Saturday, April 18, 2009

Knoche's Kilnbuilding Rap

My kiln building experience began with 400 salvaged hardbricks from a friends mini salt kiln. At that point I literally had now idea what I was doing. I had taken a few pottery classes and a few shifts at a wood firing. However, I already felt my self drawn to both the results and process and was anxious to learn more. My first attempt was a little corbled arch with an internal firebox and short little stack. It made a lot of smoke and fire and maybe got close to high bisque temperature. I tore this defacto bisque kiln down after the first firing and rebuilt it modeled after what is often called the "Phoenix Fastfire" with the fire box below the ware chamber. I only fired this kiln a few times before moving to Thailand, but it did fire easily to cone 11 in about 6 hours. Although the stacking space was only about 2 cubic feet, hardly large enough to produce a quantity of work on par with the amount of time and labor it took to fire, I considered this kiln a success simply because reached temperature.

Jeff Shapiro's tunnel kiln, rebuilt during my apprenticeship

After returning from a year of teaching english in Thailand, I began an apprenticeship with ceramist Jeff Shapiro. During my time with Jeff we tore down his existing anagama and rebuilt it with a much different design. The new kiln was designed specifically to accommodate loading and firing large work. The interior measurements of the new kiln are about 6.5 x 6.5 x 15 feet long. This was my first experience with large scale kiln building and my first exposure to the many issues involved in kiln building including materials, intended firing method, loading characteristics, planned longevity, etc. In addition to rebuilding Jeff's large anagama we also build a small experimental tube kiln and rebuilt the arch on his small wood/gas "teabowl" kiln. Here is a link to pictures of Jeff's kilns. I feel it was particularily valuable for me to have fired Jeffs old anagama then the new one which I helped build. This let me see the effects that the design changes had on the firing and the finished work.

After finishing my apprenticeship I moved temporarily to Herman, Nebraska where I helped my friends John Martelle and Liz Vercruysse build their anagama. This was a particularily interesting kiln to build. While they had amassed plenty of scavenged material to build the kiln with, there were almost no regular straight firebick. We had every other kiln of brick imaginable, lots of different arches and wedge bricks, key bricks, skewbacks, sideskews, large tiles, enormous oversize brick and seven different kinds of castable. From these materials we built a fairly sizable tube style anagama that measures about 5 x 5 x 12 feet of interior room

We spend mornings making pottery and afternoons and evenings building the kiln. In a little under two months we built the kiln, made all the work to fill it, fired it for a week, let it cool for a week and then had a sale. The project was a huge success.

Larry Heally's mini kiln

Later that summer I returned to New York to assist Jeff and his new apprentice with a special project building several large scale sculptures. During this time I also, had the opportunity to build a small woodburing kiln for a friend. For this kiln I chose to expand on some ideas I had in mind since constructing my second kiln (the little "phoenix fastfire"). This new kiln was built using only about 350 soft firebrick of various shapes and a few hundred pounds of homemade castable. This was a very little kiln (about 2 cubic feet of stacking space), but it fired beautifully and easily on about a wheelbarrow full of firewood. Also, it only made a little smoke around bisque temperatures--before and after there were only clear heat waves. Building this tiny kiln reinforced much of what I had learned during my previous experiences of woodkiln design and firing.

Josh Copus' Community Temple under construction

In fall of 2006 I moved to Asheville, NC and joined the Clayspace Co-op. I helped In early 2007 Josh Copus, founder of Clayspace and studio mate, bought land north of Asheville and began acquiring material for his kiln. The Community Temple was constructed during the summer of 2007. More information on this kiln can be found at However, for me this kiln building experience was valuable both because the kiln itself is an interesting and complicated design and also because this is the kiln that would fire numerous times with Josh and the other members of the Clayspace.

In addition to these experiences I have participated in several group kiln buildings as well as a couple of partial rebuild and repair projects. For me building wood fired kilns is more than just constructing a tool. It is a valuable experience in its own right from which I have learned a bit about engineering, team work, problem solving and creativity. So far, each kiln has been unique and so has each experience. My hope is that each successive kiln is better and each successive experience is smoother.

1 comment:

  1. love that mini kiln...did you fire it above bisque temp?? are there plans available?