The diary of a collaborative firing.
Summer firing: the Wysing Arts Centre anagama.

The world of studio ceramic practice could be described as traditionally being a fairly solitary occupation, with makers working away in their studios rarely meeting with other makers except, may be, at exhibition openings or at the ceramic fairs which occur across the year. However, in the following piece I would like to narrate a collaborative event in which I and Stephen Parry have been engaged for the last thirteen years. We are both makers who specialise in wood fired ceramics. The type of work which we individually produce is quite different. Steve specialises in a range of thrown and hand built vessels which incorporate shino and ash glazes as well as raw clay flashing. I make a range of thrown and press moulded vessels which reference traditional ceramic forms and are overtly composite in nature. Predominantly relying on the clay bodies used to react with the flames. However, despite our differing angles on form, the process and philosophy of firing with wood links us.
I am talking here about firing medium sized anagama style cross draft kilns. Undertaking a firing of this type requires an enormous amount of organisation and coordination. The build up to a firing can be as long as four months or sometimes even longer. This firing as with most firings of the Wysing Arts anagama was preceded by a visit to the kiln site in early April. During this visit the fuel for the firing had been collected, unloaded and cross stacked to dry. We had also carried out a small repair to one of the bricks in the arch above the firebox. We both live about ninety miles from the site so our visits are coordinated so we can get as much work done as daylight and time allow.
Once the fuel has been delivered to the site we discuss suitable dates for firing. As Steve has open studios at his Rhyburgh Pottery through May and I have commitments at the beginning of June and, with a view to getting work from the kiln in time for the Earth and Fire event at Rufford in Nottinghamshire we agree on the weekend of the tenth to the thirteenth of June and hope that the weather won't be too hot. So, with everything organised we leave for the site, vans crammed with work and food.


I Left the house at about eight thirty and arrived at the kiln site at around ten thirty, Steve arrives about two minutes after me and pulls up as I open the new gate into the kiln site. First things first, get the kettle on and within ten minutes we have a strong cup of coffee. The slightly overgrown site is wet from the recent rain and the sky is still threatening to deliver a good soaking. So, second things second we assess what is needed and proceed to erect a tarpaulin cover to extend the kiln shed and provide us with a rain proof area to set out all the work which we'd brought to be packed in to the kiln. We also move a large wall of wood which we had stacked just under the kiln shed to provide some shelter from the elements during the previous firing in October. We thought it would probably be the last thing we needed in June. We also located a couple of pallets and large boards to give us a stable surface to lay out the work.
Steve had cleaned out the kiln on our previous trip to the kiln earlier in the year, so, with the cover and the surface sorted, we began to carry the boxes of bisc fired work from the vans and unloading their contents on to the pallets. Plenty of work, all shapes and sizes but, shapes and sizes which we know should fit quite well with each other and into the kiln space. So, a good pile of wadding into the bowl an in I go with the first pieces of work. It's about midday. The back step and the one shelf which spans the chamber above it are stacked relatively quickly taking care to allow enough space directly in front of the exit flues to allow the flames and gasses to escape, packing slightly more openly at the bottom and tighter at the top so the flame is persuaded to move down and create a more even heating. We have discussed how we want this pack to go. Tight at the back and then half way down a line of tall pieces spanning the kiln. The front of the kiln will be relatively open on the floor with three shelves densely packed above (again, to push some of the flame downwards along the floor of the chamber). A very different stack to the last one in this kiln in which, we had fired only large tall pieces at the front. It takes a bit of getting used to sand in the mouth as all the pieces are placed on wadding pips which have to be licked in order to stick to the work. Really, not very glamorous.
As the pack proceeds we manage to create a placing of work which follows the shape of the kiln. Pieces are carefully positioned with smaller to the edges of the shelves and taller in the centre to follow the curve of the roof. Also creating small voids and spaces through which the flames can travel distort and split. On the third step down, we lay one of Steve's large bottles on its side beneath a shelf on which lies one of my tall jars, again on its side. Above these is a second shelf which is filled with a mixture of work including a large bowl which we decide to fire upside down set on wadding filled scallop shells. This is a bit of an experiment as I usually side fire these. A smaller bowl is rim fired beneath the umbrella of the larger. We take it in turns to stack and select pots, one of us on the outside and one inside. Next, we place the row of tall vessels. We manage to get six comfortably on the step positioned relative to the curve of the kilns arch. We get to the front and largest step by about seven o'clock and plans to go to the pub for supper have gone out the window. We still have a lot of work to do. So we just grab a quick sandwich.
I place two large side fired platters on either side of the chamber, and then some new pieces to be side fired on the floor and we place a shelf nine inches above (the length of a firebrick). There are a further two shelves stacked with an assortment of work culminating in one of Steve's large bottles fired on its side. At a length of twenty eight inches, the neck of the large bottle overhangs the firebox by about seven inches. By now it is eleven thirty at night, dark, and it's been drizzling and windy for the last couple of hours. We decide it's time to call it a day and resume in the morning. We retire to our respective vans with aching backs and legs.


