A few months ago, I set myself a bit of a challenge. I decided to see if it was possible to make a decent woodfired baker's oven, entirely out of recycled / repurposed materials, for $250 or less.
I didn't want to spend months making it, either. A couple of days, tops, I thought. And this oven needed to be able to bake a dozen loaves of bread at a time, and also to be able to bake other things, like pizzas and roasts, without consuming half a forest to make a few morsels for dinner.
I've been to people's pizza parties quite a few times. You know how it goes, the pizza party requires the host to fire up the woodfired oven at ten in the morning, and by late afternoon, when everyone is half drunk, the oven is almost hot enough to bake a pizza or three. And that's it. A whole tree, for a pizza.
So, in the name of forests and their preservation, to make this oven work, the flames must also do some work. Meaningful work too - the work of making a baking chamber hot, quickly.
In my experience, the home made pizza oven is special to the people that take the time to build them - kinda like a billy cart, or a crochet blanket made by grandma. It's got more going for it than the BBQ, which you can just buy from the local hardware store. The pizza oven has to be designed and built by hand. Often, it's a project embarked upon with a friend, whose grandfather was Italian, and they taught him just the right way to make it. So, after getting special oven bricks and fireproof insulation, and sand and clay, and the custom made door, the flue and the cement and the tools, it only cost two grand, and took two and a half months to build (in between doing the day jobs).
But the pizzas that it makes are just AWESOME. The end justifies the means.
Yep. As you guessed, I didn't want to be that guy. If I was going to spend two grand on a pizza oven, I would want it to do a lot more with a whole lot less. For that much money, you can buy a pretty decent gas oven, and it will also boil water!
Anyway, I had given some thought to my pizza / bread oven design before this. As those of you who read this website know, I'm not a fan of 'black' ovens. I like ovens where the baking chamber is not also the firebox.
A 'white' oven allows the possibility of continuous baking, as well as being able to heat from cold in a short time - depending on the design, of course. Design, when push comes to shove, can be the undoer of a great idea, if not enough time is spent on it. Or not, when the design phase is well executed. Too often in my projects, I spend too much time on building and not enough time on design.
So I was thinking of an oven made from a 44 gallon drum. For some time, I have seen that flame doesn't travel in a straight line - it kind of loves the vortex. So a cylinder allows heat to wrap it up quite well - allowing the flame to be a flame, if you like. The problem with a cylinder is that bread and pizza need a flat surface to bake on. A cylinder, when laid on its side, does not provide flat surfaces.
As it turns out, flat surfaces are easily done. Who would have thought?
I did a bit of a drawing on my chalk board. My guess was that I woud need the following materials:
- a 44 gallon drum, and the lid
- 180 standard bricks (plus or minus)
- some pavers of varying thickness
- a decent sized piece of road grid (cast grid material of some kind)
- a piece of stainless steel or similar as a flame baffle
- an iron gate or fence as a kind of frame to hold pavers above the drum
- a piece of flat steel to support bricks
- some hebel to insulate things.
In the end, I also needed to purchase some bits brand new. I needed cement, fire clay, some very thin pavers, a diamond angle grinder blade to cut them, and some high temperature glue. Luckily, Bunnings had a special on sheets of 50 mm hebel as well.
I managed to get everything else from Cessnock reuse and recycling centre at the tip, as well as a few bits and pieces I had lying around at home.
I spent just over $250, including everything except fuel for running around. I got the oven built in two days, and it bakes 12 loaves perfectly. It also does pizza and a roast dinner with ease. It heats up to baking temperature in just over 45 minutes.
As part of the design process, I built a 'sketch in brick' - a kind of 3D, real life version of my blackboard sketch. Then I pulled it apart and started again. I love working with things like bricks, because it allows you to do that.
I discovered the problems with my chalkboard design. So back to the local tip I went, to find more appropriate bits to use in the construction. Working with recycled bits can be tricky, because you may not get what you were thinking to get - but with a bit of lateral thinking, I was able to adapt imperfect inputs to my purposes.
I still have a few tweaks to do - it needs a firebox door which lets in lots of air, and I haven't yet bagged and grouted the pavers on the roof. But for a quick, cheap oven, I reckon this one works a treat. It bakes great bread. I've used it for pizza as well, and everybody thought they were pretty good too. I've even done a roast dinner in it, which I have to say was superior to roasts done in the home oven.
The build process itself is another article - there is a fair bit of detail involved. I also want to do a bit more on the oven before I write this as a 'how to' article.
At this stage, I'll say the repurposed, recycled home baker's woodfired oven is largely a success. It answered the brief well. It isn't pretty, and it has some shortcomings - I struggle to get it above 300 degrees, for example. But it turns out that isn't necessary. The nature of the heat still creates really good pizza in less than 5 minutes.
Version 2 of the Recycled Woodfired Baker's Oven is already planned, and will happen quite soon. It improves on the original design significantly, while not costing a whole lot more to build. It may take a bit longer to assemble, but remains very low tech. My plan is to rebuild with existing materials, adding a few key changes to the way it is flued to enable even faster heating, while also making the oven hotter.
Stay tuned for progress.