Pit Firing

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  Images Copyright © 2018 Sumi von Dassow

Pit firing is a modern adaptation of age-old firing methods. In a pit dug two feet into the earth, unglazed pots are nestled in a bed of wood shavings sprinkled with salt and copper carbonate. Organic materials such as coffee grounds, banana peels and seaweed may be placed around the pots, as well as copper wire or steel wool. All these materials contribute color to the pots in the pit. The pots are then covered with scrap lumber and firewood (from fallen limbs and standing dead trees) which is lighted and allowed to burn for several hours, until the pots are blanketed with ash. Each pot is uniquely colored by fumes from the materials in the pit, patterned by the flow of air around it, and blackened by contact with smoldering fuel. Each pot has a story to tell, if one can only learn to read it.

The process of pit-firing is one of active collaboration with the elements of earth, wind, and fire. Once the wood is actively burning the pit is covered to retain its heat, while I watch the wind and direct an adequate air supply into the pit to avoid smothering the fire. At a high altitude the air has less oxygen, so it can be challenging to reach the 1400 degrees needed for the development of good color. The use of aspen and its cousins poplar and cottonwood is critical to achieving the desired temperature. Though the fast and hot fire tests pottery to the limit of its tolerance and contributes to a high breakage rate, the successful pots make the loss rate worthwhile. The warm reds and yellows that result from my collaboration with fire and air make each pot seem to embody the colors of autumn, a fitting reminder of the fallen limbs which helped create it.

Pit-fired pottery is unglazed and should not be used to hold water.

For more about pit firing, read my book Low-Firing and Burnishing

Saggar Firing is a related technique in which pots are fired in a kiln, inside an enclosed container called a saggar, with many of the same materials as are used in pit firing.

loading the pit
Loading the pit
burning pit
The open pit burning - the next step is to cover the pit to keep the heat in and promote color development