4 wood kiln firings in 4 weeks

We have been hard at it in the pottery preparing for the Arts Trail – Open Studios and the TACA Open Studios weekends coming up very soon. It starts next weekend.
We have just managed to squeeze in one last wood kiln firing. But this will be the last for some time. Mainly because I’ve just about run out of dry glazed pots, but also, because from now on the weather will be getting too hot for safe wood firing over the summer.

This firing seemed to go very well, just 11 1/2 hours to cone 10 down, not quite so hot on the top back shelf with cone 8 over, but cone 10 just starting to bend. Probably cone 9, close enough.
I changed to pack again this firing just see if I can get a better understanding of how this kiln responds to subtle changes of setting. Life is endless learning.

I got a very good control of the ember level with this firing. I’m pleased about that. We have been getting rather too much ember build-up towards the end of the firing in the last few firings, so I opted to open all the mouse holes right from the start. I can’t remember ever doing this before, but it was just right and worked well, kept everything under control. I’m a slow learner, but I get there in the end.
I recon that this wood firing lark is quite good fun. I’ll probably have another go at it 🙂
We’ll see how it has turned out in a couple of days.

We have also lifted the 2nd planting of garlic. This bed of garlic was planted at the same time as the previous batch that had split into individual cloves. This variety has taken a few weeks longer to mature and has stayed as complete bulbs. This bed of garlic has delivered around 50 knobs. The last bed lifted out 45 split knobs. We still have one more double sized bed to go, maybe in a few more weeks? It may have up to 100 plants, but we’ll have to see what matures and lifts and dries successfully. Not all our garlic plants mature to a full supermarket size. We get quite a few small knobs that are a bit tedious to peel, but the flavour is still all there.
We can get through up to 300 knobs of various sizes of garlic in a full year, and that isn’t always quite enough to see us through till next years harvest. This year we ran out of our own home grown organic garlic about a month ago and had to buy 4 or 5 knobs to get us through to a time when we could start to ‘snaffle’ or ‘steal’ a few very early plants from the edges of the first bed.
I love fresh, wet, early, fragrant garlic. I have to have a couple of cloves sliced on my homemade rye bread, with a twist of fresh ground black pepper and a tiny sprinkle of salt. Tonight it’s just not my fingers that smell of garlic. Keep your distance!

The first lifted crop is now all dried, plaited and hung in the kitchen ready for use.

3rd wood kiln firing in 3 weeks

This weekend we fired the wood kiln again. The third firing in 3 weeks. One firing each Weekend. This firing went very well.

I’m starting to get the measure of this new kiln and my endless supply of pre-burnt wood fuel. For the first of these 3 firings, I altered the firebox and made it deeper, which helped. Before the 2nd firing, I changed the flues. For this firing I changed the setting and adjusted the flues slightly. more fine tuning than major change. All these adjustments have come together now and this last firing was even from top to bottom, with cone 10 over on each shelf, as well as the floor.

There is still an issue with the wood. The flame is quite short and although cone 10 was over on the front of the top shelf, we only got cone 9 over at the rear of that same shelf, just 400mm further back.

Still, everything is well melted and looks good. We have plenty of pots fired and ready for the two open Studio Weekends coming up.

It was a very foggy and misty dawn for the firing.

All of our specially developed home made wood firing clay bodies have taken the fire well and are flashing up with good toasty colour.

This is one of Janine’s bowls with her home made cobalt infused pigment brushwork and her ash glaze made from the ash out of our kitchen slow combustion cooker. This bowl has picked up a little bit of carbon inclusion around the rim. Janine doing her bit to remove carbon from the atmosphere permanently and counter global warming.

This is one of my bowls that I decorated by trailing Janine’s opalescent ‘jun’ style ash glaze over tenmoku.We have just harvested the first of our 3 garlic crops. This year I planted two different types of garlic, one breaks up just before it’s ripe and ready to harvest, sending up multiple new green shoots. The other variety continues to grow as normal. I planted these two varieties last year as well and they did the same for me then. Very odd. The cloves are perfect, just separated into individual cloves.

The multiple stem variety is on the left.

We lay it out to dry for a week, then Janine plaits it into bundles and we hang it to dry until we need to use it.

Our Recent Woodfired Kiln Results

Our firing went as well as could be expected. I’m learning more all the time. The back of the kiln was under-fired, but 80% came out OK.

