Saturday, March 3, 2018

Why Would Anyone Need Oven Temperature Control?

I finally gathered enough courage to fire up the oven to make a pizza*...I thought if they didn’t turn out, well–who would know except those nobody was invited over. I had made some pizza dough the day before and put it in the refrigerator overnight. I pulled the dough out the next day and formed it into small balls. As the dough warmed up, I threw some flour on a wooden peel and tried to form a round pizza skin...boy, was that a lesson in failure (and humility). I finally decided that a small, free-form pizza was the perfect way to go. I put on a minimum of toppings, actually just virgin olive oil, a bit of garlic, and some mozzarella. My first pizza was woefully lacking in almost every way except the fact that it was pizza from an oven I had built. Amazing how that one fact at the time made that pizza the best I’d ever had. So here’s the mandatory picture of my first pizza baked on the 19th of November, 2009, in my handcrafted brick oven at +670F (+350C).

Did you notice the price tag is still on the peel? And now we all know why it's important to stretch your pizza dough to an even thickness...

The next time I fired up the oven I decided that my stored heat needed to be used to bake a loaf of bread (again, since that was the reason I built this huge, hollow, chunk of masonry). I went through my normal routine of making a sourdough loaf and stressed about getting the oven at the correct temperature. Ultimately, my over-concern with getting the oven too hot, led to the oven being a bit too cool ~325F (~163C) for producing the golden brown crusty loaf I had envisioned. Truly, it was one of the palest loaves I’d ever seen, but was from a brick oven I had built and therefore absolutely terrific! (Thank goodness for toasters!) As with the first pizza, here’s a picture with my first loaf of bread (21 November 2009) from the oven.

In further retrospect, maybe wearing a lighter color shirt would have made the loaf look more like an artisan loaf of bread instead of ... that. But at least you now know I'm not trying to hide anything about this first experience with a WFO and the art of bread baking (or in this case, the lack of art)!

And as before, it was wonderful being able to pull the ash and still glowing coals into an ash bin (through the ash slot) just before putting formed dough loaves in the oven. Not having to deal with a hot & messy bucket of ashes at this point in the bake was a significant plus.

So there it was, a couple pizzas and two loaves of bread for a bargain price of $2,677 –who wouldn’t see that as a terrific deal? (Good thing there were no labor costs calculated in that price...hate to see someone shocked and put off doing something like this themselves!)

*In all honesty, even though everybody refers to our brick oven as “the pizza oven” – baking bread was (and still is) my primary goal/reason for having a WFO.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Closing the Door on My Fire Fears

Since the oven has been cured (at least I think it’s been fully cured.) it was time to find out how my oven firing door build was going. I freely admit that I still was a bit twitchy about starting a fire in something I’d built and walking away. Visions of forest fires and singed squirrels continually danced in my head each time I contemplated lighting up. In order to quell my fear, I decided to call the local sheet metal shop about my fire door’s progress.

I had contacted a local sheet metal shop as soon as I had completed the oven’s opening. I took the dimensions of the opening to Mike Z–their “stainless steel guy” and talked with at length about building a fire door for the oven. I had sketched out a few ideas but Mike took on the project with interest...after all, a fire door for a pizza oven has to be more intriguing than doing basic sheet metal work. My primary design “needs” were; 1) the door had to be able to stand alone, 2) the door had to have a set of handles, 3) the door needed to be insulated so the handles would not be “too hot to handle”, and 4) the door could not warp or twist with the heat. He made some cost estimates for me and I gave him the measurements of the oven opening. Mike said it would be a couple weeks before he could fit it into his schedule, but he’d call when it was done or if he had follow-up questions. Well, it seemed like it had been several weeks and I hadn't yet heard from him, so...

I could no longer resist calling and seeing if there was any prediction of completion date. Low and behold, the door had actually just been completed. I was extremely happy with the job he’d done. The door was made of stainless steel and was hollow so it could be filled with perlite. Mike had fitted a cap over the hollow middle section that could be secured with two set screws. The door was a bit heavier (17 lbs) than I had dreamed (and a bit more expensive), but it met all my design needs...and I didn’t have to do anything but write a check for $186.70 and take it home. I had a lot of fun figuring out how the door was going to work for me. I tried putting it up on little pieces of brick to promote low air flow into the chamber, but came to realize that the physics of the opening and the firing chamber was pretty much working well without my help.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Where there's smoke...there's usually more

No problems getting another bag of perlite when we got home. Mixing up and applying the last batch of perlcrete insulation for the oven also went surprisingly well (and quickly). The fact that two things on the list had gone smoothly did make me a bit nervous...after all, that’s just not normal for any of my building projects. I guess I should have just counted it as a fluke and not continued to dwell on it all that week, but then that—that wouldn't have been normal either...oh I go again.