Work starts again at about seven thirty with Steve finishing the placing of pieces right at the front, on the "suicide" step. This is the zone of the kiln which can produce the most dramatic results but can also suffer the most profound losses. Two of Steve's tall jars are placed on either side (in front of the leading edge of the large platters), and then a row of my new vessels spanning the centre of the kiln. We're hoping for some serious surfaces on these front line pieces but it's a risky spot with the work frequently being consumed by the coals. The grate is then fitted, with a small modification. The spacer bricks are set with one inch gaps between them, allowing a movement of air across the channels under the grate, this supplements the air feed to the channels exclusively being drawn through their dedicated mouse holes. The door is bricked up and in the process, the lower and then upper fire-mouths created.
We light a small fire on the hearth at about nine and complete the clamming of the door, using wadding which has been watered down slightly. This works very well as a clamming material to fill all the gaps between the door bricks giving us good control over the amount of air which is allowed to enter the chamber, it also tends not to shrink so shouldn't need doing again until we finish.
With the fire lit we have to turn our focus to preparing the wood for cutting. The weather is still drizzly although the wind has dropped. We decide that we'll stack the first lot of wood in front of the newly created stack about 4 meters in front of the kiln against the hedge. Firstly a Jig is made nailing uprights onto a pallet. The tin is removed from the first cross stacked pile of wood which has been seasoning since earlier in the year, and it is placed into the cutting jig. This is chain sawed in to roughly forty to sixty centimetre pieces which are stacked under the tarpaulin at the front of the kiln. As we are cutting and stacking we are also tending the small fire on the grate. The weather has dried up and the sun is trying to break through. As the danger of rain seems to have lessened we take down the tarpaulin cover and roll it up behind the wood stack just in case we need to cover the stacks in a hurry.
The day becomes dry warm and sunny and gets a little too warm for cutting and stacking wood but better that than rain. We decide to leave the second stack of wood until Saturday morning so as not to clutter up the front of the kiln. So, before dinner we move the stack into the jig ready to cut in the morning. We have decided that we'll split the night the same as usual. I'll stoke until three thirty in the morning and Steve will take over until about eight. At about seven in the evening we start to stoke through the top fire mouth and spend the next hour slowly changing from stoking only through the lower to stoking only through the upper. Bricks are placed on there sides in all the under grate air inlets and three bricks are positioned in the lower fire mouth. We continue stoking through the upper fire mouth.
So here I am. Steve went to bed at about ten forty after we had cooked and consumed a vegetable curry and Nan's cooked on a propane ring which we have close by in the "kitchen" (Simply a slightly cleaner area close to the front of the kiln with a flat cutting board raised up on bricks). It's now one in the morning; I still have two and a half hours to go and am stoking the kiln to the small blowhole at the front of the chamber. The first cone zero six is starting to bend so it is time to stoke harder and keep up a good reduction starting to push the heat towards the back. There is a good orange glow at the front of the kiln and the ash is building quite deep on all the horizontal surfaces and contours of the front stack. There is a dull red ambient red glow at the back of the kiln viewed through the top spy hole.
Steve is taking over at three thirty so I've now got fifteen minutes to go. I'm hot and tired and have put the coffee on. There is a good glow in the sky. When he blurrily arrives, we chat for a few minutes and then he takes over and I crawl to the van for a bit of sleep. The sun started to light the sky in the east at about two thirty and by the time I climb into the van at four, the birds are singing and the dawn is well under way.


