The Firing

I’ve been up since before dawn firing the kiln. I spent all day yesterday packing the pots in and all of the day before that cleaning out the firebox, which is a regular job with a wood fired kiln, chipping the wood ash slag off the fire bricks around the air inlet holes. The blast of air into the hot coals during firing is so intense that it melts the wood ash from the charcoal in the ash pit into a molten flowing lava of ash glaze. It has the ability to stick to the brick work like shit to a blanket. Even though I wash the bricks with alumina powder to try to create a resistant barrier. The fluid stuff finds a way through the wash and into every crack and crevice. I chisel out some new air holes. This time I try a new larger ‘mouse-hole’ cover, so much larger, that all the liquid flow from the edges should be a lot farther from the hole underneath and therefore not block up as readily. It’s worth a try.


Packing the pots into the kiln is a very slow and precise art that takes a long time to learn and even longer to perfect, if such a thing were possible. Every kiln is different and has its own personality, so I have to ‘learn’ the kiln. It’s a slow process of trial and error and in every firing I try something new, something different or altered. Some slightly different way of packing the pots into the limited space available. You wouldn’t think that there could be too many variations. But the there are. It seems never ending. Then suddenly it all makes some sense and It’s all so clear. I understand!  Then, the very next firing, it’s all different again. Every little thing is important. That damn butter fly in the Amazon rainforest, flapping its wings, is so unpredictable.
I roll out about 600 little balls of clay, called wadding. These are used to support the pots in the kiln on the kiln shelves, so that they won’t stick to the shelf with all the wood ash. I use 5 or 6 on each pot as I pack it into the kiln. They have to be rolled out fresh, so that they are soft and sticky. They have to squash up and settle the pot into place and support it evenly through the firing. There is wadding and there is wadding. Each potter has his or her own recipe. It’s a witch’s brew concoction of what’s available and what’s most desirable against what will look the best after firing. I tend to go for the wadding that will leave the best marks after firing, but still be easy to remove from the sintered and sometimes runny ash glaze deposit. No product is perfect. No research is ever finished.
I’m alway testing out new clay recipes, new local rocks for glazes and different wood to fire the kiln with, then using the resulting ash to glaze the next load of pots. There are so many variables. I can’t seem to help myself from experimenting. There is always something new to try, or an older idea that once worked in an earlier kiln to up-date and try again here and now. We once had a visitor call in, who turned out to be an engineer. He watched me work for a while and asked what I was doing. I explained the series of tests that I was preparing. Trying to find a greater depth and softer surface in my new rock glaze through a series of inter linked line blends. He called in again a year later. I’d forgotten him, but he recalled what I had been doing and asked how the results turned out. I told him that I eventually got the glaze to work beautifully. He asked to see it, but I had to admit that I didn’t have any examples to show him. I’d crushed the failures and sold all the best ones at Watters Gallery. Now I was working on something else.
He was visibly shocked and did a ‘double-take,’ shaking his head. Then asked, After all that work and research,  why aren’t you still using it. I explained that once you understand something really well, it looses its interest. There always has to be some new element of discovery in the work, otherwise it just becomes a job and would risk becoming boring. Anybody could do that in a factory. I want to be engaged all the time.
He Looked me straight in the eye and told me that I was nuts. As an engineer, he spent all his time solving problems, so that the process could then be put into mass production and profits were made through mass production and sales of a predictable product. I was setting my self in a position were I wouldn’t be making any money, constantly researching and prototyping, but never going into production.
I said, That’s right!. I’m not doing this to make money. I’m doing this to enjoy my life. If I can make just enough money to get by, then that is success for me. After the basic needs of life are met, then money’s only use is to buy time. Time away from having to work to earn more money. The vicious circle. Free time is creative time and no one gives it to you, you have to claim it.
I don’t want what most people want. I believe that I’m really lucky not to have the endless search for something to buy that will make my life complete. Instead, I’m happier to make all the things that I need in my life – if I can. I don’t do it well or efficiently. I spread myself too thin. And sometimes the things that I make don’t work all that well. But I can fix them, because I know how they are made.  Importantly, I have a lot of fun and it’s endlessly fulfilling. Besides, the best things in life arn’t things.
So I’m back at the kiln again. I’m firing the kiln this time with all the left over wood from our firing workshops. It’s a hotch-potch mixture of all the wood that I have collected from our block over the past year. I have some pine, some acacia, she-oak, 2 types of local eucalypt, and a very rare and quite strange tree that we call ‘Cherry Ballard’, it’s a slow growing parasitic tree and is related to sandalwood.
