Building an Outdoor Oven

This easy-to-construct, DIY clay oven fires up quickly and stays hot for days. Cook dinner at night and bake bread in the morning with its stored heat.

| April/May 2017

This is the first of a two-part article on DIY backyard ovens. Part I discusses building an outdoor oven, and Part II will discuss how to cook with your oven.

The technology of the domed oven is ancient. In one of the world’s oldest excavated Neolithic villages, every house had a domed mud oven. That was 9,000 years ago! The technology hasn’t changed. Any refractory dome that has a hole cut into it (so you can heat the oven with an interior fire) will cook pizza and other foods when the fire is still burning. However, the ultimate power of the domed oven is that the dome functions like a battery, absorbing heat while it’s being fired. So, after the fire has died down, you can sweep out the embers and bake bread and casseroles with the stored heat radiating into the oven from the dome. When the oven is nearly cool, you can dry wild mushrooms, herbs, and fruit inside.

The oven I suggest you build is made of powdered clay — fireclay — and sand. It heats quickly; you can start baking dinner in 15 to 20 minutes while the fire is still burning inside the oven and achieve a full firing after about an hour and a half. While the shell is thin compared with brick, it’s so well-insulated under the floor and over the dome that it can be used for days on a single firing. In summer, after making a pizza dinner, if I close the door and put insulation in front of it, my oven will almost always be at least 400 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning — still hot enough for me to bake bread that afternoon. And, its temperature will still be higher than 200 degrees by the following morning.

Ovens are beautiful architectural and sculptural statements. I built my oven on a table made of the trunk and branches of a backyard plum tree. I was inspired by ovens I saw in Italy that were built on platforms made of chestnut trees. This is my aesthetic; you’ll want your oven to reflect your own aesthetic. A friend made his oven base out of pallets, setting his oven at an angle on the tabletop. A wooden base can be finished with stucco or siding, or built with dovetail joints and contrasting woods. It’s all up to you. You don’t need the structural strength of a masonry base, but if your aesthetic tends that way, then build a stone base.

Choosing a Site

Whether you build the oven I suggest or a different design, I encourage you to prioritize location. To choose your site, imagine cooking in the oven and serving your family and guests. An oven that isn’t used is just an outdoor ornament! My first ovens were too far from the kitchen — I used them half a dozen times a year. My current oven is 20 feet from the kitchen. It’s as easy to set a table by the oven as it is to set the table in my dining room, and if I forget salt or olive oil, it’s just a few steps into the kitchen to get what I need.

Building a Clay Oven

I recommend an oven 36 inches in diameter built on a sturdy wooden table, with a thick layer of insulating material between the oven floor and the wooden tabletop. The oven itself will be a dome made with a mix of 3 parts sand and 1 part fireclay that will be 2-1/2 inches thick on the sides and 4 inches thick on the top. You’ll build the dome over a pile of damp sand. You’ll then insulate it with two to four layers of ceramic insulation alternating with aluminum foil, and finish it with a coat of stucco, a wetter mix of fireclay and sand, or straw saturated with wet clay slurry and painted with whitewash. Protect it from the rain with a tarp or a simple roof, and you’ll have a beautiful oven that will last a lifetime.

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