Tag Archives: wood kiln

Firing for anyone

In Japan, people often visit pottery studios for a short pottery experience, either painting something or making something small to be glazed and fired later by the studio owner or a craftsman. This has always seemed so limited to me, and the inevitable comment, “Oh, you are so lucky, I wish I could do this every day!” always prompts my response: “Yes, me too!”. Most people just don’t have any idea what goes into a finished pot. Turning it on the wheel is maybe 10% of the overall process, much less if you gather materials yourself and/or wood fire  your work. And customers rarely see the failures, or all the polishing that goes into a piece and assume the potter just opens  the kiln door to a batch of warm, super looking, ready to sell pots.

Finding a way for people to experience more of pottery making is a challenge, because of the time it takes drying, bisqueing, firing, and waiting to cool down. Raku firing abbreviates this a lot, but still requires a lot of specialized equipment in most cases. Shichirin fired pottery, for me, is a good way for anyone to have a firing experience, including the excitement of the fire, the engagement with the work, the post fire polishing and critiquing, and even the failures and serendipitous successes.

Lately I’ve been working on a firing method that is accessible to everyone, with items available at most home centers. I got this idea years ago when a Japanese potter named Yoshida (don’t remember his first name) made a splash by introducing “Shichirin Togei”, which used a  small Japanese BBQ, called a shichirin, to fire small objects. This developed into a book called Minigama, which I never read, but outlines the construction of small handbuilt kilns from fireclay and fired with wood, charcoal, and forced air. I think the book is out of print now.

I liked the idea of shichirin togei, but thought the open shichirin was maybe not so efficient at getting up to temp, so I added another one on top, like a clamshell, with both shichirin wadded together with a coil of clay. The bottom damper is the air port, and the top damper is the chimney opening and stoke hole.

You start by packing some charcoal into the bottom of the chamber, around a stilt on which the pot will sit. Then place the pot on the stilt and continue covering with charcoal. Then place a coil of soft clay around the mouth of the shichirin, and overturn the second shichirin over it.

Now that that is done, time for the fun to start! Use a hand torch to light charcoal, then use a hair dryer to get things burning hot.

Now just wait for things to heat up, it will take a few minutes, after which flames will start to emerge from the top damper hole.

This flame should continue to grow and get jumpy, making noise as unburnt gases from inside the chamber exit and combust when they meet more oxygen.  Keep slowly adding pieces of charcoal from the top stoke hole (damper), keep that flame extended. As it gets nice and hot, you’ll be able to tell how the kiln breathes every time you put in a piece of charcoal, and you’ll get a sense of when to stoke.

The first firing might take about 45 minutes, because of the time to heat everything up. From the second firing, 30 minutes seems to be enough to fire the clay. If you have time, you can go longer, and ash from the charcoal will leave more green ‘glaze’ on the surface of the pot.

Fall 2015

has been busy.

I’ve gotten pretty far behind keeping up with the blog, falling into the bad habit of making small posts to Facebook. One of my areas of increased effort over the next year will be to work more on maintaining the blog, and getting it more integrated with other forms of social media. Trying to keep track of them all is like trying to herd cats.
I had made one promise to show before/after pictures for a couple of pieces, the first of which is the slab/paddle built sake chiller w/ feet and lugs:

raw unglazed
Fired piece, Chosen Karatsu style glaze. Matchbook for scale.
Underside detail. Fired on shells, feet not touching the shelf.
Glaze detail


The other thing I’ve been working on since early this year is getting a usable kohiki/clear glaze combination, because for some reason a lot of customers have been requesting white work. They have also been requesting black, so I’ve been working on getting a reliable semi matte black glaze. Mission not quite accomplished, but I feel I’m most of the way there. Here is the kohiki I’ve come up with and I am happy with it:

Kohiki cups. Cup on the left is unused. Middle has been used a bit, and right has been used a lot. The patina is beautiful in my opinion, and the fineness of the crackle is something I’ve been wanting for a long time in my work.
Various guinomi from 2015, mostly from the fall firing. Guinomi make great gyokuro drinking cups.
Various guinomi from 2015, mostly from the fall firing. Guinomi make great gyokuro drinking cups.
Seabirds on white.
Seabirds on white.
The other thing I have started doing is Japanese kana inspired brushwork
The other thing I have started doing is Japanese kana inspired brushwork, except with English. This cup is decorated with vertical English writing, a Goethe quote I like: “Whatever you can do, or think you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” One of the other said: “Don’t be a dick.” These were more popular than I had anticipated and are currently sold out. Definitely making more!

