Pit Firing: the basics

We just pit fired two groups of Two Coyotes Wilderness School students’ pinch pots, almost fifty pots, in a grand fire a few days ago. It was epic. Here’s a brief description for how we did it. I’m writing this mostly for the students and staff who didn’t get to be there for the firing, but it’s also for any interested individuals, who may wish to try it at home. I am here in Connecticut, where it’s a wet climate. Pots fire differently in the desert areas, where I first witnessed this process. This was my first time somewhat spearheading a pit firing, instead of just participating in anothers’ process. The results were really good! There’s always the danger of pots exploding or breaking during a firing. We only had two cracks, in this firing. It felt like somewhat of a rudimentary firing process. These pots won’t hold water, but can do so for short periods of time. They mostly came out pretty charred, with some beautiful color variances. It’s a learning process. I am glad to dance with the elements in this way, and hope to eventually learn about raku, and other more refined ways of working with primitive clay firing techniques. Making pottery already feels deeply connected with all of the elements. Fully participating in the firing process feels even more elemental and connected. I consider these pots sacred works of beautiful and functional art, and lovingly call them our “dragon phoenix children.”

Preparing the pots
1. Make pot/ clay piece (I will henceforth refer to it as just “pot,” from now on.) We added extra sand to temper our terra cotta clay: about a handful of sand, massaged into about a handful of clay. The presence of more sand in the clay helps to keep it together, during the firing.
2. Let pot fully dry. We let them sit in cars, windows, and full sunlight for almost a month, before the firing process. In the desert, we just let them dry for a few days, before firing. This part depends on where you live. But, the drier, the better. Any presence of air pockets or moisture in the pots can lead to exploding/ broken pots (no thanks!)

The Community
Let people know when and where you’re doing this. Ask for help, and turn it into a party. Many hands make light work, and it’s basically creating a huge bonfire... with baby pots birthing, under it.

Preparing the fire
1. Find a good spot that’s in a safe and clear place, away from the forest, or other accidental flammables.
2. Dig a pit. Make it about 8 inches (two hands) deep, and as wide as you might need it to be, for however many pots you are firing, laid out next to each other.
3. Gather lots of wood. We used a full bag of sawdust for the fine tinder, a pile of newspapers, and a truckload of assorted sized sticks from finger sized to solid lumps of firewood.
4. Prepare water. We had about 40 gallons of water and buckets nearby, for emergency usage.
5. Add a layer of sawdust/ fine tinder to the bottom of your pit, about 1-2 inches deep.
6. Arrange sticks around the edge of the pit, that creates a “support structure nest” for the pots, that more sticks can later be piled atop. These will help protect the sticks (Andy and I came up with this idea, in the moment.) Note that this layer is only for the edge, and not for the center of the pit, as the center is for the pots.

While preparing the fire...
Start pre-heating the pots. You can either just do this in the oven, at around 250 F for 30-60 minutes, or:
1. Build a fire. Crowd the pots around the fire, gently rotating them, so that they are evenly heated.
2. Slowly move the pots in, closer and closer around the fire. Let the fire die down into coals.
3. Place the pots on the coals, when they feel hot enough. You can place coals into the pots, too.

The Fire
Once everything is ready,
1. Place the pots on top of the first sawdust layer, facing downwards.
2. Add another layer of sawdust/ fine tinder on top of the pots, again about 1-2 inches deep.
3. Layer with newspapers.
4. Keep building your fire structure. Add sticks, moving from smaller up to to larger sticks. We started off building a log frame fire structure (criss crossing sticks), then placed longer sticks around that in a huge teepee fire structure. The end result looked like a massive teepee. We kept a “door” at the bottom to start the fire.
5. Start the fire. We bow-drilled a coal, blew it into flame, then sang songs as we lit the entire thing on fire.
6. Let it burn. It creates a huge fire that burns for almost an hour, then dies down into fat, bright, hot coals.
7. Once the coals stop smoking, cover with dirt. This keeps the heat in, and prevents oxidation. I just learned about this part from experienced potter John Olsen, who makes beautiful painted (with concentrated plant juices) and clean pots (not black and charred). We’ll try this, next time. And, add more pitchy wood at the beginning of firing (about half, to create a hot and smoky fire), for a reduction fire method.
8. Our coals stayed hot for almost 24 hours, uncovered. I slept next to them, and regularly visited them, the next day. Do not disturb the pots. Let them stay in there, slowly doing their thing: heating, cooling, and waiting. Once it feels cool enough...
9. Unearth the pots. Use leather gloves; they may still be hot.
10. Celebrate.