My Pizza Oven

Q&A about home pizza ovens.

My Pizza Oven: Dan Curry, Kansas City

Last week on Slice, I showed you some photos of a home-built backyard pizza oven in Kansas City with a promise that I'd try to chat with the builder. Here's the result, a quick interview with its builder-owner.

20070919dc.jpgName: Dan Curry
Age: 31
Location: Kansas City
Occupation: Lawyer

I've been told you used eight different kinds of brick and took seven months to build this oven. True?
Just two kinds of bricks, fire bricks, and a few regular bricks. I did use five different kinds of concrete.

Where'd you get the plans?
You might have run across this guy, he's kind of the biggest Internet presence in the build-your-own pizza oven world, Rado Hand. He lives in Australia and is a professional bricklayer, builds foundries and things. He will send you a CD full of pictures of him building a pizza oven--and that's what I got. I kinda used those as a guiding principle. The problem was that the fire bricks in Australia, I think, are different dimensions than the U.S. bricks.

Did you have any kind of building experience before starting?
Not really. The summer before I built the walls that are shown in the pizza oven pictures, so that gave me about 90 percent of the experience I needed. I also have a brother-in-law in Santa Fe, Gabe Chiu, who is the real deal, and he was actually building a cathedral of a pizza oven at the same time down there for a client, so I would call him up a lot. (He did not give me the idea, though. We both started the projects simultaneously without consulting the other.) And there's another guy, a former Kansas City Art Institute design professor, Tim O'Neill, who helped me out a lot with tips.

Did you have any unexpected setbacks when building?
Yeah, the aforementioned problem with the size of my fire bricks. That led to my dimensions being different than the Rado Hand model I was using. Also, one of the jerry-rigged forms I was using to pour the concrete bulged on me, but you can't tell now. The roof—I wanted to go for the igloo look on the outside—turned out like hell, so I put a big "B" on it, and now I have plans to build a pitched roof (next summer I hope). There is a magic ratio (68 percent, I think) between the height of your oven dome and the height of your oven door, and my dome came out a little too high. The ratio has to do with air flow, but what I've noticed is that if my oven dome was a little lower, more of the intense air-heat would reach the pizza on the oven floor. In practice, it means I have to make my fire rage a little more, which I don't mind a bit.

How much did it cost to build?
Approximately $1,500 to $2,000, probably closer to $2,000. I'm not sure, because I built it over the course of five months and didn't keep track of expenses. The three biggest single-item expenses were a load of stone to build the facade/chimney in front; the fire brick; and the special refractory cement. However, the costs of sand, gravel, and portland cement was pretty high. My dad had just retired and drove around finding me a lot of free stone and cast-off construction materials, so I mixed that in with what I bought—his scrounging probably saved me as much as $1,000, because stone out of a stone yard is unmercifully expensive. A person could build a good-looking oven without the stone facade (an adobe-style one, for instance) and save about $1,500 just in stone. You can also build a pizza oven without a chimney, which would save some money, but you'll get smoke in your eyes and a sooty front to your oven.

Any advice to someone thinking of building an oven?
Get some plans, check scrap yards for fire brick (I found some). Refractory cement is even worse than regular cement on your hands, so wear gloves (it also dries quicker). Find friends who know what they're doing. Build your forms stronger than you think they might need to be. If you use Rado Hand's plans, keep in mind that he's a refractory nerd, and you don't really need all of those special ingredients. Last thing, I breathed in a lot of crazy stuff (the perlite for the insulating concrete was the worst), so get a face mask.

What did your wife think? Did she roll her eyes at your plan?
Leah is cool with it. Now she really likes it. The construction process was painful to her because our backyard was a wreck for three seasons and I didn't do anything else except drink and work on my pizza oven. And then, after I built it, all I did was drink and burn things. But then I sobered up, and now I only burn things.

Did you have any pizzamaking experience before building the oven?
As a matter of fact, yes. Papa Keno's in Lawrence, Kansas. I worked a wood-fired oven at a defunct restaurant in Kansas City (Bayou State Brewery). Also, another defunct pizza joint called California Pete's that actually had pretty good pizza.

What else do you cook in it?
It's just like an oven with a broken thermostat. About the only thing I wouldn't try is cake. I've cooked pork tenderloin in there, fish, shrimp—that kind of thing. Soup. I have attempted to bake some ciabatta in there but haven't really scored yet. Baking bread is a whole 'nother sport. Plus, my pizza oven door burned into charcoal the night I tried it. I've warmed up a lot of cold pizza in it.

What kind of wood do you use and where do you get it?
I use whatever is handy to start firing the oven. It takes about four hours of flame before it reaches pizza-cooking speed. I cut down a bunch of red bud and hackberry last winter, and that's what I'm using now. Before I put the pizza in, I throw in some of my neighbor's hickory logs.

How long does it take to fire up the oven and get it to temperature?
Four or five hours. If you build a good oven door that won't burn, then you can plug it up and it holds its heat really well. Back before my door burned, I cooked breakfast the next morning after a debauched night of pizza making. The morning after the pictures you saw were taken, I cooked some cinnamon rolls (I propped up what was left of my poor old door that night and it held in the heat). I would estimate the oven temperature to still be about 300°F by the morning. If you use it a lot, it takes less heat to warm it up again because the stones are already hot. The special thing about wood-fired ovens (I know you probably know all of this) is that they cook with radiant stone heat. Supposedly, the only thing you cook with a fire actually burning in the oven is pizza, because you need the temperature so high and you need that hot air to sear the top. Everything else, especially bread, you're supposed to cook after you sweep out the coals.

When you're not baking your own pizzas, where do you go? What's your favorite pizza spot in KC?
I'm burned out on pizza most of the time, that's the sad truth. You know who's making a great pizza in KC now is Cupini's, they just started this year. I like the D'Bronx the best though (despite Slice's lukewarm review!) probably for nostalgic reasons. I end up eating the most at Pizza 51, which I can walk to, and it's ratable college-crowd pizza by the slice.

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