I’m a pyromaniac. I’ve been enthralled by the power of fire my entire life.
Fire is intangible but is critical in the making of so many modern luxuries.
Fire turned clay into Space Shuttle tiles that could survive 2300 °F.
Fire turns dough into delicious, blistered loaves of bread.
There’s nothing you can’t do with a bit of fire.
In elementary school, my older brother, cousin, and I would [attempt to] start fires in our aunt’s backyard when no one was around. We’d snatch anything flammable from the house: matches, lighters, vegetable oil, candles, my grandpa’s old magnifying glass for soldering. We even built and tried using a bow and arrow, but never got beyond smoke with that one.
The few times we managed to sustain a fire were glorious. We’d make ant “chow mien” then hastily erase any evidence before our aunt came home.
My family has a cottage on a Canadian lake. When we first got the place, I built sandcastles on the little beach. Soon enough, the beach became littered with ash as we grilled steaks and chicken right on the sand. The meat turned out great: charred with a sandy crunch.
We needed to turn up the heat, though. We wanted sizzling steaks, blistered pizzas, and pottery. No one could have anticipated it’d take a decade before we could realize these dreams.
Using rocks to build an oven seemed like an easy way to prototype. The only problem is it’s hard to stack rocks without them toppling over. Luckily, we were kayaking around the lake one day when we discovered the most beautiful flat rocks lying in the shallows near someone's cottage.
It was like someone had broken a countertop and put it in the water for our taking.
We planned our heist. On quiet evenings, we’d traverse the lake in our kayak convoy. Our boats were sinking with the weight of our plunder as we returned from our adventures.
The operation has been a huge success. Over the past decade, we’ve built a formidable collection of flat rocks. There were a few close calls, but that’s just part of the job.
Our flat rocks allowed us to build taller and enclosed ovens. There were two problems: rocks explode when they get too hot and our fires were burning colder than before.
Before acquiring the cottage, my brothers and I discovered the stream cutting through the property was lined with endless amounts of pristine clay.
We tried lining the rock ovens with clay to prevent the rocks from cracking. Unfortunately, either the rain would dissolve the clay or the clay would crack and fall off.
It seemed like we’d never get to the elusive thousand degree fire.
Then, the Primitive Technology Youtube channel was created. John Plant made huts, refined iron, and wove mats with nothing more than his hands.
He taught me several critical things:
- Chimney Effect - air moves faster the higher the chimney
- Coil Pottery -
- Mud and Clay Brickmaking
- Hot fires need a lot of wood - sorry nature
- A lot more stuff
Slowly, the puzzle began to come together as I dove into my own research. Every year the oven would go up and the next year it would go down. Every time improving or learning in between.
Our square stone ovens abruptly cut the flame, making a lot of smoke and limiting their heat.
At one point, I got sidetracked and built a birch bark roof to protect the oven from rain. Birch bark is highly flammable. I never thought the fire would lick up to the roof.
But one fateful day, I heard my dad and brother laughing. I turned around and saw a small part of the roof on fire. I scurried as fast as I could to put the fire out. The more I tried to put it out, the bigger the flame got. The entire roof erupted into a brilliant flame with a thick, sooty smoke. Lesson learned: birch bark fires are dope.
The next year I built a mud cross-draft oven. The mud encased a stick frame that provided resistance to tension like rebar and concrete. Mud, unlike clay (not pottery) resists temperature changes quite well due to its plasticity.
We were so close, we made some incredible Neapolitan style pizzas. Unfortunately, it did not survive the harsh Canadian winter.
This past summer, I built a Tuscan clay brick oven. Over a week, I labored from dawn till dusk. I harvested clay, blended it with crushed pottery, and molded bricks with a mold my brother crafted. The bricks were left to dry under the heat of the sun for a few days. Then I subjected them to a small fire until they were bone dry.
I fired the bricks in batches using a temporary furnace. For four hours, I constantly fed the furnace with all the 1-inch diameter sticks I could find. By the end, the bricks were glowing red.
The next day, I pulled the fired bricks out. I ran my finger along their caramelized surface, “zssssht”. When you hear that sound, you know you’ve succeeded. Every brick I pulled out, I grew more excited.
Ceramic bricks meant I could experiment with oven designs like I did with rocks, but without having to worry about cracking. At least that’s what I thought… Many bricks cracked in the firing process due to uneven heat.
Nonetheless, I forged onward. Originally, I attempted a cross-draft kiln design. That didn’t work. The next day I tore it down and built a Tuscan oven design.
Building a dome required some creative engineering so the whole thing didn’t collapse as I built it. Once complete, the dome can support its weight and provides the perfect curve for the fire to gracefully flow through the walls of the oven.
Unable to contain my excitement, I immediately did a test fire of some coil pots I’d made earlier in the season. As the fire roared, I could see the smoke billowing out of the chimney faster and faster (chimney effect). The next day I was met with beautifully orange ceramic pots. Success.
That was only the start of my rigorous testing curriculum.
Next, we attempted pizza. Rather than cooking directly on the stone base, we used an aluminum foil covered baking sheet. We shoveled hot coals under the sheet and placed burning logs on the left and right sides of the oven. The pizza came out blistered top and bottom. Success.
The dome oven design is genius. It creates a connection current that ensures the top of the pizza gets enough heat and all the smoke goes out the chimney rather than the front entrance.
Our final test was steak. We realized the oven actually burned too hot and we’d have to cook the steak on top of the chimney. The steak came out medium-rare with a beautiful crust. Success.
I’m completely satisfied with the results of this decade-long adventure. I’m so satisfied I don’t have anywhere to go next.
I’ve achieved my pyromaniacal dreams.