Firing the wood kiln

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wood kiln

Twice a year, the pottery studio I work out of rents this wood fire kiln. It’s an incredible opportunity for amateur potters like me to learn about wood firing. These photos are from the June firing. This month, while I am travelling, my newest pieces will be fired without me.

During the rest of the year, I fire my pieces in the studio’s electric kiln. Glazes are a combination of chemicals that when heated during firing turn to glass, the colour of which depends on the recipe of the glaze used. The heat in an electric kiln is always constant, so the colours of the glazes turn out consistent and predictable. If applied correctly, robin’s egg blue is always blue, and autumn leaves is always a deep red-brown.

Firing in a wood kiln adds an element of unpredictability to the process, and with this unpredictability comes opportunity. Instead of rising steadily, the temperature fluctuates as the fire is stoked by hand until it reaches 1200 degrees Celsius. Ash blows around and settles on the pots, producing unique effects that can never be reproduced. Even the weather during the days the kiln is fired can affect the results.

This particular kiln takes about 48 hours to fire. During that time, students, instructors and the kiln owners take shifts to stoke the kiln, adding more wood every five to ten minutes. One of the indicators that more wood is needed is the size of the flame flickering out of this small peak hole:

firing the wood kiln

Once 1200 degrees is reached, the “cones” are checked to see if the kiln is hot enough. The cones are small upright indicators that bend in succession as the kiln heats up. Then the vents are closed so that reduction can occur, a step that is important for some of the glazes.

Finally, we close the kiln and leave for several days to let it cool down. Later, we return to empty it:

emptying the kiln

Here are some of the finished pieces from the June firing:

pots fired in the wood kiln 2

Finally, you can see some of my pots from that firing by clicking here.

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Postscript:

It’s been more than ten years since I took my first pottery class and made my first crooked and heavy pots. During that time, I have thought a lot about how the process of creating pottery and the writing process are similar, and I have written about those similarities. There is nothing like a wood-firing in the writing process, though: there is no moment when the writing is so out of the writer’s control that it can come out in completely different than expected. At least, not in my experience. For the writers out there, do you have any thoughts about how writing can be (or is) “wood-fired”?

Thank you for reading. I love it when people stop by to say hi in the comments. All kind and thoughtful comments are welcome.

Pottery Class

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Last week, as I was sorting through a box of bisque-fired pottery and deciding which pieces to glaze for the next wood firing, I broke a pot. Of course it was a bowl I was quite pleased with – I never break the failed experiments. I sat there, holding the pot and the shard I had carelessly snapped off, and I remembered some advice from my first pottery teacher during my first pottery lesson, more than ten years ago.

My thanks to editor Anne Burke who published this poem in Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature in 2008.

 

Pottery Class

the instructor says
don’t get too attached
and as weeks pass
I learn

how wet clay collapses
under unsure hands

how clay not properly prepared
cracks in the heat
of the kiln

how glaze applied
too thickly
runs
fuses to the kiln shelf

but I discover
the joy
of going home
with dirt under my fingernails
and smudges on my face

that to centre the clay
on the wheel
I must first
centre myself

weeks later
I hold the crooked bowl
from that first night
and allow myself
the satisfaction
knowing
even now
that it could fall

and I would have
to let it go

Sabbatical Project #2: Get Back Into the Pottery Studio

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first pots in over a year

In April, I went back to the pottery studio after more than a year away.

Before, when I was working, going to the studio was about doing something with my hands. About the pleasure of taking my frustrations out on an unsuspecting lump of clay and feeling a bit better at the end of the evening.

I was happy to make the same bowl over and over and to glaze those bowls with a few favourite glaze combinations. I learnt a lot about technique making those bowls, discovering exactly how thin the sides could be and how little clay I could leave at the bottom before a piece collapsed in on itself.

I was always late for my Thursday evening class – but I made it, and that was an accomplishment by itself. At some point, during the busiest part of managing the library expansion project, I decided I didn’t have time for pottery any more.

Now, I have more time and I’m on time: I get the full three hours of studio time. I find myself thinking about new techniques and designs to try next all week. I discovered Pinterest and am busy pinning pieces that inspire me. I’m not throwing many bowls these days – instead I’m trying to create my version of this creamer with a matching sugar bowl and playing with vases with cutout designs.

Not all of my experiments turn out well; in fact, my bowls were probably more appealing. But for the first time I am thinking about design and balance and composition and “what if” and “how about…”

For the first time, pottery is about more than just technique.

Suddenly, I am a beginner all over again.

And I’m having fun.

A few of my favourite finished pots:

pots1

pots2

pots3

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Note: this post is part of a series about my adventures during a year long, self-funded sabbatical. For more, click here.