So, I built one! With the help of a long-time friend and mentor from Taos, we designed and built a two-chamber kiln with thirty-five cubic feet of stacking space; the front chamber is a “mini-anagama” for ash and flash, the back chamber is a single-arch noborigama, designed to use with soda.
Why did I hesitate for years before building my own kiln? Because of my gender? Age? Pottery chops? Expense? All of those, plus questioning my capabilities. In my hippie days, I always gravitated towards physical challenges, even preferring ditch digging to making meals or watching children. For years I split and stacked wood at others’ kilns, but it was daunting to think of doing it myself. Never had I used a chainsaw, nor had I ever recruited potters to help fill the kiln with pots, participate in firing, and prepare wood. Plus, I had not stayed up all night in a long while—an inevitability of the process. Why would I choose to take all that on? The challenges attracted and intimidated me. Previously, I’d produced glazed work fired in an electric kiln, but the results, although lovely, did not ignite any passion. The tactile sensations of unglazed wood-fired pieces and the exquisite beauty of flashing spoke to my soul. My desire to take on my own wood kiln began to grow as I helped fire other kilns. What finally convinced me was the comment from another woman wood-firer: “Nance, you’re a potter, and potters have kilns.”
I ordered all of the necessary equipment, including bricks and angle iron, plus sand and trap rock for the foundation. A friend donated tools. Delivery of the bricks was eventful. The driver of a rather large shipping truck refused to come down our driveway to unload. He had a meltdown over the rural location of my home and the narrow dirt road in the middle of the woods of Massachusetts that led to the house and kiln site. After considerable whining and calls to his dispatcher, he unloaded pallets of bricks and materials in the middle of the road. So there I was with tons of brick blocking the street. Fortunately, I lived in a small, friendly town. With one phone call, the first selectman closed the road until his buddy arrived with a forklift.
Potters, friends, and family provided the labor for the kiln-build. Unsolicited, two women I did not know asked if they could help and later became the core firing team, collaborating on firings and kiln preparation with me. It was an exhausting and fun-filled week. My pregnant daughter-in-law read Harry Potter aloud to us while my son tamped the foundation sand. Friends made scrumptious meals for the crew, and my massage therapist friend worked her magic on brick-tired shoulders. The event was sort of like an old-fashioned community barn raising, except we used bricks. And the work of the build was not divided according to gender, as in days of yore.
A critical step before the first firing was finding the right wood at the right price, including delivery. Western Massachusetts is dotted with small family lumber mills. At that time, I was convinced I could fire only with pine and oak. The mill owner I spoke with was skeptical when I inquired about pine and oak side cuts to power a pottery kiln to 2,350 degrees. He said it could not be done. His experience was with a wood stove, heated to about one tenth the temperature, to evaporate watery maple sap down to pancake-syrup consistency. We talked about the heat characteristics of different available woods. He used hemlock and various hardwoods for his syrup process: hemlock for rapid heat rise and hardwoods to sustain it. I ended up ordering a cord of pine, a cord of mixed hardwoods, and a cord of hemlock. This assortment made for a successful first firing, although I eventually abandoned the pine as the knots were too difficult for me to split. Hardwood logs were easy to come by from the downed trees and fallen branches on my property. My rule of thumb on log size was that if it fit in the front chamber stoke hole, it was the perfect size. I’ll say the obvious about wood: If you want the temperature to go up, the wood must be dry.
All the cut-to-size and split wood was organized and stacked and at the end of the day covered with tarps. The scraps were saved in a large bin (which also became a condominium for field mice) to use for initial warming. The scraps could build the flame to a dull red glow.
I prefer an orderly kiln site. I believe that a worker and organizer (me) should have all her tools and replacement parts at the ready. I purchased three extra chainsaw chains for what became my most treasured tool. It was quicker to switch chains than sharpen one. I loved standing on top of a bound cord of wood, cutting downward as far as my blade would go, pushing the cut pieces out of the way for splitting and stacking, then going deeper with the next cut. When I participated in wood-prep at an anagama elsewhere, only the men used chainsaws, which disappointed me.
Only in my imagination was I not able to do wood-prep. With a sharp splitting axe, sharp chainsaw chains, and a few sturdy wheelbarrows, there was nothing we could not cut and split to size. Initially, I was looking for strong young men to be involved. That did not pan out because I did not know any young men, so the wood-prep team became all women. Women like to cut, split, and stack wood. Firings, as well as the entire process, evolved into a sort of choreographed dance. We all understood what needed to be done and moved about helping one another, creating synergy to complete the tasks at hand.
