Wood Firing

Wood firing began for me in a gas kiln. Having spent some time working on ash glazes with the protracted process of collecting enough ash to test then use after washing, sieving and drying, I realised the collecting and using were fine, but the rest undesirable labour.

So, I began scattering ash directly onto pots, laying twigs on plates as lines of decoration, and combining both these methods over glazes. Because there was varied thickness in the scattered ash and the twigs sat proud of the surface they were on until burned, there entered an element beyond total control, what I understood to be the object of most glaze work.

A friend then invited me to fire his small fast fire kiln. Out of it my work came, some distorted, most looking like high-fired bisque. It wasn't encouraging. Pre-applied ash seemed a better bet. I left most the pots in his basement and carried on with the gas kiln.

Then I helped another friend build an overly ambitious three-chambered kiln - more high-fired bisque except the bag wall bricks, which when replaced with pots, began to show what could be interesting in a wood kiln: putting pots in a river of flame just as I had done with stones in a stream when growing up.

The pots began to have gradations of surface, depth, and colour where the flame slipped off them on its way along the kiln. Stuff out of the wood began to stick to the pots in varying degrees of melt, giving rough, smooth, matt, shiny surfaces, often in quite small areas. The differential heat from upstream to downstream altered the shapes of some pots, moved others to stick against each other or make shadows on the pots' sides where they blocked the flame's flow. There began from this process of more than heat and atmosphere to be a suggestion away from pots toward fired clay, bits of earth, pieces and lumps going through the firing.

When I was offered space on a farm, I built a tunnel kiln and began seriously finding out what was going on and how I might use it. I began to see some of the satisfaction of working with a tool offering much but with its own way of doing so.

Subsequently, the ten years I have been firing in a tunnel kiln have been an ongoing negotiation between what goes into the kiln (what forms, clay, additions, packing arrangements), how the kiln fires, and what I have learned to see in the results to be able to move on, holding at bay as best I can existent prejudices.

In the process, I have increased my capacity to see both what is possible in the kiln and how the results refer back to the environment where we live and work so that muted colours and simplified shapes have become more acceptable and encouraged.

Being on a farm meant materials such as chaff, old bolts and straw got into the clay, and the process of helping occasionally on the farm offered insights on how to do things, solve problems and recognise natural shapes incline to simplicity even when complex. This seeing has come partly just from the ongoing involvement with clay and work but also because a wood fired kiln is an active participant in the results. The kiln offers things I would never have seen or considered had I greater technical expertise and control of the process and outcomes.

So, I have gotten the taste for working with the clay as it presents itself and working into it rather than being primarily concerned with surface. As things come out of the kiln with fused sand from the floor attached, distorted, occasionally with bits spalled off, I have also begun to cultivate the wreckage that occurs in a wood kiln, while at the same time trying to create a stillness in each piece from the complexity of the working and firing, often re-firing, occasionally grit blasting, and assembling or re-firing shards from a waste heap.

The kiln has become a partner, its often seemed cussedness offering glimpses of possibilities by its nature, such as to have different parts of a piece in completely different atmospheres (part open, part buried in embers) or to stress the clay enough to provide cracks as opened lines that complete a pot (particularly large plates fired upright on their rims).

These glimpses, which fall broadly into categories I once assumed failures offer consideration of directions to work in, develop; and occasionally something simple and beautiful comes out of the kiln: a found object, a bit of earth, that suggests to me much of what I've gradually come to recognise I'm investing my energy in. Occasionally a piece arrives that equally refers to being man-made and the materials it came from. And that is always immensely satisfying.

The kiln being fired

Pots silhouetted against the flames in the kiln