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Kinsman 05-08-2006 09:32 AM

Is there any reason I should not build my oven using just refractory?

I presume that's what the Forno Bravo ovens are made of.....and I might have a line on two types of refractory.. one is Sairset: it's wet and in buckets. The other is sacks of dry mix labaled "refractory" and is from Harbison-Walker.

Any reasons I couldn't build a hearth or a dome or both from just these products?

CanuckJim 05-08-2006 06:11 PM

Nope, no reason at all, but it's tricky stuff to handle. We can discuss further, if you like.


Kinsman 05-10-2006 11:27 PM

I sure would like to discuss it further!

I'm going to guess that uniform thickness is one thing to be aware of and strive for.

I have worked with concrete before but that's about the extent of my experience with masonry. I'm about ready to pour the foundation and begin building the base for the oven; it's going to be made of stone which is in abundance on my place. I've been gathering, sorting and practice-stacking all winter. Now, Spring is here and it's time to get busy.

Grab a homebrew, Jim, and let's talk.

CanuckJim 05-11-2006 04:09 AM


First off, I'm not familiar with the brands of refractory you mention, but that should not matter. I used LaFarge Fondue. The bags list two formulas (not the same ratios as ordinary cement or mortar) by weight. It's important to remember that the hydration level is only a guideline, but not so sand and aggregate. For the slab and cladding, be careful with your aggregate. I used washed P-gravel. Terms vary across the continent, but these are round white stones about the size of a green pea; same stuff sometimes spread dry for walkways. For the mortar, I used the finest, cleanest brick sand I could find. There are others, but these were what was available to me at the time. Clean is an absolute: no mud, debris, beer caps. Strength is what you're after; dirt weakens the set concrete or mortar.

I've handled tons and tons of mortar and cement in my time, both professionally and personally, and refractory has a different set of rules. I had trouble with it at first, and I'm very experienced. Prime among them is that it sets very, very quickly but cures slowly. Second, it will stain absolutely everything, including you. Soak your tools as you work, otherwise it's there for life. The shiny interior of your wheelbarrow is just a fond memory. The upside is that it's nowhere near as caustic as, say, Portland. One provisio, if you're tempted to use Portland for block work or stone laying, don't. It does not have the stickiness you need and has very little flex to allow for expansion/contraction (cracking will happen). Use Type S. It has a bit of Sealbond in it for stickiness, it's more resistant to weather and has enough flex. For a foundation pour, Portland is fine.

However, like all mortars, refractory is dependant on humidity and temp. Dry and hot equals more water. For brick work, you must soak each brick in water until it stops hissing, or else the mortar will not stick to it, because the porous firebrick will instantly suck the moisture out of it. Mortar should be mixed in small batches (say enough for about ten bricks at first, until you find your personal speed) and kept out of direct sunlight. BEFORE you start laying brick in earnest, build a small practice wall to get the hang of refractory. I'm talking here about the hydration level of the mortar and the wetness of the bricks. Have an old paint brush in a pail of water nearby to wet mating surfaces like the hearth bricks to the wall/dome bricks.

Pay attention to the formula on the bag, sure, but be prepared to add more water; you want it to set up on the trowel, not run off the edges, turn the trowel sideways and you should have to shake it once to get the mortar off. Try to get the right hydration level from the very beginning, because, unlike conventional mortar, you can't rehydrate refractory more than about two times before you get stone. This is a chemical reaction that cannot be stopped. My experience is that you'll find it looks just right, then five minutes later it's too dry; add a bit more water to adjust for this. The mortar should be shiny when it's right and hold the mark you make in it with the point of your trowel. Dang, this is much more difficult to describe than show.

Do yourself a very large favour and buy a very good brick trowel (Marshalltown [top of the line] or Rose), because the way it's made will save your forearm and wrist. Each brand has a different handle diameter and a different handle to blade angle. If it feels good in your hand at the store; it will feel good when you use it--a lot. Same goes for other masonry tools.

Because refractory sets so fast, you will have to point your joints much earlier than normal. Buy a set of pointers from Home Depot. There's a pic on this forum of my masonry tools. Pointing has to do with strength and making sure all joints are full. The joint should shine slightly if you do it properly, because the remaining water has been pulled to the surface by the action of the tool. Keep your brick joints at 1/8" because the mortar joint is the weakest point. I'll walk you through pointing later if needed.