I re-emerge at about eight thirty to the smell of fresh coffee (feel there is theme developing here), and to Steve and Carl Gray chatting. Carl has travelled down to lend a hand for a few hours until he has to return to sort out a firing of his own kiln. We adjust the passive dampers and under grate air and start to push the kiln a bit until we have a constant flame in the chimney (viewed through the front chimney brick), from which to take our stoking cue. Within a few hours the cones at the front and back start to move with the six going well over at the front followed quickly by the nine. At the back the zero six goes over and we keep pushing the kiln until the six starts to bend at about one in the afternoon. It's time to cut up the jig of wood that we stacked last night. Carl helps to stack the ends and we leave the centre to be stacked later. The morning started off overcast but now the sun is out and it's getting pretty hot around the kiln and outside. We take it in turns with short shifts making a B line for the stand pipe in our breaks to cool down with the icy water. By three in the afternoon, we have cone thirteen half over at the front and cone nines bending at the back. We carry on with the under grate mouse holes open and a small opening in the lower fire mouth.
We are also side stoking hard wood slats either side followed by large pine stokes through the upper fire mouth at the front to form a lattice work of wood on the grate.
At seven in the evening we cut up the vegetables for the curry, adding the ingredients to the remains of last nights. We take it in turns to stoke as we eat and as we finish, put on the radio to catch the second half of England's first world cup fixture against USA. Disappointing result, so switch off the radio, and listen to birdsong and the gentle rumble of the kiln. The last of the cut wood is brought in and stacked at the front of the kiln and we're ready for the second night as the sun goes down. Steve retires to his van at about ten and I'm left with the gentle crackling and a lovely peaceful evening, not a cloud in the sky as I watch the flames from the chimney shoot up into the emerging stars with no hint of wind. I stoke the kiln mainly with hard wood slats for the night, alternating sides in an endeavour to equalise the slight oxidising potential of letting air in while stoking. Occasionally, stoking pine through the front to stop the coals becoming too dense on top of the grate. The under grate mouse hole channels now need their ashes levelling every thirty minutes or so to allow a clear flow of air. I carry on heavily stoking hard wood until Steve arrives at three thirty in the morning. We have about three quarters of a cord of pine left which we have been saving for the last push for temperature. Our aim is to end the firing at the highest temperature. So, Steve begins to change the stoking over from hard wood to pine, stoked regularly through the front stoke hole for the rest of the night.


When I get up at eight thirty we have about half a cord left and so I start to stoke little and often. We carry on this style of stoking. It's another clear bright day and as the morning proceeds the cones start to move again, with the cone nines going over right at the back and the cone thirteen's are lying down at the front with just a hint of a bend on fifteen. The whole pack looks very glassy and there doesn't appear to have been any major movement within the pack. We finish the firing at about four in the afternoon. The under grates and the lower fire mouths are sealed while the firebox consumes the last very large pine stoke. The upper fire mouth is also sealed. Once these are all tight, the firebox is filled again with hard wood slats and the side stoke holes then sealed. The chimney smokes for a while and when it clears the cap is put over the top. This causes a very heavy reduction within the chamber and smoke pours out of any small gap in the brick work. After about five minutes, Steve relieves the chamber pressure by removing the chimney flame viewing brick positioned about two thirds up the chimney. This allows a large flame to jet out for a couple of minutes as the pressure within the chamber dissipates. We are aiming to create a slight reduced cooling atmosphere but not so much that we crystallise all the glaze surfaces.

The sun is out and there is a warm breeze stirring the trees as we sip a post firing beer. It's been four intense days but it seems to have gone quickly. There was so much work to do that it seems slightly strange to be able to sit and do nothing. It takes an hour or so to make the kiln site tidy and safe. Roping off the front of the kiln shed to discourage anyone disturbing the kiln as it settles and cools and packing all the kit back into the vans ready for the journey home and the promise of a hot bath.


Now begins the excruciating wait for the whole structure and its contents to cool. We have agreed to open the kiln on the following Friday at midday so we are both faced with four days of waiting, wondering, wishing and hoping, that the work has responded to our activities in a positive way. All our theories, discussions and ideas acted upon throughout the packing and firing. What stoking patterns? Of when to push for temperature and when to stoke for heavy reduction will be put to the test. And, probably (If previous firing are anything to go by), deliver no firm conclusive evidence either way but simply throw up more responses which will fuel the discussion and speculation prior to the next time. However, this is accepted as part of the nature of this type of firing. It's what keeps our interest; it also widens our ceramic appreciation of the surfaces which can be produced by such an elemental way of decorating clay. However this philosophical stance does not ease the anguish of waiting. Roll on Friday!


