By Donna Cerabone – Breads old-world style—crispy on the outside, warm and soft on the inside—are impossible to make in a standard oven. Many ethnic meals are only complete with the addition of these types of breads. Desiring a way to bake not only breads, but also pizza, calzone, baked beans and roasted meats using wood as a heat source, I set out to make a wood burning masonry outside oven like those commonly used in Italy or Mexico.
Brick, due to its price, was out of the range of my pocketbook. Local stone was freely available, so it became the logical choice for a building material. Local librarians and I spent a lot of time trying to locate any information on this type of oven—of which none existed. So, I went ahead on a trial and error basis and prayed my DIY outside oven would turn out well, which it did!
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This is something I’m extremely grateful for because once it was finished, my outside oven was likely there for a lifetime. It wasn’t as hard as it seemed, only demanding a few hours of work at a time to complete. I think it only cost $70. Get more ideas on low cost construction techniques around the homestead.
First, I picked a well-drained, level site near the kitchen, with access by truck to stacked wood. A 48” x 60” x 12” deep hole was excavated, filled with four inches of crushed stone and topped with concrete. (Always check your local weather before starting any work. Try to pick a week with no rain or freezing weather.)
We set two pieces of 8” rebar, 4” deep in cement, 6” from outside the edge, on the 48” side, placing them 12” from the end. Repeat on opposite side.
Let this cure at least one week. Cut a hog panel 13′ long with bolt cutters. Get help bending the panel into an arch and use caution—the tension can cause injury if the panel snaps back at you. Bend and place the bottom ends of the panel inside and against rebar, one side at a time, forming an arch. Wire to rebar securely.
I used old bed frame bars to make the framework that supports the oven floor. Cut two 36” bars and two 48” bars and weld together. Also cut 36” x 48” piece of sheet metal for the floor. I used a local welding shop to do this part of the oven for me.
Wire the frame inside the arch about 38” from the bottom. Covering the outside of the hog panel with old screening prevents mortar from falling through the holes. Toward the back at the top of the panel, wire down a stove pipe. Cut the panel if needed to fit, leaving 4” of the pipe below the panel.
Gather a mountain of stones—you’ll be surprised how many you will need. The rustic quality of this outside oven will forgive imperfections in stone work, but careful selection of individual rocks will give the outside oven character. I spent a lot of time picking through the stone pile looking for a particular-shaped stone and found that spreading out the stones will make the job much easier. Try to keep your courses as uniform as possible. Don’t work on more than a few courses at a time or the mortar will bulge out from the pressure.
Work up the sides against the arch, up to the floor frame, then work inside the arch under the floor frame. Remember to use mortar mix for this, and work slowly.
You will need to find a metal door with a hinged frame. Old woodstove or fireplace doors work great. I found an old double fireplace screen in a frame. The same welding shop put sheet metal in place of the screening. Wire the door to the hog panel and use 2/4s to “prop” it securely in place. Put in the oven floor before setting up the door. I also put a flue in the side wall above the floor, toward the back of the oven. (See diagram 3.)
Work up, over the top of the arch, close in the door, and leave the back open to gain easy access while finishing the inside of the oven, which is the tricky part. Work inside the arch a few stones at a time, placing them by firmly propping them up with sticks. This is slow work, don’t rush it and beware of falling stones.
Don’t mix too much mortar at one time.
The last step is closing the back and laying several inches of mortar over the floor. Cure several weeks, and season with several small fires before “stoking it up.” I found that a fire built up in the back of the outside oven should be started with the door open. Let it cook down to embers, then pull them under the pans set on racks for bread. (I’ve found cakes can get a “smoky” flavor if cooked in the outside oven containing burning wood.) Set a second layer of wood on the embers, let it catch fire and place slow cooked foods in the oven (baked beans, stews, roasts, etc.) in liquid, tightly covered. Let them cook overnight.
I love to put in a pot of baked beans and ham to eat the next day, letting it cook while I’m sleeping.
It’s wise to cook a couple of days’ worth of food at one time, because wood is expensive if you don’t grow your own, and you’ll save a lot of time. Experimentation is the key, but soon you’ll get the hang of it. Get additional ideas on masonry stove plans and Russian stove plans on Countryside Network.
Published in 2002