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Should I build an uninsulated barrel vault oven?

No. Please don’t.

Lowes and various other sites, mostly click-bait DIY sites that don’t really know how to do anything, document how you can build a barrel vault dome without any fuss, or cutting. The general idea is to build a stand using decorative blocks, lay a wide precast slab over the opening, put some firebricks on the floor, build a plywood form and set it on the firebricks, and then stack any old brick (the Lowes YouTube video tells you to use hollow core clay wall bricks), using any old mortar, over the form—and bang. You’re done. A one brick thick dome.

The truth is the oven doesn’t work.

The cost of the project runs into the mid hundreds of dollars, and you end up with a useless, elevated fire pit that will quickly start falling apart. It won’t make decent pizza, and it won’t retain enough heat to do any other type of cooking. It’s a crime again design, functionality, pizza, real pizza ovens, fire and Italian cultural heritage. It does tell us one thing. Pizza ovens, which at one time were a cool thing that only insiders knew how to build, use and lust after, have now arrived in the mass market stage of the market adoption curve.

There is nothing wrong with everyone wanting a pizza oven. Pizza ovens are great! We love Ooni, Gozney and the other innovators (and to a less degree all the Chinese companies and their US importers who blindly copy them). They’ve brought pizza ovens and better pizza to the masses—while their founders have gotten rich. More power to them!

But if you want something a little bigger, or something that has a real wood fire, there is a right way, and a wrong way, of building an entry level pizza oven in your backyard. And cutting so many corners to make the project appear easy and inexpensive, while giving the person who spent the time and money building it something that just doesn’t work isn’t fair. You can build a pretty darn good pizza oven in your backyard for less than $500. You can do it with brick or you can do it with a cast-in-place pizza oven kit. Those ovens have a couple of things the garbage ovens don’t.

  1. They are insulated, so the oven holds enough heat to actually cook something, rather than the heat of the fire radiating out through the dome bricks.
  2. They have a properly sized oven opening that hold the fire’s heat inside the oven for cooking.
  3. They have a reasonable size and good proportions. There’s some basic math in play here. A pizza is roughly 12″ round and a fire large enough to make a pizza is at least 12″. I know you’ve seen Ooni and Gozney ovens with a 13″ cooking floor, but be aware that those ovens have a separate firing chamber that blows heat from a wood, pellet or gas fire into the oven. That 13″ oven is dedicated to cooking.

To summarize, if you want a backyard masonry pizza oven on a budget, go the extra few steps and spend a couple of hundred more dollars to make an oven that actually works. An oven that you’ll be happy with. The extra time and money aren’t that big, and you’ll be happy you did.