What have the Romans ever done for us?

All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?“. So the quote goes from Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. To that list you can also add Clay Ovens. No, honestly! The Roman’s built and cooked in clay ovens and, in common with most of their innovations, they conducted experiments in order to perfect the process of construction. Luckily for us, they also wrote it down!

Sometime between 70 and 15 BC,  Roman architect Vitruvius, recorded the shape and proportions of the ovens in use during the 1st century BC. The most important measurement he recoded was that of the height and width of the oven entrance. This happens to be one of the questions I get asked most on this blog so I thought it was time to pass on Vitruvius’s  wisdom to you all. I’m happy to say that it is very straightforward, here it is:

The height of a wood-fired oven entrance should be 63 percent of the height of the inside dome. The width of the door should be half that of the oven diameter.

Got it? So, all you need to do is make a note of the height of your sand former during construction and multiply that measurement by 0.63, for the entrance height, and obviously just divide it by 2 for the entrance width. Simple!

But why is this proportion so important? What does fire need in order to burn? A fuel source and oxygen, right? (Yes Simon we knew that. We are not idiots you know!). OK OK! So, When the oven entrance is just the right size it is able to draw in oxygen from the entrance where it combusts, flows around the curved roof of the oven, after which the exhaust gases flow out of the top of the entrance. If the entrance is too small, exhaust gases are prevented from escaping (they mix turbulently with incoming oxygen), they pool in the oven roof and will eventually extinguish the fire. Too large and the oven will be inefficient, losing lots of valuable heat through the gaping entrance.

Vitruvius

A 1684 depiction of Vitruvius (right) presenting De Architectura to Augustus (from Wikipedia)

The design I propose on this blog, with a chimney at the front of the oven, just behind the entrance, will help to alleviate many of the problems described above. However, it is still crucial that the entrance is the correct size in order that the oven burns as efficiently as possible.

There you have it! Next time you are firing your oven, think about good old Vitruvius scribing these instructions for future generations to use. I reckon he deserves a toast, don’t you? Cheers!

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8 thoughts on “What have the Romans ever done for us?

  1. Hi,

    Thanks for posting all of this information. I’m gradually trying to absorb it all to plan my oven!

    I’m curious though, if you build the entrance to the guidelines specified by Vitruvius, do you need a chimney at all?

    Thanks again,

    Stephen

    • This is a good question Stephen. You can build these ovens without chimneys and they will work fine. However, a chimney will make airflow around the oven much easier, which will mean you will always get good combustion, and therefore a hot oven. It’s a belt and braces approach really. If you don’t have a chimney you HAVE to make sure the entrance size works efficiently for your oven, which, even with the help of Vitruvius, can be tricky to get precise.

      • That makes sense. Better to be safe than sorry!

        Out of curiosity, did you follow this guidance for clay oven 2.0? If so, have you considered (temporarily) blocking the chimney to test it?

        Also, do you have any advice on the height of the dome in relation to the diameter? What about the profile of the dome, is it just a case of what feels like a good shape or is there some science/best practice advice? How about the chimney diameter? This also feels like something to get right – too large and you vent heat, too small and it won’t vent enough smoke.

        Sorry for all the questions, but I like to understand things and do the best job I can. I’m happy to do some reading if you can point me in the right direction.

  2. Recently bought a small oven
    Having problem as the nann does not Bake from the back can some one
    Help in this problem

  3. Hi Simon – fantastic site; sorry if you’ve answered these elsewhere:

    – How thick do you recommend the walls of the oven should be?

    Also, two questions relating to where I could put the oven in my garden:

    – Do you think a square surface of 70cm x 70cm for a plinth could host a small (but perfectly formed!!!) clay oven??
    – Alternatively, would you advise against building it on a stack of wooden pallets (like this) on a lawn? would have more space but worry about fire hazard…

    • Hi Elliott. The walls should be 7-10cm thick. 70×70 might be a little small but it depends on what you intend to cook in it I guess. You could build on pallets as long as you only ever intend to cook pizzas or quick roast/bake. In which case just make sure they are totally secure and able to hold the weight of the oven. You should probably treat them with something to stop them from rotting. Personally I think a nice location, tucked away at the edge of a garden is ideal.

  4. This was perfect timing! My husband (an engineer) could not understand the purpose of the front chimney. ” Why in the front….the back makes more sense.”
    As an engineer and the product of a total Catholic education (including 4 years of Latin), the Romans are the revered. I showed him your post. He started nodding his head and said….”that makes sense”.
    Pax Romana!

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