Low Temp Wood Firing Workshop

We have just completed our 4th wood firing workshop for the season. We still have 4 or 5 to go before spring, the hot weather and possible fire bans arrive.

 

We hosted 11 potters in our workshop for a low temperature ‘raku style’ firing day. We have re-arranged the order of the kilns for this event, placing all the small ‘Stefan Jakob’ style ‘IKEA’ Garbage can kilns up on the stone wall. In this way the potter doesn’t have to bend down to stoke the firebox, but instead, can sit in a more relaxed fashion in a chair while stoking the kiln. This is much easier for some of us of advancing years.

 

The larger and heavier brick lined portable kilns have to stay firmly on the ground where we can wheel then out for firing and then back again under cover for storage.

We were blessed with a beautiful day with no wind and beautiful sunshine – almost hot. Such a great day for an out door workshop. The week preceding had been dreadful with strong, icy southerly winds blowing off the snow.

Everyone seems to be happy and some excellent results are achieved. We are now about half way through our firing workshops for this year. 4 down and 4 to go.

 

My Last Wood Firing

I have just completed my last wood firing before my show at Watters Gallery that is coming up very soon. Opening on the 16th of August. I managed to sneak in one of my own firings through my kiln in-between the two low temperature wood firing weekends. I woke up exceptionally early for this firing for some unknown reason. I usually get started early around 4.00 am, but on this occasion I’m wide awake at 3.00 am. So I get up and down to the kiln and get started. No reason to just lay in bed waiting for 4 am. It all goes very well, smooth and easy. Everything just so.

I have all the wood prepared before hand and stacked on the truck just outside the kiln shed. I work through the hours of the late night/early morning. There is a solid  chill in the still air. It gets decidedly colder closer to the dawn. I have to wrap a towel around my neck in place of a scarf. I didn’t bring a scarf down to the kiln shed with me when I came dawn, and I don’t want to go back into the bedroom and risk waking Janine.

The kiln isn’t warm enough yet to give off any heat, even though I’m snuggling up close to it, there is very little reward. I can hear the dawn about to break in the sudden emergence of bird song from the surrounding trees. The birds know what time it is, even though it is still dark to my eyes.

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I loaded my truck with hob wood for this firing yesterday and parked just outside the kiln shed. One load like this is enough to fire my kiln. Today I’m using a mixture of half local pine, one quarter Stringybark from our land and the other quarter is cherry ballard from just near the wood shed. Although the truck is just outside, I can’t see it in the dark, as there is no moon showing through the cloud tonight. However, as the dawn breaks the truck become visible, and through out the day, as the firing progresses, we slowly whittle away at the stack until it is almost gone. Just enough in reserve to allow for contingencies. The chickens are always hanging around to help us do what ever it is that we are doing. Today they are fascinated by kiln firing and wood stacking. You never can tell when a termite or cockroach might appear from under the bark of a piece of wood.

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The morning breaks to reveal a lovely frost.

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Weekend Woodfiring Workshop

Winter brings on the season of wood firing workshops. We can fire our wood fired kilns almost all year round. With the only exception being the days of total fire bans in summer. We cope with this restriction, by packing the kiln as soon as the work is ready to fire and then we sit and wait until the fire restrictions are lifted, usually after a patch of rain. The pots can sit in the kiln comfortably for any length of time, as long as the kiln is sealed, so that no little animals can get in. We haven’t had  to wait long, a few weeks at most.

However. we can’t run a workshop kiln firing schedule on this basis. If we book in dates to run a wood firing weekend, then it has to go ahead as planned. Everybody has made their planes around the dates and is relying on it. We can’t cancel at the last-minute due to a fire ban. Our solution is to only book dates that are outside the likely fireban season.

We have had 3 weekend firing workshops over the past month since I returned from my last research trip to Korea. We were lucky to be blessed with fine weather most of the time. We are getting cold frosty nights, but many of the days are wind-free and warm in the sunshine.

We spend most of the week in-between each workshop in preparation, cleaning up and transforming the space into a safe, functional firing environment. We also spend a lot of time collecting and preparing the wood. We use mostly dead wind-fall branches from our eucalyptus forest around the house and dams. throughout the year, these branches fall to the ground and need to be collected up and stacked, out-of-the-way, so as to keep the ground clear for mowing through the hot months for bushfire protection. This stack then needs to be sorted and cut or broken-up to a suitable length. The smallest twigs go to kindling and the first part of the firing. Thicker pieces up to 50 or 60 mm. dia. are used as-is for the main part of the firing, and anything larger is cut to length with the chain saw and taken up to the wood shed and split into suitable thickness, then returned to the kiln site. It all takes time, but the chickens help. They just love to be at the centre of the action.

