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.

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.

Environmental fellowship

We have had a Danish potter staying with us for the past month. He won the Environmental Ceramics Fellowship for for 2016, but for both of us it was just too difficult to complete it last year, so we postponed to this year.

He is a potter from Denmark who is interested in sustainability and new ways of exploring how to make a living in this new digital age. He has his own web presence in Denmark where he markets Potters wheels, kilns and clay bodies, as well as making his own work. He is a digital native. Whereas, I am, on the other hand, a dig-it-all-native. Making everything myself from the ground up – and that is what he is here to learn.

We crushed porcelain stone in the big jaw crusher to make single-stone porcelain body. We made clay tests to investigate unknown clays. We worked in the gardens and orchards. Ate all our own produce. Cooked up some wonderful meals. Lauge is a great cook, so that helped. We went on a geology excursion to look at some of the local stone deposits. Harvested the shiraz grape crop and made dark grape juice from the grapes.

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All in all, the month flew by and it all went too fast, leaving so many things un-explored. A month just isn’t enough time to experience everything that we do here.

Janine and I are planning to do some volunteer aid work overseas soon. So we are working towards this by making clay tests out of the local clay that has been posted over to us to process. Our Guest lends a hand in everything that we do.

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We decide to go exploring and looking at a few rocks for making glazes. Then, to complete the true ‘Australian’ experience, we take him to the local micro-brewery and have a meat pie with tomato sauce, accompanied by a tray of the brewery’s sample beers for lunch. Fantastic! I haven’t eaten a meat pie since I was a kid, so it was an experience for me too!

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You have to look closely at the image of the analcime basanite deposit above to focus on the small figure in the foreground.

We cook and eat what is in season in the garden this autumn equinox. An autumn garden risotto, a fresh garden salad of shaved beetroot, cucumber, raddish, quince. Served with wasabi rocket, lettuce, beetroot tops, chilli and crunchy pan-roasted almonds.

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We also make an alternate version of okonomiaki, using some very firm, third pick, red cabbage, our own home grown eggs, garlic, chilli and shiso. Everything from the garden. Red cabbage is too slow to cook straight off as a cabbage pancake. So I pre-cook the cabbage to soften it down before I blend in the pancake mix and all the other ingredients. It’s not really a traditional Japanese okonomiaki. It’s an improvised Aussie OKA-nomiaka. Served with mayonnaise and Japanese okonomi sauce. Topped with bonito flakes and some Japanese pickled ginger.

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We finish the meal with fresh figs and soft white cheese. We do this desert a lot at this time of year while the figs are coming on. We try it with all manner of different soft cheeses. Boconcini isn’t the best, but you don’t know these things until you try them out. We’ve tried it with blue cheese, fetta and soft white goats cheese which was best.

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Lauge helps me finish off the internal fittings for the 8 little dalek kilns. These are now  almost all delivered, leaving space for me to start welding up my 2nd kiln job of the year. There is just enough room to get both jobs in the factory at the same time, but it takes a little bit of planning and maneuvering to get everything into the tight space.

Now the shed is almost empty, with the big new frame gone off to be galvanised and all the little ones gone to good homes:)

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Exterminate! Exterminate!

I walk down to the kiln factory and see a posse of Dalek like wood kilns all ready to surround me on their little wheels and steam punk chimneys. After all I am The Doctor!

My first job of the year is almost complete. These kilns are almost ready, just a few minor finishing touches and internal fit-out to do, then a sweep, clean and polish. I hope to have my tardis small sized workshop back to begin the next job.

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I have had one of my customers down to do the first firing of these new dual-fuel models. It went well. We fired to cone 10 down in 2 hours, with a temperature distribution of cone 8 to 10. All very good. We used 2/3 of a 9 kg BBQ bottle of gas. At $20 to $25 per bottle, depending on where you buy it. That’s a $16 firing to stoneware in reduction. I’m very happy with that.

A very nice little project

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The kiln works out to be 130 litres volume with gas and 90 litres in wood fired mode.

More Portable Woodfired Kilns – The Dual Fuel

I have been working on my portable wood fired kiln designs and tweaked it a little bit more. I am up to design variation No.9 now, and working on number 10.  I have designed a way to have these kilns fired by both wood or LP gas, but not at the same time! It’s a simple method of changing the setting so that it can work with either fuel, with just some minor adjustments.

My first kiln building job of this year is to make a number of these little kilns for customers who ordered them at the end of last year. So I’m starting the year running at full speed. For some unknown reason, my year has become booked out right at the start. 11 kilns booked in and deposits paid. My next available slot is in December!. This will be for delivery in Feb 2018! I can’t believe that I could be so booked out, almost a year in advance. It’s crazy.

I heard a lovely little story about a tiny company that makes hand made cars, called ‘Morgan’. They make a small number of individually hand made cars each year. A frustrated customer, when told that he would have to wait a year for delivery,  exclaimed “you don’t sell cars. You ration them!” It seems to be getting a bit that way with hand made kilns.

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My small factory space is completely full of these little gems. I must say that I’m really happy with the way that they are turning out. We have been using one of these little kilns ourselves all last year and it works a treat, firing to stoneware in reduction in just 3 1/2 hrs. and using just a wheel barrow full of wood to do it.

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I have so much work to get through that I get my very good friend and righthand man, Warren, to come down and give me a hand for a few days. Warren is an amazing person. He can do almost anything, and he does it really well. So many fantastic skills. We laugh a lot and get so much work done. It’s alway great to have Warren helping me.

A good job well done

Last week, I delivered the latest kiln to its new home at the Sturt Pottery in Mittagong. Fortunately, everything went as it should, no drunks coming along to ‘help’. No neighbours off their ‘meds’, no visits from the police. Everything went just as it should.

I loaded the kiln on my truck and delivered it to the site. Dave turned up and met me there with his big crane truck, That crane is just the most amazing piece of technology. Every ten years, when Dave replaces his truck, he gets a new crane and it gets bigger and bigger each time. This one is so powerful that he doesn’t even have to turn the truck around to get the crane closer. It reaches right over the truck and lifts the kiln into position perfectly and without effort – but not without cost!

Dave is fitting me into his busy Xmas schedule, between other loads that he has booked in for the day.  The old kiln was moved out and the new one lifted off my truck and onto the lifter trolley. While we push the kiln into position, Dave packs up his crane and it is all over in 30 mins. Just as it should.

A big think you to Mark, Simon and Dave for all doing their essential parts. The kiln now has a new home for many years to come.

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