Archive for April, 2009

Fire and brimstone and hot as hell

April 12, 2009

My sister Laura spent the last week tending the needs of a wood-burning kiln that demanded pretty much constant attention. The high-maintenance oven, a half-cylinder made of soft brick covered in clay and built into a hillside, required supervision 24 hours a day for an entire week.


The whole operation was set up under a metal roof in wine country 50 miles southwest of Portland, on the property of a Japanese woman named Ruri who built the kiln in 2005 and holds group firings about twice a year.



Laura is studying in the ceramics program at the Oregon College of Art and Craft and joined seven others in tag-teaming kiln care. Every three to five minutes, the person on duty would slide open the iron door at the front and toss in a few logs. Over the course of the week, the kiln devoured nine cords of wood (stacked together, that amount would measure 36 feet high by 36 feet wide by 72 feet long and take up 1,152 cubic feet).


The side of the kiln and staging area, as seen from up near the chimney

To avoid being blinded or catching on fire, the kiln tenders had to wear protective glasses, cover every inch of their faces with masks or handkerchiefs and wear nonflammable clothing and thick leather gloves.


Daniel working the night shift, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.


Laura monitoring the fire through a stoke hole.

When I showed up to visit on the last day of firing, the temperature inside the kiln was more than 2,400 degrees, and flames were shooting out all the vents and stoke holes. It was cold and rainy outside, but T-shirt weather by the kiln.


That’s me, almost ready to throw a log into the blazing pit of fire


The kiln tenders recorded the temperature inside the kiln every hour.


The chimney

The ceramic pieces that emerge from wood-burning kilns are testaments to the fires that create them; their surfaces bear the marks of the ash, wood and flames that lick and nick them as they bake.

But kilns cannot be rushed, and Laura and crew have to wait a week for theirs to cool before they unbrick the doors and find out how everything fared.


Laura took the nighttime pictures.