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The Travels of our First Webmaster

Bummers & Gummers

The Breadhead

And the Birth of an Oven

By Lokiko Hall

Posted on Jun 21, 2003

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Brian T. is a carpenter, gardener, and self-taught blacksmith who has also made his living as an outdoor educator, a baker and cook, an illustrator and a muralist. He likes to ferment things, too, and not just wine, beer, mead and sourdough - he'll ferment anything that shows any promise of going bad in a good way. He makes his own miso, kim chee, sauerkraut, naturally fermented pickles, kombuche, root beer and ginger ales. And he plays the trumpet. But this story isn't about any of that. It's about when Brian turned his hand to masonry, for the first time, in order to build himself a brick bread oven. (The summer issue of b&g will cover how Brian and his oven have shaped, fed and fired a small community of people living in and around a town not very far from where Wiseacres used to be. The story will also dwell upon another of my favorite subjects: micro-businesses, both above-board and underground.)

Brian has a way of making you think he's a quiet fellow even when you've just spent over an hour listening to him talk. I don't think anyone who knows "Uncle Bri" would put the word "iron" next to "determination" when describing him, despite his affinity for that metal. Brian has plenty of determination, though, he just keeps it carefully wrapped in many layers of fine velvet - or maybe he's fermenting it into a more complex substance. In any case, when Brian announced early in 2001 that he was going to build a brick oven, we didn't doubt him. And when the next winter rolled around, we still waited in patient and confident anticipation. Patient, because back then we had no idea what a warm and hearty addition to our community the oven was going to be. He finished it in March of 2002.

I went to Brian's cabin to have him talk about the photos we selected to illustrate the story. To ensure that we were both in the bread headspace, I made the visit on a baking day, which also meant that I got to go home with a fresh-from-the-oven loaf of potato-and-cheddar bread.

Birth of an Oven

The origins of Brian's oven go back to 1999, when Brian was leaving a job on an island off the coast of Southern California to come up to take part in Aprovecho Research Center's spring internship program. (Which is one way this area has snagged a number of its residents.) Before he left on his trip, he discovered on an Internet search that the foremost builder of European-style brick bread ovens in America, Alan Scott, lived in Petaluma. Brian called up Alan and asked if he and a friend could stop in for a visit on their way north. Alan told Brian that he wasn't building any ovens at the time, but they could come by anyway. They stayed for a week.

"Alan is considered the guru of brick bread ovens," Brian told me while one batch of bread was rising and another was in the oven. "He gets countless calls and e-mails throughout the year and yet he was amazingly hospitable. We did work for him, of course, but mostly he drove us around Central California to various bakeries that are using his ovens. He liked it because he'd get a free loaf of bread from each bakery while showing us around."

Brian came away from that week wanting someday to have a little bakery with a coffee shop where people could sit and talk, see the oven, and watch their bread being made. He wasn't ready to sacrifice his whole life to starting a business of that sort, but he knew he at least wanted a brick oven at home to work with. However, Brian has one of the best excuses possible for why not to build a 10-ton oven in a shed next to his cabin: he rents.

"So I spent three years working on my sourdough skills and not deciding to take that big step," he said. "But then in late 2000 Alan Scott hosted the first annual Brick Oven Builders and Bread Bakers Conference. A couple of hundred people came from all over the United States and the world. There were speakers talking about their bakeries, and people there like me who just wanted an oven. People were giving demonstrations and showing their process. And everyone pretty much had the same ideals of organic food, local economy, fresh ground grains, and natural leaven. I came back terrifically inspired and said I was going to build a brick oven no matter what. I wasn't going to live without one anymore."

Now that the oven has been in existence for over a year, Brian says about the decision: "You can sort of break the oven down somewhat, but I wouldn't try to move it. If I leave this place or go into a full time bakery business, I'd need a bigger oven anyway, so I'm willing to chalk this one up to experience. It wasn't that hard to build; so another one isn't daunting."

Brian had Alan Scott's book Bread Builders (written with Daniel Wing), which ends with several chapters on how to build the smallest brick bread oven. The directions weren't step by step.* But the book was enough that a person with basic concrete and bricklaying skills could, with a bit of puzzling out, do the job from the directions. Brian got a mason friend who lived nearby to spend a day showing him how to mix mortar and lay brick. After that, he was ready to build.

