Wood firing Returns to Farnham!!

04 Feb 2011

The wood kiln at the ceramics department, University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, has now been tuned to perfection bringing a barren wood firing hiatus of over fifteen years to an end.  Gareth Mason reports.

Farnham Art School used to have a strong reputation for wood firing, and there was in the ‘70s and ‘80s a veritable shanty town of miscellaneous kiln shacks and improvised firing contrivances at the back of the campus, where an alternative culture of fire and sweat, beards and beer held sway.  The creeping corporatisation of the institution with its tightening health and safety regime, changes to course structures and, it has to be said, a concurrent decline in student interest, put paid to wood firing in the early ‘90s, when the site was unceremoniously bulldozed and became the upper left corner of the car park.  This was an ignominious end for such a hot bed of British pyro-culture, I always thought.  The kiln site at Farnham seeded the practice of Katerina Evangelidou, Richard Launder, the late great Patrick Sargent, the paper firings of Sebastian Blackie and many more besides.  It is therefore my great pleasure to report that, after a long period of tweaking, a functioning fast-fire wood kiln now thrives again in the remaining parcel of kiln site.  This signifies a re-kindling of the anarchic, unpredictable and educationally priceless spirit of clay and fire that was for so long the beating heart of ceramics at Farnham.  

The kiln was initially a simple double fire box catenary arched affair, built five years ago by the then kiln technician, Andrew Matthews.  Andy’s initial firings soon proved there were real flaws in its design, but a lack of expert knowledge at the time meant no conclusive diagnosis, and the cramped college schedule did not allow space for time consuming trial and error development, so the kiln sat mothballed.  Fast forward about two and a half years and I joined the department as artist in residence.  Ashley Howard (the then recently appointed head of ceramics at Farnham) and I initiated the Kiln Club, a band of interested parties, wood firers from the region, students and ex-students.  Turning a newly forensic eye to the neglected and sorry looking kiln, we quickly established that there was indeed a fundamental issue with the dual firebox design.  But my ceramic background is not in wood firing.  Many months passed and even with my improvised deepening of the ash pits and other adjustments it twice failed to get to temperature for us.  Enter local wood firer extraordinaire (and 1960s Farnham graduate) Graham Ellerby, who generously gave his time and expertise to the cause and rapidly diagnosed the issue: competition for draft between the two fire boxes; deficiencies in ash pit space; primary air starvation; insufficient insulation; too short a chimney… a long list.  A further period of modification and firing ensued to fine tune the kiln, which involved the loss of one fire box, enlargement of the other, installation of a ‘chequered floor’ (like a roman hypocaust), heightened stack, passive dampers, fire box ‘mouse hole’ air inlets and greatly improved insulation.  On April 10th 2010, a re-vamped and all powerful Bertha (for that is her name) purred effortlessly to the fine temperature of 1280 degrees centigrade, with plenty still ‘in the tank’ if we needed it, in an impressive one day cycle.  A gratifying atmosphere of graft, pyro-fellowship and celebration pervaded the day.  


 There’s really nothing quite like it.  The wood kiln is a living beast, with singular demands.  Wood is a fuel that requires resourcefulness, responsiveness and great physical energy.  At a time when most regard a kiln as having no more functionality or spirit than a microwave oven, it is a joy to introduce people to the personality, nuance, mystery, absorption, exhaustion, sweat and satisfaction of wood firing.  The Kiln Club’s membership is expanding and anyone is welcome to join.

Ashley Howard sees wood firing as, ‘…an important asset to the course, and an increasingly rare one too.  I really want to put wood firing on the map again at Farnham.  In a climate of ceramics course closures nationally, we need to keep the fire burning.’   This is a prescient statement and an admirable goal, one close to my heart.  Wood firing in education fires more than kilns; it fires the human imagination.  It is as powerful and relevant to the Nintendo DX generation as it was to the T Rex generation.  I am proud to be associated with the re-kindling of that spirit at Farnham.  I may become a wood firer yet…

To join Kiln Club Farnham, contact Ros Perton on: ros@rosperton.com   

 or contact Gareth Mason: www.garethmason.net