Approach group firings at a host’s kiln with a maximizing mindset: bring pots and pieces that intentionally fit a variety of spaces—in areas of the kiln and on each shelf—in order to fit more of your pots in the kiln.
I have been wood firing pottery for the last 10 years. I was first introduced to wood firing as a student at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, and can attribute most of my wood-firing knowledge to my apprenticeship with Kevin Crowe at Tye River Pottery in Amherst, Virginia. I have helped build and/or fire wood kilns in Guatemala, China, Hungary, Nicaragua, and the US.
Since moving to the Midwest in 2017, I have become a nomadic potter. First I moved to Illinois and now my studio is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I became a guest crew member at a variety of wood-kiln firings, which has allowed me to fire my pottery while waiting for the opportunity to build my own kiln. Typically, I drive two to three hours away to kilns in Wisconsin and Illinois. As I have gained more experience being a nomadic potter, I have learned the best kinds of pottery to create for these group wood firings. In turn, I have increased the odds of my work fitting into the kiln.
The most important lesson to learn as a guest potter is the need to maintain an open line of communication with the host of the wood firing. I always ask how much work I should bring, usually in terms of cubic feet or number of kiln shelves to fill. In addition, I ask if the host would like me to make any particular sizes of work. For instance, someone who owns an anagama kiln may be behind in making larger pieces, and I could have the opportunity to fire a larger pot. My goal is never to be pushy about getting my work into the kiln and to remain flexible.
By bringing a range of work, I am prepared to have pots loaded in any section of the kiln as they vary both in surface treatment and scale. Some of the pieces are partially glazed for drier parts of the kiln, and others only have slip decoration for ash-heavy parts of the kiln. I bring four basic types of clay objects that can easily be incorporated into a kiln load.
Type 1: Tiny Objects
I literally mean tiny, as in 1–3 inches wide and tall. This would include objects such as buttons, shot glasses, little dishes, jewelry, etc. There is always room on every kiln shelf where these tiny objects can be tucked around other pieces of pottery or sculptures.
Type 2: Tall and Thin Objects
Have you ever heard the mantra “tall and thin always gets in?” Keep in mind that tall and thin could range from a thin 4-inch-tall bud vase to a 20-inch-tall skinny vase, depending on the design of the kiln being filled. Usually my skinny pitchers, bottles, tumblers, and vases are between 6–12 inches tall. These heights fit under standard-height posts. In addition, lately I have been firing the most in a train kiln, which does not have a very tall arch to fill with taller ceramics.
Type 3: Complementary Shapes
Making objects in pairs with complimentary shapes can maximize how much work will fit on a kiln shelf. If I have a piece with a wider top, I will make another piece with a wider bottom to fit next to it. Keep in mind these pairs could be different forms such as a mug and a jar or creamers and bowls.
Type 4: Specialty Kiln Fillers
This kind of kiln filler is determined by the design of the wood kiln being fired. Here are a couple of examples.
Example 1: Pottery designed to be fired near the side-stoke aisles. My favorite pieces to put here are sturdy vases or bottles to be fired on their side. Pots with the following features should not be placed by a side-stoke aisle: handles, spouts, open forms, and narrow feet. These pieces are more susceptible to breaking and being knocked into another piece of pottery if hit by a piece of wood when side stoking.
Example 2: I make taller, non-open forms to help fill the arch of the kiln. I do not want open forms by the arch as kiln crud frequently falls from the arch down onto the pottery, especially in older kilns. This is a great place for larger jars, pitchers, taller vessels, and bowls that are wadded rim to rim.
Note: I bring pots that are already bisque fired, and have all the surface slip and glaze work complete. I decorate the pots at my home studio because the pattern work is time consuming and I would not want to slow down the process of the kiln loading, or worse yet, not have pots loaded evenly throughout the kiln because they were not ready. Secondly, decorating work at home means the temperature is comfortable and I have all my normal tools ready to use. I rarely have problems with chipped slip or glaze because I carefully wrap each individual pot with plastic or bubble wrap, then place them in totes to transport to the kiln. Usually, the host of a firing has a specific mix of wadding they want everyone to use for their kiln, so I wad my pots at the kiln site.
Being a nomadic potter is a great opportunity to learn what kiln design and firing schedules are the best fit for your work and lifestyle. It is also an opportunity to observe effective leadership styles to fire a kiln successfully with a crew of people.
Typically, guest firing is not a great opportunity to fire a lot of your own personal work. My goal is to build a propane-fired soda kiln that I can add wood into. I am looking forward to the freedom that will bring to firing more of my artwork, and to be able to make all the decisions about how the kiln is loaded and fired. I am hoping to continue participating in group wood firings at least a couple times a year even after I have my own kiln as I enjoy the wood-fire community.
1–6 All pieces fired in Amy Song’s train kiln.
the author Lisa York creates pottery for special occasions and daily use that has surface patterns inspired by travel and time spent outdoors. Her studio is located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. To learn more visit: www.lisayorkarts.com.