While it took Brian a little over a year to build his oven, this was because he didn't need it done at any particular time and he was collecting as much free material as he could along the way. (Beyond what he could scrounge, Brian spent about $600 on the project.) If a person set to it steady, though, an oven of this size could be built in two or three weeks, and that's allowing curing time for the concrete before the oven is fired for the first time.

And now, the whole project distilled to nine photos (of which four are online; all of them available in print edition)…

You never know who might show up when you have an ovenwarming party. Alan told Brian about this oven's party during a phone conversation. "So I called up these people in Neskowin, on the coast," Brian said. "And they asked me, 'How'd you know we were having an ovenwarming?' And when I said Alan told me, then everything was fine." When Brian got to Neskowin, it turned out that he already knew the woman who built this oven; she had come to Aprovecho for a tour the year before. (Brian's oven has had a visitor from Wisconsin who learned of it from Alan's website.) Brian's oven and this stone-faced oven are the same design. The insides are identical, made out of brick, but the outside is just a frame to hold in the insulation, so it can be made out of brick, stucco, rock, tin -whatever the builder likes best, or has a lot of.

Alan's book describes pouring a pad and using cinderblock for the walls. Brian chose not do that because concrete is expen-sive and energy-intensive to manufacture. He counted on the oven being less likely to settle if he didn't use cinderblock for the walls. Instead he went to a friend's backyard where a patio had been torn up and brought home truckloads of broken up chunks of concrete. He built a negative-space form around the future walls of his oven-base using scrounged plywood. Then he filled the form, layer by layer, with patio pieces and fresh-poured concrete. The open part of the foundation has a metal lintel to support it.

All the bricks except for the firebrick in the oven floor are regular red-clay bricks that were free and reclaimed from wherever Brian could find them. (The firebrick is so pale in this picture that you can't very well see the mortar in between them. The ash slot in the oven doorway is that 2*-inch-long band of white to the right of the trowel.) The firebrick was purchased new. Although professional bakeries make the entire oven out of fire brick and refractory cement, Brian made just the floor out of firebrick as that is where most of the heat is and where the bricks will degrade the fastest. This picture shows how Brian built the sides and top of the oven using a plywood arch.

The oven is very well insulated and totally separated from the foundation. If the oven were to rest in full contact with the base, the base would suck the heat out of the oven and direct it into the ground. To avoid that, the oven is supported by a grid of rebar, the ends of which are embedded in the concrete of the base.

Brian made a form for the slab that holds the oven up. Concrete was poured around the rebar of the matrix in such way that there is a gap all the way around between the oven floor and the foundation. The gap is spanned by nothing but rebar.

The oven's sides are all six inches thick, top, bottom, and walls: three inches of brick with three inches of concrete on the outside. This picture shows the oven after the concrete has been applied. The outer wall of brick has been started on the left.

The outer walls are now complete. Brian intentionally used all sorts of odd shaped bricks for the back of the oven, as that side gets seen the least. Between the cement coating of the oven and the outer walls and roof is an 8- to 12-inch space that he filled with loose perlite. "The outer walls are basically a box around the oven to hold in the perlite," Brian said. "The tin roof is there to keep animals out of the perlite."

The front of the oven nearing completion. The opening on the right is where Brian put his heat sensors: "For the thermometer I have six thermocouple sensors. A thermocouple is a kind of thermometer that senses temperature in a different way than a mercury thermometer. These thermocouples are embedded in the mass of the oven, three in the hearth and three in the arch and the roof." Brian avoided the more expensive, do-it-all-for-you sensors that he could have bought. "This one can only sense two thermocouples, but since I have six, I had to fashion these wires and plug them into different ports. This allowed me to do it my own way and do it cheaper."

According to Brian, in the old days before thermometers, the bakers didn't need them. A baker might have stuck his arm in the oven for a moment to sense how hot it was or he might have thrown a little flour on the oven floor and counted to see how long the flour took to turn black.

Finished! And with a tile façade.

Someone Brian knew was throwing away a lot of tile. Brian originally grabbed the tile just to have it around for whatever. One such whatever turned out to be the front of his oven. He'd taken a tile mosaic class a few months before and decided to have a mosaic-laying party.