My plan was to have a path for moisture from the perlcrete to escape out the chimney/flue system. Once the chimney rose above the smoke collection chamber, I intended to nest my primary clay chimney (8" diameter) inside a 12" clay chimney flue up to the rain cap and cinder screen on top. (I know in many English speaking, European countries this is called a chimney pot...but as colorful as the term is, it sadly just doesn't seem appropriate here in Oregon with our new Marijuana laws.) I had built a smoke collection chamber (two sections of 8" clay pipe cut and mortared together to form a single piece that was wider at the bottom and tapered down at the top to match a standard 8" flue pipe).  The picture below shows the 2D concept of the cuts on the flue tiles. (The red sections are the cut outs.) Done properly, the top cut on each tile should leave the outline of half of a flue tile. When the two sections are brought together, an 8" clay flue tile should sit directly on top (hopefully, flush) of the smoke collection chamber construct.

I’d seen a similar illustration on the Forno Bravo forum and thought it looked simple enough to do... Remember I said in an earlier post that I was spatially challenged? Well, it took me quite a while to actually turn the illustration into the desired smoke collection chamber. The keys were realizing that a square was really helpful for setting up the required cuts, but a construction marker/pencil was not really good for marking the cut lines (score one for a black magic marker). The other problem, at least for me, was that I could mark one side and begin the cut (with a diamond blade on my skill saw) but when I started going around the “tube” it was difficult to keep on line or even figure out where the line was (you see, if you use a construction pencil, the graphite is blown right off the surface by the clay particles whizzing out of the cut)... It also didn’t help that trying to hold & turn a heavy piece of clay tile in one hand while trying to control a skill saw with the other, is a feat somewhat beyond my capabilities (or at least it was against my resolve to retain all my fingers and both of my hands throughout this project).

Eventually, I did get two tiles cut (while retaining all my digits) and was able to mortar them together. (Just so you know, I did butcher one "test" tile section beyond all hope. I guess you could say I wanted to develop some experience before doing the final work...but that would be stretching the truth quite a bit.)

Below is a picture of the final flue piece, joined with mortar, and sitting on top of the oven's entry arch smoke vault. It doesn’t look all that impressive, but the enlarged lower section does help significantly to gather/collect the smoke from the oven and let it pass smoothly into the upper chimney sections.

Some of you may notice that my construct doesn’t look exactly like my drawing...and you’re correct. I basically spent a lot of time with my saw and new grinder trying to just get the two pieces to fit together (remember, I'm spatially challenged), so I had a wider base and a top upon which to set the next, yes as usual there is the ideal (and correct way) and then there’s my way.

I know that my struggle constructing the smoke chamber was directly related to the easy time I had with the last of the perlcrete application. Some sort of cosmic/comic justice I suppose, that was imposed just to keep me really humble.

p.s. I realized later (too late), that I assumed...yes, I know 😞...that an 8" flue tile was referring to the inside measurement. FYI, an 8" flue tile provides a 6" internal diameter...perfect for a smaller oven!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Burying the Evidence of Shoddy Brickwork

Now that my oven dome is cured (water all driven out), it’s time to put on some insulation. Basically, I need to bury/cover the dome with a 5 to 7 inch thick layer of perlcrete. Ideally the perlcrete should be a 10:1 mix (10 parts perlite and 1 part cement) for the dome insulation.

In many ways, it was a good thing that I needed insulation over my oven build...didn’t want someone wandering by that knew about brickwork...or more importantly point out how much I still didn’t know about laying brick. Creating an insulation coat of perlcrete over the entire oven sounded pretty easy at the time (and a great way to hide/bury the evidence of my shortcomings as a brick layer). As with all my projects, once again, I was able to make the job more difficult than it needed to be.

I decided that in order to make a consistent thickness of perlcrete over the oven dome, it would be a good idea to use wire mesh placed over the dome at a set distance. When I laid on the perlcrete, I could keep the thickness of the insulating layer fairly even just by keeping the wire in the center of the layer. Subsequent methods by Gulf & UtahBeehiver (Forno Bravo forum) would have been much better, but this worked for me at the time.

