Fire me up!
Firing pottery in a wood-fueled kiln takes several days and many hands. For these dedicated pyromaniacs the payoff is in the process
Joe Winter is hunched inside his kiln. It looks like an exaggeratedly small building made of fire brick, supported at the corners by welded metal posts. Winter, an easygoing 37-year-old with an air that’s half outdoorsy and half academic, crouches out of the structure’s four-and-a-half-foot-high arched doorway, looking like a regular-sized guy crawling out of an elf house. He scans a table for the right sized pot to fit in the right sized niche on stilted stacks of silica-carbide boards (which won’t melt at four-digit temperatures), picks it up, then disappears back through the archway.
Winter and a few fellow artists are about to fire the wood-burning kiln on his 10-acre plot, tucked between rows of sagebrush-covered hills in an area called Rancho Haven, about 35 miles north of Reno. The kiln is the smallest structure in a mini-compound that includes a contemporary-looking, passive-solar house that Winter designed himself. There’s also a spacious studio building where he and his wife, Shiho, make their wares, and a tiny, free-standing gallery.
Over the course of about 30 hours, the kiln will eat up three cords of wood—scavenged from a truss company in Fernley and a molding factory in Mound House—and reach a toasty 2300 degrees. Five days after it’s lit, it will be cool enough to open the door to inspect the glossy new treasures. Opening it beforehand would cause the temperature to change quickly enough that the pots inside would likely crack or break.
Kilns can be heated with electricity or gas or even, as some experimenters have found, alternative fuels like used crankcase oil. They’ve also been fired with wood for as long as anyone can remember. Even though burning wood requires investments of time and labor that many would find anachronistic and probably unthinkable, it can yield effects—colors and textures that can’t be achieved otherwise—that keep a small but committed subgroup of ceramicists carrying on the tradition. Plus, of course, it’s fun to watch your pot cook in a fire for 30 hours.
“The process is a direct interaction between the fire and the clay and the glaze that you just can’t get in any other kiln,” says Winter. When all the stars are aligned and everything goes well—temperature, timing, the kiln’s interior atmosphere—the often unpredictable process yields a range of luscious (or sometimes not that luscious) pinkish, blueish or warm brown surfaces. Ash and salt (if salt is added to the fire) float around inside the kiln, land on the pots and melt onto the surface of the clay. In other words, most anything will melt if it gets hot enough, and with enough experience and a certain amount of luck it’s possible to turn ordinary stuff like salt and wood ash into glass.
Day 1—Loading the kiln
It takes Winter and a group of friends about two months to make enough pottery to fill the kiln and two eight-hour days to carefully stack it all in there for what will turn out to be a 27-hour firing.
Six to eight people mill around, each doing a part to prepare for the firing, as Winter keeps coming and going from the small doorway. Comfortable chatter rises and falls, giving way to the desert’s silence and the gurgling of a narrow stream that flows through the property.
The scene has a vibe of quiet industriousness and good-sport attitude. Nobody complains about the damp, late-afternoon chill. Everyone pitches in where and when it becomes necessary. No one gives direction, but each person seems to know what to do. The division of labor is so organic and smooth it’s almost balletic.
Winter stays crunched in the kiln for a while, arranging. Casey Clark, a student and ceramics lab assistant at Truckee Meadows Community College, shuttles more ceramicware from the nearby studio building. Isabel Judge, a school custodian from Janesville, Calif., who says she can’t wait to retire so she can make more ceramics, picks up pots, piece by piece, from the table and hands them into the kiln to Winter. Kristi Jamason, a potter from Sierra Valley, Calif., makes small napkin-ring shapes out of clay, called “draw rings,” that will be pulled out of the fire at certain intervals to test the glaze effects.
Dale Swinney, who manages computers in Reno, hasn’t made any pots to fire in the kiln—"I’m just along for the ride"—but he’s no freeloader in this scene. He puts in time making little balls of clay, called “wadding,” that will be used to separate pots from shelves and lids from pots to prevent them from being glued together with melted glaze. Swinney’s also in charge of making the “kiln god,” a small, person-like figure who, it is hoped in tongue-in-cheek superstition, will bring fortunate results.
When the kiln is full, Winter steps out. As the sun goes down, hats and warm gloves go on. Winter stacks bricks in the doorway of the kiln as Jamason and Swinney break chunks of diatomaceous earth over a wheelbarrow into a crunchy, gray powder. The powder will be mixed with clay and water to make a concrete-like material that is spread on to the kiln’s just-built brick door to seal cracks and insulate the kiln.
Newspaper. Match. Kindling. Fire. Most folks go home to sleep, but Winter and Clark rotate shifts napping throughout the night, keeping a constant eye on the fire, which will need wood every eight minutes or so to maintain an even temperature.
Day 2—Red-hot everything
By the following night, the rest of the crew is back, the fire is consuming wood at a faster pace (about every six minutes now), and a red glow is leaking out wherever it finds a crack or a seam. A flame shoots out of the kiln’s chimney. Everyone mills around the boxed-in blaze, occasionally getting closer to the kiln to warm fronts and backs. The fire makes a quiet, steady crackle and sizzle until Winter, every six minutes, says just loud enough for all to hear, “OK, stoke.” In a welding mask and heavy leather gloves, he pulls an 8-by-10-inch panel off one side of the kiln, and whoever’s closest at the time opens an identical window on the other side. Each person throws in two stacks of foot-long two-by-fours, all in one handful, then quickly feeds in several long boards.
