Pit Firing at Ellison Bay Pottery

We’ve been pit firing for twelve years now and this is what we’ve learned so far:

  • We never get what we think we’re going to get.
  • Pieces may crack, pop or explode, no matter what we do.
  • We always learn something.
  • We always have fun.
  • We’re still learning to embrace what we get from the firing.

Here’s our story:

One January afternoon Mike called from The Clearing, an adult learning center across the street from us, and asked John to teach a one day pottery class.

‘We’ll do it, but we’ll need two days and we’ll have them do a pit-firing.’ Mike agreed, we set the date and just like that, we jumped off that cliff. Because…..John and I had never done a pit firing before. Ever.

A few months later John thought, ‘we should research this’ so I got online and printed a ton of stuff. He dug around in old ceramic books and magazines and later we sat down and as we read it all we started getting excited. John had been thinking about finishing the salt glaze kiln but production kept getting in the way. Now we had no choice but to figure this out, solve all the problems and be ready for our first students in September.

When the snow finally melted and the frost was out of the ground, we dug a modified ‘pit’. Our yard is mostly bedrock and too many rocks so we dug as deep as it was comfortable and then built up the sides using bricks. We had our first firing, using very dry green-ware. Disaster. Wish I had taken pics but I bet you could imagine blackened shards everywhere.

Ok, we’ll bisque fire the pots we thought and then we’ll be all good to go. We were, actually a success in that the pots didn’t blow up. But everything was black and we wanted more color. So, back to the books and piles of notes and without even noticing we were drawn into the world of experimentation with fire, random and chance. It’s a swirling vortex, let me warn you. And fun. Very much fun.

Our next ‘pit was entirely above ground using bricks and it was larger. We used more surface treatments and more wood, less newspaper. We burned it hotter and covered it sooner to get a reduction. We were using our modern minds to improve a very primitive kiln: the pit, and turn it into a primitive fast wood fire kiln. We added so many variables that we were guaranteed one of a kind pieces each time, and we weren’t sure how or why, nor did we care. We stopped taking notes on each pot’s surface treatments and firings–certainly an aberration in the world of science and art that is pottery.

And we were having fun.

By the time the 2 day pottery class came in September we felt confident we could pull this off and look like we knew what we were doing and our ‘students’ were all enthusiastic and adventurous so it worked! Everyone’s work came out in one piece and looked fabulous. They were happy. We were relieved and we decided to continue to ‘teach’ this the following year.

So, I made dozens of primitive vases, dishes, bowls and tiles for people to buy and we ‘taught’ them how to decorate them using all sorts of magical mystery materials. Secret materials like plant food, salt washes, terra sigillattas, etchants. We all got into the whole process of filling the pit with wood and other combustibles like pine cones, walnut shells, cherry pits and pet food. John would light it on fire and we’d sit back, watch the fire burn for an hour and tell stories. John would cover the above ground pit with old kiln shelves. The participants would leave. We’d clean up, feed and walk the dogs and eat dinner.

Early the next morning, like 6am, John and I would be out there, peeking into the ashes. Oohhhing and Aahhhing. Our artists would arrive at 10 to collect their work.

We did this every week during the season for ten years. We even held a Pit Fire Festival in October for many years inviting anyone and everyone join us and then finish the weekend with a gala Pit Fired Art gallery show. It drove us to explore our work, our production went up and we created some wonderful friendships and pottery.

Now we do fewer a year and mostly for ourselves, as we wanted to focus more on our artistic development. It was a great decade, though and there are days when I really miss all that teaching fun.

4 thoughts on “Pit Firing at Ellison Bay Pottery

  1. Hey, me and a friend got the idea to try this sometime in February if we have time off from school, do you know if pit firing will work at around fifty degrees? We’re having a very warm winter in New York!

    Thanks for putting this info up online!

  2. Hi Steven,
    I checked out your blog–it’s very engaging and interesting.
    You can pit fire in 32 degrees, we’ve done it, so 50 is fine.
    There are some precautions. Make sure the wood is dry, the pots are also dry (if you treat the surface with terra sig or any salt washes you must be sure they are dry before firing them).
    Some people use old Weber grills, too.
    Hope you take some photos of your process and put that up on your blog.
    Have fun

  3. Hello, I was wondering if you had any pointers for building an above ground pit from bricks? I’d appreciate any advice. Also, how do you get the leaf pattern on those beautiful vases? Is it was resist?

  4. Hi
    Building that pit above ground with bricks takes some planning. A level area. Fire bricks. It can be any size you wish. You can leave some gaps between the bricks for air flow-but you will have to experiment to find the right places and amount. We use a heavy duty steel pipe as the center support for the ‘roof’. Then we use old large kiln shelves as the ‘roof’. You’ll find something to use to cover the thing. We start with a good base of sawdust, line the pit with sticks or slab wood. We love free stuff-and knowing carpenters and wood workers helps-you can recycle their scraps. then we put in the pots, tumble stack sometimes, build sticks and wood over the pots stuff some newspaper crumpled up into open spaces and then light it on fire. After about an hour we cover it up. That’s the bare bones of our process. The fern impression is kind of a resist. John brushes the terra sig on the pot, then on the fern and sticks the fern on the pot. the terra sig holds the fern in place and when it burns off it leaves a shadow. Enjoy experimenting and developing your process 🙂

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