Salt Fired Pottery


Okay,  so I am probably dating myself, but after seeing the movie Ghost, I think almost every women I knew wanted to make pottery using a pottery wheel.  Was it that they really wanted to create such a work of art, or was it they hoped a gorgeous man like Patrick Swayze would be there to help them mold their  creation?

Ulster Happening and William Merlin of  merlinpottery.com are sharing with you the not so romantic side of creating pottery.

Salt fired pottery is one of the oldest and most revered techniques in all of ceramic art. To start one must first make the base for the pottery, clay. Clay can be bought from dry material companies and mixed with water to create slurry. Or at a higher price bought pre mixed. In my studio I take 900 pounds of dry material and rake it together to make slurry which is then set out on large plaster bats to dry. Once dry the slabs are slammed together and then cut apart I ball them and throw them into a mixing and de-airing machine known as the pug mill. The clay from the pug mill is then bagged and ready to use.

Before using pugged clay it is customary to wedge the clay first. Wedging takes out all of the air bubbles with technique of rotating the clay around itself in a spiral. The wedged clay is then slammed down on a wheel head. Once the clay is on the wheel it is spun at a high speed and centered to a perfectly round disc. This disc is then penetrated in the center about a quarter inch from the wheel head and opened up to create the walls of the pot. From there the walls are compressed and pulled upwards to create a consistent gradient of thickness from bottom to top. From here the walls are shaped into the form that the vessel will take. Once a pot is thrown it is left out to dry and then handles are attached and it is trimmed and finished.

Once the piece becomes Bone Dry it is fired in a bisque kiln to approximately 1800F degrees. After the kiln has cooled the work is unloaded and then painted with a hand mixed glaze that is made by carefully measuring the weights of dry materials to compose a paint of various periodic elements sometimes rare and quite expensive. After the work is painted with glaze it is ready to fire.

The first thing one must do is to gather wood to fire the wood kiln and store it in a place safe from the rain so that the wood is dry. I gather approximately forty thousand pounds of wood in a shed over a couple days. This wood will dry over the next few weeks or so so that the water inside does not oxidize the work and ruin the color. The work is stacked with shelves inside the eighteen foot tall kiln.  On the day of the firing I wake up at six and start firing for 18 hours straight. At the beginning of the firing the wood is thrown into the kiln at a moderate pace lightly stoking the kiln and gradually heating it up. Once it reaches about 1800 degrees there are over three million BTUs shooting out of the top of the kiln like a huge jet of flame followed by a large plume of smoke. For the last eight hours of the firing the flame is always starving for wood and to get it to reach 2300 degrees we must constantly stoke the kiln even though its fire emanates and licks my face and hands. At 2300 about 200lbs of salt is thrown into the kiln to vaporize and create an atmosphere that gives a glimmering crystal ripple texture to the pottery. After two days of cooling the work is ready to unload and the kiln and shelves must be mined and scraped clean of all the hardened wood and salt ash that accumulates at the bottom.

Overall this process is intensely laborious and harder work than most other jobs, carrying 200lb logs and throwing huge amounts of wood and labor around. It takes a heavily conditioned person to work at such great strength and agility. If I had not trained in weightlifting, yoga and martial arts it would have been an impossible feat.

My work can be found at merlinpottery.com. Merlin is my Grandfathers last name and we have a rich heritage of magic in our bloodline. We have always worked hard and overcome great odds and the work I make is surely a historic landmark of human perseverance and resilience. Come be a part of the movement and find out why my professors called me the next George Ohr.