Category Archives: art grant

Making Mud

Apologies for the lack of in-process photos – it was just me and I declined to cover my phone in mud. (Though I DO have a waterproof pouch for it…)

half the insulated base down

A post shared by @ ansate on

No more putting it off. It was time to make mud. Like I mentioned last time, it’s dirt plus water plus sand in unspecified proportions. As you may have noticed, unspecified things stress me out.

On my little back patio, I assembled:

  • Two buckets, one 5 gallon and one 2 gallon
  • box of dirt from when I planted roses over the last few weeks
  • bag of paver sand from the store
  • water can full of water
  • paint stirrer stick
  • trowel
  • disposable latex gloves (the same ones I use to dye my hair)

All I needed was the gloves, 5 gallon bucket, dirt, sand, and water. I ended up stirring it all with my hands. Despite my skepticism, I THINK I got the consistency feeling right away? Memories of playing with clay or playdoh and knowing exactly how much it should squish so I could work with it. Much more recent memories of making pie crust and biscuits – trying to get the liquid level just so, and get the flour all worked in. Somehow there was a very exactly consistency that felt RIGHT to me, and I definitely couldn’t explain it either. I could even grab a handful and decide if I wanted to add more dirt or more sand. Maybe I am totally wrong and it will all wash away or something, but it felt satisfyingly right, and that’s a worthwhile experience.

I ended up mixing 7 or 8 small batches in my five gallon bucket. Then I was tired and the sun was leaving me, so I called it a day. It was about an hour of solid work. 5 batches (and the first ones were smaller as I gained confidence) created a thin layer over the crushed rock. Then I placed several wine bottles, and some lava rock to act as insulation – it’s like the air pockets created by the feathers in a down jacket. A few more batches of mud got bottles settled into place, but I didn’t get them all before running out of steam.

I found and discarded several rocks, bits of grass, and at least one dead earthworm. I was VERY SURPRISED when suddenly there was a squiggling earthworm in the mud I was mixing! I threw it out into the lawn and was very glad I was wearing gloves. Remember, this dirt had been sitting in my garage in a box for at least a few weeks.

As I realized I was putting off this step, I finally figured out that I have a visceral distaste for making mud. I have learned too well that I don’t want to get dirty, I don’t want to make a mess. Gloves helped a LOT in getting past this, even though mud definitely got into them, and all over the rest of me.

Next: acquire some firebricks. Finish covering the bottles and make a mud surface nearly to the top of my cinder block base. I’m worried that I’m going to run out of dirt. Good thing I need to plant more roses and some tomatoes soon!


Next Step – more rocks

Since that last attempt to work on my oven went so poorly, I put things off awhile, and then I asked for help. A friend with an SUV kindly drove me to and from Home Depot, pushed the unwieldy cart that begged for human blood (maybe it only seems like that to me), and helped stop me from dithering endlessly when I couldn’t find exactly what I was hoping to.

Having a friend with me also forced me to focus on a shopping list – there’s a MILLION things I could buy at Home Depot, probably 50 of which I could argue I actually need. But  because this was a trip to get the next steps on my oven, I focused in on exactly what the next things I could use were – and just “could use” but needed to do the very next steps.

Part of what is making it hard for me to just relax and follow the book’s instructions are that they are such relaxed and imprecise instructions!!! (I know. In case you can’t tell – if no one else is imposing structure, it’s gonna be me.) I went over the few pages of actual instructions and ended up writing 3 pages in a notebook, including a flowchart and a diagram.

I had that one ring of cinder blocks – that was the initial base. I want the oven to not be ridiculously low to work at, and it feels safer having the fire a little more separated from the ground. I got enough cinder blocks to fill in the bottom level and make another ring on top. (Each block is 8 inches tall, bringing my base to 16 inches above the ground.)

But IN THAT BASE, as I read over the instructions, I realized I need to have an insulate layer, a mud floor layer, and then sand, and then the firebricks.

I filled the bottom layer with crushed rocks to keep everything kind of in place. The insulating layer is going to be: a layer of glass bottles packed in half oven mud, half insulating material. The book suggested sawdust, pelite, or pumice for the insulating material. I’m planning to ask a local hardware store for some sawdust, but my friend saved the day when I said pumice and found some red lava rock that I can include.

Oven mud is dirt from my yard (uhm, I have two boxes of dirt. This is “normal”.) plus water plus sand. What are the proportions? NO ONE KNOWS. It depends on the clay content of my soil. There’s a chance my soil is completely terrible and I’ll need to buy clay.

