“Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh.” – Al Sweringen

Chimney getting hot.

A photo posted by Scott Cooper (@stearth) on

If writing a weekly blog for seven years taught me anything, it’s to not say too much while the pots are still in the kiln. Pride comes before the fall, and the kiln gods love to punish optimists.

So I’ll try not to say too much about that.

Man, that was a brutal four days.

Thursday: Switched the studio over from making to glazing mode; planned the load for the first firing with the new chimney; glazed and wadded them all in a day, when I usually take two or more days to do it. Really holding myself back on deco. Just bam bam bam.

Friday: Unwrapped the kiln from its winter nap. Finished a long slate of little tweaks and changes, related to the new stack. Cleaned and washed shelves, blah, blah — all the usual pre-firing, completely un-fun garbage. Loaded it. Realized I needed a lot of the greenware on the shelves for the next firing, and only one chance on the schedule to do it — plenty of risked pots already on the shelf, but not the right mix of shapes and sizes. So loaded the electric, too, which I never do late in the day, after my brain is too tired for the strategic geometry required to do it well. Desperate times, etc. Rough.

Saturday: Had to wait out insane winds on the salt kiln. I hate leaving raw glazed pots sitting in it. Messes me up to load, then pause, before firing. Fired the electric risk instead… until the winds knocked the power out. Not once; twice. About four hours total, and conveniently placed after the kiln was halfway there. Same distance to get to the destination as to go back, so I stayed up late to be sure it switched off. As almost everything not bolted down around the house went flying through the yard, I spent the whole afternoon worrying that my new brick chimney might get blown off its perch into a pile of rubble.

Sunday: Firing #68. Started well. Middle was great; an almost unbelievable surge of joy at the idea that I’d actually formulated a plan and made a change for the better. Hard evidence that the stack was pulling the damn thing along, instead of the burner having to push it all the way. Had a fun call with C (the other C), about damper position and gas settings. Real kiln nerditry. Kept going out to peek at the pyrometer and just could hardly believe how it just kept cruising along at 2.5º per minute without me doing anything to coax it. Feeling confident — grand — so damn relieved — even thinking, “Maybe I’ll get those four firings done in the next five weeks after all. Hell, maybe I’ll get in six or eight!”. Went in for a celebratory, mid-firing lunch with the fam and…

went back out to find that the winds had doubled in that half hour, somehow blowing the burner out — that’s never happened before — and that I’d already lost at least an hour’s worth of temperature. It relit easily, but then something was wrong, and I couldn’t quite tell what. Temp not climbing; sound was weird, muted. Flame moving too slowly; back burning like crazy with each big gust. (I had the term “mother fucker”in this paragraph somewhere, because it’s the first thing that came to mind, but I deleted it. Sorry K — old habits die hard.)

Anyways, that shock of going from premature victory lap to confused panic… that was rough. Against all my hard-won instincts with this kiln, I had let my guard down and allowed myself to believe it was actually going to cruise to the end. So when I walked out and heard that awful silence, and discovered the burner port was just a quiet, smoldering lava hole, when its supposed to be sound and hot fury? It was like I could feel a small mass of fairly important brain cells just give up and commit suicide. Most of the others started running around screaming “The End Is Near!!!”, or went into fruitless mourning over their departed comrades, leaving me with just the dregs, layabouts, and my sub-mental primal instincts to troubleshoot the problem. Not good, man. Not good. It’s possible that I just stood there staring at it for a few minutes.

Even with the burner back on, the wind kept howling, everything was just bizarrely strange, I couldn’t figure it out. I tried to regroup; think it through like an IT problem. Checked the tank to make sure we hadn’t run out of propane (it’s never happened, but there’s always a first time); verified that the shelves inside hadn’t collapsed over the burner port, and that the new chimney hadn’t spontaneously plunged any bricks inside itself. Stoked in, oh, five or forty pieces of wood, since that’s been my go to move to get past stalls for the last few years. Nada — just belching smoke and a tiny bump. Jerked the damper around randomly; checked to be sure something hadn’t bumped down one of the gas valves.

It gradually dawned on me — I don’t know, maybe after 20 minutes or so — that the burner was definitely still too quiet and not putting out enough fire. Having checked everything else I could think of to check, I pulled it out of the port, still on, and just kind of shook it. Like, when in doubt, give it the Fonzie treatment. I set it back down, aimed it into the kiln, and a moment later it sputtered and coughed and then, wonder of wonders, roared back to it’s normal blast. Thank. Fucking. God.

