Magpie {48}

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Soda fired sake cup, with orange slip and shino liner glaze, by Joseph Morgan

A few weeks ago I took part in the North East Open Studios for the third time. It is the most wonderful event with over 230 artists, makers and designers taking part across Aberdeen City and Shire. I managed to take a day off to visit a few people taking part… but choosing who to see was difficult.

One easy decision was going down to Catterline to see my friend Joseph Morgan. Since I last saw Joe he has converted an old electric kiln into a gas-fired soda one, and he had some of the stunning results on display. I came away with this lustrous little sake cup, which has yet to be christened. I don’t have any sake, but I was thinking now that the nights are drawing in that a sloe gin might do the trick.

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Open fire

The weekend before last I helped Joe Morgan fire his wood kiln, and he very kindly made space for some of my work in the kiln. Last Sunday, after what seemed a painfully long wait, we opened up the kiln.

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Joe lifting the lid, underneath you can just see kiln fibre and kiln shelves covering the ware chambers.

The wood/soda firing process is very different from what I know. It took me a while to get my head around the approach required… using a different clay, glazing only the inside of pieces, using oxide slips to work with the soda to create the characteristic glaze that comes with soda firing. Even though all the pieces I made are essentially tests it was hard not to be very excited to find out how they had come out.

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Kitty and Joe Morgan lifting the final kiln shelves to reveal the pots inside.
You can see Joe’s amazing teapots and some of Hilary Firth’s plates and jars.

As we had thought the first stack had fired well, but the other two did not reach the required temperature. That said the firing was better than the previous one – it takes time to bed in a new kiln and Joe has plans to make a few modifications before the next firing.

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Some of the slip combinations and decoration I tried worked quite well, the glaze liner didn’t go as glassy as I had hoped, and I think I threw things too finely as many pieces warped. I’ve learned a lot and have lots of ideas to take forward. Now I just need to make some more pots.

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This carafe was right at the front by the fire box so it got very hot.
It also welded itself to the kiln shelf, but there are some beautiful colours here.
The inside and rim has a celadon glaze, but there was just bare clay on the outside.
This is where the soda and wood ash have created their own magic.
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This is perhaps my favorite piece from this firing, decorated in a copper/cobalt slip, with a celadon liner.
Where the soda has hit with full intensity it has created the strong blue glaze.
You can clearly see the other areas that received less soda.
These are more metallic in nature from the copper in the slip.

With huge thanks to Joe Morgan for such an amazing experience, and to Hilary Firth, Joseph Travis and Robin Palmer for such good company.

Fire on

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Last weekend I had the great pleasure of helping Joe Morgan with the third firing of his new wood/soda kiln. I helped a little with its second firing at the end of last year.

Joe, Joseph Travis and Hilary Firth packed the kiln on the Saturday, then we fired on the Sunday. I arrived at 6.30am and the boys had already got going. I’m a novice at wood firing but I’ll try to explain a little of the process involved…

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The kiln is based on the ‘long’ kilns that Sandra Lockwood and Steve Harrison use in Australia. The fire box is of bourry box design, the chamber long and low. To start, a small fire is lit on the firebox floor using small pieces of kindling. It is imperative to slowly increase the temperature until the kiln has passed all the ‘danger’ points. Pour water at 100˚C, chemically combined water at around 350˚C and lastly quartz inversion at 573˚C. Over the next few hours the fire is built up increasing the embers in the ash pit until around 600˚C is reached on the pyrometer. At this point we switch from adding small pieces of wood through the front to much larger/longer pieces onto the upper part of the bourry box. These rest on hobs over the ash pit and allow the kiln to draw the heat and flames down through the kiln. The rate of draw and atmosphere can be adjusted by adjusting the primary and secondary air holes at the front of the kiln and dampers in the chimney. 

It is continual work to keep the fire fed… sawing, chopping and splitting wood to the right size; feeding and maintaining the fire; monitoring temperature and so on. It is intoxicating though – such a medieval process, involving proper graft, but massively exciting and hopefully rewarding. It is particularly enjoyable when with others… the chat and company spurs everyone on.

The temperature in the kiln’s chambers is checked firstly by using a pyrometer. In addition to this draw rings made from terracotta and stoneware are removed at various points to monitor the atmosphere in the kiln. Pyrometric cones are also observed through spy holes to check the progress in each of the ware chambers.

Once cone 10 goes down (1300˚C) in the first chamber (closest to the firebox) we introduce soda via bark ‘canoes’. These are carefully added to the firebox – the sizzle of the soda vaporising is a very welcome sound. The sodium vapour is then carried through the kiln with the flames and combines with silica in the clay. This will hopefully create the characteristic dimpled ‘orange peel’ glaze associated with soda firing. The last of the wood is added to the firebox before closing down the front of the kiln. Then side stoking begins through four small holes on either side of the kiln. These are located between the three ware chambers. Long, thin pieces of wood are carefully introduced to continue feeding the fire, all the while ensuring that they don’t touch the pots on either side. Finally more soda, wrapped in paper parcels are introduced through the four side stokes before the firing is completed.

By this time it was 9pm and we were exhilarated, but shattered. The firing was better than last time, but we won’t be sure of the results until we open up the kiln next weekend.

As we were tidying up in the darkness, we witnessed the perfect finale for our day’s labour… the most fantastic display of the Northern Lights. Breathtaking.

With many thanks to Joe Morgan, for help with the technical details.

Magpie {44}

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Wood fired and soda glazed bottle, with orange slip and tenmoku liner, by
Joe Morgan

I met Joe at a show last year. He has been building a wood firing kiln not that far from me and I was thrilled when he asked if I would like to include some pieces in its maiden firing. I helped out a little with the second firing and learned a great deal. I can see how people find it intoxicating – such an ancient and demanding process, often with breathtaking results.

Joe and his family came over recently and he very generously gave us this gorgeous bottle as a thank you. I love potters! We’ve been mulling over the next firing and I’m making some work especially for it. This time I’m going to try a new clay as my usual body didn’t yield very exciting results last time. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.