Diaries of the Traveling Oven

“I am copper, think food, think oven, think pizza, think bread.”


The longest trip Albie took was to Nova Scotia, over land via New Brunswick and then back by water on a fast ferry to Bar Harbor. The event was a three-day Agrifest held on a farm far up the Annapolis Valley and North West of Halifax. Our oven and pizza was the biggest food hit of the fair. All the ingredients were local and organic. Albie teamed up with Doug Brown, a local organic artisan wood fired oven baker, to cook the pizza while two or three other people took money and orders and prepared the toppings and the dough for each pizza. We intended to cook 1000 pizzas at Agrifest, but didn’t hit our stride of 300 plus per day until the third day when we got all the kinks out of our production system. At the end of Agrifest, the time from the last pizza until the tent was down and the oven was hooked up to the truck and on the road was 20 minutes. When Albie pulled into the Ferry Terminal at the Southern tip of Nova Scotia, the still hot oven hearth immediately attracted a crowd. Unfortunately, Albie didn’t have any more pizza to offer.

Maine Wood Heat went to the event to assist our friends at the Speerville Flour Mill in Speerville, Nova Scotia, just over the border from Houlton, Maine. Albie spent the first day on the road getting to Speerville and touring their organic flour mill. He gave up all his firewood for the fair at the border to keep Maine beetles out of Canada while log trucks moved freely back and forth across the border in both directions.

The second day, Albie towed the trailer and oven following the lead of another vehicle from Speerville. After setting up the oven and booth at Agrifest, the group moved about twenty minutes down the valley and over the ridge to a seaside cottage along the Bay of Fundy. The tides there are about twenty feet and the fishing boats in the village at low tide are on dry ground twenty feet below the dock. Refrigerator trucks came in the middle of the night at high tide to unload the catch from the boats when their decks were above the level of the dock.

Hollywood Hills

At the first Kneading conference, one of the attendees, Alan Donovan, was an entrepreneur and food connoisseur from L.A., an airline pilot and a part-time policeman among other things. His wife had seen the Le Panyol oven at the San Francisco Baking Institute. Alan and his wife decided they wanted a custom made copper oven for his older vintage modest Hollywood Hills home that had copper trim on the building inside and out. Barry made this unit with a stainless ash drawer and we also specified a steel stand for the dome which the client provided. Albie flew out to L.A and assembled the oven with the owner and his friend and when the kitchen was finally remodeled, they sent us finished photos of the oven. This was the first site that Albie had ever worked at where an Avocado tree from the neighbor’s house, hung over the client’s property and afforded fresh avocado’s to us on a daily basis. The next time you see the Hollywood sign on the movie screen, know that there is a Le Panyol oven just to the East of the sign one or two hills away.

Speerville Flour Mill

After Agrifest, the Speerville Flour Mill folks decided they wanted a portable oven, too, to not only promote the ovens in the Maritimes but to showcase their Maritime grown organically grown milled grain products. Speerville wanted a larger oven, a model 120. We had already done a second Nichols trailer portable oven for a woman who received a grant from NOFA (Northern Organic Farmers Association in Vermont and New Hampshire) to have a portable oven going from event to event showcasing locally grown organic foods. Her pizza making with the portable oven gathered a lot of local attention and we would get frequent reports of sightings of the copper oven from travelers in Vermont.

At Barry Norling’s suggestion, we contacted a local one-man custom trailer operation run by Wayne Knox out of his garage/barn/shop. Next to Wayne’s shop was a phenomenal cobbled together wood splitting operation that his dad in his seventies or eighties had put together to process tree length logs into custom fitted firewood. Unlike commercial equipment, this piece had been engineered out of available cast offs and recycled parts. This kind of Maine ingenuity and can-do-quality is the skill we were looking for. Wayne came by and studied our drawings and our small oven and came up with a design for a dual axel trailer with a rotating disc beneath the oven, heavy torsion springs and a non-removable tongue.

Barry geared up for a much larger and heavier copper dome starting from scratch (without an antique wagon wheel rim being the tail that wagged the dog of design for the base). Barry developed a beautiful stainless collar and base for the copper dome with a ledge to receive the copper dome in a tight waterproof bolted removable fashion. The new stainless and mild steel pan base gave us room for reinforcement, attachment to the trailer and space for insulating block, grog and the rounded hearth tiles, now transformed from a five tile by five tile square layout to a reworked round layout.

