Answers to Rowley's Questions

SideStoke home | Articles home

RD: What do you perceive as the advantages and disadvantages of having woodfired kilns in the tropics?

If we were on the coastal plain a big disadvantage would be a disinclination to spend long periods near a hot kiln in tropical heat. But we are in much cooler conditions in the mountains, as are Len Cook and Peter Thompson, so the designation “tropical” is misleading. Our climate here at Eungella is much like the climate in Northern NSW.

An advantage: wood is plentiful, and land is relatively inexpensive, so in our case we can afford to own 100 ha and grow our own wood. We have always been able to do some subsistence farming, effectively an income supplement: a small herd of cattle for beef and milk, plenty of water for vegetables and fruit – particularly citrus – so there is an economic advantage. However this is balanced by an economic disadvantage: small population means a small market for the esoteric products of long wood-firings. Sending pots to capital city galleries is expensive. Even Brisbane is inconveniently located near the NSW border.

RD: How do the regional characteristics i.e. climate, geology, vegetation impact?

The tropics are colourful – something we notice on our return from trips to the southern states. Tropical skies are blue; clouds are ebullient explosions of white. None of those bleak, grey, streaky clouds of southern skies. When it rains the clouds can be dark, threatening, and dramatic and when it rains it does not muck about. It really rains. Leaves of rainforest trees are usuallydark green, and trainforest shadows are a dense black. Tree fern fronds and areas of grass in the wetter parts of the north can be a brilliant green. It is not surprising that we have no taste for restraint when it comes to colour in pots (see below).

Geology poses a problem in the sense that while there are plenty of useful local materials it is not always practicable to make use of them. The kaolinitic clay which forms the basis of our soil has a high iron content (8%), and while we managed to adapt another local clay with a 2% iron content and used it for decades for glazed ware (fired with gas) and salt firings, it has to be diluted with low iron clays for the long wood firings, or else it simply fires too dark. The additives come from distant places like Victoria or the Gulf (of Carpentaria), so freight becomes a real expense. Just about all the milled materials comes rom the south, so freight is a killer for them as well. We do not use commercial bodies at all any more, but when we did purchase some in plastic form for early experiments in the anagama we were acutely aware that we were paying to freight water along with the clay. Bad economics and bad for the planet if you consider the fossil fuel usage.

The rainforest strip in which we live does not extend far west so there is plenty of access to eucalypt forests. The trees we have planted to revegetate cleared areas of our own land include Flooded Gum (Eucalyptus grandis) and we use that for kiln fuel. Actual rainforest species are not so useful, and tend to rot quickly so we do not make use of them, but one of our pioneer regrowth trees is Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), which is a very useful fuel for long woodfirings.

RD: Is there a specifically regional character emerging or evident in Nth Qld ceramics born out of a response to the above?

Reading the anagama products with the eyes of a long wood-firer I would say “No”. Other observers viewing from a different distance, with less attention to surface effects, might disagree. The fact is the northern anagama firers do not live close enough together to influence one another accidentally, and when we light up the kilns we all have different intentions.

RD: Is there a connection between self sufficiency in more remote areas and the ethos of wood firing?

For Carol and me there is. Not sure what the ethos of wood firing is for other people but for us the use of local, renewable fuel, which is independent of industrial processes, fits in well with our preference for building our own buildings, growing vegetables, milking cows and extracting water from our creeks by a gravitational process. The process of earning a large income and paying other people to do a whole lot of basic processes seems less interesting than forgoing the income and having the time to learn to do the same things for ourselves.

RD: Outline your philosophies, methodologies, history of your kilns and yourselves (influences, aspirations) in the context of wood firing.

Anything we say will be only a facet of the whole picture.

We ended up living at Eungella and making pots partly because Carol seemed to be having a more satisfying time making pots than I was teaching mathematics. We both detested living in a town, and city living was simply unthinkable. We wanted to live lives less fat and slick and processed. Something with a bit more grit and tooth was more to our taste.

Before coming to Eungella 1976 we spent a year in Japan, and while coming to terms with the huge mass of Japanese ceramics we felt we had found our aesthetic home somewhere between the Mingei movement and the products of the Six Ancient Kilns.

We did not imagine that we would ever do wood firings, let alone long wood firings, but we drifted into firing with wood via a very non-Japanese excursion into salt-glazing. Salt glazing meant dense firebrick kilns for us, so firing with gas was too expensive, and when firing with diesel got to be expensive, after the oil shock following the Iranian revolution of 1979, we turned to wood. Initially we fired a Bourry box with old fence posts during the early part of each firing, and finished off with diesel when we reached the temperature limit of our wood firing abilities. The day came when our skills had increased to the point where the diesel was not necessary, so we said goodbye to the smells, the burners and the noisy blowers and settled down with the the gentle rumble and soothing scents of wood combustion. So our first salt kiln, which was a long low thing, copied from one used by Col Levy, had ports for diesel pot burners, then grew a Bourry box. It was cold near the chimney end, and was crying out for side stoking, but we did not think of that, and in our isolation there was no one around to suggest that to us.