We tell ourselves that all this exercise it is probably good for us 🙂

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Throughout the year I get fire bricks, stainless steel sheets and all sorts of other material delivered here on Pallets. Some of them. The ones with beautiful straight-grained wood, get dismantled and used for building things. It takes quite a bit of effort to dismantle a modern pallet. They are assembled with gang nailed corners and hot glued nails from the nail gun. I spend a fair amount of time priseing them apart and de-nailing them to save the wood in good re-usable condition. A successful pallet re-cycling session gives me a great sense of achievement – and usually a sore back and shoulders from all the bending, lifting, stretching, levering and hammering. But it’s worth it. I hate to see good wood wasted. It’s just another small step towards self-reliance, through making do, recycling and making the most of what we’ve got.

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As we have 11 workshops booked in for this winter. We will need a lot more wood, than has fallen from the trees around the house over the summer. Janine has been making expeditions out into the ‘wild woods’ farthest from the house to drag back dead limbs to add to our stock. For this firing I also called in to visit the local mower shop. He gets a lot of his machinery delivered on Pallets and he has to pay to take them to the tip/recycling centre, So they are happy for me to remove them for them.

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One of these pallets is a monster. It has bearers with a cross-section of 200 x 100 mm. and beautiful solid decking of 25 x 150 or 200. All beautifully straight-grained and knot free. I made an effort to keep it all as pristine as possible. It’s so nice that I think that I may be able to make a beautiful chair out of it for the house. There are of course also a lot of ugly pallets. These are easy to deal with, because all I do is chainsaw off the ends of each side and the pallet falls apart into perfectly usable thin lengths of fire wood.

The students turn up knowing nothing of all this. The wood is ready and stacked in the trailer on-site. The kilns are all prepared and the glazes are out on the table. The days events proceed calmly and in an orderly fashion. Every thing happens as planned and the sun is warm in the middle of the day. Everyone seems happy.

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The result of all this effort on everyones part is some beautiful pots.

A Rainy Day in Bangsan

I wake up and its raining, not too heavy, but I can hear it on the roof and dripping from the overflowing gutters. I walk to the workshop in a light drizzly mist. I spend the day turning my bowls. It’s perfect slow drying weather.

Mr Jung is the man who runs the Bangsan/Yang gu Porcelain Museum and Research Centre. He is extremely open-minded and has a very inclusive policy of engaging with outsiders, so as to make The Research Centre relevant, lively, contemporary and internationally recognised. This is exactly what I have experienced here. I must say that while I have been here there has been a steady stream of local, interstate and foreign visitors coming through the place. The level of creative work that is being produced by the research students is excellent.

I get all my pots roughed out and almost finished. They will need just one more thinning out when they are almost dry – but not quite bone dry.

I have a little time before closing, so I go to the Museum gallery and display area, to look at some of their stock and browse some of the literature. There isn’t anything there in English, but there is a thick, hard-cover book on the archaeology of the Yang gu/Bangsan area. I browse through it looking at the pictures. It looks pretty interesting. Shame that there is no English translation. Then it crosses my mind that there is. I have it in my pocket. I use ‘word lens’ on my phone. I select the app and hover the phone over the required Korean text and it magically appears in English on the screen in real-time as I move it along. I make my way through the first part of the book, looking at and reading the captions of the pictures. That way, I get another free thousand words, sans effort!

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It looks like there might be something in there worth taking in. The book is just too big, too heavy and a bit expensive to buy and take home, or post. I want to save my weight limit for my pots. I just photograph some of the more interesting pages and decide to read them later.

It’s time to go, but the weather has turned pretty nasty with thunder and lightning. I rug up in a plastic bag poncho and open my umbrella, but I fear that the wind will destroy it, before I reach my digs. On the way home, I stop to try and capture the lovely image of the rain buffeting the rice seedlings.  I have 2 goes at it, the second being a short video. But I fear for the safety of my umbrella and my phone, so stop at that.

Later in the evening, when I have time back in my room. I down-load the Korean language images to my lap top and read them back off the screen in English using my phone language translation app. It’s a slow way to read a book in another language, but I muddle through, as I have lots of time in the evenings. It even surprises ME! as being one of the weirdest things that I have ever done to get research information!

