Wood-fired Stoneware Pottery
I have been asked why I choose to fire many of my pots in the kiln that uses wood as fuel. I have thought long and hard about this question, and finally came up with a simple one word answer – - – CHICAGO. I guess I’d better elaborate. I have visited Chicago many times in the past ten or so years and I am constantly impressed with the beauty of so many buildings made of very old fired brick. (I actually don’t know if they are fired with wood, or gas, or maybe coal, or oil, or maybe some other fuel.) However they are fired, they very frequently exhibit beautiful and strange fire marks and many subtle variations of color on their various sides. Thirty some years ago my first pots were fired in an electric kiln after having been decorated with commercial glazes, and while these pots were “nice” they were not satisfying to me. Over the years I realized that ALL the pots that I was drawn to were at least FIRED with FLAME as opposed to merely being heated by hot metal elements (I came up with the name “Toaster Ware” to describe this method, but lost a few friends who took offense at my irreverence). I guess I have to quote my own line here to explain why I wood-fire my pots: “They very frequently exhibit beautiful and strange fire marks and many subtle variations of color.” The flames have a similar effect on the glazes, also causing subtleties that can never be achieved in an electric kiln.
An added enjoyment that comes from wood firing is that of sharing the labor with good friends. It’s FUN to wood fire with buddies. The stories and laughs that spring up during a long firing cycle provide many good memories to all involved.
Gas-fired Stoneware Pottery
After listing my favorite firing method as being wood-fired, I should say a few things about gas firing, which I frequently do. Sometimes the temperature is too hot to wood-fire, as when it’s above about 80 degrees. Sometimes it’s too dry around the wood kiln, or too windy, and I don’t want sparks to set the place on fire. Sometimes it’s too rainy and the wood is too wet. And in rare cases the work really looks better without that added deposit of wood ash that frequently accumulates during a long firing (for example, my dinner plates definitely look better with smooth clear surfaces). Gas firing is a lot less labor intensive as I use liquid propane burners (designed by Nils Lou) and I have more freedom to choose when I will fire (I get more sleep doing a gas firing). Also, a gas-fired kiln is fairly easy to control oxidation/reduction atmosphere and therefore the results are more predictable than those from a wood-fired kiln. My first outdoor kilns were fired with fuel oil and these worked great, too, but were messier to use. I still have some of those early pieces around and they have those subtleties I admire.