Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Salt kiln resurrection - Chapter 2

Well.   I think I’m fairly hopeless at keeping this blog up to date!   I have plenty of distractions to keep me away from the computer.  Given that I work in IT for my ‘day job’ too,  I suppose I should forgive myself for not wanting to sit at a keyboard during the rest of the week. However I’ve been promising myself for weeks that I’d write the next chapter of the story of the resurrection of the Solway salt kiln so I think it's about time I did! 

See my previous blog (http://ambientceramics.blogspot.com/2011/03/salt-of-earth.html) to see where we began and where we left off…

On 16th April, our original gang, minus Andrew and Jess, returned to remove the covers and carry on with the work of rebuilding Ray's dilapidated salt kiln.  Ray had bought a job lot of arch bricks from Jim Robison (or was it Jim Malone? Ray?) and when we arrived, these were sorted in lines according to size on the ground in front of the kiln.  So we were sorted for bricks!

Following a good few weeks of dampish weather, and despite having been covered with a plastic sheet, the arch former had bent under the weight of the bricks.  This was because the former didn’t really have enough laths - also, perhaps, because it wasn't made with an even curve in the first place.  The bricks had rested unevenly causing the complete area of the arch to end up somewhat higgledy-piggledy.  We spent some time debating about what to do.  In the end, we all agreed that we should rebuild the wonky area of the former and start the arch again from that point.  This meant that -somehow - we needed to cut out a section of the former without disturbing the rest.  We also agreed that we needed more laths to provide a really good strong support for the bricks which would inevitably be resting on the former for some weeks (or even months) to come, until the chimney had been completed and the first firing took place.  (If any of us did this again, we’d ensure that the former was ultra-strong and completely even from the outset – we all learned the hard way, but most importantly:  we learned!)

On the positive side:  the site was a lot clearer than when we’d arrived the first time, and we knew the ‘drill’ and got right into the work in hand.  And Spring had arrived at Solway!  Flowers and blossom everywhere!

But wait...  before we could even contemplate rebuilding the archway, there were other jobs to be done. 

Ray set us all away with various tasks: Scotty and Sue were on arch brick cleaning duty, Steve was to build the foundations for the chimney, and John and I were given the job of removing the fire bricks from the kiln floor and double-lining it with ‘ton-weight’ insulation bricks and then putting the fire bricks back in…. No rest for the wicked, as they say!
Meanwhile, Jan and Ray set away the other salt kiln for a day and night of firing! 
There was something really encouraging about the lighting of the smaller salt kiln whilst we were building the bigger one.  It was the perfect background activity to our work: the flames licking the outside of the kiln and the smell of the wood burning…   I kept thinking about the first firing of the new kiln and wondering about how well it would go, and what I should make to go into it.  I think that I will make something that I can use every week to remind myself of the wonderful times we had whilst working together at Solway – a big cooking pot would be nice.

Finally, the floor was laid, the chimney foundations were in place and the salt kiln was well on its way to being worthy of its salt.  It was time to call it a day.

On a night like this...

We had a really great night relaxing by the kiln…. drinking a few glasses of wine… chatting....  being entertained by Steve’s moonwalk…  (you had to be there…)

The next day, the first job was to remove the bent hard-board from the arch former and replace it with new, and add more laths for support.  Before doing this we needed to remove the bricks that had already been laid half-way up the arch.  I knew from what little experience I’d gained so far that it would save time if we labelled the bricks so we could easily find ones of the same orientation when it came to reconstruction. My numbering scheme seemed to cause some amusement… can’t think why…

Steve carefully sawed away a section of the former, and he and John added more laths underneath.  After this, a new piece of former was nailed in place; this was  butted up to what remained of the original, and the arch shape was tested before we went on.
A slight diversion here…Barry arrived and got ‘anal’ as he put it (are we allowed to say that on the web?) and sorted out the kiln furniture… Here is a man in his element:

Actually I shouldn't really be too cheeky about this because I really would have liked that job myself!
Whilst the kiln building and furniture sorting went on, there were yet more amazing team efforts going on around the site in general.  Chaotic piles of bricks, wood, clay and 'rubbish' were, bit by bit, transformed into a number of neat stores:

And Scotty discovered ‘saw heaven’ apparently!
And all the while... the kiln building went on… 

....and eventually Steve and John got to the final stages where it’s time to knit the top of the back of the arch into the sides.  This was a fairly complicated process of which none of us had any experience.  Steve, by this time, however, is really into the mind-set of kiln building and seems to know what’s needed.  So with Steve taking the lead, (and me and Scotty just passing them whatever they ask for) him and John get all the final pieces into place…. and….  suddenly...

The arch is finally finished!! 

At the end of our final day, we were nine-tenths finished on the kiln - and the site. 

There’s still some sorting of bricks and other stuff to do.  The kiln needs a chimney erecting but as this will be about 26 feet high, Ray is going to get a professional bricky for that.  To everyone’s relief, it was finally agreed that the distorted angle-iron around the kiln had to go. Ray is going to weld it off and replace it with more and better iron supports.  (The iron helps to keep the kiln tightly together during the expansions of the firing). 
Part of the reason for my involvement with the salt kiln building was to fulfill some of the requirements of my 'work-based learning' module, during which I had to complete approximately 120 hours of 'real work experience' in the field of ceramics or pottery.  One of the best results of 'working' on the Solway Salt Kiln was that it reinforced something I’d learnt a long time ago about ‘work places’.  That is: it is not all about the work  you do;  it’s largely about the people you do it with. 

If you work as part of a willing and contented team, then even the most tedious of jobs can be made to be great fun.  If you have two or three (or four...) minds at work on a job, you can reach good solutions no matter how complex a task may appear to be at first.  At 47 years old, with a lot of real work experience behind me, there’s no ‘placement’ in the world that will convince me otherwise about any of that.  Everyone was so amicable and cheerful in their work at Solway – and as a result we achieved such a lot over the four days we were there  - because everyone was just so determined we would!  Some of the work was really back-breaking but everyone mucked in.  It was extremely satisfying.  And… most of us discovered talents we didn’t even know we had in the process and gained a lot of confidence and skill which we’ll undoubtedly used again in the future.  I’d certainly be keen to get involved with another project of this kind – any time! There’s nothing quite like learning practical skills from real hands-on experience. 
So where does that leave us with the salt kiln?  Looking forward to Chapter 3 definitely. 
And…   I guess one shouldn’t forget the real purpose behind all of this....
One very happy Mr Pearson with a beautiful salt-glazed pot in his sights. 


  1. Brilliant, Dèl! Beautifully written, and what a fantastic job with your photos: *really* good! I couldn't even spot any typos :-(

    Your record and your photos capture the weekend perfectly.


  2. Hi Adele. Found your blog because I'm going to Solway Ceramics Centre for the first time this weekend, so it was really interesting to read your experience - I'll check out your handiwork on the kiln. Also, I'm considering the UCLAN MA. You should have just finished. I'd be interested to learn what you thought of the course and how it informed your practice, if you can spare a few minutes. Thanks, Pam Gould.