Fired Up Over New Kilns

by Ceramics

Like most things, the life of a kiln is only so long. Kilns must often roar to temperatures around 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit and then cool within 48 hours, so the artists can eagerly claim their ceramic work. Lined with firebrick and framed with steel supports, these materials degrade over time and with use. The Harvard Ceramics Program reduction kiln, built in 1987, was well loved and well used for more than 1,000 firings in 25 years. The studio decided it was time to build a new kiln in 2011 and began fundraising the thousands necessary to buy a new reduction kiln that would fit the needs of the unique program.

Through generous donations and fundraising efforts during the studio’s annual show and sales, the Ceramics Program was able to raise enough funds to see their dream come to fruition and bring in master kiln builder Donovan Palmquist from Minnesota in January of 2012. The Studio not only built a new 80 square-foot reduction kiln, but a new 36 square-foot soda fire kiln as well. Throughout the building process, Harvard students and studio participants were able to watch the ever jovial Palmquist and his assistant Judah Birkeland work magic as the kilns went up brick by brick.

For the soda fire kiln, a master class allowed students to aid in the building process. A range of students from harvard undergraduates to international participants cut and stacked bricks layered with mortar, made numerous measurements from the foundation to the chimney, and even created a wooden support on which to build the braided arched roof of the kiln. Such structural basics harken back to the days of Roman arches, with nothing but careful geometry and gravity holding the materials together. The tasks were exciting and rewarding, allowing creative spirits to explore a mix of engineering and science. Local professionals were responsible for fitting out the gas pipes and electrical work, but were more than happy to talk to students and explain their processes.

The Studio’s kilns, ranging from electric and gas fired, serve a functional purpose and allow for raku, soda, saggar and reduction firings. However, the building of two new kilns was an exciting and rare opportunity in itself to show students the physical infrastructure of kilns while answering the hows and whys of functionality.

The ceramics community came together not only during fundraising efforts through raffles and auctions and private donations, but also for the creation process, eager to learn and help. The new kilns will fire more efficiently than their predecessors and should see the studio through another 25 creative and exciting years before needing to be rebuilt. "Fueled" by the success of these recent projects, the studio hopes to also purchase new electric kilns in the near future. Watch the building of the reduction and soda kiln step by step in the stop-motion videos below. [youtube] [youtube]

[Caption: Original reduction kiln built in 1987, prior to demolition. ]

[Caption: Judah Birkeland and master kiln builder Donovan Palmquist welding the frame for the new reduction kiln. ]

[Caption: Harvard undergraduate Rebecca Mazur '15 and studio participant Shamai Gibsh help stack the chimney during the Soda Master Class. ]