That kiln had its 40th and last firing last firing on 24th April 1986. It was a night full of bad omens and portents of disaster. Between stokings we lay outside on the grass and saw the latest apparition of Halley's comet fade as the moon went into eclipse, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor went into meltdown, and the exit flues of the kiln collapsed. We started planning our next kiln.

Our second salt kiln had a single Bourry box and still was uneven, so the one after that was smaller and had two Bourry boxes. The uneveness was gone, but by then the “Woodfire '86” conference had come and gone, exposing us to the thought that we too could get natural ash deposits if we fired for long enough. Still we hesitated to actually build an anagama and commit ourselves to firing over several days, but when in 1994 I fell off the roof while constructing our new kitchen I had some time in bed, unable to move. With recovery in doubt I began to regret not having built an anagama.. When I did regain mobility we started preparing the anagama site. About a year later it had its first firing and proved to be so fascinating technically and aesthetically that we still fire it. The first couple of firings were of limited success, but on the third there was an augury of future productivity: during the first 24 hours of the firing we received ten inches of rain, and dozens of green frogs, their orange eyes maddened with lust, appeared from nowhere and engaged in a night of noisy, energetic and indiscriminate procreation. We continued stoking with renewed optimism.

RD: (Write about) sustainability and growing own timber, lessons learnt from the various kiln trials, SideStoke the website , the more scientific and research orientated approach to wood firing, your salt kiln and any other kilns apart from the anagama, the most recent kiln.

When making domestic ware in gas firings we wanted to use local materials and soon discovered that, apart from clay, the most easily processed local material is wood ash, so we ash in our glazes for years. This made us aware of one important fact: wood ash varies enormously from species to species. We thought anagama firers who used a dog's breakfast of wood types would have difficulty deciding what sort of wood provided any particular effect. In an approach which has been called scientific, but which is better described as systematic, we set about testing various wood species in the anagama, without mixing the sorts of wood together.

We quickly discovered that Blackwood produces so much ash that the firings could be shortened, that it is easy to fire in reduction and produces more tractable ember beds in the firebox. We have access to plenty of it – in fact Blackwoods frequently keel over and block our road access – so we decided that it would be our main anagama wood. We also found out that if we used shino-type glazes on any pots and fired with Blackwood the glazes fell off in sheets. We speculated that this happened because Blackwood produces so much natural ash glaze at such low temperatures that shino glazes in the kiln received a surface coating of ash glaze before they had properly sintered., allowing the ash glaze to drop off , taking the shino with it. We speculated that if we used a wood with a more refractory ash for the first 1000 deg this would stop. We chose Forest Red Gum (Eucalyptus tereticornis) for the initial stages of the firing. The cure was so immediate and complete that we feel the theory has been verified. Had we been using the Dog's Breakfast method not only would the problem be more variable but guessing the cause and testing the cure would have been uncertain. So now we restrict changes to just one per firing so we have some idea how that change affects the results. If you make more than one change to your procedure and the results change you have a confusing situation in which you are not sure what caused any differences in the results.

A concession to turning 70 was to build the Oztrain, a long-throat Bourry box kiln . This is fired for a shorter time and is horizontal so we do less walking up and down a slope when side-stoking. At present we are encouraging the Oztrain to produce results which resemble those from the anagama., and have had some success. We developed a liking for comet marks around shells and dark wad marks in the anagama firings, and the linear Oztrain , appropriately packed, certainly delivers comet marks.

We are not interested in restraint in terms of colour so we like red shinos and red flashing and green ash, and have a reduced cooling regime which we are 95% convinced encourages the reds while darkening some sorts of ash deposits almost to black. Since the Oztrain is fired for 40 hours, instead of 84 hours for the anagama, some of the slower fly ash accretions will inevitably be diminished in the Oztrain. Firing for 40 hours means only one midnight to dawn graveyard shift, rather than two or three , and that is a big advantage. For the anagama we need two extra stokers, while we can fire the Oztrain without outside help, although we tend to invite a neighbour over to stoke for about 6 hours.

The coming of the internet and digital photography opened up powerful new means of communication. Bearing in mind our own ignorance and isolation when teaching ourselves to fire wood kilns, I started a website  www.sidestoke.com  which deals with woodfirers and shows plenty of images of their kilns and work. There is a limit to what can be communicated with images, but it is nowhere near as restrictive as the limits imposed by the written word, especially when dealing with the pots themselves. A relevant quotation of unknown origin does not mention ceramics at all: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. Whatever people may say or write about their work, and their motivations and inspirations, the decisive processes of acceptance or rejection are are at a deeper level. Anyone exercising aesthetic judgement repeatedly asks the deceptively simple question “Does it work?” Arriving at an answer is essentially an inarticulate process.

What we do now has been suggested by the processes that we use, or by the work of other potters using related techniques. The influences do not come from outside the sphere of ceramics: always it is pots and their surfaces suggesting new things to do.