Wood-fired ovens, Cob Ovens, Earth Ovens, Brick ovens…how to build & use them

wood-fired oven party

A wood-fired oven focuses attention and activity, and gives us warmth, food, and stories…click on the photo for Michael Pollan’s oven story

Wood-fired ovens make not only the best pizza, but also improve the flavor and cooking of almost any dish (due to their unique “triple-heat” capability). In addition, a well-insulated oven can hold heat for hours (or days), which makes it a useful and efficient tool for cooking lots of food with not much fuel.

It seems that almost everyone wants one — in the backyard, in the kitchen, or on the patio. And while it’s (more or less) easy to build — in mud, or brick — it takes time and practice to learn how to make the most of it. Here’s our collection of the best questions, answers, and stories about design, construction, and use of the oven, from a variety of authoritative sources, including:

• Kiko Denzer, artist, builder, and author of Build Your Own Earth Oven,
• Max and Eva Edleson, masons, artists, oven- and heater-builders, and owners of Firespeaking (Masonry heaters, wood-fired ovens, natural building), and authors of Build Your Own Barrel Oven
• The handprintpress earth oven FAQ page
• readers and other oven builders and pyromaniacs…

And you! Please add stories, recipes, questions, sources, and experiences. And while we started out with a definite bias toward mud as the best and most democratic material (not to mention cheapest), we work (commercially and otherwise) with brick and hi-tech, commercial materials as well. So it’s all up for discussion. Here are some ways you can participate:

In addition, here are some of our favorite sources for knowledge, info, and good questions:

  • The Masonry Heater Association: a gathering of professional and amateur builders and users of wood-fired heat, both for cooking and staying warm when its cold. Their listserve is active and extremely informative. And their brick oven page is a great source of links and info.
  • Yahoo Groups Brick Oven Group: people all over the US (and elsewhere) who have built, are building, or want to build a wood-fired oven — many of them end up helping each other with anything from sourcing materials, to building, to recipes and other technical details.
  • The Rocket Stove Discussion board, a group of experimenters and pyromaniacs who are pushing the edge of the wood-fired envelope with new designs and techniques — mostly on stoves for heating. (We sell the book!)


Spoon Carving & other Workshops for 2018

Spoon carving & Greenwood: • April 29 – May 5, The Buckeye Gathering, I’ll be spoon-carving; others will be hide-tanning, fire-making, flint-snapping, and everything else • May 8-14, I’ll be teaching a full week of greenwood at the post Buckeye pathways event: spoons, … Continue reading

earth oven building errors to avoid

some earth oven building errors to avoid — shared by a builder/baker in virginia Continue reading

Earth Oven builders in Ecuador, Manuel (10), Juan Carlos (6)

A builder in Alaska sent me this story about an earth oven she built in Ecuador, with two helpers. At the ages of 10 and 6, they are clearly competent. Margaret writes: Winters in Kodiak were beginning to get to … Continue reading

Wood-fired, earth-oven pizza grows a family business in Cedar City UT

Wood-fired, earth-oven pizza grows a family business in Cedar City UT The Murray family needed extra income to pay dad’s college tuition; he had already made a little backyard oven, and decided he could make a bigger one on a … Continue reading

Wood-fired earth ovens: experiments in DIY firebrick (aka “castable refractory”)

I’ve been experimenting with cheap ways to improve lo-cost wood-fired earthen ovens. How can I make mud denser, harder, and more durable? Without going to bricks and/or spending a lotta dough? Adding sand to mud reduces shrink and increases density. … Continue reading

Combining Earthen and Masonry Techniques in Wood-Fired Oven Construction

Is it made of earth or brick?  This is a common distinction in the world of wood-fired ovens and comes with a whole slew of assumptions.  “Earth ovens are cheaper, easier to build but less durable.”  “Brick ovens are expensive, … Continue reading

UK Earth Oven Project to help Bedouins

Here’s a new oven story that popped up one day via Google Alerts. It comes from the founder of The Makhad Trust, a UK non-profit focused on helping Bedouin tribal desert communities. It began with the planting of an acacia … Continue reading

New Rocket Oven design by Flip and John

Jon and Flip Anderson have been working with Aprovecho Research Institute and building smokeless cookstoves in Haiti. They came up with this neat “rocket oven” design that answers some of the questions I get from folks about combining the dome … Continue reading

Bluegoat Restaurant Oven, w/insulation-in-a-basket

Here’s a little video showing the construction of a super-insulated restaurant oven. The “basket” design seems to be a pretty inexpensive and effective way to insulate — not necessary for every oven, but for ones that really get regular use, … Continue reading

Earth Oven variant: insulation in a basket over jumping bricks!

