by Brigitte Colleaux
The firing was scheduled for the end of April so from February to end of March, I was making pots to fill my stack in the kiln.
The kiln has five rows of steps on which we stack the pots and a row saggars at the very back for Svend’s celadon bowls. We rotate through the steps at each firing and this time I had the second step from the back. It does not get as much ash as the front but very fine ash still travels there from the early stages and provides subtle hues and deposits on the bare surfaces of pots.
We follow a tight rota of glazing and packing dates: I was glazing my pots whilst the person before me was packing theirs. When it was my turn to pack, the next person would start glazing and so on.
When everybody had packed, I had the honour of lighting the fire, using scraps of wood kept for that purpose after the previous wood stacking.
We have a three shift system that includes an early, a middle and a late shift; I was assigned the 6am to 10am shift and I would be back at 6pm after 8 hours rest. For the first time ever since I have worked with Svend, that’s 11 years , I was going to share a shift with him. I could see myself learning all his tricks and secrets ! Obviously this was going to be a memorable and fantastic firing ! Well it has been , but not in the way that I had anticipated !
Because we had started the firing a day earlier, some members of the team had not arrived yet, thus the shifts were split between Svend, Pete and I; I started at 6pm with Svend following me at 10pm, then Pete at 2am. My job was to gently feed the fire; the early part is always very slow to let steam escape and to let the pots slowly dry. Svend and Pete did the same until 6am the next day.
Things had moved on during the night and at 6am, Svend told me to let it climb a bit faster, but not too fast. By 8am, at about 370Celsius, I heard an explosion which seemed to come from the front, the most dangerous place for pots. I said a few swear words and quickly looked in the front side stoke hole but could not see any damage to the big pots in the front. I carried on slowly with no further explosion. Svend came by ; he checked the front too but could not see anything either so I carried on as before.
At 10am, Svend took over ; I went for a rest. At 11am, he called me back as there had been further little explosions. He had looked inside with a torch and could see shards on the floor further inside the kiln. His verdict was that we could not take any risk with so much at stake and he decided that we must stop the firing. We also cannot afford to waste wood and everybody’s months worth of work.
By that time, the whole team was on site, including our friend the lovely Rainer Kraft, London Potter’s webmaster and student to Lisa Hammond at the Maze Hill Pottery, who had come to help. We were all in some kind of shock, not knowing what to expect and some of us with deadlines which would mean financial disaster if missed.
The temperature at that point was around 400; we had to let the kiln cool down before we could open it; it would take a few days. During that time, we split and stacked all the wood for the next firing.
At 150Celsius, we took the door down and opened all the side stoke holes to let cool air in before we could get inside. Using a torch through the sides stoke holes, we could see lots of shards and broken pots on the floor between the stacks ; it was devastating ! The glazes looked rubbery, we could see soot and ash covering the pots and the inside walls and arch of the kiln.
When we could finally get in, it was very eerie, still warm, just about manageable but we were determined to restart that fire. We unpacked the whole kiln except the saggars. It was such a hard and depressing task. There were pots everywhere, it was difficult to move around; we have never found ourselves in a position where all the pots are there at the same time, unfired, because we rotate when we pack.
Once the kiln had been emptied, it was clear that stopping the firing had been the right decision; there was shrapnel everywhere, it came in the form of dusty specks, small grit, bigger grit, shards of all sizes and broken pots on the floor and on their sides on the stacks. The pots could be handled reasonably well as the glazes had hardened but were still slightly powdery; we used soft brushes to clean them off, revealing the glaze under the soot or ash. The kiln shelves were covered in soot or ash too, it was hard to tell what was what.
We found the culprit ! It was a large mixing bowl that was being refired and that had sat outside for a long while. It was completely dry when it went back into the kiln, but we hadn’t realised that chemical water was still trapped inside and caused the explosion. We have learnt the hard way !
The repacking eventually restarted. It was strange again; while the original packing had been so full of joy and happiness, this one was depressing and sad. We always help each other : one passes the pots while the other sets them. It is a real team effort. I kept on rewinding back and remembering how it had been the first time round; the conversations, how the pots had fitted etc… It was extremely hard too; you’d think that you could start again and fit everything as it was, but we had to find replacement pots for the broken ones and this altered the jigsaw puzzle.
Eventually, we were done and what should have been the unpacking day, was the day we restarted the fire.
There were four of us this time instead of six, with Pete, Rebecca and I doing the shifts while Svend, who in the meantime, had had a full knee replacement operation, was overseeing the process. Deborah had an exhibition in Cornwall to prepare and could not stay and Rainer had to go back to London.
Pete started the fire and each of us took our positions according to a new schedule; I was doing the vampires shift which I always really enjoy. No explosions this time ! On the contrary, it went very smoothly, too smoothly as the results would show us. This second attempt-firing was one of the easiest ones that we have had since moving to Kigbeare but it came at a price. We had reached temperature as indicated by the cones but the sides had received little ash and as a consequence, the pots were very quiet, some on the boring side. But at least we had pots to show for it !
The positive side to this is that we got to see what pots look like at 400. Having to stop everything was a humbling experience and it really reinforced our team spirit in the face of disaster. I would not recommend it as an exercise !