I have never fired my pots in anything but a wood-fired kiln. I became enamored with the process after helping Burlon Craig, Kim Ellington and Charles Lisk fire their respective kilns. Any other method of turning my clay pots into stone did not interest me. Being a welder by trade I have great respect for the flame and am drawn to it like a moth. I think Svend Bayer expressed it best when he said “an electric or gas-fired pot can be magnificent but it tells its story at first glance, whereas a wood-fired pot can be turned a little and it looks like a different piece”. The side facing the firebox is usually brighter and exhibits more evidence of wood ash deposited during the extended firing. The back side seems to me to be a softer, somewhat muted rendition of the front side. This uncertainty also has its hold on me; a kiln load of pots turned of the same clay and glazed with the same mixture sitting only feet apart can look entirely different. This is attributed to differences in kiln atmosphere, stacking proximity, interaction with the flame, fly ash and temperature. I know of no other firing process which holds such potential for diversity
I chose the ground hog cross draft kiln because I liked the results my mentors were achieving and also considered the historical significance of this type. Burlon told us that if we wanted to make these pots and expected consistent results we needed to use the local clays, an alkaline glaze and burn them in a groundhog kiln. Any deviation from this “triangle” could produce questionable results. I decided to not reinvent the wheel and build, if not a copy an emulation of the kilns I had fired and somewhat understood.
After deciding to build my own kiln I researched heavily, by talking to anyone who would answer questions and reading everything I could get my hands on. I began looking for bricks, looking high and low and with limited success. I estimated that I would need about 5000 bricks to build the kiln I envisioned and located only several hundred suitable bricks. I live in a small town and news both good and bad travels fast. One day a neighbor who lives less than a mile away stopped by and asked if I was indeed looking for firebrick. I figured that if he had any brick they were probably a low duty type of firebrick and had only a few at best. He asked how many I needed and I answered, to which he nonchalantly answered “well there are at least that many piled up in the edge of the woods behind the house”. He had brought these used coal furnace brick home a pickup truck at a time with the intention of paving his graveled driveway. Cecil Terry told me to come and get these brick when I was ready for them. Sidestepping my procrastinating tendencies I asked my dad to meet me there with the front end loader and we hauled four dump truck loads home that afternoon. After cleaning and sorting I counted over 8000 bricks, I used them every one.
Kiln construction began in the fall of 1996 and we completed it almost 12 months later. I laid all the brick myself and my dad was invaluable with building the arch form and kiln shed. The ware bed measures seven feet by twelve feet, and the pots sit on a bed of flint with one rank of shelves in the rear. The arch is thirty inches high and nine inches thick with an insulating layer on top. I concocted my version of a fireclay mortar which formed a vitrified hot-face and remains unfired inches away. I learned a great deal that year and many mistakes were made. I have corrected the ones I could and live with the rest. Fifty firings later I have come to think that if your fire box is big enough and chimney tall enough, it will fire. I stray from Catawba Valley tradition when I fire for 36 hours. I prefer the results I get from a long slow preheat and a slow rate of increase combined with an extended time at peak temperature allows ash to melt and colors to develop. My firings are not just to harden the clay but to hopefully transform it into something beautiful and useful.
I am in the planning stages of building a new kiln. At this point in my life I desire a taller kiln that I can walk into and load myself. The clock is ticking and I need to get it completed while I can. I am considering a catenary tunnel with a few side stoke holes. I am sure we can put our heads together and come up with a viable design that incorporates features from the kilns I admire.