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The next morning the weather is all clear again and I see that the river is running brown with silt washed down off the higher fields, possibly even silt washed down from North Korea over the border. I don’t know how far the catchment of this river extends into the North. There are a couple of hardy blokes fishing with a net, down by the stepping stone crossing. I stop and watch them for a while, but they don’t seem to catch anything. The technique that

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they are using seems to be for one man to stir up the stones and sediment on the bottom and try to dislodge something into the flow and then the other man tries to catch it in their net. It doesn’t seem to be working. Perhaps they are fishing for some sort of shell fish or yabbie/crustacean?

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My bowls are finished now and ready for the bisque kiln tomorrow. I have ordered a stamp that says ‘Yang gu’ in Korean text, and have marked all my work with this and my own personal seal. I ordered it through the mail order service of the amazing Miss Kang, who arranged everything for me and had it ready for me when I arrived at her house on the way here.

Tomorrow comes soon enough. I see the kiln packed during the day and started firing last thing before we all leave for the evening.  The next day, after cleaning up my work space, I go over to the kiln room to see how the firing is progressing? I assume that it was set to steam all the pots dry overnight and will be firing properly now, possibly reaching temperature in the afternoon?

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When I get over there, they are already unpacking the kiln! it has fired up and cooled down over night! I’m staggered. How is this possible? It doesn’t fit in with all my other pottery experience, where we molly-coddle the pots through the difficult trauma of the firing process, taking it quite slowly, making sure that we don’t blow anything up by going too fast or causing cracks. I guess that they do this all the time and they know what their clay will take. The kiln is electric fired and has a computer ramp controller, so it fires exactly the way that they have set it to. By the feel of the bisque, I’m guessing that it was only fired to 800 or 900oC.

I can only assume that because everything was dry before packing the firing could proceed quickly. It is summer here and very warm days and nights. And all the pots are made of powdered stone and not sticky plastic clay, so they can breath quite easily. Any way, most things come out OK. I have 5 out of my 40 or so with minor cracks, most inflicted before packing, by me I think. One has a crack around the edge of the foot, which I haven’t seen in my work before and another has a tiny hair line crack in the centre of the foot, underneath. This is a remnant clay shrinkage/drying problem.

I’m happy. I have 36 pot to be going on with. I said at the beginning that I would like to get 12 good pieces to take home if I can. Looks like I’m on track at the moment, but never count your chickens!

I spend the day glazing and fettling. I go over them 3 times to get them as smooth and dribble free as possible. The glaze looks to be a mixture of porcelain stone and possibly limestone?  I also feel that there might be some wood ash in there too? I think this because it has a definite grey cast to it and micro tiny black flecks that I some times see coming through my 60 or 80# mesh screen when I sieve our ash. The glaze seems to be very thin, so I dip them twice. It also helps to get a more even coating.

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When they are dry, my pots go over to the gas kiln shed for glaze firing. The packing seems to take all day on and off, with so many other things happening throughout the day. It’s all packed by 6.00 and ready for firing.  The gas kiln is fired manually, so it will have to wait until tomorrow to be fired through the day. It’s about an 11 hour firing to cone 7 or 1230/1240oC. in reduction. They use a digital pyrometer and draw trials to measure the temperature and heat work. They told me that they fire too cone 7, but they don’t use cones here?

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This facility has a comprehensive range of very good equipment and the staff are really hard-working, efficient and friendly. I couldn’t have found a more fertile and supportive place to study.

best wishes from Steve in Bangsan, Korea.

