Nikolaus Steindlmüller: why I fire ceramics with wood?

by Nikolaus Steindlmüller

To answer the question, why I fire ceramics with wood is almost the same why I make ceramics, is very difficult. Since almost 50 years I enjoy working with clay – everybody knows, what that is. Starting to work with clay immediately needs an answer to the technical question of the further steps, what kind of clay, treatment, color, fire. So we are close to the point where wood firing is relevant, as it is so different from other technical methods of firing your clay piece.

Since we have modern kilns, which you can fire with oil, gas or electricity, the choice covers a wide field. I use an electric powered kiln (0,5 m³) for all bisque and glaze firings. It is useful for earthenware (ca. 1010 °C), what I made lots decades ago (I still love the white Majolica Sn/Zr-glaze, painted with stains or colored glazes) and sometimes for porcelain (cobalt/black painted). Since about 1980 I still work on a special series of slabs of any clays, to use as a kind of canvas, often pressed with or in cardboard to get the structure of a soft surface, and paint them. This ceramics are fired in a more or less clear fire, but some clay work needs to be put into an ash contaminated fire, to give an extra creative finish.

Coming back from Japan 1984 I had the impression, how important the wood fired kilns were for the Japanese potters and of course the wide range of ceramics fired in their kilns. Guided by the impression of the Bizen effects (i.e. Fujiwara) I got the idea of firing clay to its own beauty and consequently I decided to build a Bizen kiln. How far away from the reality!

The idea of a new, functioning wood fired kiln gave me the energy for the following years

I had to study all by myself and made really progress firing by firing, the clays (batches) got better, wood was not difficult, firing either – but with the exeption of some few good pieces, mostly the results were far behind my expectations. I had tons just to dump and too less joy. On my experience a kiln like this with 7-8 m long is not big enough and it should be fired for 12 or more days (and nights!) to produce the special results, I never could nor intended to manage that effort. Besides: In 2015 I saw exactly some well-known Bizen potters firing their clay work nowadays in a (much bigger, but similar) tunnel kiln, and not in a Bizen kiln, so what.

From the beginning of the 90´s I got so disappointed by that what I got out of the kiln, too many sculptures didn´t work, too much time and energy was wasted. I even changed my formal work for that reason, as the sculptures came out so weak and bad, that I worked more with common forms, easier, faster, in the hope to get reasonable results – not really.
I had to accept the reality, not easy, but it was the wrong kiln and I had to make up my mind and get out of the frustration. By invitation of artist friends, painters from the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, I started to make monoprints with them (what I still do today), paiting and printing bright colours on excellent paper was the right way to get out of the depressing clay work. That, and making painted slabs, helped me over the years and sculptural work could be done again later.

To attend the Wood Firing conferences in Iowa was the first step to get back into wood firing. Due to a short discussion with Fred Olsen and talks with other collegues I widely changed the interior and flues in the kiln and started with shino glazes, not bad, but soon the kiln showed some deterioration and I decided to build a new, modern, unsophisticated kiln. I dismantled the Bizen kiln, cleaned most of the used bricks, bought some new ones and a lot of mortar.

Collecting all publications and recommendations of friends and collegues, visiting Peter Callas, Tim Rowan and Jeff Shapiro, studying their kilns, corresponding intense with Chuck Hindes on forms and flues, I started to draw a tunnel kiln, got computer generated catena shaped (mathematic cosinus) cross sections to get a stable tube, according to Furutani I added a sutema, and with great enthusiasm I layed brick by brick, many enough cut with the wonderful diamond saws. I made that work all by myself, no hurry, on the base of the old kiln, starting with the entrance door, angle of the walls, the sutema and the connection to the (old) chimney. The idea of a new, functioning wood fired kiln gave me the energy for the following years.

To prepare the first firing I besides was already collecting probably suitable clays and minerals by the recommendation of our State Institute of Geology, from clay ponds in Northern Bavaria (and some samples from brick factories as well). I used this partially unknown material for my new pieces, made of pure, unprocessed clays, designed some clay bodies, batches of 3 clays + grogs, minerals, fluxes and prepared slips and shino and other glazes, and made enough work, plates, teabowls, and testpieces for the 1st firing. All this took almost 4 years till the first firing in Oct. 2015. The firing from Tuesday morning till Friday night took 14 Ster (1 German Ster = 1 m³ cut and stapled) wood.

I am so glad, this firing was already very satisfying, though the sutema remained underfired. But this result shows me profoundly, why I fire with wood: With the right clays, you might need careful selected natural stoneware clays, pure or a clay batch (I work on this theme over 20 years), and for some of my work I use slips or glazes. I now got results only by firing with wood with all its conditions, what I assume, you really will not get with other media.

You can try to fire with fossil energy (gas, oil), similar (I am sure, they do), but it never will be the same depth in color and surface. It heat is the same, the draft, oxygen and carbon, but not the permanent changing flow of the flame from burnt wood, it is not as clean as gas, as it brings particles from the wood and the ash and creates by the changing ratio of oxygen-carbon, caused by the way of firing the reaction on the surface of the piece.

Since I am not trying to get original Japanese shino glazed effects, though I use the idea of the formula, as I do it the same way with American, Australian, Korean and Chinese slips and glazes, I work with them (and my modifications) as with those published in literature to reach, what I intend to. The texture of the clays, the color of the slips, glazes and ash deposites (olive green to yellow!), not too much or overdone, no fancy runny ash drops, but a profound technique and style, only a subtle, fine orchestral result, that´s it. More than that I now can see colours on my ceramic out of a very subtle palette, blacks from stains or reduced iron, reds, orange, pink with gray, natural clays, whitish molten or dry, what is very satisfying for me.

Comparing the first idea amid the 80´s and now, I luckily found my way to what I need: It is not to fire ceramics with wood to get a more or less typical ash reaction on the body (and to use a French La Borne clay for that). Bizen (and the other kilns) and La Borne ceramics (as well as Westerwald and Bavaria) are an excellent ceramic culture, of course – but all this is part of a tradition, where I see me coming from, but this is past. There are no Bavarian potters any more, like elsewhere in many parts of the world of today. No doubt, our strong (and wonderful) Bavarian & Bauhaus tradition are my roots, but at least not my issue to imitate any traditional ceramic. I don’t see my as an artist, but I try to get best esthetic results by knowing how to proceed.

To explain it with a picture I need more than one instrument, a violin, piano or saxophone, it seems more to be an orchestra, playing with several instruments: clay and kaolin earths, minerals, stones, salts and water, and altogether treated within the fire-wind as still something strange, an autonomous medium, what you cannot reach, only care for and conduct it with wood and air, very, very concentrated, exhausting, creating only by this concert, that really “makes me a good feeling”.

Nikolaus Steindlmüller was born in 1946 in Prien, Germany. His beginnings in ceramics were with Prof. Franz Eska in Munich. In 1983 he travelled to Japan, Korea, China, USA, Iran and Afghanistan. On his return from these trips, he built his first wood-fired kiln, a Bizen-style «Anagama», in 1984.

In the following years he took part in various exhibitions both in Germany and internationally, working not only in ceramics but also in painting, monoprint and graphic work in general. In ceramics he does not only use wood firing but also other techniques.

In 2010 he built a new kiln, which he designed with the results he wanted to achieve in mind, and which he still uses today.

In 2012 he published a book dedicated to his work with wood firing, entitled «Nikolaus Steindlmüller. Bizen Anagama».

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