Wood Firing and Community

Unless you have stoked a mighty fire through the night watching flames roaring 10 feet past a tall chimney into the stars it might be hard to “get” why I love wood firing. Wood fire pots have unique characteristics that fascinate me and the process of working together as a community makes it even more special.

For thousands of years potters who wood fire have done the same activities and made decisions about the same variables. A kiln must be designed for a certain site, then built and maintained.

Structures for protecting the kiln, the wood, and for staging the pots must be built and maintained as well. There is universality in the ritualized stages of firing. Each wood fire requires: a gathering and stacking of wood, the loading of pots, high temperatures over extended periods of time, and, the unloading. However, small decisions we make (such as the choice of wood, how tightly pots are packed, clay choice) lead to drastically different results.

In 2007 we designed a wood kiln for a site set next to a meandering creek on an existing clearing formerly used by a sawmill. The site is owned by the family of my friend and potter extraordinaire, Shawn McGuire. Two potters and I built the kiln, named the 4:15 Agama, in Cazenovia, NY, a rural town 45 minutes east of the City of Syracuse. A community of professional and student potters fire this kiln cooperatively three times per year in May, August and November. We use approximately 12 cords of wood to fire 800 pots over a period of three days. The kiln temperature peaks at 2400 degrees.

Each spring our wood fire pottery community repairs the kiln and its barn, the wood shed and the prep shed, after their long winter under huge piles of heavy lake effect snow. Months in advance the search for the best mix of seasoned hardwoods begins and plans are made for delivery. Then we split the wood that is too big for the size of the firebox portals. We also gather softwood – the bark sides of trees taken off in a sawmill that would otherwise go to waste. We chainsaw the softwood to fit the fireboxes. Then all of it is stacked.

Before we load the pots we strategically place wads on the pot bottoms. The wadding is composed of special mixtures of clay and saw dust that do not adhere to the pots or melt into the shelves.

Potters suggest where in the kiln they would like their pots to be placed. As the point person for most of the actual loading, I try to balance everyone’s wishes while deciding where pots best fit in the kiln to get desired effects. Some pots go to the hottest parts of the kiln, others to places that collect the most ash. Every pot effects the pot behind it, so I plot where in the kiln to position each one – and then turn it just so.

Like kilns everywhere, 4:15 Agama has its own personality, or temperament, and we have come to know it well. Shifts are lead by captains and worked by teams to stoke the voracious 4:15 Agama. The captains determine when to stoke, how much wood to stoke, and what kind of wood to use at each stage. The captains use both intuition and knowledge gained through experience, and base their decisions on how the fire looks, smells, and sounds. Some decisions may take hours to see their impact, or, we may not know if it was a good decision until we unload. Decisions are deliberated thoroughly because there are many livelihoods at stake.

Customs have developed at 4:15 Agama. None of us drink alcohol (or take drugs!) when we gather. There is always more food than we can eat – though pistachios and patty melts are traditional and potatoes loaded with cheese and butter baked in the campfire are crowd pleasers.

We do not have electricity but we do have lanterns, we do not have running water but we bring in totes of water and have the creek, there isn’t a house but some of us camp. Part of the attraction is this space we create that is separated out from our everyday lives and all of the comforts of our homes and studios.

As a community we really do love fire. When we are not stoking the kiln fire, we might be tending a barrel fire that keeps us warm or feeding a campfire for cooking – we can’t seem to get enough fire.

Unloading is bittersweet. Some pots are destroyed by the process – cracked due to intense heat, stuck together from flame movement, or, the ash has accumulated too thickly and dripped off the pot. But the rewards! Glossy gray and black from the carbon released, rusty oranges and browns from iron, and melted ash contributes greens, honey and yellows. Crystallization is a highly coveted bonus! These ethereal surfaces tell a story about that particular firing in an primal visual language I love.

Wood Firing