So next up is making some mud. Hopefully I’ll have a sunny day to play with it soon. I also don’t feel like it has to be perfect for the insulating layer, so that’s actually a nice chance for me to get used to working with it before shit gets more real. Whether I get the sawdust or not (I could still use it for the insulating layer between the two clay oven layers.) I feel like I’m ready to put in the insulating layer as soon as I get at least an hour of sun. It’s happening.

9.5 cinder blocks and 100 lbs of crushed rock later

A post shared by @ ansate on

Perfect is the Enemy of Started

We could blame the lack of progress on my outdoor oven on the seasons – sure I haven’t been out there in the mud while it rains constantly for 3 months and is also uncomfortably cold.

But it’s not just that. Some of it was indecision – exactly how big do I want this oven to be?

And when I went to buy my first round of supplies, I realized there was a lot more to my reluctance.

I don’t know how to do this. Like, at ALL. Home Depot turns out to be a special land of imposter syndrome – you walk up “I’m going to buy 18 cinder blocks and load them in my ancient car” and then you find the right area, figure out how to get one of the big carts and realize – 18 is a LOT of cinder blocks.

But the book says to try to make the base a reasonable height to work from! and also to make it almost 4 foot square to support a 22″ diameter oven interior! Just trying to do the right thing!

But the book also says to make a mess and do some trial runs. It suggests making a tiny clay oven just to get a feel for the clay and how to work with it. It says you can opt out of making rain protection and just patch it up as it falls apart.

I’m having a hard time not trying to do it all perfectly on the first try. I want a plan and reassurances, but it turns out that I’m not getting so much of that with this project. I knew this would be a stretch of my make-it skills, but I didn’t realize how much. Sewing never required this many pounds of supplies!

I bought 8 cinder blocks, and a couple of landscaping stones (in a perfect world, I would face the exterior with landscaping blocks so it’s not hideous. perfect is insidious.) That was as much as I could get on the flat cart, and nearly as much as my car would reasonably hold (there was more space, but I could feel the weight while driving.)

I felt so dumb in the store – moving cinder blocks with no gloves, having to figure out how to get a flat cart. I both don’t know what I’m doing and don’t really need the kind of help that a salesperson can give. And wow there are a lot of people at the hardware store on a sunny weekend day.

Anyway, I started

2017-03-05 09.36.31

Not pictured: the terra cotta plant saucers that I had put out to mark the approximate spot were completely filled with slugs when I turned them over. Nature is gross.

Starting My Art Grant: Proposal

I work at Big Cartel and we have one amazing perk that I’ve never seen anything quite like: the Art Grant. Combined with a more than generous vacation policy, it’s a real incentive to stretch yourself.

Step one of having an Art Grant is writing up a proposal for it. I got mine in this week, and to kick off documenting progress on the grant, I’m sharing it. I’ll keep sharing progress in this category of my blog.


I’ve been a bread-making nerd off and on for at least 10 years now. One of the first books I got and skimmed cover to cover, Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Breads, has a little appendix where he talks about how satisfying it is to build and use your own oven. (I remembered it has having a few more details, but instead it says to write care of the publisher to ask him more. It was published before I was born so I opted to Google instead.)

Side story: Growing up, one of the rules on sweets was “if you make it, you can eat (a reasonable amount) of it” and this is why I was really good at making both brownies and apple pie as a teenager. My apple pie recipe comes straight out of Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Pastry, and it’s one of the first cookbooks I bought myself a copy of as an adult. Leads directly to his book being the first book on bread I bought.

I really like this as an art grant project because it’s adjacent to something I know how to do – bread, but it gets me to stretch into things I don’t know at all – construction!

I love that it’s something big, fairly permanent, and usable. I love that I have no idea what I’m doing. (Well, I have more idea after researching this proposal!)

Winning Condition: Bake a loaf of sourdough bread in my own oven.

Milestones along the way:

– Build a base

– Attempt to make clay out of my own dirt

– Build the oven on the base

– Learn to use the oven

With the rainy months coming, there’s a good chance that this project will sit under a protective tarp a lot of the time. And there’s probably higher priority things I should be doing to this house. With that in mind, I’m aiming to finish by May.

I spent some time with the budget yesterday, and came up with about $560 for the whole thing

That was using Home Depot prices for many of the supplies, and I’d like to seek out some locally owned businesses to source things from when I can, which may add to the total.

My research settled on the design used in Build Your Own Earth Oven

and buying that book is step 1.

(Most of the well documented blog posts I found use his method, and it is reassuring to see several different but similar results.)

I’ll document this on my personal blog, including publishing the accepted version of the proposal.

References: seems like a good guide