Monday, December 5, 2016

We have Liftoff: Another Pizza OVen Update

At the end of the last update, the milestone reached was closing the dome. What remained was the entry which includes two support columns that get filled with concrete, two arches, a way to connect the two arches, and a way to connect the vent to a chimney anchoring plate I bought. Well, I bought the whole chimney system already and that is one of several reasons I can’t park in the garage. The chimney system includes the already mentioned anchor plate, a 5 foot piece of double walled stainless steel chimney pipe, a two piece flashing system for the roof, a chimney cap and spark arrestor. I’m pretty sure the spark arrestor will be overkill, but it isn’t the first thing I’ve way over designed for the oven.

I started by laying out and dry stacking the columns. The goal was to leave a 1.5 inch “reveal” around the arched opening to the dome. The idea is that you can make an oven door that slides into the dome arch and seals on the 1.5 inch reveal. I also picked up some carbon fiber gasket – similar to the stuff the helps seal a wood stove door- to create a small air gap between the dome and the arch. The gap, which may or may not actually be necessary, is supposed to prevent heat flow from the dome brick to the entry. There are two camps on the gap issue: those who have one thinks it works great, those who don’t have one consider them useless. I fall in the middle. It probably isn’t useless but it probably doesn’t matter too much. With or without it, the oven will still work.

I ran a bead of fireplace glue around the dome arch and pressed the gasket material into it. The glue goes on with a caulk gun and it seemed like there were some water pockets in the tube. It threatened to make quite a mess, but I dodged that bullet. Here’s the installed gasket.

The two columns press up against the gasket leaving a tiny air gap. I dry staked the columns to get a feel for how they would be installed. Here’s the big problem. The chimney pipe is 8 inches in diameter. The anchor plate is a 12”x12” square. The bricks are 9 inches long, 2.5 inches thick and 4.5 inches wide. I wanted the gap between the two arches to be about 8 inches to catch all the smoke to send it up through the chimney and away from my face. So if there are two arches with an 8 inch space between them, and each arch is 2.5 inches thick, that’s 13 inches and the bricks are only 9 inches long. Plus I’ve got to bolt/screw this anchor plate on somehow.

My plan was to make the arches 8 inches apart, connect them with a 9 inch long brick with a half inch notched at each end and make the anchor plate fit where I wanted it. It hasn’t happened yet but there will be some cutting of the anchor plate.

After a long day going back and forth about how actually assemble the entry, I just went at it. And put it together. I built most of each column (which has a piece of rebar glued into the slab below because of design overkill), built the rear arch, then finished the columns and assembled the front arch. When I finished, if was after 8 and I was working under lights.

Then next afternoon, I went to take out the arch forms and touch up the mortar if needed. I broke the front arch. Into 3 pieces. The cursing was loud and plentiful. Thanksgiving was coming, there was house cleaning, shopping  and a long list of stuff to do. The oven went on hold.

This last Thursday, I took a day off to work on the oven. As it turns out, the rebuild of the front arch came out nicer than the original.

  Dry stack the outer arch do-over

 Outer arch set

Once the arch was set I laid out my chimney anchoring system. I’d have the bolts go through a brick leaving at least an inch – I don’t want to risk splitting a brick with the bolt. To make that work, I had to make semi-circle-ish cuts in each brick. I clamped to bricks together and used trusty Ron the Wet Saw to cut the same shape in the two bricks. By varying the height of the say and pushing the bricks back and forth I made cuts that eventually worked.

Side Story: one of my neighbors had a contractor that was doing some work in their yard as I, dressed in brick dust covered clothes, dragged Ron the Wet Saw out of the garage. Their foreman came over and asked if I was good with “that thing.” I told him that I got by, but I wouldn’t say I was good with it. Then I showed him the oven and we talked a little. I guess if you have a contractor’s saw (because really, what kind of idiot would buy a saw this big to decorate their garage?), people think you are a contractor.

Back to the vent. With the cuts made, the anchor plat fit nicely but the original holes for bolts were not going to work. The plate is 12 inches wide and I’ve only got 9 inches to work with. I picked spots and drilled holes in the anchor plates where I wanted them to be. Once they were drilled I put the pricks and anchor plate together and marked where the holes needed to be in the bricks. A masonry bit went through the pricks pretty easily. Using stainless steel bolts, washers and nuts it all fit together and was pretty strong.