I ‘borrowed’ some of my friend and neighbour Sandy Lockwood’s wood. Sandy fires with wood too and lives only a few kilometres away in the same village.

Sandy buys all her fire wood in, so her stock of wood is totally different from ours. Our on-site burnt forest that has been left standing, but dead, after the catastrophic bush fires of 2019 doesn’t burn the way it used to.

We have been nurturing our few acres of eucalypt forest for the past 46 years that we have lived and worked here.  Carefully and very selectively dragging out the dead branches and tree trunks from the bush for use in our kilns and home. Almost everything that we do runs on wood for fuel. We obviously fire the kiln with it, but we also have a slow combustion kitchen stove that cooks our meals, warms the kitchen and also heats the hot water for the house. Then there is the slow combustion heater in the lounge room that we use during the cooler months to keep us warm at night. We also have a slow combustion stove and room heater in the pottery shed.

I get a lot of sowing done repairing my worn-out clothes, sitting front of the lounge room heater during the winter. I wear the clothes out chainsawing, cutting, carting, splitting and stacking all the firewood. It’s a bit of a circular economy. 

We have so much of this dead wood now, I have to find a way to use it creatively. I have another couple of firings scheduled in before the Australian Ceramics Assn, Open studio weekends of the 12th Nov. This overlaps with the Southern Highlands Arts Trail, Open Studio weekends on the first two weekends in Nov. We’ll be open for visitors on all 4 days of those weekends.

I will use these next firings to try out different approaches to solving my dilemma with this wood. If I can’t find a way of burning it successfully in its current form. I will have to change the fire box arrangement. But I’ll try all the easier options first. Side stoking the back chamber will probably work well, but I don’t want to do too much of that until I build an afterburner and flame tube with a spark arrestor on top. I don’t have time to build that until after the open studios in a few weeks.

So the next couple of firings will concentrate on fuel management, then packing and firing technique.

Here are a few of the roasty toasty pots that I left unglazed on the outside to pick up colour, fire flashing and a little wood ash from the one day firing. I used to fire the wood kiln for between 12 to 14 hours, but now with the change in the timber, I need to fire for 17 to 19 hours. Too long for an old guy and his hard working Missus. I was completely trashed the next day.

The colour is lovely and warm and the surfaces are very tactile.

Working with this rough, iron stained stoneware clay has been such a pleasure after the past few months of battling with the ground-up-sericite-stone bodies.

Recent wood kiln firing

In preparation for the up-coming Open Studio Weekends on the first two weekends in November, we have been hard at work making and firing to get everything ready in time.

We are still working on the pottery shed, as it isn’t quite finished yet. So much to do, but it is almost there. We have to stop the building work to concentrate on making pots now.

There are so many little bit and pieces of the building that need to be cleaned up and properly finished. The team of shed builders who erected the frame for us were working very quick and rough and left a lot to be desired in terms of details. I’m still finding out the places where they didn’t finish off the flashing, or didn’t put enough silicon in the joints here and there. But their biggest crime was not using metal screws with rubber seals, so I had to go around the whole building and squeeze silicon rubber over all the external screws to waterproof them. It probably only saved them $10. Such is the state of modern building trades. Fortunately we didn’t buy a high rise home unit with cracks in it, so we couldn’t live in it, but still had to pay the mortgage. That is so unforgivable. With all this rain over the past year, I’m still discovering places that leak or just little annoying drips that need attention. 

The framing crew did at least get the frame level, square and true. I’ll give them that much. The building inspector from the council who came and inspected our job, told us that this was one of the better frames that he had seen. Some were so bad, he had to call the builders back to straighten it up.

Janine and I have done nearly all of our building work over the years as owner builders here for the past 45 years, but this rebuilding job was just beyond us in our ’senior’ years. Especially the scale of it and particularly after working ourselves into the ground with all the clean-up work that we did after the fire. By the time it came to start re-building, we just didn’t have the energy. After the 6 months of cleaning up, we were ready to hand over to a team who supposedly knew what they were doing when it came to erecting a steel fame shed — sort of. They were certainly well practised at making short cuts.

This last weekend we fired the wood kiln. This was our 2nd firing in this new kiln and we are still learning how it works and getting to know its peculiarities and character.

We had Len Smith, Rob Linegan to help and Jan Kesby called in after her workshop at Sturt Pottery to give us a hand, as she was in the neighbourhood.

Lighting the kindling fire with just bark and twigs.