Up until that point, Brian said, "It was pretty much me working on my own, once I was shown how to lay bricks. I'm a perfectionist, and also it was such a small space to work in with the bricks and such a slow process that it wouldn't have worked to have people working on it with me. The mosaic was the one time when people came out to help slap up tiles. It was a very fun project."

The little cave underneath the oven is a possible storage area and an alternative to making a solid base, thereby using a lot more material, or to making a hollow base of unusable space. The ashes don't fall into the cave; they drop through a slot and down into a trashcan set in the entranceway. Because Brian opted for having an opening in his base he was able later to crawl under his oven and put up additional insulation when he found he wanted more.

Brian with a "peel." He slides the peel under the bread to bring it out. This is the narrow one. There's a broader peel for fetching bigger things, like large pizzas, out of the oven. Brian bought the peel head and fitted it with handle, but peels can be bought with handles already on them, if you want to pay more.

This picture was taken during a pizza party, which explains why the fire is going in the oven while he's baking. When you bake bread in a brick oven, you scrape the fire out of the oven and use the built up heat in the bricks to bake the dough. But when you want to make pizza you leave the fire in the oven, pushed to the back - this gives you that extra kick of heat to cook the top of the pizza and make the cheese golden and bubbly.

About that soot: There's no chimney in the oven itself. The smoke from the fire pours out the oven door and then crawls up the chimney outside. The arch, with its stone in the middle is 12 inches in front of the oven door and the chimney hole is between that and the oven door. When the fire is going, the door is open and Brian has a baffle that directs the heat back into the bottom of the oven and the smoke up towards the chimney hole. The soot on the front face of the oven is there largely because of the problem of renting. The shed he built the oven in has a corrugated tin roof. Brian didn't want to ask for the permission to cut a hole in the roof and he didn't want to deal with the tricky job of flashing a chimney pipe through a corrugated surface. So as soon as the smoke goes up the chimney it makes a right angle, then travels nearly horizontally for several feet, then makes another right angle before it goes up past the roof and out in the air. Brian's chimney doesn't draw very well, but it draws well enough.

Fire 'er up!

Here's how Brian fires his oven: "If I just wanted to bake one batch of bread I would fire the oven, depending on how cold it was, for at least two or three hours. Then I'd scrape the coals out. Let the floor cool down for a few minutes, which also allows the heat to equalize. Then after the bread is cooked and out, the oven would be too cold to bake any more bread.

"The way I fire my oven is the way that a lot of professional bakeries fire theirs, in that they get the entire mass of the oven hot. The whole oven six inches down is heated to above the temperatures I want to bake bread at - like 700 degrees. In the first scenario the surface of the bricks are hot but four inches down the bricks will still be 80 degrees or so. It takes many hours for the oven to saturate with heat. So I fire the oven for a whole day before I bake.

"Actually, I'll build a small fire two nights before. Just to get the oven thinking about getting hot again. Then the next day I build about four or five fairly good fires and let each of them burn down. I keep a hot fire, but usually just coals and damped down so the heat has the most chance to soak in. I could have a bed of coals or I could have a raging fire that's burning up a bunch of wood and they both would probably heat the oven in the same amount of time, because most of the heat is going out the chimney. So I fire the oven all day a day ahead and all through the night before. Then when I bake I scrape the coals out with a scraping tool I made, then I use a wire brush - a baker's brush on a long handle -to scrape out more ash, and last I mop out the oven. At that point the oven should be at about 650 degrees.

"I bake four batches of 15 loaves in one day. After the first batch comes out, I can't put more bread in right away, because each batch is 30 pounds of cold wet dough, and that sucks a lot of heat out of the surface of the oven floor. I'll seal up the oven and wait for it to recharge with heat. It takes the heat about ninety minutes to two hours to percolate back up through the brick.

"The temperature will never get back up to what it was for the first batch so each batch is cooked at successively lower temperatures. You have to gauge it so that not only are all those lower temperatures are still hot enough to cook bread all the way through but also so that the first temperature isn't so hot that the first batch burns on the outside.

"With a high-mass bread oven, you're storing heat in the oven and then releasing it into the bread. Ideally an oven like this would be fired every day and would never drop below baking temperature. Then you'd be using very little firewood and you could bake all day and then build a fire that would burn that night and in the morning you could scrape it out and be ready to go again. But since I'm firing it every week or every two weeks, the oven cools down so much I have to spend a whole day refiring it, even though two weeks later the oven will still be around 100 degrees or so - summer or winter.

