There was a time when the only thing I was reasonably sure of about pit firing, as far as fuming effects and colors go, is that you’d get a jet black area where your pot is buried in the sawdust or horse manure. But those days are behind me now, and as I have achieved better control over the fuming effects of my pieces, I start to itch for ways to get rid of those jet black areas that are the tell-tale signs of pit firing.
When I first started this blog four years ago, I had a very simple goal — to share my then developing pit/smoke firing know-how with others, one discovery at a time.
Now, four years later, I have managed to file quite a few posts with enough pragmatic details for others to use as reference, or even as a starter framework for their own pit firing experiments.
One thing has not changed much, though. My firing approach remains very specific to a rather personal obsession, a mad scientist-like urge to understand how different fuming effects can be arrived at with any given fuming material or firing process.
To that end, my emphasis is on achieving a broad range of surface colors and effects; and it’s no coincidence that the primary form I’ve chosen for these experiment is a simple, anonymous, and unassuming river rock form — which essentially serves as a neutral canvas to receive fuming marks, and which will not call attention to itself and distract the viewer’s focus from those fuming effects.
Once again I have fallen far behind in posting here. Earlier this year, I devised a plan to spend the summer focusing on more pit fire experiments, as well as documenting results from last year’s firings and publishing them as new blog posts here. Alas, life had its own priorities and requirements, and as a result I didn’t get to start the first firing of the year until well into the last week of July. But the worst was still to come.
On the 3rd day of September, disaster struck. The hot water heater in the house attached to my studio building broke, while the tenants were away on a camping trip, and the studio became flooded with 3 to 4 inches of warm standing water. To make a long story short, I spent the rest of September salvaging what could be salvaged, and getting rid of what could not be or were not worth salvaging. In the process of doing so, I found myself getting reaquainted with some old, old artwork from my art student days, dating back to the early 80’s (figure 1, 2, and 3.)
There seem to be two kinds of potters out there. Some will put their best efforts in trying to make better or more beautiful objects, functional or otherwise; while others will spend at least equal amount of time — and energy — in finding out how the process really works, and treat the whole exercise of making and firing pottery almost like a branch of empirical science.
I most probably belong to this second group. Well, some might even say I had gone over the edge, that I was actually more a mad scientist than an artist — which I would gladly take as a true compliment, by the way. :-)
And here is a manifestation of this truth over beauty tendency of mine. Instead of following my own proven three amigos (steel wool, copper mesh, salted raffia) formula to make more good-looking pieces like these or these, I decided to try just one amigo at a time, and see what will happen.
I thought it was just a fluke the first time this happened. I was at a group pit fire last year where I had seven pieces out of a total of thirty some pots in all. Most of my pieces turned out beautifully, so I wasn’t too upset when I noticed that one of them did not have any colors at all — only black and various shades of gray.
Well, it must have been in a corner where we forgot to sprinkle copper carbonate; and the copper mesh and salted raffia wrapped around the piece must have gotten knocked loose by falling logs too — so I thought to myself, and promptly forgot about the whole thing.
Then I started to do a lot of firings in my little backyard pit, and much to my chagrin, these all-black or black-and-gray rocks also began to crop up a lot more frequently (figure 1 above, and figure 2 below.)
Those of you who have followed this blog for a while would know that I’ve long been looking for proofs that one doesn’t need copper carbonate, a toxic (and expensive) chemical, to achieve the kind of maroon reds and blueish grays commonly associated with copper fuming.
I came really close to showing that I can get the same effects with copper netting from “Chore Boy” type copper scrubbers; but a real proof would require not having any copper carbonate in the pit at all — which I couldn’t really do in a group firing, where other people were there to get nice results for their pots, and not to help me prove or disprove some fine point in pit firing theories.
But now I have my own test pit, and the only pots at risk are my own. Woo-hoo! So after two successful firings using my standard method, proving that this test pit works just as well as any other I’ve used before, I went for a test firing with no copper carb at all in the pit, and was very pleasantly surprised to see some very respectable looking results (figure 1) for my efforts.
Three years ago, when I first started this blog, I wrote about using a BBQ smoker for pit firing, because I did not want to draw unwanted attention from nosy neighbors and fire marshals. As those of you who live in modern big cities would know, we often have all kinds of fire ordinances and burn bans to contend with, and striving for a look of innocently doing what every other urbanite or suburbanite would be doing is an important ruse for self preservation, if one is to succeed in pit firing in the city (or suburb) in the long run.
Unfortunately these BBQs didn’t work out all that well, as they were not designed for the prolonged high heat generated by a log burning fire. My BBQ smoker, for example, has paint on it that would start to burn after a while, and would give out noxious fumes and visible black smoke. Talking about trying not to draw attention! So I gave up this approach after just a few times.
Then I started to see these stand-alone outdoor ‘fire pits’ made of metal or clay at the patio furnishings section of department stores. Would these work for my purposes? After all, they were designed to burn logs, no? So I bought a cast-iron one (figure 1) from Home Depot and start to experiment with it. I did my first firing with it at the end of April this year.
Well, well… it’s been over a year since my last post here. Though I did not get to fire much in the last two years, I finally managed to achieve fairly consistent results by the last couple firings. The firing method remains essentially unchanged, i.e. a fast 6-hour affair in a relatively shallow pit, details for which can be found here and here. And I still use mostly cone 6 porcelaneous clay, but now bisqued to cone 010 instead cone 06.
(Update 2009-10-25: now I typically bisque my pieces to cone 012 instead.)
What I want to write about in this post, though, is how I use fuming materials to achieve the kind of results as shown in photos above (figure 1) and below (figure 2). This approach, of course, does not work aesthetically in all situations — so I am offering this only as a hopefully useful reference. As always, take whatever you need from it and adjust to your own requirements as you see fit.
Finally got my own clay studio set up at home. My former living room has turned into the sculpture and handbuilding area (figure 1). There used to be a couch here, but now it’s just two work tables and a few shelving units. Sometimes, late at night, these half finished clay heads would feel as if they were alive…
(Update 2010-03-30: I don’t live here anymore, though I still keep a studio in the back as well as the kiln room pictured below. Apologies to all those of you who had seen this site before coming to my new home, expecting to find a working studio there. Nah… I’ve become a normal person — no more clay and dirt and mess where I live. :-))