The kiln at full fire, burning logs on the hobs.

Rob and Len doing their bit.

Jan Kesby showing us how it’s done.

We will unpack later in the week after it has cooled down.

Janine putting stones into the rock crusher. Wearing her dust mask and with the exhaust fan pulling any dusty air from the room.

Janine has been crushing and grinding her beach pumice stones to make her sea-ladon green glaze. Made from just beach pumice and beach cuttle fish carapace ‘shells’.

She has also been making up her ‘Chun’ or ‘Jun’ blue opalescent glaze  that she makes from the ash from the kitchen slow combustion stove.

They both require crushing and then grinding in the ball mills to get the best result. There are so many little steps that go into being a self-reliant artist that most people just couldn’t imagine.

Then there is the splitting and stacking all the wood for firing. Everything takes time. We only have pre-burnt logs to fire with now, as every tree on our block of land was burnt. So we have a few hundred tonnes of standing dead wood to use up for the rest of our lives, but regrettably, since it is already pre-burnt. It has lost a lot of its volatiles, saps, kinos and resins. This means that we have to invent new ways of using it up in the kilns, as it is a bit like firing with charcoal than fresh timber. It still burns, but with a short flame and doesn’t really crackle and roar like it used to pre-fire. One solution I’m trying is to split it finer, where that is possible, but the stringy back that grows around here has a very twisty, gnarly, well integrated grain, that doesn’t easily lend itself to fine free-splitting.

Another option is to re-build the fire box to adapt it better to this charcoal rich environment, larger and with more provision for burning charcoal and ember? That’s a much bigger job, so I’ll try all of the easier options first. Time will tell.

Two Girls in a Man Shed

Last weekend we fired the new wood kiln for the first time. Not the best firing that I have ever had, but OK for a first firing. There is always a bit of a learning curve getting to know how a new kiln works. Becoming familiar with its particular traits and ‘personality’. We are also using pre-burnt wood from the bush fire. Burning in the kiln, what was recovered from the trees in our front garden. It’s strange and burns quite differently from the trees that we are used to burning from our forest that were unburnt.

This image taken by Warren Hogden

We fired for 14 hours through the day, and into the night. A very comfortable time frame and just about standard for the sort of firings that I have developed over the decades in this style of kiln.

There were a few losses. Two of my large 450mm dia. porcelian platters dunted on cooling. There is always a possibility of this with very large flat ware, and especially so with glassy, dense porcelain bodies.

Despite these couple of losses. I managed to get a few more nice pots out for the show at Sturt Gallery next weekend.

Inside and out shots of this deep dish. I have been using 5 tones of home made cobalt pigments and washes

I used the iron rich soil from the side of the road off the top of Mt Gibralter near here in one mix. This moderates to inky blueness of the cobalt.

I also made another batch of smalt-like pigment with local iron rich ochre with metalic flakes of iron oxide that I scraped off some of my burnt machinery that I was recovering for re-use. The mild steel parts that got burnt in the fire and then left in the rain for a year before I could find the time to get back to them, had rusted badly.

I flaked off the worst of the rust and collected it in a container for use as pigment. It’s a nice idea to re-use some of my old ruined equipment and incorporate it into my new work creatively. I think that this flakey iron oxide is probably mostly FeO and some Fe3O4, with very little Fe2O3.

Since the firing, I have been out splitting more wood for the next wood firing, helped by the chickens of course. They even followed me into the workshop where I had 2 girls in a man shed!

Open Studio Weekends

We have just had our first Open Studio weekend. It was good. Not too busy, just right. We had an influx on Saturday morning with half a dozen cars in the first hour. We even had a queue at the wrapping table for a short time. but after that it settled down to just one car after another until lunch time and then a long spell of quiet. In the afternoon we had several more visitors spread out more or less evenly until just after 3pm when it stopped.

We were lucky that there was a big function on at Sturt Workshops in Mittagong all day Saturday, so we picked up a few car loads of visitors that called in here on the way past, coming from Sydney and going to Sturt.

We have had only 4 stoneware glaze firings in the 3rd hand gas kiln that I bought back after 26 years out in the wild. It’s now back in captivity and working well.

