Changing the World, One Kiln at a Time, or 3

Nina and I have come to Cambodia as volunteers to help a potter here with her kiln. She is a single mum with kids and could use a bit of help. There are many things that we could do and ways that we could volunteer, but we have been asked to come by someone with local knowledge, who knows the situation here and also knows my particular skill set. I have been working on this private program for some years now. Restoring pottery equipment for someone who then sends it all over to Cambodia as donations to potters workshops. Now the time has come to put our feet on the ground and get more involved.

We are not working under any particular program or an NGO. We have come at our own expense as a private aid gesture to hopefully, pass on some low tech solutions that will be acceptable and that may prove to be incorporated into the local knowledge base long-term?

This potter, Paruth, has had some help previously from another Australian potter, Bronwyn Kemp, about 8 or 9 years ago. Bronwyn came over here and helped build a small gas-fired kiln from what was, more or less, scrap iron and fence wire. She did an amazing job and the kiln has been worked to death since then, sometime being fired twice a day. However, time and work take their toll, and this fantastic little kiln has had its day and is in need of some restoration and repair. The floor has collapsed, so the potters simple solution was to build up a pile of small local red bricks under the kiln to support the old floor. Fantastic! A really creative solution that solved the problem. However the roof has also collapsed in as well and will need a total rebuild.

We have organised, through another Australian, Ian Brookes, to get some kiln building materials delivered to the site in advance of our visit, so that we can get a lot done during our two-week visit. From the photos sent to me previously, I thought that this little kiln had potential to be rebuilt. However, as a safety precaution, we are also planning to build a new and slightly more robust kiln that will have the potential to last 25 years?

I sent scale drawings with dimensions of the metal work that would need to be ordered in and welded prior to our arrival, but this turned out to be too difficult for the local steel worker to manage. So we abandoned the attempt to get the steel work done in advance and just concentrated on getting the necessary materials all collected together, so that when we arrived, we could be most productive.

As it turned out, the metal work that was done prior to our arrival wasn’t done very accurately, as our welder wasn’t particularly literate or numerate. The kiln frame was the wrong size and constructed at 90o to the plan. However, with so much already invested in the construction and with so little time. I sat down and resigned the kiln concept to fit what had been done already and luckily. I was able to make a suitable plan that could accommodate everything that we had without too much loss of function or efficiency.

So the new kiln will be a bit shorter than planned and a little bit tighter in width, but it should be OK. Ian Brookes had sourced some zinc metal primer paint in advance of our visit, so we were able to prime and rust proof the mild steel kiln frame before lining it. This should make it last a lot longer.

We had also arranged to have two sheets of Stainless steel delivered in advance so that we could make a kiln cladding that would last as long as the primed frame. Funnily, stainless steel is actually quite easy to get in Cambodia, as many things are made out of it these days. Our welding man is only 100 metres up the street from the pottery and he is very proficient with TIG welding stainless steel balustrades and safety grills.

It takes us 3 days to get the kiln frame welded up. A door made and hinged onto it, then painted and panelled in stainless. I have worked it out, so that there will be just enough stainless steel sheeting left over, so that I can put a new roof and floor in the old kiln as well. If we have enough time?

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There doesn’t seem to be any concept of OH and S here. The welder works without any of the usual safety gear that I use at home. Not even shoes, just thongs. His only concession to some sort of safety is to wear sunglasses when welding. He will be deaf and blind in 10 years. I give him my ear plugs and get Paruth to explain to him that it is important to preserve what he still has. She tells me he doesn’t care. When I return the next day, I can see that my ear plugs are thrown in the dust pile. I say that I will leave all my safety gear that I have brought with me and donate it to him. She says not to bother, he isn’t interested. he will just throw them away. I feel bad about this, but can’t see what else I can do to help him learn more about his safety and health. I’ve sown the seed. I won’t be here to keep reminding him.

Once the kiln is finished, quite late in the evening, the welder man delivers it by walking it down the road on its castors in the evening traffic. The next few days are taken up with lining the kiln. It’s a very hot, sticky, sweaty job in the 40o heat and 80% humidity. I drink a lot of water. Janine and Paruth help all the way through the procedure. Paruth makes notes and takes loads of pictures, should she ever need to make repairs herself in the future.

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The kiln will need a spy hole and bung, so I decide to make one on-site from the local clay, opened up and made more thermally shock resistant by wedging in a huge amount of rice husks and a lot of sandy clay that has been sieved out of the normal throwing clay that they use here. This will make the clay more open structured and porous.

I make a couple of examples using an improvised tapered profile tool to set the constant taper for both the inner and outer form. Then I teach Paruth how to do it. She makes another 3 sets. So now we have spy holes and bungs for both kilns and a few spares. But most importantly, Paruth now has the knowledge and skills to make any number of them that may be required into the future.  Teach a man to fish!

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By the end of the first week, the new kiln is done and I turn my attention to revamping the old kiln. It needs to be stripped down and cleaned, then the new stainless steel panels need to be installed in the floor and roof, and finally the lining restored. As most of the

ceramic fibre is still intact. I decide that the best option is to just install new 1400oC hot face lining over the older damaged lining. However, I install 3 new layers of floor and roof to complete the job.

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I wouldn’t normally use ceramic fibre for the floor. I’d prefer to finish the floor with a layer of  light weight insulating refractory bricks for long-term durability. Unfortunately, the insulating bricks that I ordered turn out to be wrongly labeled and when we open the pack, we find that they are very heavy and dense 70% alumina fire bricks! These are not suitable for this kind of kiln. So another change of plan, You have to be flexible and work with what you have. I decide to make the floor entirely out of fibre and lay an old kiln shelf down to support the props. It’ll work fine and be lighter and a bit more fuel-efficient.

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I suggest that as we have 3 spare days left. I’d like to see the temples, but I can also fit in time to build them a wood fired pizza oven. This turns out to be the most popular suggestion that I have made on the entire trip! We cobble together a few bricks and a sheet old roofing iron to make an arch form-work. The oven is almost completed in one day but needs a second day to finish it off, as it is getting too dark to see properly as I try to chisel the final key stone bricks into shape to complete the arch.

We cover the bricks with a layer of rice husks and the sandy clay to act as some sort of insulation layer, then light it up and start to pre-heat it.

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We pre-heat the oven with old dried coconut husks, which is the cheapest, readily available fuel around here, and end the day with a pizza dinner. Everybody seems more excited about having Pizza for dinner than they are about the two new kilns! Everyone is here, the kids, the helpers, Paruth, the welder and Janine and I. We make 7 pizzas during the evening.
We experiment with what we can find in the local market. We make Cambodian pizzas. My favourite is pineapple, mango and banana with a sprinkling of palm sugar as a desert pizza.