We brought the trailer, the new large dome and base pan and the oven core all together under Scott Barden’s supervision in a heated bay of our equipment shed in the middle of the winter. Six or eight men, including the Speerville gang and an oven mason from New York, came to the 120 assembly workshop. The steel and stainless steel base fitted with insulation, grog, and completed core is quite heavy and had to be carefully lowered onto the trailer deck fittings with precision handling of the forklift.

The dome assembly of the 120 follows the same format as the smaller nearly round model 83, but the voissoirs for the l20 are sectioned into three tongue and groove pieces for each orange slice. The base course is laid out with slight gaps between the pieces so that as the sections mount up for the next two courses, they will stay properly aligned and not crowd one another out laterally. Instead of adding a layer of grog or castable refractory on top of the mortar sealed oven, we added three layers of a high temp non toxic insulation which allows for rapid heat build up and retention inside the oven, without adding extra significant weight to the oven. For a portable oven, the vendor is not looking for sustained baking times. Most of the cooking is live fire cooking. A quick response and quick oven turnaround for products such as pizza or pita bread is the normal user target.

Breads can be baked in a portable oven, but most people are looking for a high volume product with much less residence time in the oven for a portable application.

Scott also mounted a beautiful wooden deck around the woven and when everything was finished, Scott towed the beautiful new oven out into the frozen snow covered cornfield behind our home for an Oven of the Year group photo. Our friends from Speerville towed the oven home and have had it in regular use around the Maritime provinces ever since, reporting up to 150 pizzas per hour from the oven at peak production.

North Shore Oven

We had a request to build an outdoor stone veneered oven for a client on the North Shore of Massachusetts above Boston. She wanted the oven built somewhat round into a corner on her property where two stone walls met and she wanted to have the roof made out of copper. We had Barry work directly with this client on the design and installation and the result was a gorgeous one of a kind stone and copper sculpted oven with a Le Panyol core. Here is a picture of Barry and his friend and neighbor Robbie Rowbottom. Robbie is our web master Amy Clark’s dad. Amy is responsible for much of the good work that you now see happening on our Web site.

Barry also works in aluminum and stainless steel. In his yard he has a whimsical large welded aluminum moose “rocking horse” waiting for a buyer. Friends and associates of ours in Vermont, Peter and Andrew Giroux and their marriage partners decided they too wanted a portable oven but wanted theirs made in stainless steel. They chose a model 83 Le Panyol core and we had Wayne Knox make up their trailer and we fitted the stainless dome on the new trailer and core here in Norridgewock with Peter and Andrew’s help. Stainless is much stiffer and less pliable than copper so offers its own unique challenges to the fabricator/sculptor. Despite its greater stiffness in handling and fabricating, stainless holds its original patina for a very long time while copper ages gracefully and turns slowly from the shiny new metal to a gentler brown. The generous Giroux families have traveled several times with their stainless portable oven to the Skowhegan based Kneading Conference which Maine Wood Heat is a cofounder and sponsor of. Their oven has been one of four or more ovens that we have had working each year at the Kneading Conferences.

The Kneading Conference

Another Kneading Conference attendee with a deep bread baking background fell in love with our copper ovens and for him we designed and built a trailer and dome for a model 99 oven. He has loyally brought back his oven to help make the Kneading Conference a continuing success.

Last year we brought our own new Maine Wood Heat portable 120 copper topped oven to the Kneading Conference. We had a buyer for our little copper topped original oven and trailer which we put into tip top shape before it went down the road as a new money maker for a young entrepreneur. We were asked to design and build a dual axel copper oven for the American Flatbread Company of Vermont. American Flatbread is well known for their delicious pizzas both fresh and frozen. For years they have been building simple clay ovens in restaurant venues and have as well been asked several times to build ovens for special short term events and were beginning to tire of the effort and cost of building these short term special event ovens. We designed and built an oven virtually identical to the Speerville oven but when it was completed, American Flatbread expressed an interest in a smaller footprint for the copper oven dome, a smaller deck and a removable tongue. With the sale of our small oven and a redesigned portable 120 oven for them, we were able to accommodate their request and we were able to make the new larger oven the centerpiece of our own portable oven work and promotions. We have since built more of the smaller footprint model 120 dual axel copper topped portable ovens for other vendors.