Sunday was quieter, but still good. We had the same lull in the middle of the day but a much quieter afternoon. It was a great start to this 4th pottery iteration after loosing the first 3 to fires, we have been a lot more cautious about what sort of garden and just how much foliage we can accept near our house and workshop. As this new 4th pottery is almost entirely made of steel, it is a lot less flammable. Steel building can still be ruined by intense fire – they bend and collapse in intense heat. So that is why we have decided to build this new studio in the middle of our block well away from any bush. I have already plumbed the building with fire fighting sprinkler lines. Although as it is so wet they year. I haven’t got around to fitting the sprinklers yet.

I decided to spend those couple of days in the pottery making work for the sale. Everything in it’s own time.

We almost sold out of Janines painted unomi beakers and inlaid lidded boxes, as well as my breakfast bowls.

So on Monday morning we were both back on the wheel making new stock for the up-coming December Open Studio weekends as we have elected to be part of the Southern Highlands ‘Pop-up’ Artists Open Studios on the first two weekends on December, – 4th and 5th, then the 11th and 12th.

This image of us by Eva Czernis-Ryl. Thank you Eva.

Kilns

I have now installed the double walled, stainless steel flue on my newly acquired 2nd hand kiln that I built and sold 26 years ago and have now bought back. I was able to buy the flue system parts, even during lock down, as I still have my old account with the company that makes the parts.

I had told the company that I was closing the account back in 2019, as I had arranged to sell the kiln company to my friend Andy. I even took Andy to meet the owners of all the companies that I did business with, and introduced him as the new owner. Regrettably, the fire burnt us out just 2 weeks before the sale was to be completed. So we had nothing to sell.

I rang the company this year and told them the sad tale and asked if I could re-establish the account , but with a new name – Steve Harrison. They agreed and the parts were sent by courier, no new paper work. They trusted me. After all, we had been doing business together for close to 40 years. I have re-activated all of my former accounts now to buy parts to re-build. In every case they agreed to give me my account back with a change of name to my name with no paper work involved. They all know me well enough. Trust is a beautiful thing. I appreciate it. But after more than 40 years of trading with them, I sort of expect it. After all, my account number with one supplier is 001 . Their first customer to open an account!

The new rule will be; No step ladder work after 70! I just need to get this done.

To comply with the Australian Standards for a kiln located indoors. I also had to make a couple of air vents. One at floor level and another at ceiling height to get good ventilation into the room.

The floor level vent is a wide and low format, louvered, and is screened with 16 gauge stainless steel mesh inside and out.

The upper level vent is of the same area, but this one is square. Louvered on the out side and meshed inside and out with the same 16 gauge stainless steel mesh.

It’s always a challenge to work on an extension ladder up at 5 metres these days, but no one else is going to do it. I was a bit concerned about installing it, and put it off for a few weeks, but due to the Lock-down, I can’t really get someone in to do it. Having left it for some time, waiting for the work fairy to turn up and do it for me. But yet another no-show. Maybe the work fairy is restricted by lock down too? So I finally got up the gumption and did it myself.

I had intended to install a large stainless steel hood over the electric kilns end of the kiln room, but due to lock down, I can’t get my hands on any stainless steel sheets, as there are no commercial stainless wholesalers within 5 kms of Balmoral Village.

Kilns fired on different fuels can’t share the same venting flue system, so LPG , Natural gas and wood, can’t co-habit, nor can you flue electric and fuel kilns together.

We have been gifted a small top loader electric kiln by Rohde. Thank you Rohde! The gift was organised by my friend Len Smith. Thank you Len!

As I can’t build a large flue canopy for the electric kiln at the moment. I have bodged up a temporary extraction fan in the window next to the kiln. It will do until I can build a proper one.

I made it so that it can be installed and removed easily and also used in the next window later on as a dust extractor when I’m making up glazes.

I made these two wooden blocks with rebates on both side, plus top and bottom, so that they can lock into the window frame and allow a sheet of plywood with the fan mounted in it to slide in and be held securely. While still being able to be removed easily. I even made them using wood that we grew, milled and dressed our selves.

We have done one test firing to dry the kiln out and establish the protective oxide layer on the elements. The kiln has a small tube fitting that allows the fumes from the kiln to be directed out of the room through ducting. (not supplied.) I have directed the vent fumes out the window through the fan. The vent is only 25mm dia. so I have used 90 mm dia. pipe to vent it out through the fan. This allows a massive excess of cold air from the room to mix with the vent fumes to cool them. allowing the use of plastic pipe. I’d prefer to use a gal steel pipe bend, but I don’t happen to have one. Maybe later.

