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Book Review by Tom Barnett

Kiln Construction: A Brick by Brick Approach

Joe Finch
112 pages
A&C Black 2006


As someone who once immersed himself in kiln building with no previous experience I am aware of how literature about such a highly complex technical subject can have its drawbacks. A few years ago when I set out to understand how kilns operate in order to build a sculpture-kiln I couldn’t find any books that presented relevant information that was on my level. Naturally Fred Olsen’s ‘Kiln Book’ was the first port of call. However in opening the pages of this text I was hit by a tidal wave of kiln designs, photographs and reams of text that overwhelmed me, new to the field as I was then.

For this reason Joe Finch’s Kiln Construction: A Brick by Brick Approach is a welcome addition to this small niche of ‘kiln building’ literature. Although it caters for a relatively narrow area of brick kiln design, it does so in a methodical way that is clear and probably as concise as such instructions can be for those contemplating building their first kiln.

Finch is well qualified to publish this kind of information. With forty years experience as a potter and kiln builder (based in North Wales) he is not only an authority on the subject of brick kilns but he has also had plenty of time to test the designs outlined in his book. Some of these tests have been demonstrated at the Aberystwyth International Ceramics Festival, and a number of short references written by potters in the book describe the success of kilns that Finch has built for them.

Kiln Construction is not, as I have mentioned, a book describing how to construct any of the myriad types of kilns. Finch readily admits this in the preface. Instead the book provides techniques for building a very specific type of brick built kiln. This is a modification of Fred Olsen’s ‘fast-fire’ kiln design with detailed information about adapting the design to suit three key fuels: wood, gas, and oil. The selling point of the kiln design is that it is quick to build and fires tremendously efficiently. I witnessed one of Finch’s ‘fast-fire’ type kilns being built and fired one week while working on an experimental firing event ‘Fire in the North’ in Cumbria in 2003. It was constructed with precision over four days and fired with amazing efficiency. Considering the current heightened awareness of energy issues, potters keen to find ways to be energy efficient during firing should examine these designs.

Before going into the complexities of the ‘fast fire’ design he answers the fundamental questions artists would consider prior to building a kiln:   What wares are to be fired? What firing temperature is required? Which is the best fuel to use? He also discusses other crucial points such as where to locate a kiln, how to ensure good health and safety, what materials to use and what tools are needed for the construction.

I would like, however, to have seen distinct reference in this section of the book to energy issues regarding firing. It is not enough that Finch has provided a design that is fast firing and therefore economical with energy. Potters and ceramic artists naturally have a heightened awareness of their energy consumption in 21st century society. Literature on the subject should make stronger efforts to reflect this concern. What is the fuel consumption of a typical firing in an x cubic feet kiln? How much carbon monoxide is produced? Can this be off-set? If using wood, what size woodland with which species could maintain a kiln’s fuel requirements? And so on.

The second half of the book gives the ‘brick-by-brick’ instructions of how to construct the kilns. This guidance is thorough and supported by a wide variety of snapshots taken from 3D computer-generated designs of the kilns. These are really useful images of the kilns at key stages in their construction - edited to include plans and close-up details. When intermixed with shots of the real kilns in mid-construction no doubt is left as to the correct way to go about building one’s own version.

The issue of the appearance of kilns is another neglected element in this book, I feel, and is often the case in the ceramics community at large. I recall hearing Fred Olsen (who wrote Finch’s Foreword coincidentally) speaking at a wood-fire conference in Iowa (2004) about the need for potters to pay greater consideration to the look of their kilns. His message was crystal clear: the artist’s kiln is not just an industrial tool - it is a site of beautiful, almost alchemical, transformation. It slightly perplexes me that wood-firing potters, who are after all in the business of making objects for visual contemplation among other things, often pay minimal attention to their kilns as visual and architectural forms. Surely these sites of energy and change should be given more acknowledgement in their environments? Of course I am biased in this opinion as an artist who makes sculptural kilns (see below) but I think the point does need emphasis.

However, this said Kiln Construction is a valuable reference book and a well-priced investment for the kiln-building neophyte. Think of it as a solid guide to getting a practical working brick kiln up and running, and a sound introduction to the scientific and creative practice that building and firing kilns encapsulates. You never know a few years down the line you could be publishing the next innovative guide to a kiln design in this exciting field of knowledge.

Tom Barnett has been working on projects firing sculpture kilns as community performances nationally and internationally since 2000. For documentation of these projects visit www.tombarnett.net/firing.html


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Book Review by Tom Barnett • Issue 10