filling up and burning out

What a week it has been!  We began working last Tuesday with our friend Dave, another friend Dan, his skid steer, and a very large pile of granite rip-rap from the quarry up the road.  Our goal was to fill up the hemlock retaining walls we'd built around the kiln to hold the arch in place while our kiln expands and moves during firings and over time.  The work was heavy (isn't it always?!), but with three granite-chunk-placers and one very adept machine operator, the job went quickly.  By lunch time, we'd moved what felt like a small mountain in and around the kiln, and brought grade up on the surrounding ground as well.  (A huge shout-out to Dave, by the way, who when told we were going to be moving large rocks for several hours, said "Sounds like fun.  What time?"  Dave, you are truly awesome.)

The most exciting part of all this was that we were ready to burn out the wooden form on the kiln's interior!  OK, almost . . . we did build little brick culverts around the passive dampers in the flue, raised the retaining walls between the soda chamber and the chimney, and they filled them by hand.  By Friday, we were ready for burn-out.

Before we lit the first match, there was still a bit to do . . . stuff the kiln with newspaper, and brick up the doors.  We crawled in and around the plywood forms, stapling large clusters of crumpled paper to the arches and the lathe, and leaving little pieces of kindling every which way to wick up the flame for a complete burn.  We weren't entirely sure how the burning would go, and wondered if we'd be pulling charred chunks of wood out later.  Um, yeah, let's just say it didn't quite happen like that.


After bricking up the doors- hoorah for 3" thick reclaimed-from-our-NH-kiln bricks!- we were ready to light it up.  Or, as the case may be, I was ready to shed a few tears.  Tears of joy, apprehension, excitement, exhaustion, and so many other feelings swelled up and poured out after nearly three years of working towards this one goal.  We were about to have a finished wood kiln of our very own, built nearly entirely by our own two hands, all because we fell in love and had a dream.  (Cue the violin music . . . )

The fire started easily enough, dry newspaper catching quickly, and before long, light gray smoke was seeping out of every crack, but most especially out of the chimney, indicating good draw.  Yippee!  Soon, however, that light smoke turned to thick, black smoke chugging away with great force . . . and I was on the phone to the fire chief, the neighbors, anyone I could think of who would no-doubt be thinking that our house- or something very, very large- was burning down.  We even had some random passers-by pull down the lane to ensure everything was OK.  While Nathan tended to the kiln, I assured everyone that it was contained and safe, apologized for the smoke, and reassured folks it would never be quite this smokey again.  Which is true- as compared with our future firings, this was a far colder - only 500 degrees- and therefore dirtier fire with more combustible material smoldering burning than we will ever stoke into our kiln at one time.

When I returned to the kiln site, the form in the first chamber was GONE.  (Apparently, there would be no charred remains to be taking out with the saws-all!)  The second chamber collapsed soon after and disappeared quickly.  We sat in the front by the stoking doors, mesmerized by the flame as we watched it bring light to the shape of our new kiln.

During a typical firing, we will see mostly the front stack of shelves, posts, and pottery, so to be able to see the entire kiln filled with fire- straight back to the flues- was an unexpectedly delightful experience.

The next fire we build will start more slowly, but burn oh-so-much hotter . . . we hope to be reaching 2400 degrees two weeks from now, if all goes well!  Stay tuned.



Lately, we've been . . .

- pounding six inch spikes into the freshly cut hemlock (milled by our neighbor and carried home in our old manure spreader).  yup, we are busy building retaining walls to hold pounds and pounds of stone against the sides of our kiln.

- talking with another neighbor about using his mechanical bucket to deliver said stone . . . rather than a wheelbarrow, that is.

- realizing that this is the LAST big thing that needs to happen before we light our first fire in our kiln . . . to burn out the form inside . . . wow!

- cutting next year's heat from our winter timber harvest, and loving the contrast of freshly cut wood against the green, green grass (er, burdock) of spring.

- watching our peas, garlic, and spinach emerge from the soil and grow, thanks to much needed rain and a good mix of sun.

