|Story last updated at 10:16 p.m. on Wednesday, May
Wood-fired kilns take days to glaze
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on
Thursday, May 16, 2002.
FARMINGTON -- The time for 'super
heat' had come. Late on the afternoon of April 30, four men
working a kiln behind Geoff Pickett's pottery studio in
Oconee County began feeding slabs of wood to the gluttonous
Barry Palevitz, left, and
Geoff Pickett stoke a giant, wood-fired kiln recently
at Pickett's home in Farmington.
Through a few cracks in the
chimney bricks one could glimpse the raging firestorm that
burned through the 16-foot-long, two-chambered wood-fired
kiln. The fire -- originating in a firebox at one end --
coursed through the kiln washing the pottery in a bath of
searing red-orange flames.
was already more than 2,300 degrees hot. Now was the
critical time to bring the second chamber, simmering at less
than 2,000 degrees, up to that same frenzied
This operation would mean
boosting the heat in the middle of the kiln by feeding
narrow slits of wood through a small opening in the middle.
It had to be done just right.
four sentinels of the fire monitored the thermometers that
gauged the temperatures inside. Up and down the degrees
bounced. They stoked the fires often. They occasionally
opened small air pockets, all the while trying to build the
Pickett, the stocky
Englishman, with the thick wavy crop of hair and burly
beard, supervised the labor along with Jeff Bishoff, another
Farmington potter. These men were experienced in the ways of
fire in this kiln, modeled after a type used by 19th and
early 20th century potters to glaze their
Most pottery today is glazed
before it is heated, but in this kiln, the ash and fire
creates the glaze. Pickett also uses a gas-fired kiln for
much of his personal work, but twice a year he and others
work this giant kiln. There is not another one like it in
the Athens area.
Helping this day was
Michael Pierce, a Farmington painter and sculptor, and Rob
Sutherland, a novice potter from Athens. Others had helped
at earlier times, usually in six-hour shifts, as this
labor-intensive task began April 23 by filling the kiln with
pottery before it was sealed. The fire was set on the
evening of April 25 and it would not be allowed to die until
well into this night, five days later. Then it was cooled
until May 11 when it was unsealed. Only then were they able
to see what colors and blemishes the fire had
Late in the afternoon,
with the heat finally rising to 2,176 degrees in chamber
two, Pickett leaned against a metal rail in a temporary
moment of rest during the pitch to raise the
The kiln heats to more than
2,500 degrees and can consume 24 pick-up truckloads of
pine over several days of tending.
''It's been worse than this. It's
a swine to get it over the hump, you know,'' he commented.
''We've got a bit to go, but once it achieves that fairly
hot level it's all right.''
was to boost the temperature to near the 2,400-degree zone,
or as an engraving over the main firebox states ''set the
controls for the heart of the
But Pickett admits, ''We don't
have it figured out without a lot of fussing
And while the kiln trapped
the raging firestorm, the nice thing about this late spring
day -- when blackberry and honeysuckle bloomed in earnest --
was the overcast weather. A cool breeze often swept its
welcome way under the open tin-roofed structure built to
protect the kiln from rain.
the first chamber began to lose heat, Sutherland, 29, turned
to the master potter and asked ''Why can't we stoke the main
Pickett, his eyes looking down,
and running his fingers through the beard on his chin,
replied, ''It'll smoke like hell. You can't do both at the
Later, however, they did
feed more pine boards to the main fire box. Within minutes,
Pickett walked beyond the structure and announced that the
fire was coming out the top of the 29-foot tall
Everyone walked to the
outside. The flames were visible against the gray sky. The
dragon's breath had breeched the
''It's beautiful at night,''
The flames licked the air
without billows of black smoke.
not smoking because everything is pretty well engineered,''
Pickett likes the
effect that a wood-fired kiln gives
''You need to burn wood over a
long period of time to get this fire ash effect,'' he said.
''In my gas kiln the pots are totally glazed and the average
fire is about 14 hours, but when you rely on fly ash they
tend to be fired for a lot
The old time potters used
materials that they had on hand, he
''One of the things readily
available was wood ash, of course, clay, and fieldspar,'' he
The 22-foot-long kiln was built
about eight years ago and has been a learning
''This is dealing with a
lot of fairly complex variables. They start at the beginning
with the storage and drying of the wood. Then the physical
design of the kiln and the repairs, like air leaks. The way
it is packed, the rate of stokes and the rate of increase in
temperatures. We struggle with it constantly to try and get
better results and a better average of success,'' he
''It's better to have a long kiln
like this. If it's too short, the flames zip through and
you're heating up the sky. So bigger kilns for wood burning
Pickett enjoys meeting
people, mostly collectors, who appreciate pottery made this
''There are quite a few people who
have acquired a good eye for it,'' he said. ''They can tell
it is wood fired. They appreciate the various subtleties in
the piece and that is thoroughly encouraging to
Englishman finds rural Georgia
Geoff Pickett, the native of
England who has plied his craft for more than 10 years in
the rural setting of Farmington, makes his living shaping
''There's nothing like it
a-tall,'' Pickett said as he engaged in a conversation with
fellow potter Jim Bozeman, a Greenville, S.C., native, who
lives in Hull.
''We're made out of dirt
anyway, so it's like you're working with what you are. You
know what I mean,'' Bozeman replied. ''I can't think of any
more down to earth kind of way to make a
Pickett has come a long way
in establishing his earthy trade. He grew up in northern
Devon County, England, in a port city that during the
Colonial period was a shipping center for goods, including
pottery, going to the American
Pickett came to America in
1981 with intentions of visiting.
just wanted to look around. I just did it for a lark
really,'' he said. ''I traveled around the country, went to
all the good places and stumbled on this
He ended up going to the
University of Georgia in 1984 for a master's degree where he
studied under art professor Ron Meyers, who is known for his
pottery. Pickett obtained his bachelor's degree from the
Bath Academy of Art.
He returned to
England in 1987, where he has two sisters and a brother, but
returned in 1988 when he was hired to teach pottery at Berea
College in Berea, Ky.
''It's a bit like
Berry College. The kids all work for the school, so they had
a pottery program and I worked there for two
He also met his wife, Lisa,
who is originally from Chicago. She was a volunteer for the
Christian Appalachian Program. After marriage they decided
to move to a place with more opportunities, so Pickett
suggested the Athens area, an area he knew had a history of
pottery and was close to a large metropolitan
They moved to Farmington in
''We were lucky enough to find a
shack on Salem Road and I got set up there. We were there
basically for 10 years.''
Not long ago
they moved across U.S. Highway 441 into their new home and
studio. Unusual as it may seem, their Victorian home was
once on Prince Avenue in Athens, but was purchased by a
doctor and moved to Farmington.
saw it, made a deal, and had it moved to his property -- his
''down to earth'' place.