Michael Pollan, a Cob Oven, & the NY Times

how to build an upsidedown fire
“Communal table: A 36 Hour Dinner Party”

The NY Times Magazine recently published this article by Michael Pollan about a 36 hour dinner party cooked in a mud oven. Best, for me, was how he explained the purpose of the oven:

The idea is to make the most efficient use of precious firewood and to keep the heat (and the danger) of the cook fire some distance from everybody’s homes. But what appeals to me about the tradition is how the communal oven also becomes a focus for social life (“focus” is Latin for “hearth”), a place to…


carved from green wood: roughed out with a hatchet and/or a northwestern style adze, then shaped and finished with crooked knives and a straight blades (click on the thumbnail for an uncropped view of the entire photo). Some of the detail work is done w/little burins. The bowls I carved …

Teaching with Mud, Sand, and Straw

Working with mud, sand, and straw is a way to teach geology, engineering, physics, history, drawing, composition, and design. It is also a way to teach social skills, like cooperation. But more important than just what it teaches is how it teaches: Jon Young is a wilderness educator who takes …

Adding masonry to increase wood stove efficiency

earthen masonry heater hat for wood-fired stove
This time of year I don’t usually get too muddy, but I brought some mud into my office last month so I could have a better and more efficient source of heat — finally! This little “heater hat” effectively turned my little iron box stove into a mini-masonry heater — with an oven! (note the wooden door on the right, just above the iron stove door). The wood that used to over-heat me, briefly, in the morning, now keeps me comfortably warm all day, and into the next morning (depending on how long I fire it and how cold it is). And, unlike most iron stoves, it doesn’t generate that fierce, drying attack-heat that people try to moderate, either by burning wet wood, or by damping down their fire so it heats minimally and smokes prodigiously.

The stove was an old cast-off that now provides clean heat with minimal smoke. The surface temperatures of the heater portion are much lower than hot iron and (except for the tile, which gets hotter), very huggable. In addition, I lined the firebox with brick, which keeps the metal surfaces cooler and safer, but increases internal combustion temperatures for a cleaner burn.

the upside down fire

how to build an upsidedown fire

You can greatly improve how your oven performs by how you lay and manage the fire. Here’s how and why I build what Pat Manley calls “an upside down fire.” The first principle of fire requires applying to heat to fuel. When the fuel gets hot enough, it bursts into flame. But if you pile many pounds of wood on top of your kindling, it will take a long time before all your fuel can really start burning. Meanwhile, you’ll get a lot of smoke in your (and possibly your neighbors’) eyes, and you’ll lose a lot of fuel (all that smoke counts as unburnt fuel). So turn your fire upside down! It will start small, but a small fire can heat up quickly. As it does, it will drop down deeper to ignite more fuel in your stack. The stack itself should be

Two-tier yurt with Bill Coperthwaite

Here’s the lovely, two-tier yurt that Bill Coperthwaite helped us build in October of ’09. (And here are my followup explorations that adapted the design by going back to traditional sticks and basket as well as incorporating earthen plasters — simpler to build, and better performance and comfort in wetter …