Insulate! Insulate! Insulate! This oven gets used about 5 days a week, so it never cools down — partly thanks to 11″ of insulation under the hearth (vertical wine bottles in perlite), and about 8″ of loose perlite over the dome … Continue reading

Build Your Own Barrel Oven Book!

Hand Print Press has published a new book about a hybrid style of wood-fired oven called a Barrel Oven! Build Your Own Barrel Oven A Guide for Making a Versatile, Efficient, and Easy to Use Wood-Fired Oven The tools for … Continue reading

Hawaiian School Garden oven

Mud ovens in Hawaii: “These bricks, stacked and left to dry for about 2.5 weeks, are the start of a future earth oven at the campus’ Ulumau School Garden. The oven will be used by HPA (Hawaii Preparatory Academy) students, staff … Continue reading

Cob oven ‘zine from Jorie Kennedy and Lizzy Rieke

Below notes and gifts from Jorie Kennedy, who I met when she was apprenticing at the North American School of Natural Building, last year (2011). You don’t need a book to make an oven. Best is a friend who’s built … Continue reading

Roberto Monge’s Oven Story

Roberto Monge’s father – Alfredo Del Transito Monge Menjivar – grew up dirt poor in a jungle village in El Salvador, one of 8 surviving children in a family of 14. By good luck and hard work, he earned a … Continue reading

Lily Gordon, 16, helps build ovens in Tanzania

David S. Cargo, who assembles info about community ovens for the St. Paul Bread Club sent me a link about Lily Gordon, a remarkable young woman, now 16, who has been helping villagers in Tanzania to build ovens so they can make … Continue reading

Rainer Warzecha, sculptor, oven mason, collaborator, Germany

Some years ago now, I got an unexpected email from Elke Cole, a German-born architect now living in Canada, whom I had originally met at the first Natural Building Colloquium in Oregon, in the mid 90s. Elke was traveling in … Continue reading

Ian Miller, baker, oven builder, translator

Ian’s Miller’s oven story (adapted from his translator’s note for the German edition of Build Your Own Earth Oven): I saw my first earthen oven in Santa Cruz, California, where I was studying Agroecology. The fellow student who built it … Continue reading

Ovens, builders, a new (oven) book for German readers

Ian, Iantha, oven
Out of the blue one day I got a phone call from a guy named Ian Miller. He said he had built a few ovens, baked a fair amount of bread, was married to an Austrian and (among other things) interested in translating Build Your Own Earth Oven into German. With that began an adventure that is now resulting in a new (German!) edition of the book, published by Stocker Verlag, out of Austria (they also publish Austrian permaculturist Sepp Holzer, which makes it even more of an honor). Very interesting to let go of the book and let someone else take it all apart and put it all back together again in a language I can’t read or speak. But in the process of doing it, I realize there are some good stories I haven’t yet shared — not about translation and books, but about ovens and their people. So, while it’s late (especially in terms of giving credit where it’s due for previous projects) I hope this will be a start. Continue reading

New Community Oven in New Jersey

orange new jersey mud dancers
HANDS stands for Housing and Neighborhood Development Services. They work out of Orange, New Jersey to try and reclaim dilapidated houses and other “eyesore properties,” and return them to the neighborhood as affordable homes and community assets. They also work with individual people and neighborhoods, and are creating an Arts District in a former industrial area called the Valley…. “It started as a dream idea of our Executive Director, Pat Morrissy: ‘Let’s build a community outdoor, wood fired oven where people can bring bread and pizza dough to bake together outside!’ The idea caught on and the Earth Oven was begun.” Continue reading

Heat your masonry oven with a clean, top-down fire

Heat your masonry oven with a clean, top-down fire The top-down fire works well for masonry ovens, stoves, and fireplaces, as well as outdoor fires. It’s simple: dry fuel, small sticks (plenty of surface area), plenty of volume where fuel … Continue reading

Adjusting mass for optimal performance

Here’s a valuable perspective on the benefits of smaller, easier, cheaper, “faster-cooling” ovens, and a working baker’s comparison w/the classic Alan Scott brick oven design (which isn’t always the best option for someone who wants to start small and simple).

The baker is Noah Elbers, who runs a small bakery in New Hampshire. There are some nice photos of him and his oven(s) on the web, but he’s clearly spending his time in the bakery rather than on the computer — hurrah! He does participate in the brickoven group on yahoogroups, which is where this comment came from.