Pomodori Oven

The Speerville Flour folks initiated talks with some entrepreneurs in New Brunswick who wanted to open a new restaurant serving high quality pizzas made with local organic ingredients. They were interested in a large model oven, in this case a model 180. They were also interested in a custom copper design. In addition, they wanted to be guaranteed that the time from customer order to pizza on the table would be five minutes or less. We were confident that the oven could produce pizzas that quickly and Scott and Barry sat down to create a design that would appeal to the folks at Pomodori and also meet their opening date.

With Barry’s busy schedule, it became clear that we would have to install the oven with a temporary sheet metal skin painted black and then make a return trip to change out the black metal for copper when Barry had the copper work completed. Using his considerable design and CAD skills, Scott created a wonderful steel tube and ring stand for the unit and had all the parts rolled and cut in a local machine shop and a steel supply and welding shop. Scott further machined and fitted and painted all the pieces here in our shop and then took everything apart and traveled Northeast for the first round of assembly ahead of their Grand Opening. When the copper work was ready, Scott drove back to New Brunswick with Barry Norling for the adventure of disassembling the black sheet metal skin and installing the permanent copper cylindrical sections. The combination of Scott and Barry’s great design skills and assembly expertise allowed the changeout to go flawlessly with the Pomodori restaurant barely missing a beat.

Dionne Oven

For local friends, Steve and Jennifer Dionne on Oak Pond in Skowhegan, Barry fabricated a copper dome very similar to the 83 domes placed on our trailers.

Steve consulted with Scott and designed and built a dry stacked flat rock long curved base for the oven. He built the dry stack foundation on a well-drained crushed rock footing and included in his masonry construction a wood storage area beneath the oven. With Scott’s help, they formed up for a colored and polished poured concrete slab to sit on top of the dry stacked rock base. After the form was removed, Scott and Steve spent many hours bringing the colored concrete to the polished look they wanted with a wet diamond polishing system that Maine Wood Heat owns. With the long polished counter complete, Albie came in with a workshop crew and in one afternoon, assembled the core and mounted the copper dome. We shimmed the base plate up off the concrete about 3/8″ with little squares of black slate that Steve had on hand. Dave Belanger, our gifted sheet metal friend who makes all the stainless steel oven throat transition pieces for us, fabricated a beautiful copper chimney stack and rain collar and cap for Steve and Jennifer.

DV Cuisine

A well-known food videographer, Nick Versteeg, from British Columbia doing work with us and Le Panyol, saw the Dionne oven and had us build one for him and ship it to British Columbia. Versteeg runs his own company specializing in producing culinary programs in the form of documentaries related to interesting food topics and issues from around the world.

To see more of his video work, go to www.dvcuisine.com.

Smithsonian Institute

Dave Belanger is a second generation sheet metal master craftsman. Many years ago we built a cookstove and a masonry heater in a workshop at the octagonal home that Dave built for his family in Skowhegan. Over a thirty-year period we have always gone to Dave when we needed custom sheet metal work done. One Spring, out of the blue, Albie got a call from the Smithsonian Institute in D.C. asking if we would be willing to provide an oven for an annual event sponsored by the Smithsonian on the Capital Mall. This year, the focus was going to be on food and the well known West Coast food entrepreneur and visionary, Alice Waters, was being given a spotlighted position on the Mall with a one acre hand made raised bed organic garden. At one corner of her large plot she had a small outdoor shaded dining table where she expected to host various Washington guests. As she presented them with plans for transforming our educational system with organic foods grown and harvested and cooked in schoolyards everywhere, she needed a wood fired oven, just as she had an oven in her pilot projects in the San Francisco Bay Area. We were honored to receive the call and decided to donate significant time and effort to the challenge of bringing and building a beautiful easy to assemble and disassemble oven for the event. We worked closely with two craftsmen, Dave Belanger locally, and David Moore in Maryland. David Moore agreed to design and build a heavy, but portable, base kit for the oven using tinted concrete elements which David More personally fabricated using stunning catenary arch shapes for each of the interlocking four foundation elements. Dave Belanger designed with Maine Wood Heat a traditional looking New England barn form copper skin and roof fitted over a reinforcing galvanized inner wall. All of the sheet metal work was built around a model 99 Le Panyol core.