Open Studio

The Southern highlands Arts Festival is upon us, and so are the Open Studio Weekends  are starting this next weekend of the 5th and 6th of November and followed on the next weekend of the 12th and 13th.
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We have the kiln unpacked and re-packed and ready to fire in 5 days. This is only possible because I had all the pots made and bisque fired before I left to go to do my research in Korea. All we have to do now is glaze them and make sure that they are well dried before packing them into the kiln. I have learnt from experience that if I pack my thick felspathic glazes wet. They can just fall off from the outside of the pots. Especially from the underside of bowls.
It has been too hot and dry to fire for the past 2 days, so today has been forecast to be overcast and showery. I wake at 4.00am, just like clockwork. I amaze myself that  I can do this, but it just happens. I read an article in ‘NewScientist’ magazine recently about our brains ability to track time accurately, even when supposedly asleep. The article maintained that only part of our brain sleeps. A lot of it stays well awake, and is a very good time-keeper. I know this as a fact for me and my brain, but I can’t speak for others. I thought that I had taught myself to do this as an art student. Waking up every two hours to turn up the gas pressure on the kiln. I could wake up just a minute or two before the alarm went off. I didn’t like the alarm, so I taught myself to pre-empt it by a minute or so to avoid its harsh reality. Apparently, I’m not at all special. Loads of people can do this with no effort. It’s apparently quite normal. Ho-hum! There goes my last claim to be able to do something ‘special’.
We have the wood all cut and dried, up in the wood shed, we have all the pots bisque fired and stacked in the pottery. All the stones have been ground up and powdered. All the ashes have been dry sieved and bagged. All the glazes are made up and tested. Nothing can go wrong now!
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 The firing proceeds well, very well. Just as it ought to after 48 years of learning. Starting in the quiet at 4.00 am and firing through into the night. I like the quiet of the very early morning. I can get a few minor things done while I’m confined here, once the kindling stage is over and I start to put big logs into the main firebox. I can steal a few minutes at a time to clean up my work bench and grind the bottoms of the pots that we just unpacked from the last firing. The Lovely  wakes up with the light and brings me down some breakfast and a pot of freshly plunged coffee. We have fruit salad and marmalade from the pantry to put on our toast. It’s a nice quiet time together.
In the middle of the day I’m well into the reduction cycle and using quite large, heavy logs, that can burn for 40 to 50 mins. This gives me time to do other jobs that demand a bit more attention. I decide to repair the coffee cup from the last firing that caught a falling piece of kiln brick. I spend a bit of time on it, grinding and polishing the brick fragment away to nothing, then polishing the remnants of the glazed rim back to a fine finish. I decide that since I’ve spent so much time on it. I will keep it for myself to use in the kitchen. I decide to do some Japanese inspired ‘kintsugi’ repair on it. Janine takes over while I concentrate.
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I rebuild the surface back to its original profile and then finish it with some 24 carat gold. This of course takes me several days, just a few minutes at a time, whenever I can fit it in. I do a batch of ‘less-than-perfect’ pots from the last firing. They all turn out OK. They are still ‘2nds’, but seconds that have been shown a bit of attention and care. Their ‘flawed’ surfaces turned to a thing of beauty, with some time, love and respect. Just as we do for each other. We shine when we are loved. These pots now glow in a simple honest way.
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For some reason, I can’t help but think of dentistry!

 

Best wishes
Steve

Winsome, Loose Some

We have unpacked the latest firing and it was largely good, some of it is quite good. A bit of it is very good, but as always there is the odd disaster.  I sport a winsome smile.

One single disaster was completely my fault. I made up a batch of glaze that has always been straight forward. Porcelain stone and limestone. I got distracted when someone called in and It seems that I forgot to add the limestone, so I have a bowl with what is essentially a coating of porcelain body. Not attractive.
The walls of my kiln are slowly dissolving with the build-up of wood ash. But not bad for 60 firings for home-made lightweight insulating refractories made from local bauxite!
Another casualty this firing was a piece of wall that spalled off and landed on the lip of one of my cups. I may be able to recover it with some judicious grinding and polishing. However, I ask myself if it really is worth half an hours work to make a 2nd grade mug worth $10 out of this ruin? It is quite pretty though. I may decide to spend a bit of time working on it and keep it for myself in the studio. This ‘mishap’ is not my fault, except in that I chose to build my kiln out of my own inferior, local, hand-made, fire bricks
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I usually test all new batches of glaze that we mix up, before using them on-mass. I did just this last week to test all the new batches of domestic ware glazes that we were about to use to glaze all the pots for the next firing, destined for the Southern Highlands Open Studios weekend sales. I fired the little portable wood fired kiln with test pieces and small bowls. They all worked perfectly and melted well. The colours that i get in a 2 1/2 hour firing in reduction to stoneware, cone 10, are not as clear and intense as what we get in the bigger kiln firing for 16 hours and with a much slower cooling. However the difference is only really marginal and the faster firing is just fine for domestic ware.
I photographed both sets of tests and there isn’t a whole lot of difference. There is better reduction, especially for carbon sequestration glazes, in the longer sustained reduction firing, and the granite and pegmatite celadons are richer. Funnily, the ching-bai porcelain glaze, on the right, looks pretty indistinguishable!
The tragic, sand-paper-like porcelain-stone glaze, sans limestone, was made up after this test firing, as an afterthought, so missed out on being test fired.
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We have just re-packed the kiln to fire again. This firing will have what I hope will be a new opalescent jun ash glaze. Here’s hoping! Ash is always so variable. We have to test each batch of ash and find the differences from the last batch, then alter the recipe accordingly. What is sometimes a blue opalescent glaze can quickly become a yellow crystalline glaze or a white matt. It changes from ‘nuka’ white through to transparent green glass with minor variations  of ingredients. It always requires felspar and silica to be added. Luckily, porcelain stone is largely composed of felspar and silica. I love it so much when it works!
There is something so rewarding about using the ash from the fire that cooked our dinner to make our glazes! There is something so truly organic and particularly rounded about the concept of waste-not/want-not, and self-reliance about this. Glazes like this are firmly embedded in my sense of place and my sense of self-in-place.
I couldn’t want for more – except perhaps a more reliable and richer opalescent blue?
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I pass the glaze through a fine sieve and although we have already dry sieved the ash beforehand, there is always a lot of material that refuses to pass through the fine screen. I scrape it off the mesh and put it in the large mortar and pestle. I give it a good few minutes hand grinding, until it doesn’t sound or feel gritty anymore. I know from past experience that it still will not all go through, but a lot of it will. I was lucky to see this 450 mm dia mortar and pestle in a junk shop and snapped it up. It’s a beauty! It dwarfs my Leach kick wheel.
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The kiln is bricked-up and ready to fire now. The weather is a bit warm and dry, so we decide to post-pone the firing until Thursday when a shower or two and some damp weather is forecast. This will be a much safer day to fire.
Ashes to ashes and lust to lust
Steve and Janine

