Jun 26th, 2013
Many of you know that I’ve been doing pottery for the past few years. I had actually started it in grad school, when my tuition waiver made it possible for me to take Introduction to Ceramics for free. I lasted only a month in that class, however, because I didn’t have time for it: in addition to two four-hour classes per week, I was expected to do studio time as well—on top of my other coursework and teaching responsibilities. (Seriously, how do art students ever manage to graduate? It seems that every three-credit course requires at least fifteen hours of weekly in-class/studio time!)
I came back to pottery a few years ago and have been taking classes at a nearly studio/art school pretty regularly. I’m by no means skilled, but I am getting better! During my first couple of classes, I made a lot of the sorts of pieces that everyone calls “candy dishes” in attempts to make you feel better for producing a squat, lumpy, uneven bowl-like thing. (“Oh! That will make a great candy dish!”) I can turn out mugs pretty well (to the point that pretty much every time I through a 1 or 1.5 pound of ball of clay, it usually ends up as a mug—whether I want it to or not), and I’m not bad with small bowls. Plates continue to elude me, however. Still have a long way to go in that department.
My studio uses electric kilns that fire to cone 6, which is considered mid-range. It’s great for the stoneware that most people use there, and the glaze results are pretty reliable. A few times a year, studio members have the option to participate in a wood-kiln firing. It takes a lot of time and work, since you don’t just plug it in and walk away for several hours. Instead, participants have to do all the work (most of which involves shoving small pieces of wood into fireboxes at regular intervals) themselves—and they have to pay an extra fee for the privilege, too.
The results can be amazing, however. After seeing some of the pieces that come out of our wood kiln, I decided to try it myself. So I signed up for the firing that took place over the first weekend of June.
There were eight of us involved with this firing. On Saturday we got together to prepare our pots (which we’d all glazed earlier in the week) by putting little balls of wadding (a special clay mixture) on the bottoms of the pots to keep them from sticking to the shelves and to allow flame and ash to pass under the pots. At the point, the kiln was completely empty, and as we loaded it we actually built the shelves (customizing their heights to suit the pots on them). And then we had to brick up the front door. All of this took about five hours.
On Sunday, we fired the kiln over about fourteen hours. We worked in shifts, so each person had to be there for only about eight or so hours. At the beginning, the goal is to build up the two coal beds slowly. By midday we picked up the pace, and by midafternoon we were stoking the fireboxes every minute or so. Temperature-wise, the firing went well: we reached our goal of cone 10 and nearly hit cone 11 (over 2300 degrees F) in one part of the kiln.
It was hard work, though! (And 90 degrees F outside that day! Blech.) When I came home, even though I was covered in soot and ash and dirt and sweat and really wanted to take a shower, I sat on the kitchen floor for half an hour first, just to be still and not-hot for a little while.
Three days later, on Wednesday, we gathered to unload the kiln. As the door was removed and we started to catch glimpses of the interior, we could barely contain our excitement. This part was kind of like Christmas—over and over again, as the pieces were removed one at a time and examined by everyone. I think everyone was happy with the results (though everyone had pieces that didn’t turn out quite as they’d expected—the randomness of flame and flying ash are both risk and benefit of this process). I certainly was!
Overall, this was a great experience. I really love how my pieces turned out and already have ideas about what I’ll do next time. But because it’s such a huge undertaking, “next time” for me will probably be some time next year.