The front chamber was where my heart was. Loving everything about it, I would load it alone or with one helper. A fellow potter with a keen interest in the kiln, exhibiting her skills, knowledge, and agreeableness, became the premier loader of the soda chamber. I was lucky to have people around with lots of wood-firing experience. My job was to listen to all ideas and decide the best direction for my kiln, the work inside the kiln, and me.
The front chamber doors could be a frustrating challenge. I did not want others grumbling when trying to puzzle the bricks together and slop on mud, so I usually put up both doors myself. Shifting my own door-grumbles into a meditation, bestowing good thoughts onto the pieces within, I came to enjoy door-building. I swear, the front chamber arch changed shape and size each time between firings. No matter how methodically I labeled and stored all the custom-sized bricks, the next time I built the door, they did not fit. The door to the soda chamber went together as easy as a toddler’s puzzle.
We fired until Cone 10 was down everywhere, usually in under thirty-four hours. At the first firing, we exceeded forty hours, attributable to damp wood and sleep deprivation following the build. I’d light the fire before sunrise and finish midafternoon the next day. The crew worked six-hour shifts. I always scheduled someone to fire midafternoon into evening just in case the kiln had dawdled along the way. One woman, who never ran low on energy, became the kiln’s official closer.
Despite disliking early mornings initiated by an alarm clock, I nevertheless would head down to the barn to start the fire with a thermos of coffee, dry matches, and my enthusiastic kiln-dog, Mardegan. He always got there first, and would stand waiting for me with that “What took you so long?” look. In frigid weather, I’d start the fire outside the kiln, contained by a Rube Goldberg arrangement of kiln shelves. The chimney pulled the flame through the mouse holes into the front chamber, slowly warming the frozen pots inside. The chimney was the power of the kiln, able to pull the most recalcitrant stall back to life.
By late morning, the day-shift crew would take over. In other than freezing weather, my husband enjoyed stoking for the initial slow-climb phase. I took over for the steady increase through quartz inversion, reduction, and the climb to yellow heat. On the overnight shift, a capable and determined woman took over for the push to Cone 10. Convinced there was no kiln in any situation that she could not get to temperature evenly, I’d retire.
Earlier in the evening, to get a good, even body reduction, I’d load up the firebox to its maximum with a mixture of large hardwood pieces and small hemlock sticks, shut down oxygen intake, and let it rip. Since the reduced atmosphere always gave me an immediate headache, I’d retreat to our lawn about sixty feet away, turn up The Boss to maximum volume, gaze at our pond, the moon, and the stars, and watch the smoke, often dancing and singing to Born to Run. A great way to spend an evening. With black smoke spewing from the chimney, the kiln seen in profile looked like a giant train from Western movies. When the smoke cleared slightly, I’d go back to the kiln to top it off with more wood, keeping this cycle up for over an hour. Contrary to conventional wood-fire reduction wisdom, my kiln gained about 200 degrees during this time.
I insisted on firing alone during my shifts, as did the woman on the overnight shifts. We both loved firing solo. With everything organized and ready to use, including just-in-case backup supplies, firing solo was entirely doable. Many friends and potters wanted to come stoke and hang out, which I welcomed on the final day of firings, but never on day one. These were precious days and nights for me. Absorbed with the fire, I loved hearing the whoosh of the hemlock igniting and watching ash fly up and around the pots after dropping a log into the firebox. I was mesmerized by the magic of the flames.
Beginning in the early morning of the second day, more people would participate or simply come to enjoy the camaraderie at the kiln. Although the front chamber reached its target temperature in the wee hours of the morning, we’d keep it above 2,200 degrees until the soda chamber was finished. This long soak made for some fabulous results. I believe the second chamber could have been fired from the front chamber, although feeding the soda chamber wood through the side stoke holes moved the temperature along and distributed the heat evenly.
The second chamber was ideal for firing greenware with its slow crawl to bisque. It was usually in the vicinity of Cone 1 when we began side-stoking. Spraying soda after Cone 6 dropped through the many spray holes on both sides was always exciting. How the pots were loaded determined where I put the spray holes in the door: often the goal was for my work to be in the bull’s-eye. I used a garden sprayer and two pounds of baking soda mixed with hot water. Warning: The tips on the wands that come with a garden sprayer are often secured with a rubber seal, which fails in the kiln’s heat. The tip may shoot like a bullet at an unsuspecting pot. To help distribute the soda over all the pots, after spraying we’d do the Damper Dance: two women moving the dampers in and out while swaying hips and shuffling feet. Perhaps the dancers’ laughter contributed to great results?
This kiln wanted to fire. There were always things to learn and new ideas to try, but from the first firing on, the bar was set for exceptional, predictable results. Sometimes there were a few disappointing pieces, but never a disappointing firing.
