Roaming About

A Life Less Ordinary

In the Heat of the Kiln

This past weekend, the weather was miserable and all but summery. It rained, it was cold for the time of the year and the sky was a permanent grey… perfect conditions for the activities we had planned!

Earlier this year, Mark and I did a three month house sit in Kent, CT, where we took care of two great dogs, Henry and Mickey, and two cheeky parrots, Tutu and Kookoo. The owners of the house are both respected and acclaimed artists, who we enjoyed meeting and getting to know. Steve Katz is a founder of the famous band Blood, Sweat and Tears who recently wrote a book and is touring again. His wife Alison Palmer is a very accomplished and talented ceramics artist. When we said our goodbyes the end of March, we promised to pay them a visit over the summer. What better time than the day of an exciting “pottery event”?

Twice a year, over the summer, Alison starts up her unique wood fire kiln. While it is much easier to bake finished pottery work in her gas or electric kilns, using wood to fuel the massive oven creates more desiring effects and finishes. But… stoking the fire requires a lot of wood, and man power. A group of volunteers mans the kiln for a period of 24 – 30 hours, in five hour shifts. Since Mark and I were curious about the process (and we know all about boat shifts :-)), we joined the team as first-timers.

It was wonderful to see everybody again Friday evening, despite the long and rainy drive to Kent. We caught up with the humans and enjoyed the company of our ex-pets. Mexican rescue dog Paco had adjusted to his new family, Henry and especially Mickey were ecstatic to see us again and our current dog Jenny is becoming a pro at socializing. What a happy bunch!

The firing of the kiln started at 7pm. Three shifts later, at 10am on Saturday, it was our turn. Together with Linda, Mark and I made up the crew of three for the next five hours. The temperature of the oven had reached over 1000°F (538°C) by then and would rise steadily under our watch. After some tutoring by Alison, the three of us worked non-stop until 3pm. Linda watched the inside temperature of the oven and the smoke from the chimney, while Mark stood at the upper level and I manned the lower one. Each time she said “stoke”, Mark removed a couple of bricks from his “mouse” hole, stuffed a handful of narrow pieces of wood into the blasting hot kiln, closed the hole off again and repeated “stoke”, my command to follow suit. We always made sure we had the next stack of wood ready to go in a jiffy and replenished our supply from the wood shack in between stokes.

In the afternoon, Mark and I switched positions and sped up the pace. The temperature had almost reached 2000°F (1093°C) by then and the wood was burning quickly. We had to keep up. Inside the kiln, ceramic coils curled at different temperatures, indicating the progress. The flames turned from yellow to orange to red to white. The fire was blasting and the chimney purred and spewed. The heat and intensity of the flames reminded me of  the time Mark and I climbed the Pacaya volcano in Guatemala and watched the lava underneath us.

We wore gloves to handle the piping hot bricks and stuff in the sticks of wood. What was happening behind the clay walls was fascinating! By the time our relief crew took over, the temperature inside the kiln was 2100°F (1150°C) with 200 more degrees to go until reaching maximum heat. This process would take a long time, until about 10pm that night. At that point, all the holes were closed off and now, the pottery “bakes” for about a week. This Saturday, the new batch of ceramic masterpieces will be ready and stalled out on tables for the artists to cherish and inspect. According to them, it is like Christmas. We wish we could join in that excitement.

Since Mark and I had a 2.5 hour drive back to Heath, MA, with one more stop about halfway, we hugged goodbye once more. It was so nice to reconnect with our two and four-legged friends, make new artist friends and experience the firing of the wood kiln. On the way home, we parked at the well-run, quirky and homey Dream Away Lodge to celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary with good food, a healthy portion of alcohol and live music, while the rain kept streaming and the cold remained outside. The last stretch home was accompanied by a lot of fog on the back roads. Luckily, there wasn’t a lot of traffic and the wildlife (deer, raccoons and mice) stayed at bay. On Sunday, the weather encouraged us to remain inside and have a relaxing day. I have to say, that is pretty enjoyable once in a while as well!

Are you a creative person? Do you know anything about ceramics or kilns?

12 Comments

  1. Liesbet I had no idea that a kiln required that much effort. The temperature is difficult t imagine. I liked the way you compared the heat to the volcano. Helps to give those huge numbers perspective. Happy anniversary to you. Sounds like a lovely way to celebrate.

    • Thanks, Sue. We were happy and proud of ourselves to actually go out to dinner and not postpone it indefinitely like we used to do when being in remote areas. 🙂 It is only the wood fire kiln that requires such efforts. The gas and electric ones only need a push on the button (I assume).

  2. Wow, that sounds like hard work! A great experience though.

  3. When I was younger, a woman I babysat for was really into ceramics and I would help her paint. It was actually soothing to me and I miss doing it sometimes. 🙂 I love the pictures!!

    • You sound like a creative woman, Lauren. I can imagine that painting brings inner peace. Any chance you will pick it up again?

  4. I didn’t know anything about kilns until today. I had no idea it was so much work, and needed shifts! What fun to be a part of the process – it’s only a shame you didn’t get to see the finished work.

    • I’m with you, Lucy. I didn’t know anything about the workings of a wood fire kiln until last weekend. Before that, it just looked picturesque in the yard during our house sit. But, I can tell you that a shift at the kiln is warmer, easier and more level than a night shift on the boat. 🙂

  5. I’m a creative person. Don’t know a thing about kilns and all I know about pottery is that there are some beautiful pieces made. The closest I come to kilns is the fire we use to parch our Manoomin, wild rice, in the fall.

    • Pottery, like so many other things and art forms, is a whole world in itself. So many terms I do not know the meaning of. But, like you, I mostly enjoy the results. I’m curious to know more about parching wild rice, Niiganab. How do you go about the parching and at what temperature do you need to work? Have you written a blog about this before?

  6. What a cool experience! You two lead such interesting lives.

    I’d say I’m a creative person. I dabbled with pottery in high school, and have always wanted to take a course as an adult. In high school, it was just working with plaster, but I remember it being really soothing and inspiring.

    • I am learning something new about you, jmh. I knew you were very creative as a writer, but you experimented with pottery as well? That’s great. I hope you get to do a class or workshop in the future. I know a very talented and accomplished teacher. 🙂

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