Our senior potters, Tom, Mr Toh and Jaslin, made a trip to Ipoh, Malaysia on 14th to 19th August 2019 to experience wood-firing. Bisque artworks (fired once in the kiln at around 950°C) were packed into boxes and hand-carried on board their flight to Ipoh.
(Photo: Our potters together with their family and friends)
What is Wood-Firing and Why?
Wood-Firing is the firing of pottery in an outdoor kiln, fueled by the burning of wood. It is hard work - potters must monitor the kiln through all its stages, and this can last anywhere from 24 to 60 hours.
Potters need to have a good grasp of the character of the kiln: structural construction of the kiln, type and quality of wood used, length and duration of the firing, having a good understanding and control over the kiln’s firing temperature and atmosphere (amount of oxygen inside the kiln) - all these are important factors that contribute to the outcome of the artwork.
(Photo: Before - Artworks waiting to be packed into the kiln for firing)
Wood-fired artworks require little to no glaze. The silica found in the wood ashes, because of the intense heat (up to 1260°C - 1330°C) would fall and melt onto the surface of the artworks. This results in a shimmery (sometimes earth-colored) glaze coat on the artwork - an unpredictable and exciting anticipation that the potters look forward to upon the opening of the kiln doors at the end of the wood-firing process.
(Photo: A peep through the kiln as the artworks were being fired)
This unique and one of a kind effects achieved through wood-firing, is what motivates the potters to wood-fire their artworks, despite the tedious process required.
The Wood-Firing Process
(Photo: Wood-Firing in progress, smoke out of the kiln)
The wood-firing process on this trip included a routine of a 20 minutes car ride from the potters’ accommodation to arriving on-site at the wood kiln, at 6 am, across the 5 days.
The artworks were first packed into the kiln - with the best artworks loaded towards the front. After packing the artworks into the kiln, the potters were ready to fire up the kiln.
(Photo: Senior Potter Mr Toh adding fuel wood to the kiln)
The potters would take turns to watch over the kiln in 3 shifts - chopping the wood necessary for use and monitoring the whole process carefully. The potters on duty must know what to look out for as they monitor the kiln at different stages of the firing process.
Unfortunate Accident: Collapse of Kiln Shelves
“The front row looked as though an earthquake had taken place inside the kiln”
The potters originally planned to fire the kiln for 48 hours. Mid-way through the process, the potters noticed that the front row shelves had collapsed - along with the artworks.
Worried about the rest of the artworks, the potters halted the process and began bringing the temperature of the kiln down.
(Photo: Mid-way through the firing process, artworks have fallen due to collapsed shelves.)
(Photo: The aftermath when the kiln doors were opened)
The potters first discovered the mishap when they checked through the peephole and noticed that the front row shelves holding the artworks, had collapsed.
“The front row looked as though an earthquake had taken place inside the kiln,” explained Jaslin as she recounted the incident back to us at the studio.
The shelves in the front row had given way - destroying the artworks along with it. Squashed, stuck together and broken, these artworks became unusable.
Silver Linings: Pottery - when Art meets Science
Pottery can sometimes be described as when art meets science. When potters fire their artworks in the kiln, it is almost impossible to predict how the piece would turn out exactly. This is true even if you are an experienced potter. Pottery, like life, can sometimes take on unexpected turns - either way.
(Photo: After - In spite of the broken shelves in the front rows, these back row shelves held up and artworks turned out well.)
Such unpredictability is especially true for wood-firing artworks. Hence, when a wood-fired artwork turns out beautiful, it is highly valuable.
(Photo: Master Potter, Tom Lim's artwork - salvaged from the collapsed shelf)
The beauty of pottery is as such - despite the mishap of the collapsed shelves (which is not a common occurrence), the potters continue to move forward - creating new artworks, experimenting with the firing process and continue to look forward to what awaits them behind the kiln doors.
(Photo: Senior Potter Jaslin with a beautiful piece, fresh out of the kiln)
At the end of September, our potters are heading up to Japan for 2 weeks, for yet another wood firing trip.
More stories to come!