So we arrive at the site at around eleven thirty in the morning. It is a strange sensation being confronted with something which one has been trying to avoid thinking about for what seems like an interminable amount of time. The intensity of the firing has settled into memory and we are confronted by the cold stark reality of a still slightly warm kiln. We have a coffee and look at the sealed door nervously speculating about what we might find. Coffee over and the task can't be delayed any longer. It is ironic that we have waited so long for this moment but, when it arrives we are reluctant to begin.
Firstly we remove the clamming from around the upper fire mouth and peer inside. Through the gloom, tantalising reflections and muted colours are discernable through the murk. We spend a good few minutes taking it in turns to peer through the partially opened door marrying up expectations with what we see. Doesn't look too bad, in fact, the excitement returns. So we continue to un- brick the door taking care to stack the bricks in some order so that when we come to brick up for the next firing we know where everything is. Finally we are confronted by the front of the pack in its entirety. The bottom pots; still blanketed by a layer of ash. The ash on the grate sits to a depth of several centimetres with deep pits through the bars of the grate where the last gasps of air were sucked into the kiln. The pack has stayed stable so, after taking a picture for the records we proceed to see if the pots at the front move on their wadding. They do! We have no stuck pots at the front (no need of the angle grinders and bolsters and chisels that we have both brought with us fearing the worst).
The first few pieces are removed from the dark kiln into the light. Some good purples and greys juxtaposed with black crackle shino on the rims look very striking. Melted ash forms small rivulets which pool in the thumb marks. Steve's two bottles stacked to the left and right of the firebox look lovely. Their shino glazed surfaces have responded well to the vast amount of ash and the harsh atmosphere changing the surfaces in very dramatic fashions. Once these front pieces have been removed, we move up to the pieces on the first and second shelves. All look well cooked with some lovely flame movement and flashing. We are surprised however by the lack of ash runs. In previous firings work this far forward in the kiln has developed large runs and glaze drips which appear to be lacking on these front pots. This could however be a quirk of the pack or that the size of these pieces at the front didn't expose enough horizontal surfaces for the ash to accumulate in the quantities required for it to start to flow.
Once we have cleared the front shelves, I can get at the two large platters which are stacked against either side of the chamber. Unfortunately and disappointingly they have both cracked. Neither of them structurally but one has cracked through the base and up the side walls. The other has cracked down the side around where the moulded lug has been joined. The latter piece speaks of the firing in quite a dramatic way and so I am not too upset but the other really is not show-able and so will join the other failed platters which line the garden fence at home. The line of tall pieces, have all come out well. A combination of good temperature and rich atmospheres are evident on the glazed and unglazed surfaces. What is also evident so far is that we have managed to maintain a good reducing atmosphere throughout the chamber. The alternating of the side stoke ports from left to right hand sides of the kiln seems to have evened up the chamber with no evidence of over oxidisation within any of the pack. Beyond the line of tall pieces the temperature has obviously been lower with cone eleven bending. Steve has some stunning carbon trapping in his shino glazed bottles; my ash glaze has quite heavily crystallized on the porcelain giving a pretty good impression of a retro nineteen seventies oatmeal glaze. At first a little disturbing but when removed from the context of the kiln interior and laid alongside pieces from further forward in the kiln convey evidence of a dialogue of changing elements and add and interesting variation and dynamic to the pieces.
Finally we arrive at the work on the very back step. Again the cones show us that cone ten is down (twelve eighty centigrade), so still reasonably hot. Again there are some lively surfaces within the pots with clear areas which have received a little more direct flame passage with surprising runs appearing next to pieces with very subtly flashed surface. All in all we are happy with the firing although it will take time for us to individually interpret the work away from the kiln site. It's another firing down; with plenty to speculate on and information to be pondered and extrapolated from the overall results starting to feed us with more fuel for the next firing.


It is now three weeks since the firing, the work once removed from the kiln was brought back to the workshop and cleaned up and almost straight away boxed for display at the Earth and Fire event at Rufford Country Park. On returning from this I have been able to really look at the results of this firing. Through the process of documenting the pieces I have once again been amazed by the diversity of surfaces that are evident through the work. I am especially pleased with the pieces from the suicide step. Those pieces which have been pushed to the extremes that the material will tolerate and tell a graphic story of the process that they have endured, utilised and now sing the praises of. There are quieter pieces which have been in the firing equivalent of gentle back waters, lightly blushed by the passing flames. Flames, that carry active elements, which react in such fundamental ways on chemical and visual levels.
Have we discussed the next firing? Of course we have. Clay must be prepared. Wood collected and delivered to the kiln site. Work must be made and an added experiment which we wish to undertake in the next firing is to try some multifired pieces in the mix. This is not something which either of us has really tried before. We have accepted the work which comes out of firings as then complete; but we become more and more interested in the possibilities of subjecting works to repeated extended firings. Although not a new Idea by any stretch of the imagination (Many anagama firers do this as a matter of course. Pieces from the rear of the chamber become the works at the front of the next firing). However, it is a technique which neither of us has begun to explore through the mediums of our own work.
The weather is now very warm and I am thankful for the conditions we had over this firing. Those long night shifts with very little night are now a fond memory of a June firing, but it is time to move on, look to the next dark winter firing. The cycle begins again.