"After the day of baking it will still be about 400 degrees, and the next day it will be in the high 300s. On the third day it will be in the mid 300s. Fine for pots of beans or cookies. I've baked chickens in there, and casseroles. Three days later it will be in the low 300s, and the day after that, in the 200s. So all those days you can use the oven for different things. I like it when the oven is in the low 300s the high 200s, then I can put in an all-day stew and let it cook for 12 hours while I go out and do something else. That's a great way to cook food."

Why have a brick oven?

Brian said he built his oven for the tradition of it. "This is basically how bread has been made up until very recently. Whether the oven was made out of brick or mud, it's always been wood fired since bread was first invented. If you go to a modern industrial bakery that puts out artisan loaves, what you're going to find in the back is this high-tech oven that has a large amount of heat initially touching the bottom of the bricks and then there will be steam injection. The heat and steam will taper off as the bread bakes. What this is doing is mimicking a brick bread oven. The initial burst of heat gives what they call "oven spring" to bread, which is that puff it puts to bread. Then you get steam when you seal the oven because the bread is full of moisture when it goes in as dough. That steam is trapped in there and makes the classic French bread crust, which is crusty yet chewy. Without that steam, you have just a hard dry crust. But the steam gives it that chewy crust that most people love when they buy those "hearth" loaves you see around. So this isn't just an old-fashioned way of baking bread that doesn't really do a great job, it's an old fashioned way of baking bread that does the best job of any oven out there.

"Another great thing about these ovens is that you fire them on branch wood, pieces of wood that are about two inches in diameter up to the thickness of a person's forearm. This is the sort of stuff that most people around here toss in burn piles and don't even bother with when they're getting firewood." Brian has gotten all his wood for free, for the effort of cleaning it up for someone else, or in trade for bread. The branches don't need to be cut down much, either. The chamber of the Brian's oven is nearly four feet deep, so he only has to cut his wood to about three feet in length. He can also use pallet wood and other scrap lumber.

Brian conceded that it is harder to use a brick oven than a high-tech one operated solely by dials. "My oven is temperamental sometimes. I don't know exactly how to fire this oven. Each time I bake, it's different. Today it's working well. But next week I could fire it exactly the same way as far as I can tell and the results will be totally different. It might be too hot and burning my loaves or too cool. And I have no idea why. In the old days the village baker would have been baking since he was three years old, he would have apprenticed with his father or someone, so that baker would have developed an innate sense of how to work his oven."

Getting to Know the New Addition to the Neighborhood (Seems She's the Sort Who Wants to be the Center of Attention)

"I don't think I'm anthropomorphizing the oven. It's not that this oven has a personality, but I do think it has a real presence. One night, when I was up late with the oven I had this vision that all along I was under this delusion that I was in charge, that I spent all this time and money and effort, and now I'm the baker using this oven. Then I had this epiphany that the oven is using me. We are all pawns of the oven. All the people who buy the bread from this oven. The oven is what it's all about. The oven is the core."

"Since it's been built, the oven feel like it has a presence. It's a gaping maw that wants to be fed. And it stays warm all the time, so it seems like it's alive. The night before I'm baking, when the temperature is 1,000 degrees in there, I've often spent 15 or 20 minutes, maybe even an hour, gazing into the flames. It's mesmerizing. The flames crawl up the sides of the oven, crawl along the roof, and the bricks are glowing orange. Ethan rode up on his bike one night, and he stopped and watched me, thinking that I was firing it or cleaning it or something. But I was just standing there staring at it. He imagined that I was speaking to it. I'd be curious to know if that sort of thing was addressed in older cultures, if the big ovens did have a very real being that made them part of the village society."

Postscript: One last little incentive to building a brick oven (or, better yet, heartily encouraging someone you know to build one) - you get to throw a party for it when it's done. About 100 people came to this oven's Warming. It was March, snowing, and the party was mostly outdoors or in the barn. But we all had the oven to keep us warm, plus five kinds of bread, pizza, focaccia, and a potluck of wines and everything else that goes with bread.

© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By

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