 Bricks for connecting the anchor plate
The notched ends to a little angle grinding so they met the curve of the arches well but everything centered and mortared in level. Once it was set, I un-bolted the anchor plate so I could work on closing the gap between the two bricks. The pieces I used are pretty small but I think they will work well. They just need to prevent smoke from sneaking out. After that, one more notched brick on each side of the anchor plate and a final brick at the end of each arch to seal it up. After work on Friday, I put a little bit on insulation scraps inside the column in case there was any heat transfer across the gap and then filled them with concrete.

 Bricks connecting the two arches

 Concrete filled column

The oven construction part of the project is done. On to curing.

 Done. You can see the 1.5 inch "reveal" left by the vent

Curing is a misleading term. Everything in the oven is already “cured,” meaning hardened and at design strength. This is more slowly driving excess waster out of the oven. Steam takes up more volume than liquid water so heating that liquid quickly into steam could produce many cracks. To give credit where credit is due, this is an abridged explanation based on a post written by Stonecutter on the pizza forum. It’s honestly the best explanation I’ve read in years of reading through sites.

My driving extra water out plan is to have several small fires without the insulation. By small, I mean not heating anything about 300 degrees and getting to that 300 degrees slowly. On Sunday, December 4 2016, I lit a fire in the oven. I started with just brown paper bags from Trader Joe’s and slowly worked up small chips of wood and eventually got to small pieces of kindling. I was so focused on building the oven, I completely neglected to stock up on some wood. I’ll need to fix that soon. For now, a bag of firewood from Stewart’s did the trick. Over the course of about 90 minutes I burned one log out of my bag o’ wood that I kept splitting into tiny pieces by hitting a hatchet through the log with a hammer. It was fun. It was thrilling. I can’t wait to do it again. Unfortunately, I think it has to wait until Friday. This week is pretty booked up.


As I was making note of December 4, 2016 as a pizza milestone for me it seemed very familiar. And then I remember it: December 3, 2015 was the day that Jay of OG Woodfired in Buffalo, graciously invited me onto his food truck and I made my first wood fired oven pizza.

I have to come up with something cool to do next year on December 5th.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Closing the Dome - Another Oven Update

It’s time for another oven project update. In my mind, I have mini-milestones. After I get to one, it’s time for an update. Well, we just hit one. The dome is closed.

When I wrote the last update, the oven walls were done and I was starting go up with the bricks.  I was basically building a big horseshoe and delaying the entry arch for as long as possible. The reason for that is once the arch was built, my fat butt couldn’t get through to make the joints look pretty and clean the brick of the mortar mess I was making – while I have gotten better, I’m still not a mason.

So the horseshoe, that looks like a mini coliseum to me, got bigger row by row.

Rustic looking, but surprisingly strong. That HeatStop 50 mortar is good stuff. I had been using a bunch of different supports to hold bricks in place – small pieces of wood, bricks, shims, pipe clamps – basically anything that could get me the 20 minutes of time for the mortar to kind of set. After awhile, there was no avoiding the arch.

General Tools makes something called the Angle-izer and for a long time on their website, they offered a free download to help you plan arches and bull’s-eye layouts and a few other things. They don’t offer it any more. Luckily, I have been planning this build off and on for over 6 years, so I had already downloaded it. You give the program the span, height of the arch, some brick dimensions and the size of the mortar joint. With that information, the program can tell you how many tapered bricks you need and the dimensions.  It gets an amateur like me in the ball park.

So with my brick dimensions and an absurdly large wet saw I have named Ron, I cut the arch. It actually worked.  I laid it out dry, cut the curve into a 2x4 to hold it up and then mortared it all together. (This is the part of the build where we gloss over me cracking one of the arch joints while tightening a clamp, then took half the arch apart and spent two hours putting it back together – I’ll deny it if the subject ever comes up again).

Once the arch was built, the horse shoe had to come around to meet it and then go past it.

Then rows 6, 7 and finally the odd shaped plug were set. The odd shape plug, which ideally would have been closer to a circle, is said to make the oven a work of art since it is a one of a kind piece and not a cookie cutter perfect circle. I like the sound of that because there is no mistaking that plug for a circle. I had cut a roundish piece of plywood to hold the last rows in place while they set...and I'm kind of proud of myself that I remembered to make the piece smaller than the door opening.

Once everything was set, there was still a little bit of joint cleaning inside the dome. I believe the technical terms are pointing and tucking. As mentioned earlier, I don’t fit in the oven. I tried. I twisted and turned and tried to reach spots in weird contorted ways. It wasn’t working.

