Into the salty fire -- how I learned to stop worrying and love wood-firing
When a human makes a mistake and learns something their brain lights up and, unless they've been overly schooled, they feel good. Ceramics, like all crafts, is a continual experience of not-getting-things-quite-right. At least, it is when it's interesting. At least, it is for me. And I wanted to learn how to fire pots. Things get hot when firing pots. And I wanted to make mistakes, but not too many. I didn't know how to start, so found a local potter and picked up the phone.
The potter I called was Matt Waite. I love the look of his pots. He uses coarse Cornish clay from Doble's clay-pit in St Agnes. His glazes include a luminous pale blue, spotted with iron from the clay. The glaze thins at the rims of the mugs and you can see the brown of the clay underneath. He is heavily influenced by Japanese ceramics, but if you got 25 British studio potters into a pub you wouldn't find many who weren't. His pots were just what I wanted to be making myself.
Unfortunately Matt doesn't teach. But he was quite happy to sit in the sun with me chatting for an hour and pouring me coffee. He told me about Lexa. Her workshop was just across the tight little Somerset valley. She had been firing ceramics using wood all her life. Firing with wood is hard work and she's always looking for volunteers.
I wasn't that interested in wood-firing. I was sure my interests lay in more efficient methods. But I was interested in getting to know potters and taking up every learning opportunity I could find.
At this point I actually wasn't even interested in the firing process, further than how it could be used to produce effects I wanted on my pots.
The effects I wanted were those of reduction - where the oxygen is burned off in the kiln and interesting things happen to the clay and glazes. Although wood-firing has plenty of that it seemed like a complicated, laborious process. I'd rather have learned how to fire Matt's slick gas kiln. But I wanted to absorb all ceramic knowledge, because I felt keenly that not having gone to art school I was missing out.
I called Lexa and went to see her, and offered to help her with a firing. She was happy to have another volunteer.
Her studio was a small old barn, stacked full of pots and sculptures. The garden was full of old kilns of various types,. There were great piles of wood, salvaged from sheds and fences and bristling with tetanus. She had initially only meant to rent the place for three months. That was nearly 30 years ago. It was enough time for grass and moss to grow around and gnaw at the old stacks of pots. The place felt like the cross between an archaeological site, a cut-price builder's yard and a sheep's field. But she was an artist and here and there were pieces that reminded you that although it seemed like a place of craft and labour, it was also a place of aesthetics and creativity.
Lexa fires with salt. She places little crucibles of salt here and there throughout the kiln. When the kiln gets hot the salt melts and then evaporates. It settles on the glowing red pots where it fuses into something else: a surface that is glossy, translucent, and with the texture of orange peel. English potters have been making salt-glazed pottery for nearly 400 years. And this is what we were going to do.
She asked me if I would like to put two or three small things into the kiln. I hadn't expected this. I didn't have anything ready. Usually pots are 'biscuit fired' before being dipped in glaze for a final higher temperature firing. I didn't have anything biscuit fired, and couldn't get anything fired in time. But that wasn't needed. I could glaze the unfired pots, known as raw glazing, and stick them straight in for a single high-temperature firing. I dropped my pots round the next week.
It must be thin so it burns quickly and releases it's energy quickly.Two weeks after that I arrived on a Saturday afternoon for my second sighting of the main kiln. It was a hot, hot early Spring day. The sort of hot day that is so surprising to the English, so unexpected that we will mention it to shop-keepers and postmen and anyone else we happen to encounter. Lexa was loading the kiln, and sweating. Her other helpers, Michelle and River, were standing around also sweating, looking dirty and tired. Lexa had been going since 7 am, which for her was an insanely early start. I was helping with the night shift, where stoking gets intense and you don't know if you'll be done by the time the sun comes up. I was in sandals, sunglasses, and a tie-dye t-shirt, fresh from the air-conditining of my car. I did what anyone else in the situation would have done, and made everyone nice cups of tea.
I changed, and began stoking. That was the job. Taking the measure of the kiln through sight and sound, and stoking appropriately. I had no idea what this formula was but that's what I wanted to learn.
There were two fireboxes on either side of the kiln - long thin holes containing crusty, slightly sagging iron grates. The kiln was already very hot. Above the grates were roiling flames, below, deep drifts of hot embers. I put my head close to the ground so I could peer in at the ember-scape, and it looked like an infernal miniature of the surrounding Cotswold hills. I threw in more bits of old shed, and closed the door. The door was a half-broken bit of old kiln shelf, because that's how potters roll.
As the day started to cool a thunder-storm rolled in. The rain came down. Not classic British drizzle, but heavy thunderstorm rain. Those not stoking the kiln ran for the barn. Lexa stoked and we made more tea. It was approaching dusk but suddenly it was dark as thick clouds covered us and lightening spat and shivered against the sky. Flames roared from the chimney. The chimney began to glow red. The rain hissed and steamed on the roof of the kiln and all around the fiercely hot kiln the grass became muddy and slippery.
The weather passed and we all dried quickly by the heat of the kiln, working up a sweat again as we stoked and fed. The evening grew lighter as the clouds left, and then almost immediately sank into night.
The rear stack was perfect. Nearly. All of the crucibles of salt had melted and slumped against their neighbours. A few teapots were ruined, a mug or two also. But the ware looked dark and glossy, and perfect. As Lexa passed them to me I took them to the pallets and placed them down carefully. Each was like a treasure. This is what we had planned and worked for. These final, beautiful, unique things.
When my pots emerged I held them and looked carefully at their surfaces. Dark and mottled, glossy and almost rough. Lexa, like Matt, used rough Cornish clay, but mine was all smooth and you could see it in the finished product compared to her pots. Hers were much more interesting.
I took my treasures home. In form they're nothing special. I've made and electric fired much nicer mugs. They were practice cylinders that turned into practice mugs. They were what I had to hand when Lexa asked me if I wanted to put anything in. But because of the salt firing there has never been anything exactly like them, and there never will be again. Even if I fire a kiln every month for the rest of my life they will be special to me. I don't think they're special because they're a link to an ancient tradition. I don't think they're special because they exhibit high craftsmanship or artistry (they don't). They're special because I made them, and because I turned them into something else using kiln bricks, fire, and old planks. But it happened because of my sweat and Lexa's considerable expertise (and sweat).
I used to think firing was a process I had to do to get a pot. That reduction was a thing I wanted to apply to get an effect. Those things are still true - it's throwing and turning I really find myself loving. But wood-firing is intense and magic, and I wasn't prepared for how much it moved me. I no longer really felt like justa guy who makes stuff on a wheel. I felt as transformed as my mugs.