Make pizza with a plasma cutter, a backhoe and a pile of mud!

Picture of Make pizza with a plasma cutter, a backhoe and a pile of mud!
After several years of baking in North House Folk School's wood-fired brick oven, I decided to build an oven of my own. I went a little crazy with extra features (slab foundation, arches, ash dump, chimney, doors, wood storage) and decorations (limestone around the foundation), but you can make a very usable version in a weekend with salvaged materials and a couple of friends.

The place to start is Kiko Denzer's "Build Your Own Earth Oven".

I also made extensive use of Daniel Wing and Alan Scott's "The Bread Builders", which is a great resource even if you're baking bread in a regular electric oven.
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Step 1: Bushwhacking, Lumberjacking and Limestoning

Picture of Bushwhacking, Lumberjacking and Limestoning
We have a big lawn next to the neighboring farmer's field, with a great view of Carleton College's wind turbine. What a great place for a pizza party!

The most obvious place to put the oven was in line with our garden shed, but the whole area was a dense jungle. I spent a day with our Stihl brushcutter, with a saw blade in place of the string trimmer. That thing would be awesome for fighting zombies!

I had to chainsaw out a medium-sized box elder tree as well.

Under all that jungle, I discovered an improbable trove of cut limestone left over from when they built our house in 1973. Too good! I'll use that for the keystone and the stone veneer around the foundation.

Step 2: Screeding, Floating, Edging and Brooming

Picture of Screeding, Floating, Edging and Brooming
I decided to start with a concrete slab foundation.

My brother-in-law spent the spring of 2007 building park structures and sidewalks with the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio in Biloxi, Mississippi, so he was fresh on all the aspects of concrete work.

Step 3: Stacking, Pinning and Filling

Picture of Stacking, Pinning and Filling
The North House oven has wood storage and an ash dump underneath it.

I wanted to emulate that, so I built a three-sided box out of dry-stacked cinderblocks, and my dad and I filled the four corners with concrete and rebar.
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Bard1 year ago

That looks awsome, have you ever concidered using a rocket stove design for the heat source? Based on what I have read it is suposed to burn cleaner and use less fuel.

fritz.bogott (author)  Bard1 year ago
Well, this build isn't easily modifiable to efficient combustion. I built it *because* it's technology from the middle ages.

But for sure, it's pretty much the worst way of turning wood into heat. A rocket oven would be a much better way to do it, if you aren't hung up (as I was) on a particular historical design.

My dad has a little table-top Uuni rocket-stove pellet-burning pizza oven, which is *very* fuel-efficient!
eking43192 years ago
I'm very interested in making one of these this coming summer and will be drafting my own design over the winter at college. Very nice ible, by the way.

My questions for you:
What did you encounter during your building that you think would be good for first timers to know? (I plan on getting Kiko's book)

How long did this take, from first breaking terra firma to cooked pizza?
fritz.bogott (author)  eking43192 years ago
If pizza is what you want, then 4" of thermal
mass is WAY too much. An inch would be more like it (though you'll have to use your judgment anout fragility vs thickness. 4" takes FOREVER to heat.

Building the foundation, block frame, steel frame and arches took all the time. If you build Denzer's basic version instead it will go together like magic. I wanted the fancy extra options, but they took 80% of the effort.

But the main things I'd have done differently are less thermal mass and a permanent weatherproof roof. Tarps shred and blow loose all the time.
Great to know, thank you Mr.Bogott!
I've been doing some drafting in google sketch up. I was planning on making it under a lean-to on the side of our barn, good deal of shelter.
beckenham5 years ago
Hello Fritz, Wonderful instructions. About the foundation - did you go below the frost layer, or is that simply a pad? Thanks.
Sorry - I see that you poured a slab. Have you been through a winter yet? I'm wondering how it's holding up.
fritz.bogott (author)  beckenham5 years ago
It's just a pad, on about a foot of gravel. Definitely not best-practice. We figured that the consequences of a big ol' crack through the concrete pad just weren't severe enough to justify the effort of a properly-built foundation. If the base were mortared or if the oven were brick we would have made a different calculation. But we've been through two Minnesota winters with it and it looks like new.
I am wondering if concrete pavers instead of a slab over the bed of gravel that you descibed would be the easiest way to go and not have to worry about cracks
Made my own earth oven!!! After several re-readings of your proyect, I finally made it! I work in a proyect located in southern Veracruz, México, and we are fortunate enough to have clay everywhere... (

I want to post the memories about the construction I wrote on our blog.

Its in spanish, but anyways... I might try the wood door because there isn't any metal workers around!!! Any advice on baking??? How long shall I leave the oven to dry before starting a big fire???
Hi Antonio,

(Pardon my English.  I speak German and Chinese but very little Spanish, even though I could use Spanish every day in my own town if I had more time to put toward it...)

That oven is beautiful!

I don't know how long to let it try.  Mine is cracked on the inside but is still holding together.  I don't know whether it would have cracked less if I had let it try more???