Once the kiln was shut down, it was time to relax. We’d gather in the yard or house with visitors and firing crew, share food and cold beers. After hot summer firings we’d mosey down to the nearby brook and sit in the water in our dirty, sweaty firing clothes. Winters, we gathered in front of the living room fireplace, assuming someone had the drive to build another fire. These were great gatherings: debriefings, stimulating conversations, hopeful anticipation of results, and a lot of laughter. Life was very good.
The pattern of the kiln became the pattern of my life. Post-firing was time for rest and reflection, followed by pleasurable days of making pots inspired by my muse and for upcoming shows. As soon as the date for the next firing was set, I flipped from relaxed potter into project manager mode, scheduling tasks, ordering kiln supplies, convincing my friendly wood man to deliver his most seasoned cords, shoring up kiln cracks, counting shelves, plus getting some hearty soul (usually me or my spouse) to clean the shelves. The flow of my life switched to working full-throttle on kiln-imposed deadlines. All the while, I was teaching pottery in multiple arenas, including after-school art programs for kids and wood-fire workshops. I was also selling my work at craft shows. I was flat-out most of the time. The kiln and the entire process became my total passion in ways that I had never experienced about anything before. I could not and did not want to get it off my mind.
Over time, the kiln became more important to me than expanding my body of work. I climbed out of the rabbit hole of making only what I thought would sell and began making pieces for specific places in my kiln; I thought about perfect loadings that best captured the flames.
When starting out as a potter, I chunked the process into three phases: making (wonderful), glazing (ugh), and firing (someone else did that). With experience, I thought of all the steps together, with the firing in the forefront of my mind. The front chamber was where the real wood-fire action took place. The interactions of the flames with the clay, the scattering of ash, combined with strong reduction and long soaks, brought out the beauty of the clays. The possibilities for the finished look were determined by my selection of clays and slips, although I often added pours of Shino glazes onto my work. The interplay of ash, flash, and Shino is spectacular. In the back chamber, I relied on soda’s satin sheen on flashing clays and slips to complete my work with mixtures of oranges, yellows, and a spectrum of browns.
The kiln opened doors for me to many teaching opportunities that I loved. My workshops covered multiple slips, on multiple different clays, fired in two distinctly different chambers and firing atmospheres. Whew. There was a lot to learn. As I write this article, I’m looking at a scale model of my kiln, complete with doors and shelves, that I made to help students understand. Teaching energizes me.
On the downside, it seems as if every kiln experiences one disaster, and my kiln was no exception. I’ve heard of bagwalls falling but never what happened inside my kiln. It was a doozy. I’ll never forget the sinking feeling that came over me when I opened the kiln to find clay puddles on the shelves where there had been a pot. The first time was no biggie because the melted pot was contained within its footprint. But the second time there was damage to the kiln, shelves, and others’ works. Despite repeated warnings, someone had used low-fire clay, resulting in clay pies galore! The permanent structural shelf at the back of the front chamber was covered with what looked like gallons of melted ice cream. I was heartbroken. Fortunately, the co-op whose members’ pots melted offered to provide workers to repair the damage as well as full reimbursement for the cost of new shelves and bricks. It was a phenomenal response from that repentant group: heartfelt and generous. I accepted the reimbursement, but my team of lady potters did the repairs.
Common sense dictated that all three columns and grates be replaced, plus all worn or damaged bricks in the area, including several wall bricks. Remember those two women I first met during the build, the two who were as engaged in the entire firing processes as I was? Believing there was nothing the three of us could not do together, we tackled the repairs, calling the project “Three Jacks and a Hat.” We had one hard hat (and a bicycle helmet) between us and three usable jacks. We did it! Supporting the kiln with the jacks, we chiseled the ash- and soda-encrusted bricks from the three columns, three grates, supporting wall bricks, and numerous floor bricks. Replaced all with super-duty three-inch flat bricks. Collaboration and teamwork at its best.
Looking back, I marvel at how, once I made the decision to build the kiln, an abundance of enthusiastic and knowledgeable potters poured into my life. People were thrilled with the process, ambiance, and results. They wanted to return time and time again. The circle of potters asking to participate expanded beyond the capacity of the kiln. I had a “maybe next time” list of participants and shelves of “fire next time” work.
For years, I’d read about “community” at firings, and it’s all true. We experienced community throughout. Problems arose, problems were solved. Firing fees covered the costs of maintenance, wood, and replacement shelves. But the real abundance was in the women (and a few good men) who participated. Relationships that began in the earliest days of the kiln continue on. Through the physicality of wood-prep, the teamwork of the loadings, the intensity of the firings, and the merriment of post-firing celebrations, a trust built up amongst us that fed our souls. The bonds that flourished at my little kiln are the unexpected results, beautiful, complex, and unique.