First, I built quite humorous (and flimsy) forms around the oven perimeter using bricks and wood scraps. I poured a 3-4 inch thick layer of standard redi-mix concrete a minimum of 4" out from the oven base and then embedded wire mesh into the concrete. When the concrete set, I cut, shaped, formed, and secured the wire over the dome. I was pretty happy that this wire mesh would give me a good thickness guide and add some strength to the insulation cap. Into the concrete I also embedded a leaning piece of ½" rebar on each of the front opening sides to add a little more buttressing strength for the front arches.

What a pain! The perlcrete does not want to “stack” up the sides of the dome. Some will hold behind the wire, but mostly I put it in place and it falls out of place. In addition, I had read that putting a layer of diatomaceous earth (DE) between the dome bricks and insulation layer would help provide expansion slip (as the dome expanded and contracted during firing/cooling cycles) and actually fill minor cracks in the dome mortar joints. However, that DE layer also kept the perlcrete from adhering in any way to the oven bricks...bummer! I also could not get the 10:1 perlcrete mix to hold, so I backed off and ended up using a 6:1 or 7:1 mix that at least I could work with...just a little frustrating!

Decided that it was really just the vertical, lower half portion of the oven that was the plywood to the rescue. I set pieces vertically along the base of the oven and then I could simply drop the perlcrete into the space between them and the sides of the oven. The wire mesh didn’t seem to impede the perlcrete as it was dropped down and the loose insulating perlcrete mix appeared to encase the wire nicely as it filled the gap. Once I got to the portion of the oven where it started to “dome” significantly, the perlcrete finally would stay in place. With this technique, insulating the oven dome went quite a bit faster...until of course we ran out of perlite and were due to head out on a trip.

Oh well...I set up a canopy again to keep the rain off and figured the perlcrete would just dry and cure until we got back from our trip...but right now, I need a beer!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Starting the Cure

Final oven specs - 19" wide opening, 11.75" height, internal 20" high, 39" widest internal, depth is 42" (cooking door brick inside edge to rear wall), 11" inside entry brick to edge of ash slot, 3.5" x 22" ash slot, and door height to dome height ratio = 59% . (My original target for the opening/dome height ratio was the “prefect” 63% ratio, but additional 0.75" at opening height was not in plan specs–I think, along with others, that the 63% is a guideline and the igloo/Montreal/beavertail style shape changes the flow dynamics. Bottom line is that when I fire it up I’ll find out in a hurry about if all’s well.)

After cleaning up the area and returning the tile/brick wet saw to our neighbor, we decided to make our first curing fire into a party. So, mid-morning on September first we made a few calls to friends and folks involved in the building process to the initial lighting of the oven. After dinner about 7:30 pm, we poured a little White Lightnin’ on some newspaper and put a match to it while our dozen guests watched (and I’m sure wondered what the big deal was...). I fed the fire an occasional twist of newspaper to keep some flames going and after about 30 minutes the dome was registering about 200F (IR gun reading). No problems showed up and the chimney/vent system seemed to pull the smoke up & out just fine.

I’d made some whole wheat bread in the house oven, sliced it up into little strips and put them on a baking sheet. Added salt & pepper, a slice of pepadew sweet pepper, plus a few shavings of Parmesan drizzled with EVOO and put ‘em back in a 425F oven to crisp up a bit and meld the flavors. Brownies for a sweet touch of dessert and our first WFO party ended after a couple hours and a lot of laughs (and obviously no pizza).

After a week of gradually increased firing times & heating of the oven, I got a center top section that started to turn “white” where the soot burned off (~700-800F). Continued for several more days bringing the oven chamber up to high enough temperature to clear the soot off the inside surfaces. My cooking floor bricks were the last to come up to temp...I’m sure it was because the perlcrete was still getting rid of the last of the water in that bottom insulation layer. Several little cracks open up on top of the dome during firing...pretty small and fairly normal from what I understand. Initially when the oven curing process started to actually expand the dome, those cracks would be steaming. Amazing how much water needed to get driven out of the bricks, mortar, and hearth insulation during the curing process.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Going in for the Landing

Now that the dome is complete, I’ve got to create the landing area in front of the oven maw and the chimney system. The landing area will be just in front of the ash slot and the ash slot will be underneath the chimney. There will be a lot of weight on the front arches with the chimney, so I’ll be adding some fairly solid buttress components on the front sides.