The wood is very dense and close grained I can’t imagine making sandals out of it, but maybe clogs? They’d be very long lasting, but rather heavy. One of these trees died after a long life down near the dam, It must have been 30 years old and only 175mm dia. It grows in small clumps in various places around our land.
I usually try to fire with just one type of wood in each firing. So as to see just what it does, how it burns. Will the kiln get to temperature easily. What will the ash effects on the pots be like, How much ember will it create and how will I be able to control the ember level without choking off the fire mouth, or alternately, not having enough ember to keep the wood on the hobs burning well. There are so many elements that go into making a firing successful and I have to think about them all, all of the time. Responding to the most obvious and pressing features, while keeping a weather eye on all other potential possibilities. 2nd guessing what is likely to be happening now and what will happen next.
When visitors come to the pottery and want to talk to me while I’m firing, they may think that I’m autistic, aspy, grumpy and dis-interested. It’s not that I can’t talk, or don’t want to talk, but I’m really just trying very hard to concentrate on what the kiln is telling me, so that the firing will turn out well. There is a lot at stake here. A months work and a lot of hopes and dreams. I need space to concentrate.
This firing, like most of my firings, started off the night before with some gentle pre-heating, as there are a number of raw pots in there and I don’t want to blow them up. I start the firing off with grape vine and fruit tree prunings as kindling, with just a few thoughts of the French peasant, Monsieur Massot.
It’s a rather strange firing. It’s a long time since I did a firing like this. Perhaps it’s the odd mix of wood, perhaps it’s the approaching storm brewing on the horizon. Maybe I have made a mistake in the packing, but I don’t think so. I was so meticulous about it all. I try very hard to get the balance right. I actually find it a real challenge. In saying that, I must say that I don’t enjoy it at all. I find it really challenging, because I don’t actually look forward to it. It’s a job that has to be done, and done really well to get to the best outcome. Which is the Xmas-like joy of unpacking all the presents that the kiln holds – when it turns out well, or otherwise, as the case may be.
This firing is not going at all well. It’s very strange. It just isn’t doing what it normally does. Having worked through all the usual possibilities and not making any definite conclusions. I start to think of all the unlikely things that it could be. I heard that they found a dead cat in the flue hole of the kiln at the Art School. It had crawled in there to die. That wasn’t nice. Had someone not noticed it, although it was hard to miss! Then it would have blocked off a lot of the draught. I believe that the potter Col Levy once had a sheep die in his kiln, in between firings. I was told that he just bricked it up and fired the kiln to cremate it. It was easier to deal with that way. Maybe these stories are apocryphal, may be not. It doesn’t matter. I’m pretty sure that there was nothing dead in my kiln, but still, one can never be too sure. I try a lot of variations in my firing technique, slowly working my way logically through all the possibilities.
Eventually I open the damper to 95% open. I usually only have it half open. I never know if my damper is half open or half closed. It depends so much on my mood. I’ve only had the damper this far open once before in all of the firings of this kiln. It seems to be going slow, almost as if I have to push it up myself, by shear force of my will. It usually goes up so easily. Suddenly there is the biggest clap of thunder I’ve heard in years. Right above our heads. Lightning must have struck very close to us here. Janine just happened to be outside at the time and runs in, white as a sheet. She is in a bit of shock. She is so startled. She was outside stacking some wood and clearing up a bit when it hit. I go outside and look around. There are no smoking dead trees nearby, so it must have been further away.
The sky has turned black, it’s a dark blue/black and has completely closed us in. I have to put the light on. fortunately the power still works, as it is running the digital temperature indicator. It doesn’t really matter too much as I always have a spare battery operated one as well, just in case. Then the rain comes.
The rain pours down and we get 40 mm in a few hours. We have all our wood indoors and under-cover, so it doesn’t matter that it’s raining. In fact now that the storm has broken, the barometer will rise a little and the kiln should fire better, and it does. We end up firing for 16.5 hours instead of the usual 14. so It’s not too bad. We wait now for the results in a few days time.
We have leather jacket  with our own field mushrooms from the potato patch, in an Asian inspired sauce for dinner.
The remnants and fish bones are all boiled up to make a stock with some garden vegetables and we have an Italian inspired, Thai flavoured risotto for the next night.
Italian,Thai risotto, interesting!
 With love from the shockingly lightning fast, lovely, Janine ‘Thor’ King and her fireman