After a year of dreaming about an outdoor wood-fired oven to take my bread baking to the ultimate level, I was determined to build an oven with my own two hands. I obsessively pored over the various online oven forums and communicated at length with the generous folk at the Yahoo Brick Oven site and the Forno Bravo site, as well as the master oven builders Alan Scott, Rado Hand and many others. When spring arrived my dreams came to an abrupt halt when I discovered my deep freeze prone area (New England) required a foundation that would reach below the frost line. It was at this moment of despair that I happened to meet Mark Mendel of Monterey Masonry. Amazingly enough, Mark was also fascinated with bake ovens, having renovated many original Colonial beehive ovens during his distinguished career as a top mason. In May, despite his full schedule, he undertook the task … But now a new wrinkle was added: My gardens were to be featured in a national garden tour on July 23rd. The oven – and the subsequent restoration of the gardens – had to be completed by then. Only a dauntless (and/or crazed) artist would consider such a project… Mark Mendel fit the bill.
Using a classical design vernacular that I had not come across in my year long internet research, Mark designed and built the oven. I shared the research I had gleaned over the prior year regarding the technical details of an oven built specifically to bake artisanal breads and pizzas. Despite the hard work it was an extraordinarily rewarding journey. Here is a photo essay of the project.
I lay out the oven site in the garden. I really have to squint to “see” an oven.The tables and chairs are my oven mock up to give me a sense of the oven’s scale. I imagine a shrub hedge and pea-stone courtyard surrounding the oven in my head…
While a deep foundation isn’t required by Alan Scott or Rado or most of the oven builders online, all the local builders I consult with said I had to do it. Alas, I quickly realize how impossible it would be to dig a 5 foot hole by hand.
Monterey Masonrey rescues me and digging begins. Suddenly I have a huge hole and a mountain of earth in the middle of a garden.
The garden tour is exactly two months away. Everyone thinks I have lost my mind.
As if the task weren’t daunting enough already, suddenly the rains start. My “oven” looks like a swimming pool.
The rain would continue throughout the project. Every piece of equipment makes deep ruts in the garden. Almost every day is a soggy challenge for the masons.
Never once did anyone complain about the conditions.
The foundation walls are completed. At this point I was confused because all the oven builders I had seen made U-shaped foundations. Here were just two parallel walls. Mark had a surprise in store for me…
This is the work site. Everyone knocked their heads into the tent at every move. But each time we took the tent down, it rained.
Mark kept assuring me they would be fine in time for the garden tours… six weeks away! I vacillated between anxiety and excitement: at last my oven was under way!
…there was nothing to see! This is my “oven.” It’s all underground.
Note the shrubs next to the sandy hole. I have started planting my Nishiki willow hedge for the courtyard I see in my imagination…
I get to be Mark’s assistant and the two of us work together listening to jazz. My job is to mix the concrete, soak the bricks, and point the mortar joints with what looks like a tiny dental tool.
(It is really hard work! Way harder than I thought and I end up in the emergency room when my back goes out!)
Mark is using reclaimed antique marble cobblestones, reclaimed antique hand-made bricks, new handmade square bricks. He is styling the walls in a playful “Bloomsbury” design where each square of the “checkerboard” is unique. Mark says he is using his “zen clear mind” and not planning in advance.
The large stepping pavers in front are marble.
At this point I am still not sure how the oven is going to be held up. I keep saying “this isn’t how Alan Scott or Rado or ANYBODY builds an oven!” Mark just smiles…
“Have you heard of the Roman Aqueducts?” Mark asks me.
Mark creates the form for the arch support. I step and fetch.
Mark carefully builds his arch frame. This is what will support the bricks while they cure. The arch will support the entire oven. Most people simply lay down cinder block and rebar. Not Mark the purist.
Note how the marble is cut at an angle to receive the bricks.
Mark covers the arch bricks with a layer of mortar. Ever the purist, Mark uses old fashioned lime mortar for the whole project. Because he has worked on so many century-old ovens he believes in the durability of these time-tested materials.
As usual, the day was a deluge! Mark and Greg worked tirelessly in pouring rain, clonking into the roof frame at every turn. Never complaining.
(Garden tour less than a month away and we haven’t even started on the oven part!!)
On top of the vermiculite will be more concrete.
Here is the oven so far. Note how the form sides pitch in to shape the vermiculite and concrete base of the hearth. The walls will be built up alongside the dome and vermiculite will be poured between the walls and the dome.
I am eager to see the arch without the support!
Note how uniquely this oven is built: Unlike a Scott oven it doesn’t “float” on rebar supports. (Some insist the floating hearth is for expansion; others insist it is simply for ease of movement in the event one wishes to relocate their oven). Unlike the Rado and Scott ovens, which are built atop cement block and then clad with finish materials, Mark’s “finish materials” are an integral part of the oven’s structure. Cement blocks are used only in the foundation below grade.
