Building a Bourry Box Kiln: From the Beginning

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It’s in the Atmosphere at Hood
Curated by Leslie King
May 5-June 12
Reception: June 11, 3:30-5 p.m.
Whitaker Gallery

(This essay was written about building my bourry box wood kiln as part of the above exhibit…)

Perhaps you remember the day, the month, when you first saw a wood fired kiln in action…the wood stacks waiting patiently while a small group of amazingly cheerful and ragtag enthusiasts fed the fire.  It seemed like magic to all of us, something as improbable as a unicorn, that the piles of sawmill scrap wood could add up to a sustained 2400 degree fire, and that the clay would come out of the kiln with luscious ash drips and flame marks from the process.

More amazing yet is that day when you decide to take the first step towards designing and building your own kiln.  Pick up the old standard, The Kiln Book  (Fred Olsen) to peruse the names of each pattern of brick stacking, differentiating ‘soldier’ from ‘header’.  My own process began while traveling to fire kilns across the country, as I measured outside dimensions and mentally calculated the square feet of space in each area: firebox versus collection chamber, throat arch versus ware chamber height, and realizing how much it all mattered.

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Fast-forward to rebuilding a second-hand brick saw, pallets of amazingly heavy bricks lining the freshly poured cement kiln pad, and a brick-by-brick hand-drawn plan in hand, and it hits:  I’m Building My Own Kiln!  After a few days of help from friends laying the cinder block and soft brick foundation, I settled into the rhythm of stacking one layer of bricks a day.  In taking on a project of this size, we often learn just as much about ourselves as we do about the project, and I was pleasantly surprised by the solitude, the slow rhythm of taking each step as it came, from laying with a 6’ level to stopping to make a few special cuts.  But eventually the kiln was as tall as I was, and it was time for the gathering of good-hearted friends to lay the top arches…and they came. Lynsi and Kate lat-rowed bricks up the roof for the chimney. Beth and Jane and Jerry mudded and set the arch.  After a methodical month of bricks and handmade clay blends, we were ready to light the first match.

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A bourry box firebox lends itself to calm, quiet firings, with no smoke and very little flames visible.  The firebox glows red at night, but compared to the flashy and dramatic visuals of its anagama cousin, the bourry box is the reserved poet often found under a tree at the party in a one-on-one conversation.  That said, a firing crew is always a good thing.  We tend to fire with a crew of four as the core, alternating the overnight shift and working in pairs.  The three day firing goes quickly, and we burn through a big pile of twigs (day 1), a good heap of scrap (day 2) and about 3 stacks of silver maple skinny limbs (day 3), all scrap wood from my property.

If you’re considering taking on a project, pushing your work in the direction of your dreams, take the first tiny step.  Don’t skimp on the learning and observing.  Build on what you know, follow hunches, and do it yourself.  You’ll get there, one tiny step at a time.  Your friends and those who have done it before will be there, lending a hand, listening to your dilemmas, and watching with a smile as the shifts happen, taking you and your work closer to your unique vision.

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