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women n' wood firing

updated tue 5 feb 02


karen terpstra on mon 4 feb 02

Hi All,
Merrie, I loved your post last week. We just finished the 7th firing
this past weekend and your post and the others that followed were on my
mind during the entire firing. You are fortunate to have such an
insightful mentor. I was told the same thing after having similar
problems, "It's your kiln. You are in charge!". When we started
woodfiring here, word got out and people came out of the woodwork and
offered to "help" which in reality meant "I want to show off my stuff
and get some pots in."

We started here with a train kiln for about 2 years...barely had enough
room for student pots let alone others or even my own. But, it was easy
to build and I wanted to see how this whole thing would go over in the
middle of campus. We had permission from administration, the physical
plant's heath and safety mgr., the city fire dept. and code guy. So far
it's gone over great with everyone and they all love drinking coffee now
out of handmade, wood fired mugs.

The people who volunteered to "help" with the firings were merely viewed
as "kiln hogs" by the students. Didn't learn a whole lot from them
either. It was very confusing for them to see me talk about and do one
thing during my shift and then someone else come in, do the opposite,
and disregard things that I said. Thepeople who wanted to "help" were
used to firing their own wood kilns and had no experience with
train/coffins. None of them were invited back.

The biggest pet peeve I had with a few of these people was that they did
not respect my instructions on how I wanted the firing to proceed. One
of the rules that I was trying to work out (and I have limited
experience) was to fire the kiln without more than 12 to 18 inches AT
THE MOST during the entire firing even at the end. It is necessary for
me to continue to behave with this kiln in the middle of campus, in the
middle of the city. I will not jeopardize my relationship with the
people who have given me the permission to do this. The macho men who
enjoy the firing frenzy with 6 foot of flame shooting out the chimney
can fire elsewhere.

The second time we fired, someone off campus called the fire dept. and
reported that the dumpster behind the art building was on fire. Even
though I make all the phone calls and let everyone know that I am going
to fire, the city HAS to respond to a report from off campus. So at
2:00 am. the fire truck, ambulance, and police came screaming over to
our wood kiln. They were all very understanding and campus security had
immediately reminded them that it was my kiln when they received the
call, but they still had to follow procedure.

My work was going no where in that situation with our little coffin
kiln. (some of my work was much to large for that type of kiln too) So I
decided to tear down the little kiln and get serious. Got a research
grant and a whole pile of used brick. Took me almost 2 years to build
"Bob" (named after one of my favorite horses that I've owned, Bob Dr.
Bob) a 2 chamber sprung arch, but it was worth the pain. I'm in love
with him!!! We are going through the courting stage now and I am able
to do lots of testing with my theory of keeping the flame down. It's
also inspired me to do allot more claybody, slip and glaze testing.
...getting to know him....oooh! love it.

Some one asked me the other day why potters aren't hanging out here when
we fire. I said, "I need the time alone with my kiln to work out the
bugs. I want to know this kiln inside and out... intimately". Then, I
will start inviting people to hang out but they must be aware of wood
kiln etiquette and listen to the boss---me.

Yes, there are lots of questions I have from the pros and people with
much more experience than I have. I have been on the phone, email, fax,
you name it with questions to people who know what they are doing. They
are also people with a sincere understanding of respect. They have all
expressed an interest now in wanting to come over and fire the kiln but
they realize I have more learning to do first.

We are cooling right now and I get silly like Merrie and kids at
Christmas waiting and waiting and waiting for that thing to cool off.
We had a great learning experience firing through the wild, wintery,
Wisconsin weather. Low pressure through the entire firing
until-wouldn't you know it-- it's time to soak. The pressure lifted and
we had trouble holding back. We fought the weather the entire time. We
overlapped our shifts and worked longer hours so we could really work
together this time.

The students alternate around the clock in 6 hour shifts. We also fire
with my husband (a minor in forestry makes him a wood freak and, he has
played with fire since he was a kid, reloading shotgun shells, building
fireworks etc...) also have a non-trad student who has become my right
arm and will always have a place here. This weekend it took the 3 of us
to figure out how to keep Bob's chimney draughing. It seemed like we
had to go through most of this firing without using our passive dampers
at all. We had to use every bit of flame that would pull through. All
of a sudden at the end the clouds left. We could see a starry, starry
sky and wow, if we would have left Bob alone he would have been shooting
those 6 foot flames out the chimney in the middle of campus.... All the
passives, and we have mechanical dampers too, got us through. We did it
in 32 hours, cone 12 down (13 in the middle--nice for porcelain!)
including a nice soak at the end.

And, yes, us girlie girls have to do what we have to do. I also (like
Merrie) have a cheap yoga tape (with yoga master Rodney Yee-a pleasure
to wake up to. And Craig's not even jealous). In addition to that, I
have an old bar bell set with bench etc. and I lift weights. Started
doing this in grad school when I realized I didn't have the upper body
strength I wanted. Tending an oak wood pile and using a few 45lb
shelves, those barbells have come in handy! I came home last Friday
from loading for 11 hours in 20 degree weather. My husband looked at
my dog-tired rumpled body and said, "I don't know how you do it.Lifting
and twisting all day in those chambers in this weather." I said, "I
really couldn't without yoga and weight lifting."

I do most all of the loading myself because like I said, I have to know
what's going on in there... It's a real learning process for me. You
also know the scenario, someone will say, "hey, go take a break, I can
load for you." Yeah right, you come back and that persons pots are ALL
in and no one else's! ....Kiln Etiquette.

I have stoked, smokes cigars, sipped on scotch, told dirty jokes with
the Best of the Boys Clubs in my Carharts and work boots. And I have
fired with women in Africa who stoke wearing dresses and sandals, no
gloves--don't have any, the baby grandkids are tied to their backs, and
we talked about breast feeding, giving birth and gender/culture issues
as we fired. Anywhere in the world, the good wood firers know their own
kilns inside and out.

So, think about it this way: If I were dating a guy named Bob, and
wanting to get to know him intimately, very intimately, why would I want
a bunch of macho's trying to tell me how to do it... I could get real
sexist here but I won't.... :)

Anxiously awaiting unloading day!
Happy firings,

Karen Terpstra
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
email school: