I got another opportunity to help with aÂ wood fire, this time at Bill Kremer’s huge Notre Dame wood kiln near Cassopolis, MI.
Zach Tate sent me a schedule for preparing and firing the Notre Dame wood kiln. IÂ found my way to the Kremer house on October 18th to help cut wood. It was a gloomy, damp day but it was nice to be outside doing something active. I introduced myself to Bill who told me the plan of action. He seemed happy to have me there. As we briefly discussed wood firing, and my lack of experience,Â he said something along the lines of:
We’re always looking for more believers!
That put a smile on my face all day for some reason.
BillÂ was cutting logs with his chain saw. Troy, one of the grad students was running one splitter and Zach arrived soon after I did and manned the 2nd splitter. I started by cleaning up a woodpile that had fallen over and helped Laura, another ND grad student and a few others stack up the split logs. We worked for a couple hours and then took a break for lunch.
Unfortunately I had to head back home after that. I didn’t make it back over for the next weekend because I was up at the cabin with my dad and uncle cutting wood and preparing the cabin for winter.
Loading the Wood Kiln
On November 1st I made it over to help with the loading. I showed up just in time for the opening ceremony. There were a lot of familiar faces. Dick Lehman, Troy Bungart, Moey Hart, Zach, some ND students that I had met already and some that I hadn’t met. I brought 4 cups and 2 shot glass size cups with me. I wadded the bottoms and talked to Dick, Troy, and Moey for a while. Dick said that he was only days away from making pots in his new studio.
Troy told me about some recent wood firings and how he is headed to Penland for a few days.Â Moey and Troy are taking the #troyandmoeshow to NCECA again this year.
I got Troy to critique my cups. He gave me some good feedback. His main critique was that my detailed or “tight” initial-stamp/chop mark didn’t match the looseness of the cup. IÂ would have to agree with him. Eventually I’ll re-design my stamp but right now it’s not high enough on my priority list. He also said he was questioning signatures on the bottoms of pots because they can be distracting. I know there are a lot of opinions about stamp vs. signature vs. nothing. Personally, I still haven’t decided for sure which I prefer. I think as I develop my own style or start a “real” pottery business I’ll design a fitting stamp and stick with that. It was good to hear some feedback on my work, especially from Troy who will tell what he really thinks.
After wadding my cups and putting them on the shelves I didn’t offer much help because there were plenty of people there and a limited amount of space in the kiln.
It was interesting to see how BillÂ carted his giant sculptures over to the kiln, lifted them inside and moved each one into place.
As for the kiln, it is less gigantic than it used to be on the inside. They rebuilt the back wall and made it about 5 feet closer to the front.
One tip for those new to firing a wood kiln: don’t forget the cone packs! If you do, just make sure you have someone small enough to get to the place where they should be. In this case, Cindy Gibson crawled through the stoking door to put the cones on the front shelf.
Firing theÂ Wood Kiln
I signed up for a shift on Thursday night from six to midnight. I would have signed up for another shift but we went to Noblesville for the rest of the weekend.
When I got there I relieved a couple of Bill’s boating friends. Mark Goertzen showed up just after I did. Nathan Smith was there for the first half of my shift. He has helped fire this kiln a few times before and sharedÂ some of the history of the kiln and the ceramics program at Notre Dame. He said that this kiln was built around 15 years ago!
Mark and Nathan traded thoughts and experiences firing two different wood kilns. Every kiln is different and there are enough variables that even firing the same kiln more than once will probably be a new experienceÂ every time. Especially Bill’s kiln which has been modified numerous times. So there is some guessing and reacting to what the kiln does as it is fired. Bill’s friend, Brian, has helped with almost every firing so far and had some good advice. He relieved Nathan halfway through my shift. He is also a musician and shared some of his knowledgeÂ about harmonica playing, blues and Charlie Musselwhite.
Of course, the main goal is to keep the temperature increasingÂ steadily. But it sounds a lot simpler than it is. We stoked at regular intervals and kept track of how many pieces of wood and what the kiln did after each stoke. We also looked at some of the previous log books to see what worked and compare our progress.
By the time I left at midnight the kiln was definitely hotter, but there were a few times where it had stalled. It was fun to talk to the other guys and learn a little bit about wood firing.
The Results and Unloading
The next weekend I drove back to Cassopolis one more time to help unload the kiln. I was pretty happy with a couple of my cups but the results overall were not great according to all the wood firing veterans.
About half way through the unloading Bill gathered us all into the kiln for a time of reflection. He summed up the overall results with a “prayer” to the kiln gods as he slammed his hand down on the floor :
The front stack was okay because it was closest to the main firebox.Â The middle and back didn’t reach a high enough temperature or get enough ash. So there will be a lot of re-fired pieces.
The good news is that I got to talk to a lot of great potters at the unloading including Troy Bungart, Dick Lehman, Moey Hart, Bill and his students and Len Cockman. I learned a lot and had a great time. It was really cool to be a part of the whole process. I’ll be looking forward to the next wood firing.
Thanks for reading!