Episode 2: The first firing.

The ongoing adventures of a tiny clay oven.

After the oven spent a week drying on the dining room floor and generally being in the way, the time came to fire it.  At this point, the plaster was still damp as browning plaster takes a long while to dry, especially if it is very thickly laid so being an impatient soul I took the decision to fire it and see what happened.

For the very first firing of the oven you will need:

  • An appropriate trestle or table to stand the oven on; placing it on the floor is impractical but remember that you mustn’t mind whatever you place it in possibly getting scorched and it must also be capable of bearing the weight of the oven. Be careful!
  • A good supply of fine sticks about half an inch square, if not finer.
  • ‘Clean’ kindling such as hay or sawdust. Any chemical accelerants such as firelighters or lighting gel give off gases that will never quite burn off and taint your food and newspaper gives a fine ‘floaty’ ash that tends to stick to the oven floor.
  • A fine day or a safe cover, just in case it rains. (I used a tall, fire resistant canvas patio umbrella. Don’t ever use your oven indoors or in an enclosed space such as a tent or near anything flammable. Be sensible!)
  • Matches (or if you are feeling very brave, a flint and steel but that will be covered at a later date!)
  • A mugful (or equivalent) of mixed (but strawless) plaster to patch cracks as they appear.

First lay your fire

Lay your fire inside the oven like a good campfire, with kindling in the centre, then a ‘wigwam’ of very, very fine sticks, grading outwards with the thickest on the outside so that the wood falls into the fire as the centre burns away. This should give you a good even burn for the first stage of the fire and give you a good bed of embers that will keep things going until the oven is up to temperature.  Leave the chimney and the door unobstructed.

The fire laid for lighting. Note thickness of the sticks.

The fire laid for lighting. Note thickness of the sticks.

Fire it up!

Light your fire.  A single match should do it but there is no shame in using three or four.  When you see the kindling catch, leave it be and let the fire catch the sticks.  Keep an eye on things and gently blow on the glowing parts of the wood until the flames reappear.  When the flames come back, stop blowing.

Let the fire catch and resist the urge to fiddle with it!

Let the fire catch and resist the urge to fiddle with it!

When the fire catches, it is likely that flame will come from the chimney and the door. Don’t panic! Let the fire burn down and add more wood when needed, two or three sticks at a time. This will give you a nice bed of embers that will keep the fire going nicely.  There is no need to add more sticks when the flames are coming out of the door or top.

Don't panic!

Don’t panic!

The oven will be damp at this time so it will have to burn for a while to get hot. Be patient with it.  When it begins to heat, the plaster (and also more than likely the ceramic inner) will crack.  This is normal and do not let it worry you.  Use your ready mixed browning plaster to smooth over the larger cracks when they appear and be careful not to burn yourself as you do so. You may also find that as the plaster dries out it will lift from the trestle, again just smooth over it with the ready mixed plaster.  Make sure that the plaster is not too runny however as it may dribble to the surface to the ceramic and cause the inner to crack, the ‘margerine’ consistency mentioned in the previous entry should do fine.  Patching the oven is going to be a regular thing throughout its life, get used to it!  Keep your fire in for an hour or two in order to let the heat permeate.

Hold your nose

As the browning plaster dries, steam will rise from the surface of the oven.  This is normal but be warned that as the browning plaster dries the smell is quite terrible!

Patience grasshopper

The oven will need a couple of fires in it over the course of a few days to dry the plaster out so that it no longer smells when fired.  Resist the urge to cook in it at this stage as the stinky steam may make the food taste nasty.  Also, resist the urge to use the oven in inclement weather as the the plaster may start to come off.  additionally, avoid any rapid heat exchange (for example, something very cold touching very hot) as this may cause the ceramic to shatter. Treat it gently, feed it well and you will be fine.

Next time… The first bake!

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