To finish off everything in the kiln room, we have the LP gas Plumber coming this week to certify the gas line installation. If all that goes ahead, then All we have left to do is make up some test glazes and do a test firing full of glaze and body tests. Slow but positive progress.

27 Kilns in 27 Days – vol 4

We get to spend a day in the Longquan Celadon Museum. I am travelling with my friends Len Smith and Robert Linigan. I am very interested in these old Celadon pots, particularly from my point of view of the inspiration that I can gain from the best pieces and equally importantly from what i can learn from the shards and broken sections. There is so much to glean from being able to see inside the clay body and looking at the interface between the body/glaze layers.

I love these rich and sensuous fatty celadons, guans and ‘ru’-like glazes. These are some of my favourite pots. It’s not too surprising that I like to try my hand a making glazes with this kind of influence. I wish that I could make something as good as this. It’s a quest.

In particular, I am keen to make my clay bodies and glazes as authentically as possible, by digging up all my own minerals, rocks and stones, then mixing them with ashes from my fireplace, where I burn the wood from my own forrest. It’s a complete commitment to my philosophy of self-reliance, not just in ceramics, but in my life. This coupled with a keen interest in the soft delicate beauty of ceramics the way I envision it. Not just the look, but also the feel of the surface. Equally important to me is the tactile impression -‘feel’ and balance of the pot in my hands, as well as how it will function when I eat or drink out of it.

My favourite coffee bowl at the moment, for my morning bowl of coffee, is a small white tenmoku bowl that is very translucent and very white, made from one of the Chinese sericite bodies that I have experimented with. It gives me a lot of pleasure just seeing it and handling it, even before I drink the coffee from it. It is beautifully balanced, only slightly weighted to the lower half for stability. It looks and feels gorgeous. I’m particularly fond of the slightly out-turned rim that is an essential quality of the tenmoku form. I’ve been using it for a year now and I’m still not bored with it.

Some of the unique qualities that I find I really engage with, are all its ‘faults’ – if that is what they are. I prefer to think of them as being part of its unique character. You can’t buy this bowl from Aldi on special for $2. Their white bowls may look superficially similar, but this pot has a story embedded in it that is only very slowly revealed over time as you get to know it.

For instance, because I’m not a very good potter, I don’t go to all the trouble of trying to make things perfect. Simply because I realised long ago that perfection only exists in the mind of the beholder, therefore can never be achieved, so why bother. Better to make things with character. This bowl for instance has a slightly mottled surface to the glaze, it has a very gentle undulation where the very thin clay body saturated during dipping and the glaze didn’t adhere perfectly. I have come to love this slight quirk of its appearance more than the very smooth glazed surfaces that I can sometimes make. This is a special part of this pots own history of its making.

Another point of interest for me is the hint of the remainder of the clay slurry on my hands left embedded in the surface of the clay after I finished throwing the pot on the wheel. I left it there as a reminder of the touch of my fingers. It is almost imperceptible, but it remains. I wasn’t aware of it presence initially, but it slowly became apparent to me as I got to use it, handle it and wash it up often. Not all my pots have this effect left in them, sometimes I wipe the inner surface clean with a fine textured sponge. At other times, I turn the inside of the pot with a trimming tool when I turn the foot. It all depends on how I am feeling about the pot as I make it. I never quite know how I am going to feel about what I make on the day. So its a surprise to me to be reunited with my own pots, post firing, and to re-discover their special qualities.

I can just see this swipe of my fingers in the image above. You won’t find that in a pressure cast or jigger-jollied bowl from IKEA.

This bowl also has a single iron spot in the glaze, just below the rim. It’s a bit like a beauty spot. I didn’t put it there, but I’m OK with it. This is a real object of beauty and interest. It isn’t perfect. It’s just gorgeous. It also shows my two stamp impressions. One is my initials, the other is the workshop stamp.

Finally there is the total lack of an obvious foot ring until you turn the bowl over and look underneath. I hid the foot recess inside the bowl form to minimise the weight, so as to keep this delicate bowl as light as is possible, but still have an elevated form that lifts it up off the table in a continuous elegant curved line. This is not true tenmoku form, but I think the it is better on this pot.

In the Longquan Museum we saw a lot of shards with loads chipped edges, shattered rims and broken bases. I loved this part of the display. It was all real. Many of the perfect examples had long ago been taken away to other larger collections, as this is only a smaller regional Museum. What was left in this Museum were all the other pots. I learnt a lot form looking inside the shards to see the very same qualities, problems and faults that I get in my work, using very similar materials and and almost identical techniques.

