the actual arch to be. The plan was to prop the form up on some chopsticks and then build the arch over the form using small pebbles and brick mixture to fill the cracks and support the brick arch. I used some clay brick material to make the key stone at the top. Once the clay was dry, I pulled the chopsticks out and the form dropped down and out it came, and I had an arch. Hooray!!
The oven is finally taking shape. This is where the construction sand really comes into play. I took a bucket and filled it with sand and water so that it was the same consistency as a rainy day on the beach. Wet but not soggy. Perfect for sculpting. I flipped this bucket upside down on my brick cook deck like I was making a 5 gallon sand castle. I pulled off the bucket and started to sculpt. Now this was a bit like making an igloo. A big beehive dome with a long deck that goes out to the arch and matches it perfectly. I used a piece of smooth wood to smooth out the mold and create the perfect dome. Once I was satisfied with the dome I applied wet newspaper to it. Similarly, to the way you would apply papier-mâché to a balloon minus the papier-mâché part ;).
With a friend we started churning out brick and adding them ring after ring following the curvature of the dome and arch tunnel. Before we knew it we made it to the top! I probably waited a full winter before I did the next step. It was close to fall by the time we finished the dome and I was in no hurry and wanted to make sure it was good and dry!
The last layer was a thick layer of wood shaving insulation. You mix this stuff up and apply it liberally to the outside of the dome. About 3-4” thick. Making the wall close to 7-8” thick by the time you are done. Now the problem with leaving the oven with this as your final coat is it looks a bit like a wooly mammoth’s behind. The wood chips stick out at all angles causing it to have a furry appearance. I tried to remedy this by applying a thin skim coat of clay, however, that soon chipped off when it dried.
The Dig Out:
Finally, after waiting for the insulation layer to dry I got to see how my oven would come out. I got my big trusty spoon and went to town digging out the mold. This is no easy task as the door is small and the oven is deep. By the end my whole upper body was in the oven scrapping around ensuring I got all the sand out!
The First Fire:
Now that the oven was finished I needed to have a few break-in fires to slowly get the oven fired with heat. I started a small twig fire in the entrance to the oven and as the coals accumulated I pushed the fire farther and farther into the oven. I did this a couple times over the next few days until I felt confident that the oven was fully dry.
Pizza at Last!
It took me a good four years or so to complete it but the pizza was worth the wait. I fired that oven up late afternoon and by six we were throwing pizzas in and they were cooking in 2-3 mins. Hot fresh wood fired pizza yum!
I soon built a cover over the oven to match the buildings around camp and to protect it from the rain. The organic structure of the oven would not hold up well to water and given it took me 4 years I wanted to enjoy it for at least that 🙂