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Saturday, March 26, 2011

01/02/2003 - First Kiln Firing, Kiln Opening . . .




Two weekends before Christmas I began early on a Saturday morning, making preparations for the first firing of an old Alpine kiln, which I brought back from Kansas City.

A new cutoff valve on the main gas line, a hood to vent the exhaust, a pan to melt wax for resist, glazes mixed, kiln wash mixed.

Kiln wash, fifty percent silica, fifty percent kaolin by weight. Mixed Shaner’s red, mixed tenmoku. Got wood ash from Steven Rodriguez’s wood stove. Got buckets to mix glaze, mixing tools for my electric drill, a hair dryer. So much to do. And each of these tasks a first. Late that Sunday with pots glazed, and the kiln stacked. I can’t say I didn’t make mistakes.

In retrospect I should have put all the tenmoku on the bottom, Shino on the top, I should have used smaller kiln shelves, I should have begun reducing earlier, I should have not left the kiln to sleep for an hour. These things I have learned.

Perhaps I should give some background . . .

I found the ad for it on Clayart, an online discussion group. The University of Kansas was selling a kiln from their sculpture department. It was sitting in a courtyard to one of their buildings slated for demolition. Cheap. The proviso was 'Come get it quickly.'

"How's early next week?" I asked the lady at the other end of the posting. "Fine," she said. "Come on out!" She promised to get me the number of an gentleman who had a four wheeled all terrain forklift, essential for loading it onto a truck.

I made the booking for a one way flight, packed two suitcases, one small with clothes, the other large and heavy, crammed with tools to facilitate the dismantling of the kiln. Socket set, vise-grips, pliers, screwdrivers, battery powered electric drill, heavy duty straps, even wood-blocks. I'd be meeting the old gentleman in the morning the first day out. I had to be ready.

I slept in a Super 8 Motel that sits on a promontory in Lawrence Kansas, overlooking a gully that runs down to the grasslands. I never knew there were high spots in Kansas.

At dawn I arose and went to the truck rental place. The agent was there as promised. I filled out the forms for a cross country drive with drop off in Connecticut, hopped into the cab and experienced that marvelous exhilaration that comes when taking command of a large truck. It was nearly brand new, and the tires were good. They'd have to be. The kiln that was going in the back weighed six thousand pounds.

By eight I was at the university, and before I met the nice lady who I'd talked to on the phone, I took a first look at my purchase.

My heart sank. Weeds grew up from cracks in the courtyard and into the innerds of the kiln burners and controls.

The inside was solid. As reported. Whew.

I went to work. There would be time to repair burners, fire-eyes, the pilots, and gas piping.

I brought a new can of WD-40 and liberally sprayed everything.

Two hours later the entire burner system was in pieces. I sat waiting to load.

At eleven, Mr. Clotillard showed up. A gentleman indeed. He wore a wide brimmed brown hat, a blue denim shirt, and a necktie, with fine alligator boots. He jumped out of the cab from his forklift, a truly huge piece of construction equipment.

"This shouldn't be too difficult," he remarked, and jumped back into his massive toy.

Ten minutes later he had put the giant piece of equipment into the back of my Penske truck, shoved tight against a bundle of wood blocks.

An hour later the burner system was loaded on and everything was tied down. By two PM I was across the Missouri border, eating Chinese food, wondering how far I wanted to drive that day . . .



It was a journey. A journey back to CT. A journey getting it off the truck and hauling it past vats of cyanide through the Rockwell Heat Treat plant to my studio which was on the other side of fire door, a journey through my studio, out the back door, and over some mud flats and up onto that concrete pad, the semi-exterior place where I had run my gas line.

A journey getting Southern Connecticut Gas to agree to supply me with a meter . . .

At six thirty in the evening I lit the burners. Even this was difficult. At six thirty in the evening in late December it is dark outside. It is even darker where I have my kiln, beneath the rotting timbers of the destroyed Bigelow Boiler Factory, behind the piles of iron abandoned by the mobsters, in the corner on a cement acropolis where a giant blast furnace that cast boilers for Liberty ships during the Second World War, once stood.

