Sunday, July 4, 2010

Another wood firing gone by...

Apparently it wasn't warm enough in Wisconsin this last month, because we decided to have another weekend wood firing. Our visitors will be leaving us soon for the glitz and glamor of Alfred, NY and we couldn't bare to have them miss out on one more firing. Especially as Austin, Tom, Chad and I had quite the pile of work stacked up around the studio. Seriously, it was starting to get dangerous around here. Tom was whipping out the crazy ninja cup catching skills after demonstrating how unstable my ware board situation could be. 

Another brief and fun filled story from this month...Our electric kiln, that we use for bisque, decided it would teach us a lesson in safety. I have no timer on this little guy, so the only thing that tells the kiln to stop firing is the cone setter or yours truly. After staying up until two AM and getting up at 6AM every day for a week I broke down and went to bed at midnight on Wednesday. When I awoke at 6 on Thursday I found that the kiln, which normally shuts off at 2 was still firing. "This isn't good" you may be saying to yourself. Add to this the distinct smell of smoldering wood wafting from the kiln area and I was almost in panic mode. Luckily there was nothing burning except for a small piece of plywood someone had left too close to the kiln. On the down side my ware and most of Chad's mugs were severely over fired for bisque. To the point that the pieces were sticking together as I pulled them from the kiln.

"How could you let this happen?" you may ask. You see, the previous owner had a spacing challenge between the outlet and the kiln. His solution was to drill a hole 3 ft high through the wall allowing the kiln's chord to have safe passage to the wall socket. The only problem is, once the kiln is properly spaced from the wall the chord is pulled tightly directly over the cone sitter! This is remedied by pushing the cord out of the way and between the two conduit boxes that house the kilns heating connections. Now, I'm smart enough to know that eventually this is going to end badly. I should have gone right out and bought wire to move the outlet closer to the kiln. Instead it takes what I now refer to as " a moment of clarity" to put things into perspective. Thankfully Austin was over that weekend to bisque his pottery and we were both able to go to Menard's for wire and conduit to build a 3ft extension. Thirty five bucks and we were back in business. 

The rest of the week was pretty uneventful. Our clay supply kept getting lower and lower as we try to transition from stoneware to porcelain. This left us coping with decisions like, "Should these be tumblers or mugs?" and "How big does a mixing bowl really have to be?" After repairing the cone setter in our kiln (victim of the massive over firing) we were able to finish firing the rest of the ware and get ready for glazing. 

I created a new Titanium white for this firing. I lowered the amount of calcium in the glaze to keep it from growing crystals like the Tenmoku does. I owe Pat Robison of Two Fish for helping me out with the Titanium Dioxide as I was plum out of material. Thanks to him we had just what we needed to get glaze ready for Friday night's glaze party. 

Yes, that's right, we had a glaze party. What does this involve you may ask. You need only bring glaze, bisque ware, some dipping tongs, brushes, etc. and of course as this is Wisconsin the beer...Oh, and if you have an old tandem bike with no gears and push lock breaks that people can get into trouble with, that's a bonus. I'm not talking "Call the cops" type trouble, but the healthy "Someone's going over the handlebars tonight" type of trouble. Tom and Austin did not disappoint as they began trying to see how long of a skid they could get the bike to do and seeing if you could possibly balance a tandem on your own from the back seat (That is a definite "no" by the way). Despite the hilarity, we finished up glazing all of the ware by about 9PM and began loading the kiln for the next days firing. Unfortunately, even though there was no call for rain in the forecast, it began to sprinkle at about 11. This lasted until we decided that packing everything up for the night and loading the next morning would be better than ruining the ware, but the decision was made.

So, this left me loading the rest of the kiln at 7 Saturday morning. Tom had to work until 10:30, Chad had a disk-golf tournament to go to and Austin went out with Tom the night before. Our plan was for Austin and I to get the kiln loaded and firing by 10:30 which would mean that our night would end at about 12:30AM on Sunday, if the kiln did not stall. I was almost through loading the kiln when Austin arrived about 9:30. It took us another hour to get the cone packs made, dry them, create a small bonfire, prep wood and get the cap off of the stack. Starting the fire in the kiln didn't end up happening until closer to 11AM, but since we created a bonfire first we simply shoveled coals into the kiln for the first hour or so.  

Tom showed up soon after we started and we began prepping wood, setting up tables, chairs and our trusty 3ft mirror (It allows me to see the stack while sitting in front of the stoke hole). Once again my lack of good tools cost us time and effort. We found a chainsaw in the barn that we hoped to use for cutting our scrap lumber into burnable chunks of goodness wouldn't start. 

Now, when I say this thing wouldn't start I'm not giving the situation its due. I could say that the saw had seen better days, but this also fails to capture my true feelings. Basically the saw seems as though it was run over by a small semi trailer. The bracket that would normally hold the handle in place was demolished and replaced with a wood screw/tie wrap combo. The pull start housing was held in place by a half-inch socket that would frequently fall off of the saw as you tried to pull it to life. I managed to repair it with a machine screw and tried again and again to start this little * expletive deleted*, but it just wouldn't budge. I took out the blackened, craggy looking spark plug and gave it the torch treatment, followed by a thorough scrubbing with my wire brush. This helped, as the saw actually sputtered at me. Then Austin tried starting the *expletive deleted* and the pull-chord came out on the first try. Some more screwdrivers and a wrench later and Austin managed to rewind the pull. Unfortunately the *expletive deleted* thing didn't want to cooperate and bit a chunk out of his knuckle before winding back onto the pull. Apparently a small amount of human sacrifice was needed as it started on the very next pull. We sawed happily until running out of gas, stacked wood and returned to our firing.