- marveling at the germination speed of the nasturtiums in our kitchen, and thinking they will like very much the black gold- composted goat and chicken manure- gift from our neighbors

- sitting on a sizable stash of pottery-in-waiting . . . our largely unfired, glazed, and slipped collection now occupies a large part of the dreaded awfully handy storage unit in our front yard, as well as a good portion of an upstairs bedroom, a few shelves at the studio, the back of one car . . . you get the idea.  (and yet we still have only a very vague inkling as to how full a kiln load we actually have. to say we have much to learn in the coming weeks would be a gross understatement)

- making a reasonably successful attempt (don't look TOO closely) at diagonal ship lap siding on our chicken coop (twelve chicks arrive in two days!!) and being grateful they will spend their first few weeks in a warm box in our mudroom so Becca can find time to finish building the doors, installing the windows, cutting saplings for roosts . . .

- laughing at the fact that we have a knack for acquiring animals at the same time as we have major life events (move out of NH studio, pick up a puppy the next day; approach very first wood-firing after two years of kiln building, get chickens.)

- loving that our small town has, among other things, a family-owned organic feed company from which to feed our chickens, a printing press for our business needs, and one of the oldest continuously operated businesses in Vermont- powered in large part by the water that flows over the nearby dam- for building supplies.  yes, that's right, we're talking about tiny, often overlooked Bethel!  (note: a little town-tour blog-post might be in order)

- looking forward to sharing the countdown to our first firing in the coming weeks . . .



sweet sweet days

I know I've probably said this before, but I think it might be safe to say that we are never more content than during an uninterrupted stretch of days working on our farm.  This was one of those sweet days in a series of days where the sun shone on our laboring bodies, and after the hours of work were done, we still lingered at the kiln shed in the fading light and calm air, soaking up the joy and satisfaction of our day's progress- of nearly completed kiln adobe and stone retaining walls- under a beautiful night sky.

the season for muddin'

It's the season for mudding around here . . . on the kiln, anyway! (OK, on our dirt road, too, but that car-bottom-scraping story is for another time and place.)

By some wonderful coincidence, an record-breaking stretch of warm (hot) weather has descended upon us in conjunction with Nathan's spring break from teaching pottery at Dartmouth. For us, this means two solid weeks of 10-hour days putting some of the 'finishing touches' on our kiln. We couldn't be happier!

wood kiln

Here's how this works: the dry materials- mainly sand, sawdust, cement, and a bit of other fireclays and grogs we had lying around- get measured by volume, and dumped into the cement mixer we borrowed from a friend.  Water is slowly added until the mix is smooth-able but not too slump-prone (those are technical terms, by the way).  Layer by layer we work our way around the kiln, troweling the adobe-like mix smooth.  In and around ports, up the walls of both chambers we go . . . the purpose of this 'structural frosting' as I have come to call it, is multi-fold, but essentially it's designed to insulate the kiln a bit more (the sawdust eventually burns out creating air pockets) and hold the whole thing together (that is until it cracks from expansion, but that's another issue).  It also unifies the kiln's chambers, and hopefully gives it an attractive final appearance!  (We haven't decided on a final color, but will likely paint some sort of oxide on the adobe- pale yellow? white? earthy red?  We'll have to see.)

wood-fired kiln

wood fired kiln

I leave you with this shot of the completed-with-newly-refurbished-transom-window back wall of the kiln shed.  Stay tuned for some photos of the finished surface in the coming weeks.

Enjoy the beautiful weather!

the chimney

Over the past few weeks, when asked what stage we were at with the kiln project, the answer was consistently "the chimney." We knew it would be sizable, but it turned out we used over 2000 bricks!  In fact, nearly every last hard brick to our name went to the cause. (We did manage to save a bunch of nice bricks to cut into posts for stacking up our shelves.)

What we did know was that the chimney had to clear the building for good draw and for safety's sake (at peak temperature, the chimney will spew an amazing flame several feet in the air, and our shed is built of, you guessed it, wood) so we positioned the scaffolding around the base, and rigged up a pulley + milk crate system to get the bricks from Becca on the ground to Nathan on the chimney. And then we hauled and hauled and hauled, and leveled and laid, and leveled and laid . . . here are few photos of our autumn chimney building!

We got a little help from Becca's family early on.  (Dad was a very eager hauler!) Lego, not so much helpful per se, unless you consider cute-ness to be a morale booster.

Bricks waiting for their trip up.  Becca did most of the hauling, while Nathan did most of the brick laying.  These bricks weigh about 8 pounds apiece!  I guess we're feeling pretty strong after this part of the project . . . phew.  For a good portion of the chimney, we used a double-thick stack, with each of those courses using 32 bricks. And with each course we gained 2.5 inches of height.  Yup.  Once we switched to a single course, things went much faster, only 14 bricks/course.

