Have you ever eaten a wood fired pizza? There’s something very special about the crispy base, the perfectly cooked toppings and the faint aroma of smoke. The good news is that you can build a very simple wood fired oven in your backyard and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. With a little hands-on know how and some basic materials, you could be knocking out your own wood fired pizzas and breads in no time.
Wood fired ovens are usually built using one of two materials, brick or clay. Both are excellent at storing and reflecting heat which makes them the ideal buildings material for an oven. If you’re looking to build an oven that will be standing for the grandkids and are happy to drop some serious coin then I’d recommend having an expert build you a brick oven, though if you’re a bit of a DIYer and happy to have a crack at making your own then the clay oven is for you. I can’t promise you that your clay oven will be perfect, or last forever, but the good news is that if it breaks, you can use the same materials to learn from your mistakes and start again.
The most important material that you’ll need for building a clay oven is the clay itself. There are a few avenues to source it from - you can buy it, dig it up from the ground, or if you live in the right area, you can use an abandoned termite mound [depending on local regulations - see Note below], which is what I did on the River Cottage Australia farm. [Watch Paul build his oven in River Cottage Australia, 6pm 2 August then on SBS On Demand.) I found the idea of using the termite mounds particularly interesting, the termites mine the clay from the subsoil and mix it with saliva and other material, they then build their mounds using it and it’s so strong that it can weather the elements for hundreds of years. In Australia’s north, people have been known to dig out holes in abandoned mounds and bake directly in them! I was lucky that there are plenty of abandoned mounds in the Tilba area (you don’t want to destroy a termite habitat, so make sure the mound isn’t in use), so that’s the material that I used for my oven. (If you don’t have access to a termite mound, this article is a good guide to making an earth oven using clay.)
You'll need the following tools:
- Scarp timber
- Clay from an abandoned termite mound [Note: state and local regulations vary; in NSW, the Office of Heritage & Environment advises not to remove mud or interfere with termite mounds in national parks. Check local regulations for what applies where you are, including what may apply on private land.]
- Firebricks (special bricks that withstand higher temperatures and retain heat better)
- Material to build a base if required
Once you have your tools and materials sorted you’re ready to start the build. First of all, you’ll need to select a location; choose somewhere that isn’t too far away from the house but far enough away that the smoke won’t fill your lounge room when the oven is cranking (you should also check whether there are any council or state government regulations controlling this type of construction, or smoke emissions). Next you have to decide how big to make the oven. If it’s your first oven, I’d recommend starting small, making it just big enough to cook a couple of pizzas or a couple of loaves of bread; that would give you an oven floor of about 70cm. With the site and size decided, it’s time to start building. If you’re planning on using the oven a lot, I’d recommend building a base that brings the oven to waist height, though if that’s a bit beyond your construction abilities, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with building the oven on a nice flat bit of ground.
Whether building on a base or the ground, you’ll want to make sure that your fire bricks are laid onto a base of firmly packed sand that’s around 15cm deep. Once you have the sand bed sorted, lay the fire bricks on top, making sure that you press them firmly into the sand and that they all sit nice and flush.
For my oven in Tilba, I used fire bricks to form the walls of the oven, and then the mud for the roof, but this method is even simpler.
Use some chalk to mark out a 70cm circle in the middle of the fire bricks and start mounding wet sand into the circle. Build the pile to create a nice hemisphere that’s around 40-50cm high.
Next, cover the sand with layers of wet newspaper. This will prevent the sand sticking to the clay when it’s removed later.
Now it’s time to start mixing and laying on the clay. Add the broken down termite mound material to the wheel barrow and mix in water with your hands or a shovel until the material is malleable. Remember the clay you used in high school art? That’s the kind of consistency we’re after.
Pack the clay around the mound of sand, starting at the base and making the walls around 15cm thick. Gradually build the walls upwards until the clay forms a complete dome. That’s the bulk of the building done. Now it’s time to let the clay dry. Depending on where you are this could take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. It’s crucial to stop any extra water from getting on your oven at this stage, so I recommend building a simple roof over it. This will also protect your oven from the elements in the future.
To check whether or not your oven is ready, mark out a 30cm semi-circle on front of the oven. This will be the door. Remove a small amount of the clay where the door will be and gently scoop out some of the sand. Check the moisture of the interior wall. If it’s dry enough that it doesn’t indent when touched, you’re ready to go. If that’s the case, remove the rest of the clay from the door opening, smooth edges and gently scoop out the sand from the interior. The last step before firing up your oven is to build a door. Lay a piece of paper over the opening and mark the shape to create a template. Lay your template over a piece of timber and cut it to size. Once all the sand has been removed, your door has been built and you’re certain that the interior is dry, build a fire in the oven and let it burn for two to three hours. Once the fire has burned down, remove the coals and place the door on, your very own wood-fired oven is now ready to bake!
Can't use a termite mound? This article is a great guide to making an earth oven using clay. And when you're ready to fire the oven and cook, here's sage advice from oven expert Kiko Denzer on firing an oven.
And what should you bake? My pizza, of course! You can use the base for any toppings - or if you can't decided, try all three of my ideas.
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