A unique wood-fired kiln is reason alone to visit the UWM at Waukesha Field Station. Modeled after the ancient Japanese Anagama kiln, it uses a low-tech process that glazes more ash into the pottery, creating different but pleasing effects. As each kiln is unique, today’s potters must learn individual techniques for use and firing.
The 1997 kiln project was conceived, designed and spearheaded by Christopher Davis-Benavides, with details and modifications worked out in the field (literally, since the kiln was built at the 98-acre Field Station). He and Jeff Noska, owner of Composite Clay Studio, managed the project. Students in ART 291 Ceramics Workshop: Wood-Fired Kiln Construction assisted. All of the people involved appreciated how rarely kilns of this nature are constructed and were excited to learn by doing.
Battling bugs and heat, they built concrete footings and wood frames, cleaned and laid 8,000 bricks, dug tunnel vents, and covered the structure, which looks like a sleeping mastodon, with a special kind of cement.
“Ninety percent of the glazing comes from the wood fire on clay,” explained Noska, a professional potter.
During construction, he likened the unadorned wood frame to a boat. According to the tradition of the Anagama, it must be built into a hill. That way, steps are within the kiln and pottery is placed in different relationships to the fire and is exposed to varying amounts of ash. Temperatures inside reach approximately 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
The students donated their weekends and off hours to the project as well. Their work — bowls, vases, sculptures and relief pieces — spent much of the summer stored in the Field Station barn. The inaugural firing lasted five days and used more than four cords of wood to keep the kiln between 2,350 and 2,470 degrees for nine hours. After waiting several days for the kiln to cool, the builders determined that more than 700 clay pieces were fired successfully, with very few casualties. The work was a success!