Saturday, April 12, 2008

The First Pizza!!! (Fireplace XIII)

Using end-cuts and culls from the hickory flooring that we laid several months ago, I started the first fire in our pizza oven. Per the recommendations, I started the fire near the entrance tunnel. The first thing I noticed is that this oven design does not let a single puff of smoke into the living area. Wonderful! In fact, the only way that you can cause even a wisp of smoke to spill out of the oven tunnel is by removing the door too quickly or by blowing air into the oven... neither of which is ever necessary.

Once the fire was well established, I pushed it further back into the oven and added some bigger pieces of hickory flooring. The pristine white ceramic dome began to turn black from the fire. Enthusiasm and excitement overcame caution and reason, so that within 30 minutes I had a raging fire going inside the oven. How is it that I could wait 2 years to build a house with a functional pizza oven inside, and yet could not find the restraint to follow a reasonable break-in protocol? Primal motivators like fire and hunger will do that to you!

I moved the fire around in the oven to find the best place for it to burn. As expected, a nice fire in the back of the oven will shoot up flames that lick the dome of the oven and then make their way to the flue at the entrance tunnel (distributing heat nicely). But to my surprise, I also found that if you put the fire on the right side of the oven, flames will curve up the dome and come back down on the left side of the oven before swirling toward the entrance dome (left to right works as well). Although I made provisions for fresh-air makeup at the rear of the oven (via the ash dump), I found it totally unnecessary to provide more air to the fire -- plenty of air makes its way to the fire from the entrance tunnel.

My wife showed up just as I was starting the first fire... more-or-less completely in shock that I was building a fire in the pizza oven even though our flue liners were barely level with the roof, the flashing wasn't done, and rain was coming in the house around the chimney! It took about 30 seconds for the look on her face to go from "have you gone completely mad" to "I'll run and get the stuff to make pizzas." A few words were exchanged, but they really weren't necessary!

When the oven turned white inside, (and when I placed my hand inside the oven for 10 seconds and it singed off all of the hairs), we suspected it was hot enough to cook pizzas. We were right - our first pizza cooked in less than 5 minutes and it was a great success. Several more pizzas followed... a few quickly morphed into brick oven stir-fries when I launched the toppings but not the dough from the wooden peel! To make a long story short, we ran out of pizza materials before we ran out of appetites. We are still learning how to use the oven properly (more on that later), and possibly due to my complete and total disregard for a proper break-in cycle, the liner of our pizza oven has a few hairline cracks (which do not really concern me - I figured it would crack somewhere sooner or later.). But all in all, we are bonding very well with our brick oven. In the 8 days following the initial firing, we have cooked 6 meals in the oven. (7 meals if you count the post-apocalyptic roast chicken, but we won't talk about that!)

My advice for anyone contemplating a brick oven (indoors or outdoors) is this: whether you use the kit that I used or build-from-scratch, I would study the dimensions of this particular kit closely, because this thing works great. Its function has exceeded our expectations (smoke draw, easy of starting a fire, time to bring up to heat, cooking area, heat retention, etc.) . Previously, we wondered whether this oven would be a rarely used novelty or a serious cooking tool. No doubt, it is the latter!

Monday, April 07, 2008

Through the roof... with the chimney! (Fireplace XII)

The combination of a pulled muscle and overly neglected farm chores conspired to bring construction at our house to a halt for a couple of weeks. But things finally went into high gear last week when the mason convinced one of his sons (also a mason) to visit for a week and help with the chimney. They worked on the chimney from the inside of the house without much help from me for a couple of days.

When they reached the ceiling, I moved the crane around to the back yard and pulled the temporary metal roof off of the "chimney hole." In between trips to the kids' school and little league practices, my wife ran the crane with me at the end of it so we would not have to build scaffolding on top of the slate roof.

Chimney construction slowed down again at the roof line for several reasons. The masons passed block from inside the peak of the house for as long as they possibly could (using the ladder lift shown in the picture). Ultimately though, they had to seal up the last hole inside the house and bring materials to the chimney from outside the house. At that point, I used the crane to ferry block and mortar up to the chimney. The mason's son stood in the chimney while building it, so it looked more like a crow's nest than a chimney.

The big 16x20 flues were too heavy for one person to lift, yet only one person fit on (in?) the chimney at a time, so I volunteered to set the big flues using the crane (with my wife operating). It was actually very easy, but each of the 150 pound flues could have easily become a 150 pound wrecking ball if my wife hadn't been so careful with the crane controls.

Because the chimney is smaller than I anticipated 3 years ago when designing the house, it was necessary to add 2 courses of slate where the chimney exits the roof. (technically I had to rip off two courses of slate and then add 4 courses of slate.) Then I used 16 ounce copper for flashing. Only the copper apron at the bottom of the chimney required soldering. Further up, between each course of slate, I inserted step flashing. Then as the mason's son laid the chimney in a stair cased fashion, I fabricated custom sized pieces of counter flashing to insert into the block work. The system of step flashing and counter flashing allows the chimney and roof to settle independently of each other, since neither of the two types of flashing are rigidly connected.

Our allotment of sunshine expired and the rain began not long after the chimney came through the roof. The mason's son was a good sport and continued to work on the chimney in the rain, so that we could get as much of it flashed (and watertight) as possible. When it seemed that his enthusiasm was waning, I volunteered to park the crane platform above him to keep some of the water off of him. He worked on until finally the cinderblocks (if not the actual flue liners) were above the roof line. I said, "Good enough, make sure not to leave anything obstructing the pizza oven flue!" And with that, I flew him back down to the ground. We ran into the house to get dry, and began collecting scraps of hickory flooring... to start the first pizza oven fire!