Sunday, June 29, 2008

Pit Firing, part one

I have been anticipating the pit firing party at Scarborough Fair Pottery for weeks. As often as people tried to explain this event to me, I couldn't quite comprehend what it was all about. Basically, it is a blend of primitive craft and modern chemistry, with an element of faith thrown in.

The old way to make pottery was to dig a hole in the ground, a "pit", put the raw pottery in it, start a fire in the hole, and let the clay pots bake in the coals for several days. To add interest to our projects, we used all sorts of natural and chemical additives: coffee grounds, horse hair, Miracle Grow plant fertilizer, copper sulfate, banana peels, and powdered Jello, to name a few.

I was 30 minutes late in arriving, and storm clouds were brewing. Water is the enemy of a pit fire, and I was exhorted to "Hurry up and decorate" so we could get the fire going before the rains came.

First, I decorated my bisque-fired pots:
This one, made of brown clay, has splashes of black oxide glaze, a sprinkle of Jello, and is about to be wrapped in horse hair and a rag that had been soaked in copper sulfate solution.

I painted some details on this white clay pot with a bronze metallic paint, and added coffee grounds. The hemp rope is supposed to "do something interesting," though nobody could tell me exactly what.

I filled the pot cavity with crumpled up newspaper and tied the whole thing with hemp rope. Next, it will be wrapped up tightly in aluminum foil.

Another white pot was decorated with copper metallic glaze and tied up with hemp. It was the last of the 5 or 6 pots that I did, and by this time, I was beginning to understand what I was doing. I hope this one will actually look like something.

Next, the aluminum-wrapped pots were placed in the sawdust-lined pit, looking like rows of baked potatoes.

To protect the more delicate items, clay flower pots were inverted over them, acting as a shield against heavy pieces of wood that might crash down. This is called a sauger. (Say it "sogger.")

Ken placing a flower pot sauger.

"Is that all?"

Behind every good man is a woman, supervising his work.

Or, at the studio, six women and a small boy.

Next, we added lots more crumpled newspaper and leftover scraps of dowel rods. Chemical "bombs," twists of newspaper with assorted chemicals, were scattered among the pots. When the heat strikes them, they explode, releasing who knows what into the pit. (Did I mention the element of faith involved in a pit firing?)

Everyone got to toss some wood on, even this little guy.

"Bring in the larger pieces of wood now."

Boss Peggy builds the fire just the way she wants it.

Adding smaller pieces to the top of the pile.

More wood, and some old rotted hay.
What are we creating here?

A great big brush pile, that's what.

The final touch - a good dousing with lighter fluid.

Peggy lights the first match.

Where there's smoke, there's fire. Or, is there?

Peggy, it's not looking so good.
Peggy? PEG-GY!!!!

"Let a man do it."

"Do we need more lighter fluid?"

Wait, wait - it's starting to take hold.

Me, in the background: "We need more drama. This is not a very exciting fire..."

You want drama? We got drama.

Now, THAT'S a fire!!

Once the flames died down, the smoldering pit was covered with these sheets of metal and the pots were left to bake for the weekend.

Wanna see the end results? So do I. You have to wait, just like the rest of us. Updates soon.


NCmountainwoman said...

Fascinating! We have some potters in the area who pit fire, but I never really understood the process. Looking forward to the outcome.

Anonymous said...

Wow, can't wait to see how it all turns out.

Lisa said...

I'm disappointed that you didn't choose to include horse manure in the "interesting items to add to the pit fire" list. You have a ready supply and everything!