I had an incredible opportunity during September. I was invited to be a part of a wood firing at Mark Goertzen’s kiln in Constantine, MI. Here’s a video I put together:
I got a FB message from Dick Lehman on September 7th asking if I could make it up for the loading that day. I didn’t have any major plans so I grabbed a cup and bowl (left over from my surface class at the Guild 2 summers ago). They were bisque fired but unglazed. I jumped in my car and was on my way.
Preparation and Loading
I arrived at the Goertzen residence to find Troy Bungart, Royce Hilderbrand, Mark Goertzen, Todd Pletcher and Dick Lehman preparing and loading pots. Troy and Dick showed me how to get some wadding glued to the bottom of my cup and bowl. Then I basically tried to stay out of the way, take a bunch of photos and videos, and lend a hand carrying pots or shelves if someone asked. It was a pretty cool thing to see. There is a lot of work to put in to just the pots themselves.
Glazing, mixing wadding, attaching wadding, preparing stands or stilts, hauling bricks and shelves, stacking the shelves and making sure they’re level. Todd was in the kiln most of the time while I was there and it looked like he was getting a full workout.
Firing the Wood Kiln
The next weekend they lit it up. Todd had volunteered to take the first shift because he was leaving to go with Justin Rothshank to Arrowmont for a presentation. He did the first 24 hours himself but they usually take turns working 6? hour shifts.
I got to talk to Todd while he worked the first part of the firing. He said the first part is a lot slower than the end so he only had to stoke it every 15 minutes or so. He also said that Mark’s clay body is sensitive at a certain range at the beginning. If you raise the temperatures too fast through that range the clay bloats or blisters? (or something not good). He answered a lot of my questions, most of which I have forgotten already. I did get a better sense of how the firing operates though. And I also talked to him a little bit about how he ended up as a potter in Goshen.
I’ve already written about my experience at the 2nd annual Michiana Pottery Tour. Mark and Dick’s stop featured the unloading of the kiln load of pots which I was a part of. As I said before, it was pretty awesome pulling something out of there that was my own. As the pots were coming out this time I had a different perspective on them though. I had a better understanding of how much work goes in and how some of the pots ended up looking the way they did when they came out into the sunlight. I understand why some potters are almost fanatical about wood firing. I also understand why there seem to be strong communities of potters. It takes a full team to fire a wood kiln and it offers some good opportunity for fellowship.
Unloading a wood kiln to those veteran potters seems to be like unloading my little electric kiln only on steroids. I still feel like a kid on Christmas when I open my kiln but I’m still pretty deep in the learning and experimenting phase of my electric kiln career. To these veteran potters, the variables in a wood fire seem to offer that randomness and a chance to explore that gives some breathtaking results.
Things I Learned
Being my first wood fire experience, of course I learned a tremendous amount. Unfortunately, I waited so long to write about it, many of the details have slipped into my long term memory which will need some kind of trigger to pull them out. I understand why there is such a range of surface effects in one kiln load now. The pots at the front of the kiln are right next to the fire box and they catch a lot of the ash flying by. So they usually don’t get any glaze before they are loaded. The back of the kiln gets less ash so those pots are often glazed.
If I remember right, they fired the kiln for 40 hours. They usually like to fire around 50 hours but they ran out of wood before that could happen this time.
As for my pieces, they were in the very front. I wanted as much ash as I could get so I didn’t use any glaze. I got plenty, even what looks like some kind of pile that may have dripped down from above. I’m not sure that the clay body I used (Clay Guild Stoneware) is ideal for wood firing. My cup and bowl both warped a little bit (which I think is pretty cool). I’m not sure if it was because of the clay body or how thin I had made the walls.
A pretty fantastic couple of weeks if I do say so myself. Hopefully I’ll be part of another wood fire in the near future. I forgot to add this earlier… there is a nice article about the firing by Tyler at the Elkhart Truth.