Stone Ovens and How to Build Them

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Cross section and detailed views of a stone oven and its parts, including the firebox, nested drum cylinders, and chimney.
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A finished version of the missionary stone oven design.

There are those who argue–sometimes with good
reason–that the whole concept of running off to
distant lands to “convert the heathen” has created far more
suffering than joy in the world. Maybe so, maybe not. But
no matter what you, personally, may think about the
message carried by missionaries . . . it might pay
you to take a closer look at some of the low-cost living
and survival methods pioneered and employed by various
members of the breed.

If you wanted someone to teach you homesteading skills,
would you think of asking a missionary? Probably not . . .
yet if he’d ever served in a remote part of the world, such
an evangelist might be a very good instructor. After all,
long before the back-to-the-land movement got started, many
dedicated men and women of various faiths were already old
hands at setting up housekeeping with scanty supplies,
local resources, and their own ingenuity.

Though some ministers abroad now enjoy modern facilities
and equipment, the “do it yourself” tradition is
still–necessarily–very much alive at New Tribes
Mission . . . a nondenominational, evangelical Protestant
foundation. The 900 NTM field workers specialize in
carrying the Gospel to the most primitive peoples in the
wilds of New Guinea, South America, Africa, and the
Philippines. Their work, in fact, is so demanding that New
Tribes’ five “boot camps” (in Pennsylvania, Florida, Canada
and Wisconsin) teach the apprentice missionary basic
skills, not only of ministry, but of survival.

An essential part of this training–“jungle
camp”–takes place every spring when each NTM student
goes out into the woods near the school and begins to build
the house in which he and his family will live for a period
of one to two months.

During the several weeks it usually takes to clear a site
and erect a shelter, the missionary trainee tries as much
as possible to simulate jungle conditions and to do as he
will have to do when he finds himself actually living with
a native tribe far from “civilization”. Since it’s very
difficult to send building supplies to the interior areas
where the new evangelist will be working, he knows that
he’ll probably have to make do with what’s available. This
means, for one thing, that if the missionary and his family
want to cook and bake on something more advanced than an
open fire, they must learn during the training period to
build what they can with what they have: earth and stone
and what grows.

Here, then, is the type of stove that New Tribes trainees
have found most practical . . . a design that’s well suited
to homesteading in the boondocks because it can be built
quite readily from materials at hand wherever you are.

The first step in the construction of the primitive
“kitchen range” is the fabrication of a platform to raise
the cooking area to a convenient working height. Usually
this is done by driving short poles into the ground and
tying crosspieces to the uprights with a generous amount of
baling twine. The result is a sort of table-like affair
which is topped with stout branches to serve as a base for
the stove.

Next, construct a three-sided stone or brick box–open
at one end–to hold the fire. To do this, place a
covering of stone on the raised platform and cement the
rocks together with clay or mortar (keeping the surface as
smooth as possible so that the stove will be easier to
clean). Then build up the sides of the firebox as you’d
construct a wall, and seal all the chinks. Finally, cover
the top of this box, for about two-thirds of its length
nearest the fuel entrance, with a flat plate (preferably of
cast iron, but you can use steel or even stone).
Remember, however, that only hard, unlayered rock will
do and the slab must be dried out by slow heating to
prevent it from bursting or even exploding when exposed to
intense heat.

At the other end of the firebox–farthest from its
open end–you should next construct your stove’s oven
around a five-gallon can. The container is supported at
front and back and room is left between its sides and the
stone or brickwork so that the smoke and hot gases can pass
on their way up to the chimney.

Though the can is satisfactory, a better way to build the
oven is to place a whole 16-gallon drum inside a 30-gallon
drum cut in half lengthwise. The larger barrel serves as a
form for the brick or stone and makes for a neater and
easier job.

The oven itself, of course, has to have one end fitted with
a door . . . a job that’s most easily handled with an
oxyacetylene torch, though it can be done with hand tools.
Cut a square hole in the metal, make a cover that’s about
an inch bigger all the way around and attach the closure to
the baking compartment . . . with hinges at the bottom so
the door can swing down out of the way. Finally, make or
buy a latch for the top of the door.

The chimney–which consists of a pipe set into a hole
in the arch above the oven–must fit tightly and be
cemented in with clay or mortar. You’ll also need to put a
damper in the pipe so that the draft (and hence the amount
of heat) can be controlled.

Of course, what I’ve described is just one possible form of
simple oven. The Indians of the Southwest and other
peoples around the world achieve the same results by
building a structure like a beehive of stone, with an
opening in the front near the bottom and a smoke hole at
the top. This chamber is heated through and through for a
couple of hours, the ashes are raked out and the device is
then ready to bake with the stored-up heat in its stone.
This form of oven is a little more awkward to use, but it
does work well. Although the Indian version is usually
built on the ground and therefore requires a lot of bending
over, I see no reason why it couldn’t also be raised on a
platform to eliminate the stooping.

There you are . . . pick your style and go to it. And good