What I found particularly reassuring was that I am not alone. Someone else, 800 years ago also went through all these technical trials and difficulties to arrive in a similar place. Ultimately, there is the reward of the occasional lovely piece that survives.

This bowl is lovely, but what others probably don’t see, but I did, was what, at first glance, appears to the an incised line inside the bowl. That is easy to see, but it is in fact not an incised line, but a remnant of its making that appeared in the kiln during firing and wasn’t there when it was packed in the setting. It was formed in the fire. That wavy line is the raw glaze surface drying out and cracking slightly. The crack then doesn’t completely heal over when the glaze surface melts, but remains as a line in the glass. Perfectly fused, but hinting at its life before it became ceramic. I get it often in my glazed surfaces. It used to annoy the hell out of me, as there was no way that I could see to prevent it happening, if you fire long and low to make that particular satiny surface, it’s just what sometimes happens. If you fire hot, it disappears in the fluid melt at top temperature. This ‘scar’ is a relic of its process and making. I now look on these healed over cracks as an authentic product of the unique process that I indulge in.

Nothing is perfect. Nothing lasts. Nothing is ever finished, and that includes learning.

Kiln Disaster

Well, this is a bit of a sad tale. I have unpacked my latest kiln firing, only to find that 2 of my very expensive Japanese Silicon carbide kiln shelves had snapped during the firing and collapsed onto the work below.

Not a pretty sight.

The second and thord kiln shelves from the top have both broken.

Even though we lost 3 shelves worth of pots crushed or stuck together. There were still some very nice pieces to keep our spirits up.

The bottom shelf was OK.

Despite the disaster, there were still a lot of lovely pots that came out.

There is some nice subtle grey carbon inclusion and delicate ash deposit on the unglazed surface of the clay body.

The collapse seems to have diverted the flame path a little, causing some parts of the setting to get hotter than usual. This resulted in some over-firing and running of the glazes.

When the pale celadon glaze runs, it forms a very nice emerald green pool in the bottom of the pots. I really like the whiteness of the sericite body, contrasting with the emerald green pool and the pale hazey grey of the carbon inclusion on the rim.

I get out my quality control hammer and start to process some of the sub-prime pieces. They go into the ball mill, where they are polished for a few hours. When they come out, they are used as hand made celadon porcelain gravel ‘jewels’ for the driveway and paths.

This is one of the over-fired bowls below. The glaze has started to run, but it is still really beautiful. The runs have a build up of fine white ash glaze crystals. The pot has remained startlingly white, even with the wood ash attack. The glaze stopped just short of sticking to to the kiln shelf. What I find amazing, is that the sericite is so translucent at this higher temperature, that I can not only see light through it, but I can see the runs of glaze on the out side of the pot from the inside!

This doesn’t happen very often. It also has a beautiful, intense, emerald-green pool of celadon inside the base.

Its a really unique piece. You can even see the pink colour of my little finger holding the base of the pot on the other side, underneath. That is translucency! I’ll probably show it at Kerrie Lowe Gallery in November/December, in her Xmas exhibition.

I have kept one really translucent, but damaged bowl on the window sill in front of my wheel for inspiration. It’s ruined, the rim was destroyed when the kiln shelf on top fell on it and it is warped out of shape from the pyro-plastic deformation at the high temperature of 1300oC. Luckily, I was able to prize it off the bottom of the kiln shelf in one piece. It is so white and translucent, it’s an inspiration to me to see what is possible with this special ground up rock style of clay body called sericite.

I try not to think of the hours I spent working on it, turning and trimming it over several days, in various sessions, until I got it down to an even 2mm thick to get this result.

First Wood Kiln Firing since returning from China

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.

The chimney just pokes up through the roof line in the dead centre of this image. if you look very closely, you can just make out a pale grey haze, just to the right of the vertical light reflection on the camera lens. If you can’t make it out, it’s because it is so very pale.

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.

The kiln is at full fire. No one would know, except for the warmth being given off and the occasional crackle of the wood burning in the firebox.

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.

This metal lid is now over 20 years old and is in need of a bit of TLC and a few repairs around the air inlets.

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.

the level of the wood in the fire box has dropped down and it is ready to stoke again.

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.

The firebox topped-up with fresh wood.

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.