I found the solution: child labor.

I love that picture. She's quite proud of it too and has sent it to several of her friends. Lying on mats, my 10 year old slid right in there and did a pretty good job at hitting the spots I wanted to hit. All that was left was to add a little more mass to the dome. The walls are 3 inches thick. The way I used the bricks, the dome is only 2.5 inches thick. I mixed some more of the same mix I used to pour the walls and packed it onto the dome.

Covering up all that brickwork was bittersweet. Progress, but it was a good amount of work and looked kind of cool. The insulation would have covered it anyway. This layer will take about a week to cure. In that time I hope to build the entry arches and chimney. And at some point I should probably start getting ready for Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Oven Progress Reprt

Alright, when I last wrote about the oven, I had finished the perlcrete insulation layer. I put a thin layer of fireclay (my understanding of fire clay is that is it basically silt with a lot of alumina so it can get really hot, so it really just very fine, fancy pants sand) to smooth it out. Did you have any idea there was a really big ceramic supply store in Troy?  I had none. Really nice people there. Anyhow, the top of the perlcrete was a little rough and I didn't want it poking into my fiber board insulation. InsBlok 19. I've got 2 inches of it on top of the perlcrete. I've got a little of the board leftover for insulation a future oven door.

Now we're getting into the actual oven. The biscotto I had shipped in from Ital isn't as thick as a single firebrick. But the biscotto plus a split firebrick is less than a quarter inch taller than a firebrick. So using more fireclay to level eveything, half the oven floor is biscotto raised up with a split and the rest of the oven is just one firebrick high. Hopefully the pictures make more sense. Unfotunately the canopy I have over the oven throws some shadows that mess up the pictures, but it is more important that the insulation board stays dry.

With the floor in, I moved into production brick cutting for the oven walls. To help get to the wall height I wanted, I came up with using cut splits on the bottom, then a firebrick split wall liner backed with refractory concrete to make a 3 inch thick wall. Once again, pictures will probably help.



Once the base of the wall was done, I had to cut the splits that would line the inside of the wall. To get them to fit nicely, the sides had to be beveled and the tops needed to be cut at an angle to meet the dome. It took a little figuring out, but I like how they came out.

Next was the rest of the wall. I found some flexible cardboard-ish board that was pretty cheap at Home Depot. On face of the board was a shiny smooth. I used that face as the inside of the form. The board wrapped into a circle pretty easily and I held it in place with concrete blocks and stacks of firebrick I was already stockpiling for the dome. To reinforce the wall, I used welded wire mesh. The same stuff that goes into a sidewalk. The concrete I used was a homebrew refractory mix. 3 parts sand, 1 part hydrated lime, 1 part fireclay, 1 part Portland cement and 2 parts broken up pieces of firebrick. Yes, I spent hours chipping bigger pieces of firebrick into tiny pieces of firebrick. And I thought I had enough, but I didn't so I had to hurry up and chip some more. I also ran out of sand in the middle of this too. oops.

At this point, I think it looks like a mini Colosseum. From here, it's time to build the dome. So far, I've got two courses of brick set.

I hope to cut Row 3 on Thursday and maybe put it up on Friday. Hopefully the weather cooperates and I can make some progress over the weekend too. So far it's fun, even with a few glitches. There's one brick that moved a little and I'm going to be the only one that notices, but it is going to piss me off until the end of time. And it feels like I'm going to get good with a trowel just in time to set the last brick. But overall, I'm enjoying it and I think I would have regretted not at least trying to build the oven myself.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Rochester Pizza Tour

I was on my own in an unfamiliar city. I vaguely remembered hearing about good Neapolitan place awhile back on Twitter.  So I tweeted off to OG Woodfired Pizza in Buffalo for his recommendations. He suggested Fiamma e Vino but he also passed on my suggestion request to some people he knows in Rochester. Here's the list (in order of strength of recommendation) I got.

1. Fiamma e Vino
2. Fiorella
3. Branca
4. Amore (but that recommendation came from word of mouth, no visit)

Fiorella is closed on Tuesdays so I was left with 3 places. Looking at the map, the easiest order would be Fiamma, Amore, then Branca. This route would give me about a 15 minute drive between places to recuperate.