I did a dry stack on the sides to get an idea of final heights for base of the chimney “arch” support. I then cut some concrete block and laid it on the oven platform in front of the ash slot and across the front span of the oven. Next I mortared bullnose bricks across the top for my landing.

I built up the sides of the oven front entrance to the point I wanted the arch to start. Once the bullnose bricks were mortared in, I took common brick and laid it to provide some significant lateral/buttress support. Being an overachiever, I also ran a pieces of rebar down through the brick holes and mortar to help keep the side mass from shifting. With the sides now solid, I laid out two brick arches that would span the entry. The back arch was made of firebrick and the front was made with common reds. In looking at my completed arches, I concluded that 1) not only am I spatially challenged, but apparently I have trouble making things square and 2) as a total brick novice, I shouldn’t have been doing the final arch work (my first) by flashlight.

So after the mortar had set on the arches, I concluded nobody but me would know how bad it looked (...hmmm, then why did I take these pictures and now post them?) I next started creating the smoke gathering chamber that leads into the chimney. The template to create this flue “throat” was something I saw in the Forno Bravo forum. It involved cutting two sections of 8" diameter clay flue pipe at an angle and joining them together. The result was a section of flue that was wider at the bottom than it was at the top. The joining at the top was back to the original 8" diameter. This throat piece was mounted on top of my entry arches and serves as the smoke collector for the oven’s upper chimney segments. I laid firebricks across the top of the entry arch sides, joining with the throat piece at the apex. Thankfully, the buttressing I had added on the lower sides of the arch did their jobs and the oven’s chimney system is still standing.

With the oven landing and chimney arches set and the lower throat piece of clay flue section in place, I was ready to build up the oven front. Brought up the sides and the arches to form a level top and "pleasing" front. Put a chimney cap with cinder/ash screening in place and decided it was time to start curing the oven.

Again, it's good to know how many novice errors can be covered up with a little effort "up front".

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Trusting the structure of a masonry dome (you’ve built...)

No matter how much you read about the strength and stability of a dome construction, it isn’t until you actually walk inside something like the Pantheon in Rome that you appreciate the incredible forces involved. Considering that this particular (and huge) Roman dome was built over 2,000 years ago and yet still keeps tons of rock “hanging” above your head without any seeming support is what I consider a miracle of construction. That said, when I cleared out the supporting materials under my WFO’s completed dome I was really cautious/fearful of putting my head into the oven. While knocking that first support out, I actually stood off to the side in case the oven collapsed (after all, I'm not Roman).

Turns out, the structure and design of a dome is something that even someone with no Roman ancestry or masonry experience (such as moi) can create successfully by following a few simple instructions. When I cleared out the sand from the oven chamber, I was struck not by hundreds of falling firebricks but simply by the high humidity of the interior. It didn’t take long for it to sink into my beady brain that the dome was not going to collapse or shift in any significant way. It was an incredible relief to finally believe my oven was really going to work as an oven and not become a final monument to my ineptitude (while doubling as my tomb with the poignant, yet simple inscription, "Here Lies a Dome Builder Who Should Have Stuck With His BBQ").

My plastic covered sand form worked well to help make pretty smooth & consistent angles on the inside of the dome. Just before clearing out the sand trash, I put some thinner concrete blocks along the oven front to raise the outer landing. I needed to raise this area so when I put bullnose bricks on top of them, the bricks would be flush with the inner landing (on the other side of the ash slot). After doing a final inspection & cleaning inside the oven, I started thinking about the building of the front arches for the chimney. In the “putting more than faith inside the oven” picture, note the piece of angle iron across the opening. The bricks forming the outer faux chimney will be laid along this angle iron to get them even & horizontal across the dome's curvature. The actual chimney flue pipe will span the gap between the inner & outer arches while resting on each arch (or so I hope).

As I stood back and collapsed the sand form, I really did
wonder if the structure would remain standing.
As I cleared most of the plastic bags and sand from the oven
chamber, I was pleasantly surprised to note that;
#1 The dome was still intact and #2 The dome inner surface
didn't look half bad...some people might just be polite and
say "Well, it is unique..." 

This is looking up at the dome roof. The bottom
right is pointing towards the front opening.
Again, this short beavertail design of the dome
is most apparent when looking from the top
or bottom of the oven's dome.

It was more than a little intimidating crawling into the oven
  chamber the first time...all the while I was wondering if I'd
applied the mortar properly. Apparently my wife was
thinking, "Well, if we can't afford cremation, I'll
know we can DIY the job here".