It is worth noting that Noah fired his 4-5 inch thick cob oven for 5-6 hours every day and used it to run a business. For home-bakers who only use their ovens weekly or less, I’m now recommending just 3″ of thermal mass, and as much insulation as you can manage.
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Guest Article: An Earthen Oven Odyssey by Joe Kennedy

efficient cob oven plans
Joe Kennedy, long-time natural builder, tells fascinating stories of the ovens he has built and the lessons he has learned from them. Joe addresses many useful design ideas that he has drawn from his experience. He also shares his drawings of a current oven he is buiding that synthesizes his experiences into a very efficient and useful oven. Continue reading

Terra Preta and “the Biochar Solution”

The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, by Albert Bates A review by Kiko Denzer Living trees lock up carbon, and burning releases it. That’s the conflict-ridden equation of global warming. Albert Bates has been at the front lines … Continue reading

Alan Scott, Brick Ovens, A Marriage

Alan Scott’s Ovencrafters provides DIY masonry oven plans and hardware (doors and pyrometers) for bakers wanting to start their own small business, or just to bake large amounts of bread and other food for family and friends. It was set up on Gandhian principles of “Policy with principles, commerce with morality, wealth through work, and science with humanity.” Many ovens and many small bakeries now feed good bread to their communities as a direct result, and the book Alan inspired and co-wrote, The Bread Builders, has become a bible for a growing circle of builder/bakers.
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How Wide A Door?

This seems to be one of the bits of the book that could be improved in the next edition. Yesterday, I got it again in this lovely note from a lady named June: Hello Kiko: I am a 68 year … Continue reading

Kiko’s Recommended Oven Links

This is a somewhat random list of sites and sources of information — mostly free. It also bounces around between earthen and brick ovens, traditional and modern, simple and complex. If you have any recommendations, let me know! — Kiko … Continue reading

Dan Wing on Trailers for Mobile Ovens

Much as I try to discourage them (see pp 98-101 of Build Your Own Earth Oven, 3d ed.), lots of people want to put their oven on a trailer and tow it long distances at high speed. Dan Wing, co-author of The Bread Builders and builder of fine gypsy trailers, as well as the maker of a well-travelled oven, kindly wrote up a thoughtful and practical set of notes on the safe and proper construction of hi-speed auto-trailers suitable for heavy ovens. It’s a downloadable word file that you can get by clicking here: Oven trailers. If you want to read the 2004 NY Times articl Continue reading

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… Continue reading

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. Continue reading

the upside down fire

how to build an upsidedown 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 Continue reading

Frequently Asked Oven Questions

If you can’t find an answer to your question here, in the book, or elsewhere on the site, please feel free to contact the author through the feedback form, and we’ll update this section.

Jump to: Efficiency, design, etc. | Using the oven | Materials & Construction | Foundations | Mud vs. Brick Continue reading

ovens and efficiency

Dear Oven builders, mud teachers, bakers, and eaters: I would like to talk to you about some of the claims being published about the efficiency of earthen ovens. I think we need to be clear that any masonry oven, whether … Continue reading

Noah Elbers on earth vs brick ovens

Noah is a working baker, builder, and farmer who has built and used earthen ovens, a classic Alan Scott oven, and now a very fancy Spanish Llopis oven. Here he provides very clear and detailed data on the differences in fuel consumption and food production between earth and (massive) brick. In short, he explains exactly why an Alan Scott oven may not be the best option for a home- or small-scale baker.
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Oven dome height for different size ovens

In the space of two days, I got two emails from people asking the exact same question. So here’s clarification, which I’ll have to include in the next printing! Thanks to those who wrote… Continue reading

new commercial oven at CSA farm

Here’s a new commercial oven at Gathering Together Farm, a small farm/CSA restaurant in Philomath, Oregon, with cooks JC and Lisa posing with tools. This is a super-insulated design, with an external basket frame covered w/clay-slip-soaked burlap and insulating (sawdust-clay) plaster….

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oven journal: details of fire & food

My oven journal, such as it is, follows. It includes how we went about preparing several big holiday meals, as well as other details that may be of interest if you’ve just built an oven and you’re not quite sure … Continue reading

oven fuel, firing times, and insulation

A couple of years ago, I decided to try and keep a bit better track of my oven’s performance. In particular, I was interested in seeing how much wood I was burning compared to how much bread and other cooking … Continue reading

cob ovens on trailers

“I was wondering if you might have any info or resources for cob oven on trailers?” Here’s my thoughts and experience, over and above what’s already in Build Your Own Earth Oven: I wouldn’t try to put a cob or earthen … Continue reading

waterglass for binding earthen surfaces & pigment

“Waterglass” for protection & paint Waterglass has become my preferred binder in places where it’s needed. The chemical name is sodium or potassium silicate. It’s an inert mineral compound similar to window glass, but under heat and pressure, it’s soluble … Continue reading