The sizzle escalates to a distinct roar. Four-foot flames spew from the chimney. During the brief time the windows are open, it’s possible to catch of glimpse of the kiln’s interior, already too bright to see into clearly, and the glow grows so intense it leaves a window-shaped retinal impression that lasts for several minutes.
The high-desert air is cold and breezy, but around the kiln, the atmosphere is comfortably warm, both in temperature and temperament. Twenty-four hours into the job, the whole scene is still characterized by a sense of easygoing cooperation. On the table that held ceramics the night before, there’s an evolving potluck of snacks and coffee (a usual sight in pottery circles). Clark points out that a high level of cooperation is essential for such a labor-intensive process: “You can’t fire this thing by yourself. It’s definitely a community effort.”
This crowd’s level of cooperation and generosity keeps manifesting itself in big and small ways. Clark mentions he wouldn’t have space in his studio for a potter’s wheel if he were to come across one. “You can put it in my studio,” Jamason says.
Judge mentions that Winter built a small kiln for her.
In the bigger picture, some of the potters present say they see Winter as a mentor. (He has a BFA in ceramics from Northern Arizona University and an MFA from Eastern Carolina University in North Carolina, and he’s been studying, using and building wood-fired kilns for years.) Clark, who met Winter recently at a studio sale, recalls, “I told him if he ever wanted help chopping firewood and stuff, I was happy to come out and tag along. … Every time I get some days to kill, I come out and hang around and get a free education.”
Paul Herman, a professional potter who lives eight miles up the road in Doyle, Calif., plays a similar role in this group. He runs Great Basin Pottery, where he has his own wood-fired kiln, which Winter helped him build, and invites fellow ceramicists to his own wood-firings.
“They’re great mentors,” Jameson says of Winter and Herman. “I always call up one or the other of them and ask them a question. They’ve been really supportive.”
The home stretch
The final hours of the firing get whiled away, and the mellow, conversational friendliness is maintained as the kiln keeps devouring wood. “It needs to be hot for a length of time to let everything melt and get soft and gooey,” Winter explains. “The temperature keeps increasing till it hits 2300 [degrees].”
A row of “cones,” small pieces of clay shaped like elongated pyramids, tell the temperature inside the kiln. Five cones, made of different kinds of clay that will melt at different temperatures, are lined up next to each other and placed where they can be peeked in on. One after the other will start to bend as it reaches its melting temperature. When the cones are all bending, that’s the indication that the ceramics and their glazes are fully cooked.
Burrito-shaped rolls of newspaper full of table salt get thrown into the fire. The materials that are burning in the kiln will melt right onto the clay and eventually cool into a shiny, textured coating. (Salt firing is said to have originated in Germany about a millennium ago, probably inspired by the use of driftwood as kiln fuel.)
An assistant with a heavily gloved hand pulls a brick out of the kiln’s mostly sealed front doorway. One end of the brick is glowing red. Everyone present has seen this many times, but apparently the magic doesn’t get old. “Oohs” and “ahhs” abound as people take turns peeking into the hole to see their artwork inside the kiln, glowing bright red.
Winter sticks a long piece of rebar in the kiln and plucks out one of the draw rings Jamason made the night before. It glows red hot until he drops it into a bowl of water, which boils a little and steams a lot. He waits a few seconds, takes it from the water and holds it up to inspect the finish. “Already got nice salt,” he says, referring to the ring’s translucent, glassy, greenish coating.
Herman explains that it’s crucial to keep an eye on the atmosphere inside the kiln.
“Joe keeps stoking it. As soon as it starts to burn up he stokes it some more so it keeps a big flame in there all the time. That’s something he has to pay a lot of attention to. … You have to be steady in what you do and stoke when you have to stoke, or it starts cooling off real fast. … He has to make sure to finish at a nice high temperature to make sure everything’s shiny and doesn’t get a bunch of crusty ash on it as it’s cooling off.”
When things go as planned, the ash floating round in the kiln can work in the potters’ favor. Ideally it’s supposed to swirl around and melt onto the pots, coating them in a variety of colors. Herman reports that he once opened a kiln to find everything just plain gray.
“If you work at it for a long time you can start to see patterns,” he says, but even the most careful, experienced wood-firing technicians will see a lot of variation in their results.
Herman continues, “A lot of the best things that will come out of [the kiln] have to do with giving up the control and trying to work along with nature’s natural process.” Some say offering a cup of salt or bowl of sake to the elusive, mythical kiln gods can help, but ultimately, to be a wood-firing potter and remain sane, you have to be willing to put in your best effort, then just wait and see what will happen. Wood-firing ceramicists, Herman says, like to “court the serendipitous nature of things.”
All that’s left to do is throw in more salt burritos, wait a while longer and call it a night. In keeping with tradition, as soon as Winter signals it’s time to stop feeding the fire, his assistants break out a home-made pumpkin pie, whipped cream and a smoky, 10-year-old Laphroaig Scotch, snack for a while, then disperse to get some sleep.
Now the potters have to wait four days till what they say will likely feel like Christmas, when they can unseal the door and look inside to see how their combination of hard work, chemistry, physics and luck pan out.
A couple days into the wait, Winter reports, "I’ve already been peeking, and it looks pretty nice."