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kilns/firing (ramblings)

updated sat 6 dec 97


douglas gray on fri 5 dec 97

Thanks for another wonderful post Mel. Made me smile. And by the way, thank you
for your thoughtful article in CM. A good issue for many reasons, your article,
Dannon's comments on focus, and a old class mates work in the salt and pepper

As for firing, I have always maintained that you could fire great pots without
all the gadgets and gizmos available today. I say maintained, because in
practice I had always relied on those very same gadgets and gizmos,more so than
I ever realized, That is,... until now.

I recently changed teaching positions and consequently kilns. The new kiln is a
real beast... well built... updraft. It stand two and a half feet off the ground
and is about 150 cubic feet with nearly six feet verticle interior stacking
space. Underneath, it has twenty natural draft venturi burners, each with their
own thermocouple and pilot light. It has three dampers at the top which are
adjusted seperately. You have to climb a ten foot step ladder just to reach
them. And it is basically a bottomless pit when it comes to loading.

Coming from Texas, where bigger is better, I had about confirmed, in my own
silently rebellious manner, that smaller was the way to go. Stick with hand
size objects that people could hold, touch, relate to. But now, here I was
faced with the biggest kiln I had ever seen, supposedly the biggest kiln in
South Carolina (or so legend has it) and I had to put on a good show for my new
students and colleagues.

I had students helping during class time, grinding shelves, applying kiln wash,
sorting pots by size, wiping the bottoms when necessary, and handing them to me,
along with brick stilts, as I stacked shelf after shelf after shelf. Three
classes and two days later it was full, gobbled up every shelf, every half brick
stilt and every last pot we had and still had room for me to glaze a few pieces
and fill in on top.

Just closing the door on the kiln was a real production. The door is made of
brick and slides in a track the angles out from the front of the kiln. When
open, the door is hoisted way up in the air almost above the top of the kiln
which is way up there too. Through a series of pulleys and a large crank, I
slowly lowered the door, It creeked and moaned and the pulleys squealed under
the pressure and the crank clanked along like the closing of a draw bridge in an
old Connan the Barbarian movie. The students were dumbstruck. Who could have
asked for more drama? Had three of them help tilt the door into place while I
climbed metal frame and locked it in place with c-clamps at each side.

Then came the easy part...firing. The kiln had no oxyprobe, no computer and not
even a pyrometer, just burner ports, flus and two spy holes for our well placed
cone packs. I lit each the 20 burners with a small propane torch, heating up
the thermocouples so the burners could light. And we were off. It was
rejuvinating to fire by the seat of your pants again, judging temp increases by
noting the changing colors of the atmosphere, smelling the kiln for signs of
reduction, listening to the roar of the burners, feeling the heat energy radiate
as if the kiln had come to life.

And then, pulling the students out of class to see the cones drop one by one.
Each one taking their turn at the spy port, wearing my sunglasses and/or our
welding goggles to see better the inside of this magical heated cube.

Our second firing is off now, since last night, cooling slowly for the next
three days. Students offered to come in on Saturday and help unload. And I am
just as eager to see the results as they are. We have almost a half of the
semesters work in there, line blend eutectic tests, new glaze tests. At this
rate, firing two or three times a semester, it will take years for the kiln to
teach me how to fire it properly. But I make notations as we unload the kiln in
preparation for the next time

Just when I'm getting tierd, thinking I have had all the excitement I can stand,
I see the small gas kiln sitting there all forgotten. It's covered with
spiderwebs and wasp nests; hasn't been fired in five or more years, and I think
to myself, what a gem, hardbrick outside, soft inside, four forced air burners,
downdraft kiln with a roll away door. That's my Christmas project, at least
until I get the parts for a new raku kiln...and maybe not in the too distant
future Mel, David and Dannon and all the rest will come and help me build a Flat
Top, multi-fueled kiln, maybe a salt and soda fire version too, who knows...

My apologies for the rambling nothingness of this post. At times, I am just
overwhelmed by this thing called ceramics, by the so many facets of it. And
when the students joke behind my back... "he gets so excited about just a dumb
bowl,"... I take it as a compliment and smile because its true. And that is
what i enjoy most about this group and about those articles in CM. The passion
radiates and is contagious, and I am thankful for each and every person who
shares their passions with me.

in the spirit of the season of sharing,

============================================================================ =)
Douglas E. Gray
Assistant Professor of Art, Ceramics
Francis Marion Univeristy
Florence, South Carolina 29501