A backyard oven not only bakes good bread, it creates ambiance and provides a focal point for your outdoor entertaining area.
Sometimes you start a DIY project that defies any real explanation. It usually starts small – for example, I love really good bread. Not the soft, doughy, white bread you buy at the supermarket, but the crusty, pain au levain that a real French bakery would produce. Since very few bakeries do that right, I got into baking bread. Simple enough.
Why stop there? Why not turn that baking habit into a self-inflicted DIY wound that will consume your every waking moment? The baking soon morphed into the building of a full-fledged brick bread oven in my backyard. The first one I built (yep, there have been two) functioned poorly because it lacked an insulating layer to help keep heat in the oven. I wouldn’t let that happen again, and I spent an inordinate amount of time researching and designing the next oven before I picked up a trowel.
Rather than give you a full step-by-step, I want to highly recommend the free “Pompeii” oven plans online from Forno Bravo. Forno Bravo will sell you a kit or parts, but if you’re the enterprising sort, you’ll be able to build your own oven using just their online plans. They offer lots of advice and pictures so you can follow along every step of the way. I’m not a trained mason, so there was more than a little trial-and-error in my oven building.
I started with a sound foundation, because brick ovens are very heavy. Since the oven would be the focal point of our new outdoor kitchen, I made sure to pour a full concrete footer first. Next, I built a concrete block “stand” that would elevate the oven to waist height for comfortable baking. This would also give me a great place to store wood for the oven, so I built an arched opening in the lower space just for aesthetics. Then, I began the actual oven building.
A foundation layer of insulating concrete (a mixture of vermiculite and Portland cement) was next, poured over a removable form. Then I laid down a 3” thick layer of fireclay mortar. (Forno Bravo gives this recipe as 1 part Portland cement, 3 parts sand, 1 part lime, and 1 part fireclay, which is available at your local masonry store.) Then I laid a layer of firebrick for the “floor” of my oven. Once the floor had cured, I removed the floor form and built up the firebrick walls and arched “roof” of the oven, using the same fireclay mortar and various homemade plywood arch forms. On top of the brick I added another 2” thick layer of fireclay mortar and let everything cure completely.
Next I added the insulation layer – this is important because the firebrick and fireclay mortar create a “thermal mass” inside the oven, which will contain the heat of the fire. Keeping the oven at a constant high temperature long enough to bake will necessitate keeping the heat in the oven by using insulation. I bought a roll of ceramic fiber blanket from a woodstove shop nearby, wrapped the oven with that, and then added 3”–4” of the vermiculite and Portland cement mixture, which will act as another insulating layer. Once that cured, I covered the entire structure with a few finishing layers of stucco, and my wife finished it off with a concrete stain to give it some life.
This oven is called a “black oven” because a wood fire is burned inside for about an hour before baking begins, and then most of that fire is removed before your bread or pizza goes in. “White ovens” utilize a separate combustion chamber, keeping the smoke away from your baking. In my opinion, smoke is part of why you’d want a brick bread oven in the first place. You can cook without smoke indoors anytime!
Now we’ve got a remarkable focal point for our outdoor living space. It functions as a great wood-fired pizza oven on the kitchen side, and I made it with two openings so it can function as an outdoor fireplace on the deck level. Sure, it took some time, but it cost less than 5% of what a professionally installed brick oven would cost, and I learned a few things along the way.
Jeff Wilson, author of The Greened House Effect and host of Buildipedia's Everyday DIY series, many HGTV and diy network shows and 25-year veteran of the construction industry, lives with his wife and two daughters in a perpetually half-renovated home in a small college town in Ohio. You can see Jeff’s most recent project, the Deep Energy Retrofit of his 1940’s Cape Cod style home at thegreenedhouseeffect.com.Website: www.jeffwilsonregularguy.com