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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Baking in a Beehive Oven by Cynthia Howerter

During a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, the enticing scent of burning firewood led me to colonial baker William Parker's outdoor beehive oven. One of the commercial baker's employees graciously explained the oven's construction and use while he waited for it to heat.

A colonial baker explains beehive oven baking

Commercial bakers in colonial villages and towns needed a sizeable oven in order to produce quantities of baked goods to sell in their shops. Because a large wood-fired oven throws off an excessive amount of heat, bakers often built outdoor beehive ovens, so named because the shape resembled beehives that were in use at the time.

How to build an outdoor beehive oven

After choosing a spot about 30-45 feet behind his building, Mr. Parker constructed a shelter to protect the oven and its baking operation from rain and snow. We can see from the shelter's scorched ceiling why Mr. Parker put distance between the oven and his shop.

A shelter protects the beehive oven from weather

Next, a raised wood platform was built under the shelter. Once the beehive oven is built on top of this sturdy base, the oven's opening will be about waist-high in order to make the oven easier to use and to spare the baker's back while he attends the oven for long hours.  

Two layers of bricks were placed on top of the wood foundation. The bricks help contain the oven's heat, with the top layer providing the oven's floor. 

To form the perimeter of the circular oven's base, one row of bricks was set in a circle on top of the oven floor and mortared into place. A single opening was left to provide access to the oven's interior.

Beehive oven set on a raised platform

How is the oven's domed roof constructed?

With the round oven base in place, several rows of bricks were laid on top, forming a vertical wall about one foot high. Once the mortar of this wall hardened, sand was heaped inside the circle and shaped into a rounded mound. The height of the sand determined the interior height of the oven.   

Next, bricks were laid on top of the existing brick wall and mortared, row by row, against the sloped sand, taking on the curved beehive shape until the sand was completely encased in brick. Mortar consisting of clay, sand, and straw was spread over the brick exterior and allowed to dry for several days. With the bricks in place and the mortar dried and set, all of the sand inside the dome was removed through the opening.

Time to use the oven

It's time to preheat the oven and start baking! Sticks of hardwood, such as oak, are laid in the center of the oven and set on fire. As a rule of thumb, the length of pre-heating is one-half the time of baking. So two hours of pre-heating are needed for four hours of baking and six hours of baking requires three hours of pre-heating.

Pre-heating the beehive oven

Waste not, want not

When the wood has burned into charred embers and ash, the interior heat of the beehive oven is about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The baker removes the chunks of wood and sweeps the oven floor clean of the ash. Because nothing was wasted, the hot embers and ash were often taken into the kitchen and banked inside the cooking fireplace to keep a pot of food warm. The embers and ash could also be cooled and saved to be made into lye soap.

Burned embers

The oven will have to cool a bit before food can be inserted without being burned. An experienced baker can insert their bare arm inside the oven and tell by the feel of the heat on his skin if the correct baking temperature has been achieved. Another way to ascertain oven temperature is to place small pieces of dough inside the oven and watch whether they bake or burn. Additionally, some bakers toss flour on the oven's floor. If the flour doesn't burn, it's time to bake.

While the oven heats and cools, the baker prepares the foods, starting with baked goods that require the hottest temperature and ending with things that need the coolest. 

A trencher filled with risen dough

Hand-shaped dinner rolls placed on a floured pan

After inserting pans and trays of baked goods into the oven, the baker had to watch the progress of the baking through the oven's small opening and remove items when finished. Although this baker used pans, some bakers set the food directly on the hot brick oven floor.

I hope you enjoyed learning about beehive ovens. My husband will be happy to learn that I will never again complain about the eight minutes it takes my electric oven to preheat. What about you?

Award-winning author Cynthia Howerter is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Her colonial-era novel-in-progress was recently awarded first place in historical fiction at the 2015 Florida Christian Writers Conference. Her first book, a non-fiction anthology titled God's Provision in Tough Times co-authored by La-Tan Roland Murphy, was a Selah Award finalist at the 2014 Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference and has been in the top 100 paid Kindle e-books at It can be purchased from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and

Visit Cynthia's Website: Cynthia Howerter - all things historical

Photographs ©2015 Cynthia Howerter


  1. Very interesting article Cynthia.
    I can't imagine putting my arm in the oven to "test" the temperature. I think we need to take some of their practices to mind and use them not wasting anything.
    Blessings, Tina

  2. I can't imagine sticking my arm inside either, Tina! I would opt for putting a piece of dough inside. I need to put that old saying "waste not, want not" to daily use; my mother lived each day adhering to that principle.

  3. Lots of information here, Cynthia. Thanks for sharing such an interesting post.

  4. This was so fun to check out that we had to do it twice, Cynthia!!! GREAT post and wonderful pictures! Thanks for sharing this and for all your hard work on the post. Great to have you back, my dear!

    1. We did have a fun time together researching topics for Colonial Quills, Carrie. I'm glad you like the article and photos. It's good to be back after my mother's passing, sweet friend.

  5. I want one! I think it would be fun to bake outside in the summer with an oven like this. :) Thanks for the info and the great photos.

    1. Oh, Pegg, that would be a lot of fun. If you get a beehive oven, please let Carrie Fancett Pagels and I know - we will come help you bake! But let's try out your beehive on a cool day! :)

    2. I had checked out this webpage about a year ago and I'm thinking ... maybe some day I'll build one. :)

    3. Let us know when you build it, Pegg. And be sure to tell us how delicious the food is after it bakes. :)

  6. Welcome back, Cynthia. You've been missed.
    Fascinating post. I can almost smell it.

  7. Thank you, Janet! There's nothing like the fragrance of homemade breads baking, is there! It's good to be back, dear friend. Bless you.

  8. Karen Campbell ProughAugust 5, 2015 at 12:57 PM

    It's been too long since I was at Williamsburg! Thanks for the post. It's fun to discover and learn new things.

  9. Hi, Karen! I'm glad you enjoyed the article, and hope you have the opportunity to visit Williamsburg soon. I'd love to meet you there!

  10. Wow, what an interesting article, Cynthia! I love the description of how one is built and also how to bake in it. Terrific research material. Thank you so much!

    1. So glad you like the article, Joan! Private homes had beehive ovens, but they were much smaller than this commercial one.

  11. Very interesting article! Thanks for teaching me something new :)

  12. Hi, Betti! I'm so glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks for letting me know - you've made my day.


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