And I mean that, not so much for this firing, or this batch of pots, but because it confirmed that: a) I’m not going crazy (or at least, not from this); b) my entire kiln remodel moonshot wasn’t a giant waste of resources. The idea that I’d somehow found a way to engineer a chimney that works brilliantly until 2000ºF, then fails spectacularly was too awful to contemplate; c) I actually solved the immediate problem.

Anyways, so I had been meaning to call W, the Kiln Whisperer, for a follow up to all his great help planning and building this thing, and to get his advice on how to finish out the firing. So I went ahead and did that, maybe just to confirm that what I thought I’d just experienced actually happened and get his take what might have caused it (eg. to re-confirm item a) above). His best guess was that when that gust of wind backburned so hard that it blew out the burner (AND PILOT!), some little piece of crap got dislodged or blown back into the orifice; a “one in a million shot, Doc” scenario. Which sounds plausible, but at that point I’d have believed almost anything. Having just heard God laugh, who am I to argue the odds?

He also said that he’s seen or heard of similar things, but usually at the start of a firing, with burners that have been idle for a while getting rust scaling or spider webs in them. But 11 hours in? Strange. OK, whatever — I can live with that uncertainty. (But I’m definitely taking that fucker apart, replacing the thermocouple, and cleaning it out before firing #69.)

He gave me some good advice about getting past stalls — continuing my poor and hasty formal ceramics education the hard way. It seems pretty clear that I’ve got some new tricks to learn, and that some of my habits from just barely squeezing this kiln past the finish line might be part of the problem. On the plus side, that means there’s more hope for fine tuning and considering new variables. Also, the real silver lining here is that the old chimney in that unexpected, much-worse-than-forecast wind storm, would have just died. I mean, probably zero chance of finishing that firing, without staying up until two in the morning and putting a quarter cord of sticks into it. Or what if I’d gone in for a hour long break, or a power nap, as I usually do, and come back to find it had dropped a few hundred degrees? (Like that bisque firing, go on or go back? When it’s outdoors and windy as hell and getting dark, it’s really hard to go on.) Or that gunk could have stayed stuck, or happened seven more times, or, or, or. Only the paranoid survive (to keep punishing themselves with making pots).

So even with all that, or in spite of all that, it seems like the early signs were real; the drive to the end was OK. Even pretty good. Now, with this eight beautiful feet of hard brick — THERMAL MASS — now it seems like I might finally have cracked the code on this ridiculous puzzle of a kiln I created for myself back in 2005. With tons of help, of course.

Oh, and it’s also possible that the bit of shit got stuck in the burner first, and that caused it to go out, rather than the wind. In that case, or without that added, first-time-for-everything wrinkle, the chimney seems like it would have kept powering through the winds, even as strong as they were. Because after that, it pretty well cruised along to the end. Not a fast cruise, mind you, but with zero wood stoking to get it there, were normally (formerly?!?) that’s an almost all-day, every 15-30 minutes requirement. Oh, the things we do (or have done) for love.

And, back to where I started, let me say again that until the door comes down, all of this is provisional. I might even be writing this to distract myself from the fact that every pot could be a disaster. If it’s even more wildly uneven from top to bottom than usual, I’ll have a lot more codebreaking to do. If somewhere in that span I over-reduced it and fubared half my glazes, I will not be shocked. Or under-reduced it to where everything looks like a pale creampuff sundae. Or… you know, insert random bad thing here.

On the other hand, some of the most amazeballs pots ever from this kiln have come out of the worst firings; often a crushingly low success rate comes with a few unrepeatable gems. And I hedged against all this hard, by purposefully putting in the pots I cared the least about — lots of refires, also-rans, just-good-enough-to-fires, experiments. A ton of test tiles of my stable of glazes; at least 10 cone packs. What I really want, when I crack it open, is good information. Something I can work with on the next cycle, and the one after that, to get to the pots that I do care about. And there’s usually tons of it, even in terrible firings, if you’re open to receiving it.

So that about wiped me out, especially after the rest of that weird, hard week. I limped it to the finish line, just barely getting it off as the last daylight died away. Another one done. Now the waiting.

Time will tell. So much more to do.