Fired up

Wood-fired kilns are a hot pottery trend

Wood-fired kilns are a hot pottery trend

October 31, 2004|by CHRIS COPLEY

Allison Severance is a potter - and almost a time traveler. She produces pottery with the distinctive sheen and color of salt-glazed, wood-fired ceramics - a technique common in this region two centuries ago and now enjoying a renaissance.

Severance's pottery shop - Coles Pottery - is set in a small, two-story building - former servants' quarters - on the grounds of a circa-1800 stone house on Manor Church Road near Boonsboro. The shop is small - "I'm a little person. My shop is little, my gallery is little, my pots are little," Severance says - but she is part of a larger trend among potters across the country.

Many potters are rejecting modern electric or gas-fired kilns to explore the often-unpredictable effects of firing their work in wood-fired kilns.


Bill van Gilder, who owns van Gilder Pottery in Gapland, has been at the forefront of the trend locally. He says firing pots by hand is much more labor-intensive than simply sticking them in a high-tech kiln and turning it on.

"The fire is live - it's in the chamber," he says. "The ash from the fire flies around the kiln and interacts with the surface of the pottery, leaving unpredictable changes in color and pattern. There's a tremendous amount of work involved, but there's no other way to get these surfaces."

From wheel to fire

Every pot goes on its own little journey, Severance says. They are thrown on a kick-wheel downstairs in her shop, then stored upstairs on wooden adjustable shelves to dry. When enough pots are prepared, they are carried on the shelf-boards 100 yards to the kiln at the back of the yard.

Van Gilder helped Severance build her kiln with high-fire bricks in the triangular field behind her house and shop. It is open to the air, under a wood-framed pavilion roof, with stacks of scrap wood on one side and a babbling brook on the other. The 8-foot-tall, pale brick kiln is in the shape of an arch. The exterior is scorched black here and there; the 5-foot-tall firing chamber inside is burnished a glossy brown.

Carefully stacking 100 or more cups, bowls, pitchers and other objects the chamber can take two weeks. Clay pieces are held in place with cockle shells or "wadding," lumps of clay that immobilize the pots. Both shells and wadding leave distinctive pale marks on the fired clay.

Once loaded, the firing fun begins.

Severance's husband, Rick Henry, monitors a steady, overnight preheating fire of 600 degrees to dry out the chamber and pots. Early in the morning, Severance and a friend take over fire-watching duties. They load up the firebox and, during the day, push up the temperature until it reaches 2,400 degrees.

Van Gilder says watching a wood-fired kiln is like watching a fire-breathing dragon.

"It takes constant tending," he says. "You put in four or five pieces of wood every couple minutes for 18 hours. And you have to watch the amount of air that gets in. The ratio of wood to air is very important."

After the clay has fired, Severance lets the fire die. Then comes the hard part: being patient.

"The hardest thing is to wait until the kiln is cool," she says with a smile. "Then you open it and it's Christmas. Sometimes you don't know what you'll get."

Color, sheen and surface textures vary widely. Some pots are glossy from salt glaze; some are matte. Severance's preferred colored slips - yellows and oranges - may or may not be augmented by browns. Drips from melted wood ash and marks left by wadding and shells add to the unexpected surface finishes.

Low-tech by choice

Modern pottery is a high-tech craft. Chemists design clays and glazes with exact properties producing predictable effects at the specific temperatures available in modern kilns.

But the process of firing pottery with wood is open-ended, old-fashioned and only generally predictable. During firing, flame and wood ash flow in currents through the closely stacked pots, brushing some more than others. Ash sticks to hot clay and melts, leaving drips on some pots, nothing on others. Salt - ordinary table salt - tossed into the kiln melts and is carried as vapor on air currents, putting the full glossy sheen on some pots and on others leaving a smaller spray of gloss or none at all.

Controlling oxygen in the chamber produces additional effects. High heat and low oxygen - called reduction firing - draws out a brown color from the iron in the clay.

"There are so many variables," says Severance, who has a degree in art from Hood College in Frederick, Md., and four years' experience as a potter. "It's this giant puzzle - I'm just figuring it out a little at a time."

Van Gilder says the challenges of firing pottery with wood appeal to today's potters. Though an old technique, the modern use of wood has burst on the ceramic scene only recently.

"Wood-firing is very wide-spread and it's only been in the last 10 or 15 years," he says. "The group of aging potters in this country - like me - now have more than 30 years of experience in different styles and techniques. This is top of the list, challenge-wise, so it piques our intellect, our aesthetic values and our knowledge of techniques. We've admired this surface effect on pots 1,000 years old. There's only one way to get this effect, and that's this way.

"It's very much a get-back-to-nature thing."

If you go ...

Coles Pottery
18839 Manor Church Road

Gallery hours are 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. most Thursdays and Fridays and by appointment. Call 301-432-7170 before dropping by.

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