The burners of the kiln would not light. Much moisture in the line. I lit taper after taper of twine and wax, and burned hundreds of feet of wax soaked string. Finally, the years of inactivity of the gas line and foul air were expunged, fresh gas was liberated which jumped to flame. The kiln eyes burst alive with a rhythm, clicking and flashing and shouting aloud. The main burners shot on.

I called Steven.  “ You lit the kiln? Hey good going.” He was over in a flash. “Hey Potter your pressure gauge is shot”. Water oozed from the kiln door. The temperature was rising, and steam hissed from every orifice. “We’ve got to replace it”. Go home, clean up, eat dinner, come back in three hours. Call me. I’ll bring over a new gauge.”

We came back in three hours. Cone 010 was down. Yikes it’s going fast. Rodriguez was concerned. “ You’ve missed body reduction - maybe there’s hope, keep going.” He took a pair of Vice Grips and twisted out the faulty gauge, and stopped the gas with his finger, then slipped in a new gauge pirated from another kiln. “Hell there’s your reason . . you’re at 8 inches of water column. Back that baby off!” We slowed flow of gas. The kiln settled into a more manageable rate of climb. The red glow seemed to light up the night air, it seemed the very source of energy on the planet, in the universe itself.

Rodriguez pulled a tin of cookies and some oranges from his pockets. “Jillian put these together for you.” I knew he had done it. He knew I was going to be up all night.

I was. I paced, I yawned, I stretched. I cleaned the studio. I carved plugs for the lower spies of soft kiln brick with a hacksaw.

And every five minutes I went out to look at the flames shooting from the spy hole, at the smoky yellow reduction fire from the flue.

All seemed well. My kiln packs at the bottom fell over, oh well, otherwise, so far so good.

At one point progress seemed stalled, I cleaned up the flame, and the temperature rose, slowly, but it rose. A giant weight was being lifted.

At six o’clock in the morning Cone 10 bent over. I flick the switch. The gas abruptly stopped. The kiln seem to sputter and hiss, and moan slightly. All was silent.

I inserted the brick plugs in their holes. I laid a blanket of soft ceramic fiber over the broken vents at the top. I turned the gas valves to off. I coiled up the extension cords and temporary lights which I had dragged outside. All was silent.

I brought my tools inside, said a small prayer, and left the kiln to cool amidst the piles of iron, and broken brick and fallen roofs.

I weaved home in the Toyota, tired, reaching Cottage Street, my legs wobbly as I climbed the steps.

All were asleep. Ami was asleep. Arjun and Maya were asleep.

I undressed. The kiln must be a little cooler now. A degree or two. I felt my face. Red. Burned by the UV. What force! I bathed. Coiled into bed beside Ami. Groggy she awoke. Arjun needs to go to school. You go to sleep. I’ll wake you when it’s time to go to New York.

I put in a week’s work. Five days of agony, knowing full well after Monday night that the kiln door could be cracked and the wares taken out to look would be hot, or warm to the touch.

No, I would have to work at the computer all week, take the train, take a cab, arrive home late on the Friday before Christmas, with a present for Ami in tow (I bought her a flexible shaft tool for her jewelry making), and then exhausted, tumble into bed. It would be Saturday morning, due later at a Christmas Party with Jeffrey and Jennifer before I would find thirty minutes to go to River Street, switch on the lights, unlock the rear door and go back to where the kiln sat in the soft wet rain. How easy it was to open the door and look in.

A new energy has come there. It was a mixed success, my glazing was rushed, but there were positive results, a few very nice Shino bowls, and one temoku bowl that truly turned out. Another nice bowl was ruined by the lower kiln pack which fell into it, not much good temoku overall, I applied the glaze too thinly, and much of the Shino was oxidized. Heavy oxidation on the bottom, super heavy reduction on the top. A lack of circulation caused by the wrong sized shelves. But here and there good results. Shino wood ash forming pools of green glass at the bottom of orange and white bowls, carved mugs, and a few ‘journal pots’ with my drawings of people on the beach and some brush writing, a new direction.

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