At this point the pyrometer is reading about 300F and it's about lunch time. Sally's friend Jen of stopped over to help with getting meals around and to lightly mock our struggles by telling us how cool it was in the house. We ate our Brats, had our water and beer all the while keeping the temperature climbing. We started firing the kiln with boards on top of the grate, and soon we were off to the races and headed toward cone 010 and body reduction.

Everything else was pretty uneventful for the rest of the day. The temperature outside climbed to about 85 by mid-day and it was muggy when you weren't near the kiln. All of us got a good sampling of how large the mosquito population was and found that creosote is not an effective insect repellent. This made you actually opt for sitting in front of the stokes as the bugs tended to stay away from the dry, smoky heat. Chad came out after his tournament (he placed second) and added to our resource pool. He took over for me at the front stoke and Austin and Tom got a break for dinner. 

Now I have to make mention here that Sally did a great job keeping everyone fed. Between her, Jen and Jen's new boyfriend Erik (SP?) we were all in good spirits (both emotional and the liquid variety), water and food. For dinner they served Chili- fully loaded, rhubarb crisp and brownies with ice cream. The Chili was home made with nothing coming from a can and it tasted great! I'm sure it would have tasted even better if I didn't have two pounds of wood ash in my nose already from the firing. Yes, she certainly keeps everything working around this place.

After dark, the kitchen crew decided that they should come down and see how the firing was going. The kiln was approaching 2000F and we were looking pretty even from top to bottom, despite the bottom being loaded a little dense, with an even light reduction through the kiln. Everyone took turns looking in the spy hole to see the ware and the flames of wood-gas swirling around the kiln.

As the kiln approached 2100 we started to see cone 6 bending on top, while the bottom seemed to be lagging by a full cone. We tried pushing the damper in an inch to push more heat to the bottom of the kiln. This has the effect of making the kiln more even, but then causes the those who've never fired before to panic as the kiln temp plummets about 30-40F. In reality the kiln is just balancing itself and you have to be patient and realize your firing is still on schedule. We kept the kiln slowly climbing again by adding smaller pieces of wood that we split earlier. By midnight on Sunday we were pushing cone 8 on the top and cone six was down on the bottom. We were pretty excited that it wouldn't be too long before the kiln would be in reduction again and we'd be able to get some sleep.

Unfortunately in wood firing, you should never get too excited. The kiln decided it wanted to stall shortly after 12:30 AM. Worse than that, it wanted to start to plunge. We tried stoking more... still plunged... Stoking less... still plunged... Moved the damper...went up then plunged.... got out the industrial blowers and blew in the coals... Almost caught Tom on fire and the kiln went up then plunged... Finally we settled on opening the damper full and stoking three pieces of small wood with one piece of Ash, turn the coals with the coal rake until the temperature dipped one degree then repeat. This kept us climbing to 2290. We were so close to our goal of cone 10. The kiln decided it would plummet again at 2AM leaving us scrambling to get it back to temp. With patience, a few burns from bricks or metal and the support of everyone we managed to bend cone 10 at 3AM and soaked for 30 minutes in reduction. Finally we capped the stoke-holes closed the damper, inspected for any leaks to plug and turned in for the night. Now it was time to wait for the kiln to cool. We'd know how we did in three days.

The next seventy-two hours seemed to whiz by as we tried to patiently wait for the kiln to gradually make its way to 350F. By Tuesday morning you could open the damper and crack the door. I asked Sally to do it so I wouldn't peek. That night everyone with ware in the kiln showed up for the unloading. The ware had good reduction, plenty of wood ash where we expected it and the new Titanium white reacted very well in the firing. Smooth, and variegated just like you'd expect from a titanium glaze. The bottom of the kiln was just a little cool in the back, but still pretty darn good looking. My teapot spouts unwound just a little further than I thought they would, but the handles were a success. I just need to keep this in mind for the next firing. Our ash glazes ran heavily, most likely because of the long soaks they received when the kiln stalled, but then again, if you wanted predictable firing you're not firing with wood. Our new stamp looks especially attractive with wood ash blushing.

I hope you all enjoyed my long winded story of our last wood firing. Maybe this will answer why hand thrown wood fired ware costs as much as it does. Each piece is special and born of a lot of work by some dedicated people. Unfortunately this will probably be the last wood firing for Tom and Austin before they return to PA and then to Alfred, NY to finish school. It was a real honor for me to have them help and give up hours of their time when they could be doing other things.

If you think this sounds like fun, then get in touch with Sally or me before fall and we'll send you an invite to the next firing. Thanks for reading!


  1. I have never done any kind of ceramics and reading through your story I was not in subject, but details you presented here were so intriguing that I just might take classes myself. Truly eventful time you guys had, I'm glad everything worked out well :))

  2. Thanks to all for reading. It really was quite a lot of work. I tried to be brief, but there's too much to tell for just a few paragraphs.

  3. Nice work Carson Family !!!



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