Here are some of the pieces with the new black glaze. It seems to look best thin, and as with most glazes looks nicer over interesting wild clays rather than processed clays.

Type 1 semi matte black Katakuchi with black lacquer repairs.
Type 1 semi matte black Katakuchi with black lacquer repairs.
Type 1 semi matte black dish.
Type 1 semi matte black dish.
Semi mmatte type 2: two black glazes layered
matte type 2: two black glazes layered, makes a fatter glaze surface.

Fall Open Studio

Just a short post of some pictures from the studio sale this weekend.

Chosen Karatsu Slabs

I had to make a batch of slab plates after the fall wood kiln firing, because every one of my slabs cracked in that firing. Turns out the clay I used was high in silica, and didn’t agree with the long wood kiln firing. The silica turned into cristabolite, and all pots made with that clay experienced shivering, or cracking, no matter what glaze they were paired with, and across a range of temperatures.

Forward a few weeks, and I’m frantically trying to get some replacement plates fired because this weekend is the fall open studio event, followed by an exhibition in Nagasaki during the first week of Dec.

For the most part this firing went well, aside from the fact that I exploded my large platter. Drat.

My favorite studio tool…

….is without a doubt the Peter Pugger de-airing pugger/mixer. Until two years ago I did all of my clay and stone mixing in a large deep platter by hand, and it was killing my wrists.  Hearing all the wonderful things Peter Pugger had to say on their website, I took the plunge and decided to spend the money and save my hands. I figured if the thing worked half as well as it was supposed to, I would be ok.

Well, it is now about 2 years since I got it and it does everything it is reputed to do, and does it very well. My wrists are now pain free, and I have saved hundreds of hours of time processing and blending clay bodies.

Blending wet clay bodies usually takes about 15 minutes of mixing, but mostly I mix dry materials with water (sometimes blending into wet bodies), and this takes a while longer, usually around 30 minutes.

In my work, keeping the character of the wild clay is of utmost importance, and I’ve found that de-airing generally kills that character dead. However, the de-airing is necessary in getting the water to penetrate the dry materials more quickly, so that I don’t have to let the pugged clay sit for a month before using.

My solution to this is to let the clay mix, then I de-air it once completely, followed by re-mixing the batch for 5 – 10 minutes after reintroducing air. This gives me clay that is not as easy to throw, but which gives very nice trimmed texture.

Here are some pictures of some clay from the other day which I collected from the mountain behind my home. I added the dry/damp clumps of clay to the hopper (removing as many large rocks as I could find), then water, then mixed. I repeated these three steps until the hopper was full, then mixed for about 20 minutes, turned on the vacuum pump, and de-aired completely.

Next I went to lunch.  It was yummy. It was sunny on the deck and there was a cool breeze. The neighbors have a  great cherry tree in full bloom and the wind was blowing the petals off, and they were fluttering across the yard like giant pink snowflakes. I noticed as I saw some of them fall across the deck that the wisteria was budding out and even starting to show some purple. Nice. I imagine the wisteria will be in full bloom a few weeks early this year.

After coming back to the studio, I re-introduced air to the mixing chamber and mixed some more, then pugged it all out and made some pots. The whole process took about 2 hours. It takes even less time if you decide not to include lunch, but I recommend including it.

What I’ve been up to…

I had a gas firing a couple of weeks back which was mostly line blends and other glaze combination tests.  More than half of the ware in the kiln was glaze tests. Finally trying to get to the bottom of my Chosen Karatsu glaze woes, which started after my ash source changed. Both of my bread and butter glazes stopped working, and it now seems that I just made a spectacularly bad choice for my replacement ash. I tested 3 different ash types in the load and came up with two types that seem to work pretty well. I will mix up small amounts of both glazes with this new ash and  see how they work. If things look good, I can then go ahead and mix up a larger batch.

I made a batch of soba choko as well, to take with me to Tokyo toward the end of this month. I’ll be participating in a small event and needed some small things to  take and show.

In prep for the spring firing of the wood kiln, I’ve started making work a little different that  I have done before, more playing with rim shapes and putting feet on things. The larger platters  are actually inspired by some old Shino and Karatsu pieces of similar shape. Almost everything pictured in this post is porcelain, either pretty white stuff, or ‘dirty’ having been run through my pugmill which contained red stoneware previously. I always hear how porcelain is so difficult to work with, but my experience is the opposite. It seems very forgiving compared to my usual short, large particle clay bodies.