When the Smithsonian Event approached, Albie picked up the copper walls and roof pieces from Dave and loaded it with the oven core and insulation and grog into an enclosed trailer and drove south to meet David Moore at his home in Maryland. Albie helped David load the very heavy base elements into a rented truck and then Albie and Dave caravanned to D. C. with all the oven parts. With the help of some local high school student volunteers, we were able to get the oven assembled and running in about twenty-four hours. Before any guests (Presidential candidates and the like) could be served, the Secret Service pulled in and checked out all of our work and made sure that the oven and the food was safe.

Yale Oven

It was a joy to be in D.C. for three or four days of the ten day event, building and passing on the firing and baking skills to Alice’s staff and then releasing the oven to them for the duration of her stay. Much of the success of the organic garden was attributable to Josh and Melina who commuted several times by train from Yale University’s sustainable Agriculture Program in New Haven. Coincidentally, Scott and a helper were simultaneously putting in a model 100 oven at Yale’s program and garden while Albie and David Moore were building in D.C. Once the oven was up and running well in D.C., Albie drove North to New Haven to help Scott and Tony finish the Yale oven. At the end of the Smithsonian event, David very graciously absorbed the cost of the oven core and the copper skin and added it to his home as an outdoor oven. When we finished the assembly of the Smithsonian oven we saw that we were closer to the Capital building than any other exhibit and that directly beyond our oven on the street running parallel to the mall was an early Smithsonian building with roof lines mirroring our own New England copper oven that Dave Belanger had built.

The Yale oven, although not copper, became the centerpiece of the social celebrations at the Yale Sustainable Agriculture Program and is said to feed seventy five people with pizza and fresh veggies from their garden every Friday night in season. We have learned that Josh has recently been named as a director of the Slow Food Movement.

Veilleux Oven

Before mentioning our final copper collection oven design, something should be said about the oven built for Jimmy and Lisa Veilleux just across the stream from the Dionne’s at Oak Pond in Skowhegan. Their oven started as a dry stack concrete base temporary oven with a model 83. Once they chose the final site for the oven, their desire for a larger size had also developed and we were easily able to swap out parts and convert the original model 83 oven to a model l00 oven for the new permanent location. Although the new oven has an antique brick and stone veneer built under Scott Barden’s supervision with help from Jimmy and Albie, the roof was ultimately finished in a beautiful raised seam copper sheathing by another sheet metal firm from Waterville, Maine , called C.O.Beck. The roof structure was a modest but exquisite timber frame structure built by Steve Dionne and the copper chimney was built by Dave Belanger. With all these friendships and connections it seems proper to include the Veilleux oven in this piece.

The Camelot

The Camelot oven was unveiled at the Common Ground Fair and like many of our Common Ground offerings, people broke into a run when they saw it from a good distance away. Once they arrived they stayed to sample the many foods we baked in to the oven and at night when the temperatures chilled and vendors huddled in small groups with families in their tents, our Camelot became a favorite gathering spot and also became the principle tool for making hot breakfasts for the family and neighboring vendors. We brought the Camelot to two successive Common Ground Fairs and in between fairs, had it on working display at our farm base in Norridgewock where many mobile oven clients got their first taste of pizza from one of our ovens. We have also brought it for two successive years to the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan where we have had as many as five working Le Panyol ovens in different shapes and sizes heartfully cooking and baking for the conference. With our big move to our new facility in Skowhegan, the Camelot has moved as well and it is now on display just outside our shop and is regularly serving up pizzas and other food to friends and staff and new customers.

Should anyone be interested in having us build one this beautiful sculptural design for them, please do not hesitate to call us. Albie always imagined this unit to sit somewhere in an expansive space with a grand view of the ocean or the mountains behind it. As a turnkey project, such an oven can be assembled here and shipped in two pieces and dropped into place with a forklift on a proper footing in a matter of a couple hours. If built on site, we could pre-fab the hexagonal floor shape here and install it piece by piece on a proper footing in about twenty hours with two men.

The Future

We look forward to sharing more of the beauty of the copper collection designs with you in the future. Keep your eyes peeled at Farmers Markets and other venues in your locality. If you see a beautiful copper domed oven on a trailer, try the pizza and ask if the oven is a Le Panyol.

It probably will be.