I have just completed my first firing since I returned from China a month ago. I did a solar powered electric kiln bisque firing a couple of weeks ago and now this stoneware wood firing. I started very early at 4.00 am, simply because that is when I woke up. I usually do wake early on the day I’m due to fire the wood kiln. It’s somehow worked it’s way into my psyche. If I start early, it gives me plenty of time to get the firing done in one day.
I also really like the predawn time. It’s very quiet here. Mind you it’s always very quiet here most of the time, as we are one kilometre outside of a small village, with no shops or real activity much. We do have a road that runs right past our door, but there isn’t a lot of traffic along it. Our peak hour sees 20 cars and one bus go past. However, at 4 am there is no traffic, not even bird call. That comes later at dawn.
Dawn brings the silhouette of the huge pines that tower over our little school house building. The dawn chorus is beautiful, the firing is well under way and the front row of pots is illuminated by the flames.
I fire very discretely. By choosing to use a down draught fire box design kiln, I am able to fire without making very much smoke at all. If every thing goes according to plan, there is only the faintest pale grey haze during the reduction cycle of the firing, when most kilns make enormous quantities of smoke.
I spent the day before hand, preparing and stacking all the wood for the firing. I’m trying mostly casuarina for this firing. I haven’t had enough of it at any one time to try it out for a full firing before. It wasn’t a very nice experience. I found that it produced quite a buildup of charcoal in the ash pit. I had to open all the mouse holes to get enough air into the base of the firebox to keep it under control. I won’t be using it again as the sole fuel source. I don’t have anything against charcoal. Actually, I really like it to build up to a certain level, as this creates beautiful surfaces on my fired work, but I need to be able to keep the level under control. Otherwise, It can build up to the point that it blocks up the firebox. Luckily, I had taken the precaution of also preparing some old very dry stringy bark and a bit of pine as well. That got me out of trouble.
This was a very good precautionary move. I always prepare more wood than I think that I will need. I nearly always have a fall back position, a plan ‘B’ as it were. It’s just the way I am. Perhaps just a little aspy? I even recommend doing just exactly this in my book on wood firing called ‘Laid Back Wood Firing’. Good to see that I even take my own advice!
Janine has picked fresh artichokes from the garden for lunch. She has steamed them and prepared a warm seasoned olive oil dipping sauce, with salt, pepper, garlic and chilli. It’s pretty yummy. She has thoughtfully prepared the dipping sauce in a twin-bowl bain-marie of hot water to keep the sauce hot on its 100 metre trip down from the house to the kiln shed, and throughout the meal.
We peel off the leaves one by one and pull them between our teeth to collect the fleshy, flavoursome pulp. It’s a great reward for our efforts to be able to eat gourmet food like this at virtually no cost. For us though, it’s not gourmet food, it’s ancient peasant food. Home grown, home cooked, consumed on site, within minutes of its picking, in its season, just as it should be. A meal like this has very low embedded energy and is SO delicious.
While the kiln is firing, you can’t even tell that the kiln is alight for most of the time. I get to sit and write or do odd jobs, some cleaning up. It takes about 20 minutes in-between stokes, sometimes 40 mins, or even up to one hour when I stoke in a large piece of heavy hardwood. There is very little to do for a lot of the time.
I repaired an old kitchen chair that was given to us by the son of an ex-pupil of the school, That is pretty amazing when you consider that the school was built in 1893 and closed in the 1920’s. Jan Riphausen gave us his Mothers chair after she died and he was cleaning out her house. It has two broken spindles, but he thought that I might be the only person that he knew that might value old junk like this. Jan’s mother had lived almost next door to us here in the ‘Green Gate’ Farm, just down the road. The chair is quite ordinary, and was missing a couple of spindles. I repaired it with hazel water-shoots from our orchard. Not the most usual way to repair a chair, but a chair like this has no value these days except for the sentimental value it carries. I use it as my firing chair.
I like it a lot, because it is made with craftsmanship, from real wood. Therefore I can repair it, again with craftsmanship, using real wood. In this case, wood that I grew myself. The new spindles are not like the originals, they are quite uneven and ‘natural’. I love it for this very reason. Because it now has a very special personality. linked to us through the medium of the Old School building that is our home, but also because I have added myself into it now. A little bit of sabi-wabi. It’s like repairing a chipped, but beautiful pottery bowl with gold inlay. Kintsugi style. I have developed my own ‘kintsugi-like’ way of repairing my favourite pots. It’s not the ‘pure’ traditional Japanese technique. It’s my own way. It’s the way that I can do it using what I have around me. I’m not Japanese, but I can appreciate their culture. I really treasure being able to take something that everyone else would throw out, and spend a little bit of time and effort on it, and turn it into something very special, with real value. At least to me, and that is all that matters. I might hazard a guess that this chair must be pushing on for 100 years old. I can’t imagine any piece of Ikea, melamine-coated, woodpulp and glue, furniture being treasured like this in another 100 years. This is my life, reflecting all of the choices that I have made along the way, attempting to live a gentle, green, passive, life of minimal consumption. An existence based on creative endeavour.
So I’m sitting on my special ‘enhanced’ firing chair, contemplating the firing, listening, smelling, sensing the process. I play some music, I write, I even talk to the chickens when they come in to visit, and they come in often throughout the day.
I get up every now and then and look into the firebox through the air inlet holes in the lid, Only then can I see the wood burning inside. If it needs it, I open the lid and drop in a few more logs. That’s it. It’s a simple process.
When the wood has burned down and the charcoal drops into the ash pit, I stoke it up and fill it with new logs. The bottom logs slowly burn away and the logs on top drop down to replace them, until it is time to stoke again. In this way the firebox is partially self-stoking.
This firing has gone very well, and after 12 and a half hours, when I look into the kiln through the spy hole, cone 10 has melted and this indicates to me that the full temperature has been reached. It is now time to sit and wait for the wood to burn away, so that I can slowly close down the firing and allow it to cool for two days. I celebrate with a glass of chilled white wine and a bowl full of freshly picked broad beans. This is a special springtime treat that I learnt to enjoy in Italy.
It is only now that it is all over, that it is clearly apparent that the kiln is actually alight, simply because I have opened all of the air inlet holes. 14 hours well spent, with still plenty of time to spare, just in case I might have needed it.
Because we choose to fire alone, we have developed a firing schedule that we can fit into one day. An early start, sometime around 4am, to 6 am. When ever I wake up. I don’t require an alarm. This allows up to an 18 or even a 20 hour firing without missing a nights sleep. 14 to 15 hours is just right. We have chosen not to do the longer types of firings that require more people to be involved and organising and changing of shifts throughout the night.
This is meant to be a simple life, rich in experiences with just enough rewards for our efforts to make it worthwhile.
I am reminded that, nothing lasts, nothing is perfect and nothing is ever finished.