The chimney building tools atop the staging.  The bricks of the kiln are mostly dry-stacked (i.e. no mortar) because of the incredible expansion the kiln will undergo during the firing.  The one exception is the chimney bricks, where a thin coating of fire clay and fine grog was 'painted' on to help them set.  We also built this little jig (below) to help ensure the correct placement of bricks from course to course.  A lot of leveling needed to be done in every direction, but this jig helped Nathan ensure the inner dimensions stayed the same.  (By the way, the inner dimension is nearly 27" square!)

The last pallet lays empty . . . celebrate!  Oh, and some of you are probably wondering why there is an arched area in the back of the chimney. (below)  When we configured the active dampers, we decided to span the area with a piece of steel and refractory castable.  (We believe this area, with it's distance from the firebox and the cool air intake, will be cool enough for the steel to survive.)  But just in case something goes wrong with this span over time, we wanted to be able to rebuild this area without taking down the entire chimney.  So essentially, we hope to never have to use it, but just in case we do, the idea is that the arch supports the weight of the chimney while we scamper about with repairs.  (It's not much fun to think about our kiln aging, moving, cracking, what have you, but it's good to try to plan ahead!)

kiln chimney, wood kiln chimney

Ta-da!  (OK, there's still a bit of work to do in the little arch, but hey, we think it's looking pretty good!) Now, on to insulation . . .

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

brick by brick

Early signs of fall are all here, with just enough of a nip in the air to remind us that time is of the essence if we're going to (hopefully!) get this kiln built by winter. We've buckled down, completing the hard brick arch on the big chamber, the soda chamber, the soda chamber walls, and moving onto the collection flue (i.e. tapered arch that connects the kiln to the chimney) and the chimney foundation.

Nathan holding Lego's paws in silhouette on the kiln . . . oh, and a dear friend recently asked us if we'd be eating a lot of clams- what else could explain the countless buckets of clam strips that appear in seemingly every photo we take?!? The truth is that a local seafood shack offers up these sturdy little buckets for re purposing, and they hold our shims, brick pieces, castable, brick packing mix, you name it.

after the fair

wood kiln, kiln building

The days following our nine-day Fair are always ones of regrouping, resettling, and let's be honest- recovering! This past week we have:

- enjoyed the heavy rain that came from the sky the day we got home . . . unpacking had to wait a day! (it's so much easier to take a day off when it's raining!) - watched the sun come out, got unpacked, and then repacked for the Farmer's Market - picked up clay to make the dinner plates, lunch plates, and wedding bowls ordered over the summer - photographed and posted new pottery in our shop - celebrated a birthday and an anniversary - paddled down a swollen river for the former of those celebrations, and shared a 2-year old frozen whoopie pie for the later! - marveled at how Nathan managed to finish the hard brick layer on the first chamber of our kiln while the Fair was in full swing - spent some days approaching completion of the second chamber - enjoyed harvesting our potatoes, onions, carrots, and garlic - weathered a dramatic thunderstorm huddled together under the kiln shed - a storm that dropped veritable ice cubes from the sky!

We hope you enjoyed this week, too!

these summer days

Magically, amidst the hustle and bustle of our summer show season, we enjoyed a string of days kiln building, interrupted only by afternoon swims in the glorious White River and the occasional maple ice cream. We have nearly finished the hard brick on the first chamber of our large kiln, and are enjoying the momentum that eight hands working has created- thank you, family. And now a twelve-day pause for our biggest and longest show of the year . . . we'll be sharing more of our kiln work in late August!

wood kiln building

wood kiln building

wood kiln, kiln building

the latest

These days we are: -Enjoying the arrival of summer, bashful as she may be. -Finding hours here and there for brick laying, and closing the gap at the top of our form!

anagama wood kiln

We are: -Constructing the side entry door to the big chamber and weaving bricks in and around it. -Watching the door to the soda chamber slowly take shape, and finding the ports we cast this winter their forever homes.

These days, we are also: -Mixing work and home life (always!) -Spending time with family, drying next winter's wood, putting in fence posts, and watching the garden grow . . .

