Warning; this post contains gratuitous photos of pizzas and manly cooking on fire. Readers may experience sudden urges to eat pizza and devote half their garden to the art of cooking the ultimate pizza.
A wood fired pizza oven has long been on my bucket list of ‘things to build when I have a big garden’, sure you can probably build one in a small garden but our last house was a Victorian terrace and I think the neighbours would probably have needed a lot of bribing with pizzas to put up with the smoke. Also not sure the kids would have been quite so excited if I’d got rid of all the grass to build it.
You may remember quite some time ago now I wrote a post right at the start of my build which was full of hope and excitement. Well as is inevitable with these things it took a little longer than planned to actually build it (the small matter of training to run 100km got in the way) but it is finally done and we have cooked our first pizza’s on it. Was it worth the effort? You bet it was, they were AMAZING. So if you’re inspired to have a go at building one or just curious on the process then read on. I will add that while I’m always willing to have a go at DIY I really don’t have any skills in building or much knowledge but it was a great experience building it and also doing something physical in the evenings that tested my brain differently to work.
You don’t necessarily need a massive space for the oven, my base measures just 130cm square, but some people build on worktop area and mini outdoor kitchens around it so can scale up to a much bigger area. You also don’t need to worry about what’s behind the oven, it doesn’t get that hot on the outside (if it does your insulation isn’t good and it won’t cook well!) you just need some space in front to be able to put the pizzas in etc. However do think about your neighbours, it’ll produce some smoke at the start so probably best to do it away from both your back doors and your neighbours.
Do spend time planning and researching, there are some great resources online and spending time at this stage planning and making your design decisions will make the build much easier. The inspiration for my build came from reading Flossie Teacakes blog about the one her husband had built, it made me realise it was possible even for someone like me and then he produced a handy guide which you can read in this post on her blog. It’s a great place to start and formed the basis of my build. Every build is slightly different and I took pieces from his guide and adapted slightly after reading the wonderful UK Wood Fired Oven forum. The guys on there are really helpful and the build posts give you a great way to see how other people have tackled the issues you face or designed their ovens.
I’m not going to reproduce the detail of that guide but will share some specific things I did and the design choices I made. Always happy to answer questions if you have them though as it’s my new favourite obsession.
The decision you make on design can greatly impact the cost of it, I was on a very tight budget and I think spent around £400 in total. Many people easily spend £1000+ so there is a big range. I chose to make my dome out of red house bricks as I could get these free from my neighbour, you can also build with fire bricks which are designed to withstand the heat and then hold onto it. They will make for a better oven but obviously at a cost so you have to decide what works for you.
I did however use the fire bricks for my hearth, as this is what you cook on I thought it worth the investment. I also wouldn’t scrimp on insulation as this is the key to your oven getting really hot and holding the heat to cook on. Particularly if you want to cook breads and other things in the oven which need longer to cook so heat retention is key. I used thermolite blocks under the hearth as they’re really effective and cheap, then on the dome I had some special insulation blanket plus the very weird vermicrete. The rest of the materials you can get from your local builders merchants easy enough and the guide above as all the details on those.
Size is important for pizza ovens though, mine has an internal diameter of 30 inches which is probably about as small as you want to go to be able to cook decent size pizzas and also bread. It can definitely be much larger though if you want it too.
Once you’ve decided on your design you’re ready to start building and this is of course the fun bit. But don’t expect to be done in a few days, I would guess that I invested 50+ hours easily in the build and there was quite a few late evenings working in almost darkness. If you could dedicate a few solid days to it you might get done quicker though but for me evenings were the only real time I had to do it.
Doing the base was the easy bit, I used sleepers for mine as I really didn’t want to attempt bricklaying and in theory it should have been quicker. Hand cutting them was a fun task though! I also quite like the aesthetics of the wood and it fits in with our garden, but if you have a look on the forum you’ll see that most people build the base from bricks.
I then put the thermolite blocks on the sleepers for insulation and fire bricks on top of that for my hearth, then it was time to start the dome. This started off fairly easy you simply make up some mortar (which is made from cement, sand, lime and fireclay) and start making your dome shape. I used a circle cut from cardboard as my template with a piece of string in the middle. Each time you go up a layer you use the string to ensure it’s the right distance and angle from the centre.
Building the dome was relatively simple apart from 2 bits; going behind the arch and then the final few layers. I had to build a former from a sheet of wood with sand on the top for the last few layers to stop them falling in. The only other painful bit was the arch itself which fell down a few times when I tried to build too quickly and then ended up a bit wonky. Beyond that it’s really just time, I managed to get a layer done each night and there was 8 in total I think so it does take a while.
With the dome built more insulation goes on the outside and then I built a chimney on the arch where I’d left a gap during the build. Then all was needed was a few curing fires to get the moisture out of the insulation and mortar before you can fire it up properly. There were certainly some frustrating moments and it’s definitely not going to win any prizes for style or build quality but it cooks pizzas and that’s what matters!
Cooking the pizza
The moment I’d been waiting for! It took about 2 hours to build up the temperature so it was hot enough, I got up to about 530 degrees so pretty darn hot (an infrared thermometer is a very useful tool here and can be bought for about £10 off Amazon). You get through a few logs in this time as well so you do need to keep feeding the fire and tending to it periodically. You can burn any hard wood as long as it is seasoned of course.
Then once you’re up to temperature you’ll notice that the soot clears from the internal walls on the dome and you’re ready to cook. You’ll need a pizza peel here and ideally a long handled wire brush (although for now I’m using my peel). You push the fire to the back and sides and then clear the ash from the hearth. The pizza will then cook in about 2 minutes, it’s amazing to stand and watch it bubble up. You’ll probably need to turn it during this time so that one side isn’t too burnt.
And that’s it, you now have the means to cook the most amazing pizza outside of Italy and it sits in your back garden. Plus that’s just the start, I have an amazing wood fired oven cookbook with menus for cooking days. Yes that’s right a whole day of cooking on the oven using different temperatures as the oven rises and falls. Can’t wait!
If you have any questions at all do let me know, more than happy to help out.