For the slab and cladding, make your mix pourable but not sloppy, no pools of water on top. But, you don't want it so dry that you'll be poking at it to fill gaps. Do yourself another large favour and rent a mixer on the days you pour. Just be sure to clean it out right away. For the slab, bear in mind that refractory shrinks more than ordinary concrete. Concrete gets warm as it sets and cures; refractory actually gets hot. Once you've levelled and smoothed your slab, cover it with the burlap you bought from Home Depot and keep it wet for about three days (depending on weather), out of direct sunlight (tarp), but do allow for air circulation. This will minimize shrinkage but more important it will maximize strength. Same goes for your cladding. Once it has cured to gray (it's black when wet), off comes the burlap, but now you must keep it dry, dry, dry. Refractory cement is used to make things like steel mill floors, and it's very resistant to impact when cured. Any sloppy bits that might be in the way later will be in the way later, so chip them off soon as you can; otherwise dynamite.

All this wetting will affect curing and drying times, but there's no way around it.

The one major thing to keep in the front of your mind when working with refractory is not to get frustrated. It's not a race, work quickly, but take your time. If it doesn't look right, knock it down and do it again. You'll only be doing this once, for a lifetime. Plan the positions of your thermocouples carefully if you'll be using them. Suggest you use about four.


jengineer 05-11-2006 06:02 AM

tools shots
that Jim is talking about can be found on this thread

DrakeRemoray 05-11-2006 07:37 AM


Thanks for this lesson in refractory mortar. I have purchased Alsey flueset refractory mortar and I am going to start laying up the acutal oven part this weekend, so your timing is perfect! (I have also really appreciated all of your posts on bread making, those baguettes looked amazing!)


Are you asking about casting your own oven from refractory concrete instead of using bricks and refractory mortar? That is how I interpreted your post...
I am no expert, but I did purchase some castable refractory concrete in order to make a vent like kiwipete did in his oven. The castable refractory concrete appears to come in a few "flavors". Some are insulating and some will add mass to the oven. I believe all of them gain strength through heat curing. For the vent, I am planning on "Baking" mine in my regular electric oven. I am not sure you could properly cure an oven that you cast yourself...

If I totally misinterpreted your post, please ignore me :)


james 05-11-2006 12:16 PM


You can also look at Refrax. There is a posting on it here. It's an air drying refractory mortar made specifically for pizza ovens (and fireplaces). Hard, heat resistant and fast drying.

Basically everything in your oven should either be thermal, in that it is dense and does a good job of absorbing, holding and withstanding heat, or an insulator. It's interesting that high heat refractory products and insulators are made from the same minerals, because they are heat resistant. The insulators have lots of little air holes, which is why they insulate, and the thermal products (like a Forno Bravo oven) are vibrated to get the air holes out.

Refrax is very dense, where Insulfrax and Vermiculite are very light.


Kinsman 05-26-2006 11:25 AM

Go away to Chicago for a couple weeks, and see what happens. Well, you've given me plenty to think about.

The plan at this point is to do the foundation slab with premix, using rebar or mesh.

Hearth slab (4") will be made using vermiculite.

You are right, Drake, I was thinking about casting the dome from this refractory. I have some buckets of Sairset, which is wet and in buckets. I also have some bags of dry mix simply labeled "Refractory".

I guess I will experiment some with the refractory. I had thought that since I had a bunch of it given to me I might try forming the oven with that, using a sand dome as a mold. I suppose I can build a really small version and just see what happens. I also have a bunch of firebrick so I might just do it that way too. Decisions, decisions. And all this has to happen in between work, and I'm in my busy time of year. Too bad I can't do the construction during winter, when I actually have time.

Marcel 05-26-2006 12:25 PM

"Hearth slab (4") will be made using vermiculite." ???

Originally Posted by Kinsman

(M) <snip>

(K) "Hearth slab (4") will be made using vermiculite."

(M) I just want to be sure that this wasn't a "typo". The Hearth slab is typically a 2 layer project: Insulating mortar, made with Vermiculite or Perlite, and the other layer is a refractory mortar. Which should be on the bottom is a subject of much debate.

(M) You really need a layer of strong, steel reinforced refractory mortar, typically about 3" thick. Your heavy dome needs a strong support. If you use *only* "perlcrete" or "vermicrete" you take the chance that your dome will not be supported!



Kinsman 05-31-2006 12:04 PM

Whoops, sorry......

Stand made of stone, mortared together in the usual way.
On top of that, 3" or so of reinforced concrete, as a base for the hearth which will be:
3" or so of insulating concrete, topped with firebrick for the actual hearth.

I'm still debating whether to use pure refractory for the dome.

Cladding of stone and brick.

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