We hope this last day of June finds you well!

movin’ on up

I think it's safe to say that kiln building is not a fast process. (At least not when you're trying to keep up with four other part-time jobs, run a business, train a puppy, and tend to an old farmhouse!) In many ways, it feels as though the last two years of "projects" have all been preparation to get us to this point- the point when we are able to walk under cover of the big shed, with all of our materials and supplies and water and lights at the ready and make some major headway!

Things are really moving now. The courses of brick seem to be flying up the arch forms. The work is repetitive- and meditative!- and satisfying. Everywhere around us, things are blooming and growing and changing, and it's very fitting to watch the kiln do the same.

Here are some photos of our recent efforts! wood kiln, kiln building

Two steps forward, three steps back, lots more steps forward!

Sometimes progress must be measured in more than just forward steps.  Kiln building over the last couple of weeks has demanded that we measure progress in backward, sideways, and diagonal steps, too.  It all gets us down the path, just maybe not as quickly as we thought.  As it turns out, carpentry with curves is fairly tricky stuff, but we've finally got it all figured out.  (We think!)  Here are some photos from our recent escapades under the big shed in the field. wood kiln buildingNathan removing arch forms from the flues between our main chamber and the soda chamber.

We used a high heat castable to cap off the flue arches. Here's our casting in progress!

wood-fired kiln building

We love this photo- doesn't it look like some kind of temple?! We finished the flues between the chambers, and repeated them at the back of the soda chamber, where the kiln will begin to taper into the chimney. The openings are just a touch wider at the outsides to try to discourage "center pull" of the flame and create a more even firing.

We used a chain to determine the strongest possible arch- a catenary- for most of our wooden forms. This one is for the soda chamber, the nearly complete form shown in place below.

With the help of our shed lights, we worked late into the evening one night to complete the final skeleton shape of our main chamber! Pretty exciting to see it after all of the drawings and all of the dreams. Next step: lath.

Family traveled from Maine, New York, and San Francisco to strap lath on this kiln of ours, with our crew ranging in age from 26 to 87!

The kiln forms- particle board arches, lath, supports, all of it- will be burned out once the last brick is in place and the shape is self-supporting.

Entertaining the puppy is among the most important of the jobs! (Thanks, Ma.)

Mmm, Happy Spring.  More photos coming soon!

2010 . . . what a year it was!

Happy New Year, everyone!  As I write, the studio is beginning to fill with new pots for the coming year, and our new four-legged "mascot" is busy with his favorite toy, so maybe I'll get a little written. I'm inspired to write a year-in-review style newsletter in part because I find that reflecting on all that we've done helps me stay inspired to keep going!  Or maybe it's all those Christmas newsletters I just read . . . in any event, at this particular point in our lives, the project to-do lists can easily overwhelm, and it's nice to remember just how far we've come towards our dream. For the first six months of 2010, we were still traveling to my former studio in Eaton, NH, to make and fire our pottery.  This entailed making pottery at our small rented studio in VT, packing it up while it was still green (i.e. unfired and fragile!), loading it into the car, and traveling 100 miles over windy mountain roads to unpack it, load the kiln, and fire our wares.  I recall one dramatic trip during a particularly rough frost-heave season where I arrived at the studio in tears, and several of my pots arrived in small pieces.  All in all, though, we were grateful to still have use of the kiln, and enjoyed our "pottery camp" time together, beginning to collaborate and enjoy each others creativity.

pottery making, potter's wheel

pottery, pottery tumblers

In February, my talented brother redesigned with our very own e-store, and it has been a great addition to our business! Around the same time, my new line of "painted pots" was born, springing from a desire to make and fire work in Vermont, and it was a lot of fun to share new tomatoes, carrots, peas, and flower designs at farmers markets and shows.

handmade pottery, pottery plate

In May, with help along the way from all four of our parents, we finished building an addition to our Milkhouse Gallery, just in time for our first experience on the Vermont Studio Tour on Memorial Day Weekend. We had loads of happy visitors who toured our kiln site, and watched Nathan do throwing demonstrations on the kick wheel. Needless to say, we'll be participating again in 2011!

We began working on the new kiln in earnest in June, doing some more site drainage and beginning to lay the concrete block foundation that will carry the weight of oh-so-many bricks. The summer ensued, and between kiln work, we traveled to Maine for the Clam Festival Craft Show, and to Mount Sunapee for the League of NH Craftsmen's amazing Annual Fair. Both shows were wonderful; it was so much fun to see so many of our loyal friends and customers. Back in VT in late August, we continued to lay block, pour concrete, shovel sand and stone, celebrated our first wedding anniversary, and took quick trips to the river and for ice cream on the hottest of days.