They are stagger-laid, butting against the marble apron that is the mouth of the oven.
Note the thin layer of clay that the firebricks sit on. The bricks are dry-laid to allow for expansion.
The oven proper gets under way! The floor will be 48 by 38; dimensions chosen because they are the exact size of the antique oven we discovered in the Colonial farm next door to mine. Note the oval shape of the hearth which is unlike the ovens of Alan Scott or Rado Hand.
Two rows of brick will provide the side and dome cladding that will hold & radiate the heat for cooking.
The wet sand dome will support the bricks that create the dome.
When the dome has set, the sand will be removed.
Here you can see the various layers of the oven. The hearth base is thicker than this looks because the walls are starting to cover it.
The blocks and bricks are temporary. They are supporting the marble lintel. When it is finished the whole mouth of the oven will be hand-cut marble. Mark will stain it so it doesn’t look so new in comparison to the antique marble used in the walls. In time the oven’s use will make the stain natural. Mark wants the oven to look like it has always been outside my Colonial farmhouse.
2nd layer of bricks go up to complete the dome.
After much discussion about cladding thickness, Mark uses two layers of bricks to make the dome of the oven with parging in between.
It will be a very high-performance oven, meaning long firing times to soak the bricks w/ heat, but a long baking period afterward.
After the constant deluge the weather has turned hot and dry. Mark shows me how to water the burlap to keep the masonry from drying too quickly.
Note the slip layer of foil covering the dome.
On top of this vermiculite insulation will later be poured filling the oven to the roof.
But the oven is so beautiful I stop caring. Every day presents a new design element that Mark intuits his way through, rather than designs in advance. Note how this middle course of brick is set with the corners jutting out, creating a third dimension and shadows where the light hits the edge. It is interesting to see the heavy marble and brick seem whimsical and elegant in this design. Mark used the work of the Bloomsbury artists as inspiration.
Mark tells me he has a new project in Nantucket and will have to be leaving in a week. I am sure this means my oven project will be put on hold. I try not to look too disappointed…
Wheelbarrows and equipment are everywhere. Hard rock replaces our jazz.
I bring the guys fresh toast every morning from bread I’ve baked indoors – promise them oven baked bread is in their future.
They work unbelievably hard and are always joking.
For the roof Mark has selected red slate from Vermont.
All the copper is hand bent.
All the sand has been removed and the oven’s hearth is revealed. Note the modern firebricks on the hearth and the traditional hard-fired bricks on the dome. Also note the traditional style of the oval-arched walls and arched dome. Unlike the squared and vertical walls of the Scott ovens & Rado ovens, there are no corners here.
The extra thickness of the copper drip edge added a needed visual dimension to the oven. Often (I think) oven roofs look too flimsy sitting atop the seriously heavy masonry.
The mortar Mark used was an old fashioned type that has a better color for the antique marble.
It is simple, elegant and beautiful in the way it makes the oven look like it is floating, despite the many tons of material it is made of. Mark left the mortar seams intentionally rough to mimic the look of the old factory from which the bricks came.
Garden tour is ten days away. I have an oven but no garden yet. No time to worry: we celebrate the oven first.
By now everyone has gone and it is quiet for the first time since June. I have to admit, I miss the excitement.
No time to relax because I have to clean up the site and put the gardens and courtyard in place …
The gardens are on tour in less than ten days…
In one morning they have cleared out, leveled, added topsoil and re-seeded!
After everyone left I wheelbarrow in some pea stone and create an entry pad using the left over marble from the oven. (I hope Mark approves of my amateur attempt at masonry)
I plant Nishiki willows flanking the oven and surrounding the courtyard. They are fast growing and their leaves are creamy white. I want it to play off the creamy white of the oven’s marble…
With the garden tour only days away my crazy vision is rapidly taking shape.
The only downside is that I can’t use the oven for exactly a month, according to Mark. I start counting down the days…
…and as they always do, the days pass.
The garden tour came off without a hitch. The bake oven was the star of the day.
At last I get to use the oven and start that exciting learning curve.
This is my first bread.
….and walks away with my enduring gratitude for an amazing project and an oven that is beyond my wildest dreams.
Every side of the oven has a unique but harmonious design.
The back looks as beautiful as the front.
The pots in front of the oven are planted with herbs to cut and sprinkle over pizza when it comes, bubbling and perfect, right out of the oven.
Note the continuation of the marble roof cap in front of the chimney. These sort of incredible details are typical of Mark’s work.
(Maria Nation is a screenwriter, practicing baker and passionate gardener.
She lives in Western Massachusetts.)
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