Certainly the first couple of firings will eat a LOT of fuel as the fire burns out the remaining moisture.  You'll want to start three or four hours before you cook.  Once the dome dries out it will take more like 90 minutes.

When you first start the fire, the oven ceiling will turn black from smoke.  It will stay black until the dome surface temperature hits around 530DegC.  Then the smoke will burn off and you will see clean clay.  In my oven (which I built too thick, I think) I keep firing for about 30 minutes after the clay burns clean.

When I bake pizza, I leave all the coals in the oven and just push them to one side.  You may need to keep feeding skinny sticks onto the coals so you get some radiant heat from the flames to brown the top of the pizzas.

If I'm baking other things, I shovel the coals out, mop the floor, and then use the 'ouch' test to test temperature.

At pizza temperature (375-475DegC), I can't put my hand into the oven at all.

At bread-baking/meat and fish roasting temperature, I can count to three until I have to jerk my hand out.

Much longer than three and the oven is colder than I use for much of anything except beans and stews.

Ask me more questions any time. I love to talk about baking!

materials4 years ago
fritz-what would you say to topping off my adobe bread/pizza oven with clay brick and a mortar mix w/perilite? the oven works nicely as is but to make it more wisconsin weather-proof- i don't want to make a shelter for it because of where it is located nor keep a tarp over it except for winter weather-i've been thinking about it and i can't see any reason that it would disturb the tempertures-i would really like your opinion on this thought-bev
fritz.bogott (author)  materials4 years ago
Hmm.  You don't want to wrap adobe in anything waterproof without an air gap, because then the steam inside the oven will condense on the waterproof layer and turn the adobe back into mud.  That's what's going on with those A-frame roofs-- oven, then space for air to flow around the oven, then a waterproof roof.  As long as there's an air gap, you're fine.  I don't know whether that automatically breaks your "no shelter" requirement?
abadfart5 years ago
very nice i might make one for my self
PaddyKevin5 years ago
Greetings.  I have questions if you do not mind.  First, if, like me, metal work is not going to be practical, what would you suggest the doors be made out of?

Second, I was wondering if you thought of using the bottom area as a bbq smoker, with a tad of alteration I suppose

Buffalo, NY
fritz.bogott (author)  PaddyKevin5 years ago
Hi Kevin,

The Denzer book (which you should buy because it's great) suggests making a door out of adobe or wood.  You may need to soak a wooden door in water for a few hours before using it so it doesn't scorch too badly and so it contributes some steam.  Anything would work though, really.  A stone or concrete paver if it's not too heavy?

As far as metalwork goes: I usually find that the most fun part of any project is hunting around my county for people who know the trades I'm missing and hiring/befriending them.  You meet new people and learn a lot, and it expands your sense of what you and your growing crew can build next time.

You can totally use the oven as a barbecue pit.  Just keep a slow fire going off to one side and throw some soaked chips on the fire from time to time.

It's fashionable among molecular gastronomes and Make Magazine readers to use a computer-controlled blower to keep the pit's internal temperature as stable as possible.  <a href="">Mikezed</a>, whom I met at Maker Faire SF 2008, encouraged me to try that with a cob oven.  I haven't gotten around to it, but perhaps you could pave the way?

Thanks so much.  That temperature controlled blower sounds good, but I like things as simple as possible.  Living in a similar climate as you, I am concerned with having to cover the oven with a tarp, but I suppose a protective wood structure around it after it is built might be neat, especially as you say if it is designed to allow moisture to leave
fritz.bogott (author)  PaddyKevin5 years ago
The canonical thing to do is to build an A-frame roof fairly tight over the oven, like this:

(Image CC-BY-NC-ND by kathryn_goddard1)

materials5 years ago
time to mix up some more clay and perlite! fritz thanks so much for your help
materials5 years ago
fritz: my mudd was cracked so badly i ended up taking it apart and starting over with new mudd yesterday-well i have it covered with plastic and it's doing some cracking close to 24 hrs later-question for you: how long after you did the mudd balling did you start the second layer of insulation? p.s. send good clay!!!!
fritz.bogott (author)  materials5 years ago
The thermal-mass layer was sloppy wet when I laid it up. Mud ball: SPLAT! Mud ball: SPLAT! Wetter than dough, not as wet as batter. Oatmeal-wet. Wetter than you'd use for clay you were throwing on a wheel. I put the insulation layer on when the thermal-mass layer had the texture of silly putty. No idea whether any of this matters, or whether I did it "correctly," but that's what I did.
materials5 years ago
fritz: i ran out of mud on the thermal mass (step six)-i'd say i got about 21/2 to 3 in. around sand dome-my question: now that i've got more clay is it possible to add it on to what is there or do i undo all of it down to the sand mound and start over again? one more thing i wanted to add is that i'm seeing cracking through-out it and i was very precise about adding 2 parts sand or more to the 1 part clay-is this also a problem on how my oven will function? help!!!!!!!!!
fritz.bogott (author)  materials5 years ago
2 1/2 - 3 inches should be just fine. I'm actually a little sorry I put 4 inches of thermal mass on mine. A thinner dome is better for pizza (you don't have to pre-heat it nearly as long and it works just as well.) You'd want the whole 4 inches if you were baking multiple batches of loaf-bread for a big family, or if you were baking for market, or if you were serious about catching the entire heat cascade (flatbreads, then loaf breads, then roasts, then cakes, then beans or caramelized pan breads (pumpernickel, rye-n-injun) then wood for next time (Cooking with Fire by Maurice Sabbagh Yotnegparian (great name!) appears to describe some good cook-for-the-cascade ideas.)