In early September, we spent 5 big days dismantling the Eaton kiln, and transported it to VT in thousands of heavy pieces.  The bricks were put to immediate use as we began to lay the insulating floor of the wood kiln. The fall brought a big harvest from the garden, and beautiful weather for our Columbus Day Weekend Open Studio event that we spent with old and new friends alike. We began to get scrap slab wood delivered from a local mill to season for next year's firings, and moved bricks, bricks, bricks.

Work on the kiln continued until it became clear that what we really needed more than anything was a new roof on our house! Thanks to our amazing friend Bob and some unseasonable warm, dry November weather, our 160-year old farmhouse got a much needed rebuild. That project took us right into early December, when we traveled to Eaton for the last time to officially move out of the house and studio. We packed up our pottery wheels, tools, materials, and clay, and moved them into storage in VT until we can build a studio of our own! The day we returned the rental van, we got our new puppy, Lego, and last but not least, thanks to Efficiency Vermont, we illuminated the kiln shed and gallery entrance with super-efficient LED lighting that will make night-time kiln loading and stoking a breeze. Phew!

wood kiln construction

Now that 2011 is here, we plan to use the coldest months for making pottery, and just as soon as it's warm enough (March anyone?!), we'll be back at work on the kiln, aiming for our first firing in June or July. Something tells me this is going to be another epic year . . . All the best and many thanks, Becca and Nathan (and Lego, too!)

Fall Newsletter 2010

We hope this newsletter finds you enjoying the fall colors!   First and foremost, a huge thank-you to those of you who visited us at our various fairs, festivals, and farmers markets.  We were excited to show our new work together, and it was a great year!  It's now time to buckle-down on the home front, focus on building our new kiln, and plan for a proper studio next year.

UPCOMING EVENTS: Join us at our place (123 Scammel Lane, Bethel, VT  05032) for our Fall Open Studio!  The gallery will be open with our pottery, and we'll be showing folks around the kiln site, where the new kiln is coming right along.  Hope you can make it: Saturday and Sunday, October 9th & 10th, from 10 am to 5pm, and Monday, October 11th, 10am to 3pm.  We'll have homebaked treats and cider, and wood by the stove in case the fall chill returns!  As always, if you can't make this event, you are more than welcome to call or email to set up another time to visit.  Directions

KILN BUILDING: It's starting to look like a kiln!   We finished the climbing foundation work at the end of August (phew!), and have been putting in long hours laying out the floor.  The floor includes two layers of insulating brick (to prevent the concrete foundation from exploding from the heat!) topped with a layer of hard brick where we'll stack shelves of pottery.  It's somewhat slow going, in part because we're building some air channels into the sub-floor to help burn wood used during side stoking.  Once the floor is layed out, we'll build various mini-arches as flues between chambers, and then build a giant arch of plywood and lathe to hold up the brick walls until the arch is self-supporting.  The long and short of it is: good progress, still a long way to go!  You can see more photos here.

THE END OF AN ERA: It's hard to believe, but the kiln in Eaton, New Hampshire, that started it all for Becca has been dismantled!  In a somewhat emotional five days of very hard, hot work, we unstacked the large gas kiln at Becca's first studio, brick by brick.  For almost two years now, we have been traveling to NH to make and fire our pottery.  We knew this wasn't a long-term solution, and after we had unloaded the last pieces of pottery needed for our summer shows, we knew it was time.  The real reason behind the dismantling was the desire to recycle the thousands of bricks in our new kiln.  You can read more about this process and see photos in Becca's blog post about the big event below.

EXCITING TIDBITS: Nathan has been accepted into 500 Raku!  This is his second book acceptance in six months; we're awaiting the release of 500 Vases, by Lark Books, due out this fall.  Also, we will both be appearing in the Cup and Mug Invitational, an exhibition at the Artisans Gallery in Northampton, MA, opening in November 12th- December 31st.

NEW BLOG: As you may have noticed, we're now hosting our newsletter on our new blog!  We will both be blogging about all manner of things, including our kiln progress, our favorite pieces of pottery, our new work, and much more.  Hope you can follow along!

Thank you for your support!


Becca and Nathan