Be Prepared

I realise that I’m awake and I’m not going to get back to sleep. It’s 4.00 am and we are all ready to fire the kiln today. I usually wake up at about this time on firing days. It’s a habit that I have got into. I like to start early. I love the quiet of the early morning. It’s beautiful. There is a very special time. Just a half hour, when the birds start to wake up and so does the sun in response to their chippering and calling. They have very fine senses. They are awake and calling when it is still dark. I can’t tell the difference with my old worn out eyes. but they know and call out to tell each other. They summon the sun.

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We packed the kiln yesterday and bricked up the door with our home-made fire brick blocks. It’s a big door for easy access for packing, so we needed some large blocks to speed up the door bricking-up process. Making our own firebrick is just one of the many things that we do to live this life of self-reliance. The sun was loosing its heat as drove up to the wood yard and loaded the truck with both pine and stringybark logs. We are all finished before the evening dusk falls. The truck sits in the dark and is slowly revealed this early morning as the sun comes around the curve and slowly illuminates the house and orchard in the distance.
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We have a new wood shed now, so all the pine is stacked and ready to load, dry and seasoned. Such luxury! it’s only taken us 40 years to get this small convenience built. There is always so much to do. We have lists! Even lists of lists. But ultimately, it’s a case of the squeaky wheel getting the oil. But now the time is here for a kiln wood, wood shed and it’s a beauty. We’ve had a wood shed for the house wood, particularly for the kitchen stove timber. We couldn’t function here in this self-reliant way without one. That was a very squeaky wheel and got built after only 10 years here. This masterpiece of re-cycling cost next to nothing, being made out of the old wooden tank stand and old roofing iron that we were given. It’s only taken us 40 years to get around to it!
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We are officially into the bushfire season now, so there are fire restrictions in place. Luckily for us today, it is overcast and there are showers forecast. It has just started to rain gently, but just a brief shower. I don’t even bother to cover the pine on the truck. Last night I called the fire captain to tell him that we were going to fire the kiln. It’s a polite notification. We have been here 40 years doing this with no problems so far. That is largely because we are very careful. During the spring, we pack the kiln and wait for a suitable day to fire. A day like this is excellent. Cool, overcast and with this brief shower of rain, it couldn’t be better for firing. The safest of conditions. If it were very hot and windy, we wouldn’t light the kiln. We’d just pack it and leave it full and wait for a break in the weather.
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When Janine gets up, she brings me breakfast by the kiln. We eat all our meals during the day down in the kiln shed. We get a visit from the chooks, who call in to see what going on. We fire through into the night. It’s a civilised, steady, easy firing process. With all the wood already cut, split and seasoned in advance. This prepared wood that we are burning, is work that we did months ago in preparation for this moment. To make our lives easier now. We make decisions and make preparations for the future in this way so that we can keep on working, and living this life into our older years.
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We finish the firing at night, on the same day that we started. Packing and firing the kiln is an intense couple of days. We celebrate the end of the firing with a bottle of bubbly. I cook pasta for dinner. It’s quick and simple, using all our own home-grown ingredients, preserved tomato pasta sauce, our own garlic, our dried tomatoes and dried mushrooms. It’s just like our firing, everything prepared in advance to make this moment of creation easier.
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Best wishes
from the well prepared Steve and Janine, working towards the up-coming Southern Highlands Arts Trail, Open Studio weekends. We will be open on the first two weekends of November.