For pizza and casual loaf-bread baking 2 1/2-3 inches should be just lovely.

My dome has lots of cracks and it holds more heat than I can use. (I used mud straight out of Chris's yard and didn't measure or test a thing except to observe that the mud was sticky.) If you were using the dome as a cooking surface (tandoor) you would care, or if you needed maximum heat storage that was very reliable (like for subsistence or commercial use) you would care. Otherwise you don't care.

If you are a perfectionist (which I'm not but which I can respect) then you should probably hit up The Fresh Loaf or try to bounce an e-mail off Kiko (I don't have good contact info for him but you could try phoning North House and leaving a message for him. (He's teaching up there right now.))

Where are you located? Maybe we should organize a couple of bake days.
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fritz.bogott (author)  materials5 years ago
The pleasure is all mine. I'm baking white pizza with mussels and duck-and-olive pizza tonight. I'll stick the recipes up in just a sec.
beckenham5 years ago
Fritz, Thanks for the feedback. If it can survive MN then I guess it can cope with IA! I appreciate the advice.
Rouxyou6 years ago
I have been wanting an oven in my yard for the last two years much was total material cost?. LIving in Florida, there is an issue with clay and mud.
I'm in Florida too and been recently working out in the yard. I started digging to install a pond and about 3 ft down the way the soil turned red. Would that be the clay layer? It doesn't crumble easily, and the clumps look like actual rocks. Rouxyou: Have you found more info? I'm planning on building an outdoor grill and an oven would be great since I would also like to learn how to make my own bread. Great Instructable!!!
I bought the book Build your own Earth Oven by kiko denzer. Thats as far as I got.
fritz.bogott (author)  Rouxyou5 years ago
Preheating a pizza stone (for pizza or flatbread) or a cloche or a dutch oven (for bread) in a gas grill turned all the way up works great too. Same principle as a brick or earth oven, and very similar results.
fritz.bogott (author)  koyaniskatzy5 years ago
The Denzer book has a whole section on testing your soil. Great book!
thanks, would it be too much too ask for the name of the book? My library catalog didn't pick any Denzer, and I may have to request it on swaptree. thanks again!
fritz.bogott (author)  koyaniskatzy5 years ago
It's on the first step of the instructable, with a link to a bunch of places that stock it.
fritz.bogott (author)  Rouxyou6 years ago
If you build one like in the Denzer book, you'll probably come in between $100 and $200. If you add a bunch of extras like I did, you'll end up closer to $500 - $600. But get the Denzer book. It's great!
materials5 years ago
recieved my "build your own brick oven" and i have been reading it - i'm calmer now that i have it-but have to add excited to experience it in the making-have my foundation hole almost finished to add the gravel-thanks to you too -i'm going to do pictures of the steps to give to my grandchildren and perhaps build a little one with the almost 6 yr old if he would like-i've enjoyed ever so much your direction and replies and want to ask if the roof you had talked about making for yours in the works yet? bev
fritz.bogott (author)  materials5 years ago
No roof yet. That's likely to be a project for next summer.
materials5 years ago
fritz those doors are beautiful!!!! hats off to the artist-bev
materials5 years ago
you are brave with that minnesota weather to do that and know about the float-i have reasons for not pouring a ground foundation and opting for the 4ft dig-all i can say is thank you so much for your prompt and helpful replies-i am so excited to get the digging going but alot of rain and chilly yet-good day here and there=just have to be patient-you've been great!
materials5 years ago
hi fritz: thanks for answering back-you are so right about the confidence to build this-i want it to last for awhile and i do look forward to reading the book-cart before the horse in plans-digging 4ft down is the biggest chore soon for the frost line then doing a 4corner cement cinder block base........getting back to the question of "insulate w/paper-i'm calling it your step 10-and NO i wouldn't want that to happen to my bread making-all that work and to have that happen-back to the base-you didn't do that and i know what kind of weather winter can be for you too-i know the oven is heavy but i'm concerned about the heave and cracking the clay-were you concerned for yours?
fritz.bogott (author)  materials5 years ago
Foundations are my least-favorite part. We eventually decided that six-to-eight inches of gravel under the concrete was the most we were willing to mess with. We just didn't have the spunk to dig down to maximum frost depth. We didn't feel too bad about the compromise, because our slab (which we reinforced with rebar and heavy steel mesh) is small enough to stand a chance of floating as a single unit rather than levering apart. You wouldn't want to take the same risk with a garage-sized slab.
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