Backyard Bread Oven
Build this easy adobe cooker in a weekend.
To heat the oven: Build a fire inside and keep it going for about three hours.
illustration by Nate Skow
My husband and I first spied an outdoor bread oven while strolling through our neighborhood. The beautiful brick dome was situated at the end of an overgrown driveway. It was so intriguing that we knocked on the house’s door and met the oven’s owner – a frail Italian granny. She graciously shared her story, which was inseparably intertwined with the oven.
“We came here for the coal mines in the ’20s,” she said, “You couldn’t get good bread here, not like in the old country, so we built this oven. All the neighborhood ladies would get up early to start their bread dough, and I’d be up by 4 to fire the oven. It took five hours to heat that oven, and it was big enough to hold all the loaves. We’d drink tea, gossip and bake our bread. During the summers, some of the men went up to the mountains to herd sheep. I’d go up there to make them bread. I built ovens up there out of clay dirt and baked bread every few days. Those men could eat a lot of bread!”
The woman’s fascinating story motivated us to research outdoor bread ovens, with the goal of building one for ourselves. Clay is readily available at our place and was our material of choice. After some serious research and with help from the best adobe-oven-making book ever, Kiko Denzer’s Build Your Own Earth Oven: A Low-Cost Wood-Fired Mud Oven, we gave it a try. (The book is available at www.Grit.com.) Using Denzer’s thorough, friendly instructions, I built an oven in our yard, several ovens for the local school district and one for a mountain-man rendezvous. This year, my husband and I built the more refined model covered in this article out in our pasture.
This oven only takes about three days to build, start to finish, working a couple of hours a day.
A Fine Foundation
Although you can build them on the ground, we decided to raise our new adobe oven to a convenient working height. For simplicity, we built a foundation for the oven using concrete blocks held together use a construction adhesive such as Liquid Nails©. Since Liquid Nails isn’t technically a load-bearing mortar, you won’t want to build your base more than about three blocks tall. Depending on their size, it will take about 30 concrete blocks to build the foundation’s perimeter walls. Once the adhesive has set, fill the container with rubble (broken pieces of concrete, big rocks, etc.). Top the rubble with gravel and sand, to about 8 inches below the rim. Next, add a 5-inch layer of vermiculite or perlite for insulation. And, finally, top this layer with sand; tamp it level with the top of the blocks (see Figure 1).
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