Monday, 14 March 2011

Salt of the earth

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of joining a gang of 10 other potters (plus one painter and one landscape designer...) to help reconstruct a derelict salt kiln at Ray Pearson's ceramics centre at Newton Arlosh, in Solway.  It might sound like a strange way to get my kicks (and there were a few confused expressions from the lads at work when I said I was missing The Home Gyem this weekend to head off West and build a salt kiln instead) but it was the best and most rewarding weekend I've had for a long while.  Having said that, I'd been to Solway Ceramics Centre before so I wasn't expecting anything less! 
Entrance to Solway Ceramics Centre, Newton Arlosh
Ray and Coralin Pearson are two of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet;  their warmth and hospitality are amazing.  I relax completely from the minute I arrive at their place. The Centre has everything:- a huge studio, with a lovely log fire, where Ray does his teaching, and where a whole host of potters of international fame come to demonstrate their techiques; every kind of kiln imaginable; good overnight accommodation for students and guests; a big shared kitchen and living area for lunchtime and evening get-togethers - with a massive kitchen table around which to share a communal meal, a few drinks and a good many potters' tales... 

Definitely check out their website for more info about the Centre and details about the pottery courses:

The salt kiln had been out of action for a while. Ray had bought it down in Devon a few years ago, and transported it, in pieces, back to Cumbria! 

The whole thing had been reconstructed on the Solway site but the archway had collapsed shortly afterwards and it had stood unused since. During a previous visit, a few of us from the College had volunteered to get it rebuilt and back up and running, and eventually we got ourselves organised to go and get the work started.

Brick mayhem

The first job was to dismantle the existing kiln to below the start of the arch, and to sort and clean the bricks.  The bricks used were fire bricks of various kinds.  I must admit to having known little about the construction of outdoor kilns before this weekend, and I still have a lot to learn! For a start, I was amazed to find out how many different kinds of bricks there were.  The kiln has a inner lining of high firing bricks that can withstand stoneware firing temperatures (up to 1300 degrees centigrade), and then an outer lining of insulation bricks of various kinds which have a lower temperature threshold and are used mainly as an additional lining to prevent heat escaping from any gaps in the course of fire bricks. 

Getting organised

Red insulation bricks in piles

Whilst a group of us were cleaning and sorting the bricks, Andrew (our star technician) and Steve set about making the former on to which we would construct the brick archway:

Eventually the arch was ready for positioning and it was all hands to the job to get it into place.  People of all heights were needed - it was a bit of an up and under job!

Steady as she goes...

View from back - arch in position

Once positioned, it was a case of starting to build the archway up against it, using the 'arch bricks' - these are tapered at one end and there were 3 or 4 different sizes with different degrees of angle...  John, Steve and I had to learn quickly how to fit them together for optimal usage of the limited number of bricks and also to ensure a neat curve that would hopefully meet evenly in the middle.... We used fire clay as mortar where and when it was needed, but generally the idea is not to mortar the bricks in a kiln like this.  The kiln needs to be able to expand and contract during firings and mortar either prevents this, or just falls out in the process of the kiln's movements.

Steve's a natural at this...

Dave and Hilary beavered away at the back....  and after a good few hours work, the kiln really began to take shape:

 At the end of Day One

It felt like a great achievement - it's a wonderful kiln and it was so good to help ressurect it.  We were short of a few bricks to complete the job but Ray will get these and the plan is to return in a couple of weeks and complete the job. Once all the bricks are in place, the first thing that will be done is to burn out the wooden arch former and ensure that the arch holds in place.  I can't wait to get back there to see what happens!

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