Fiamma looks like a nice neighborhood restaurant. It's a little bit dark inside but nicely decorated and has an open kitchen. I asked for whatever pizza they thought was best that had sauce. I could see the waitress punch in the order at the servers stand and then the ticket came up at the pizza station. Then my waitress disappeared. The place wasn't crowded so the server should have known that the pizza was going to be ready within 5 minutes of placing the order. The pizza came out of the oven, the pizza maker rang the bell and then went off to do something else.

The pizza sat...I wasn't timing it, but it felt like at least 3 minutes.
I almost went to get it myself but thought that would be pushing it.
The pizza maker came out, saw the pizza, rang the bell and went away. The waitress still wasn't in the room.
This happened one more time. Still not there.
Then she appeared, gave me some bread and cleared another table still not realizing the order was up.
The pizza maker called over another server and told him to let her know and put the pizza in back.

He wasn't going to serve it. It sat too long. He made me another.

This time she was waiting for the pizza when it was plated. It was the Capricossa - sauce, parma cotto, mixed mushrooms, mixed olives, mozzarella,  basil and olive oil. I thought the dough could have used a little more flavor but the topping combination was really good (going to steal it) and I inhaled the whole pizza. I liked the way the pizza was served too, uncut on a plate with a pizza cutter tucked under the pie. I'd sow you a picture but the restaurant was too dark and I'm not brave/stupid enough to take flash pictures in a dark restaurant.

I figured I'd try one of their white pies too. I got the San Danielle - mozzerella, cherry tomato, baby arugula, San Danielle prosciutto, shaved parmigiano reggiano and a balsamic cream. Now this pizza maker clearly isn't screwing around...when he was brought the freshly sliced prosciutto he showed the person that did the slicing what was wrong with it (I couldn't ell what he said but he held up a slice and pulled) and then sent him back to slice more. If he's not happy with a pizza, it's not going out. This pie was also very good. I liked the way the crust was cooked a little better on this pizza - less (but still some) char on the crust and more of an even browning. I only ate half of this one and took the rest to go. I'd like to come back with 10 people and try a lot of the menu. A few items look really delicious. But there was more pizza to try and I was on the clock. Amore closed at 9:00 and it was almost 8:00.

When I looked up Amore, I saw the full name was really Amore Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar, by Wegmans. Are you kidding me? A Wegmans restaurant. What I didn't realize is that Amore is tucked in the corner of a really big Wegmans grocery store. But once you are inside, you are in an Italian restaurant. No idea that a produce section is 50 feet away on the other side of the wall. And it's nice inside too. And at 8:00 on a Tuesday night, the place was jumping. The food being served around me looked good. The guy to my left had a steak and there was a pork chop special with speck and pancetta. This looked like a decent restaurant.

I considered going with their prosciutto/arugula pizza to compare but went with house made sausage instead. I was served this in a freakin' Wegmans.

And it was good too. Not great but good. I've paid more for worse. The sausage was flavorful and salty in a good way. A few spots went past char to burnt. So now there are two restaurants in Rochester that I want to go to with 10 people so I can try everything. I considered popping into the grocery side for a bottle of seltzer to help with the quest, but at this rate I was going to get to Branca around 9:30 and they closed at 10. Back into the car and off I went.

Branca is in kind of a fancy looking building. I think there was a salon there too. I could see a bunch of people still sitting at the outside tables as I walked in hoping I wasn't too late for a pie. Turns out I wasn't so I sat down at the bar. The bartender recommended The Branca - mozzarella, basil, house made spicy pork sausage, pecorino romano and San Marzano tomato sauce. Once the order was sent in I started talking to the bartender and bar manager, both really nice guys. We talked booze and pizza. They both like the idea of a pizza quest to kill a night alone in a strange city. Here's The Branca:

I feel a little bad comparing this one to the other two. It definitely had some good qualities. The topping were good. The sausage had good flavor with a little bit of zip. The texture of the sausage seemed like it was braised Bolognese style which was unexpected. But the crust was crunchy and felt a little oily. I don't mean to imply there's something wrong with a crunchy crust, it's just not the same style of pizza. For what it was, it was OK, not great. Branca had a fancier, special occasion dinner feel to it. I was told the chef that opened Branca left for Amore and took his pizza with him. Then Branca's pizza evolved to its current form based on customer preferences.

After Branca, I went back to the hotel to pass out. I had a bar recommendation and they were even running a PBR and PB&J special with trivia - how could that not be interesting? But I was on my own and this bar was not within walking distance of the hotel - technically I guess it is but I was not up for a 12 mile round trip walk although I probably could have used it. Maybe next time.