Sunday, 25 July 2010

Kilns of the North Rejoice!


Kilns of the North Rejooiiiiiice, Riiiiver and mountain spriiing...
So, it's done its first firing and delivered a fully cooked bisque firing. Hooray.
Adrian and his son turn up at 9.00am Tuesday 20th armed with a van full of optimism and good will, an unshakeable conviction that the fault, whatever it was, could be corrected in - oooo - minutes - half and hour max, and alternatives for every part of the kiln's anatomy, just in case.

A couple of hours later,
and several calls to Mr. Stafford Controller later,
and a great many wires and flashing lights,
and testing,
and little peeps and bigger squeals and an alarm or two,
and numerous figures and numbers and mixtures of figures and numbers,
and a small amount of grunting,
all this a two hours later,
it was,
halleluja,
fixed.

The culprit was one of the electrical components in the wiring. Controller wasn't 'goosed,' nor was the actual wiring-in the cause of the problem. It was a manufacturing fault elsewhere - which was kind of reassuring - for me anyway. It has, as I write, completed its second firing. I love the controller - it lights up like a Christmas tree and tells you exactly what's going on. It takes 2 days to cool down, if you're uber-cautious, which I am. So, we'll see tomorrow how it all comes out but from now on, it's about how I'm making the stuff, not about whether or not the kiln works. It works just fine. Now all I've got to do is learn how to read the meter...

Meanwhile, there's a very fine story about the origins of Northern Kilns that I'd like to share.
It concerns the founder of this highly esteemed, Best of British, company, one Jim Cross.
Originally a school teacher, Jim, it seems, had an incurable love for clay, kilns and all manner of ceramic invention. He went to Goldsmiths, London - (date to be supplied), which is where he trained - or learned - it's unclear if anyone really trained him as such - what is clear, however, is that there was no kiln and that he had to build one. There must have been some kind of restriction on what could be built where and on what could be visible, and what sort of fumes could be emitted. Jim's first kiln, for such it was, was a wood kiln - built in the middle of London, right next to the railway, but built entirely underground. His son, Dylan, takes up the story:

'The kiln was built, as we said, out of old, made-in-Darwen, gents urinals. The toilets were being demolished. The size was 4' x 2' glazed. This was a most crude system. He said he was very, very green at that stage. The kiln was built out the back of Goldsmiths. There is a hill at the back which he used for the chimney which ran approximately 27' into the railway. The chimney was made out of salt glazed, interconnecting drainage pipes. Earth was packed around the joins. Dad sold on the soil, after every firing, to some people who were growing things in a greenhouse because the soil, by then, was sterilised.

The fuel used was wood and waist engine oil. The oil had added kick because the garage he got it from also did re-spray jobs. Dad said he wasted a lot of time drop feeding oil and a drop of water on top to energise the oil burn further.

I've got him to look at the map. It was approximately where the Ben Pimlott building is now he reckons. Laurie grove was not there at that time. There was the railway in the back yard, so to speak. That’s not there either.' (This is an edited version of Dylan's email.)

So, the story of the Mighty Northern Kilns began in the bowels of New Cross, behind Goldmiths School of Art, in a rail yard, or near enough, underground, with a large number of urinals and some engine oil. The combination of temerity, cheek, determination, and sheer outrageous inventiveness has surely made Northern Kilns the most inspired makers of kilns we have in this country. Anyone that can make a flat pack kiln and, as in one recent episode in a school in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, bring it down a two hundred year old oak staircase, without making a mark on either the stairs or the walls, must be deserving of some kind of collective knighthood.

But somehow you just know that the maker of a wood-fired, underground, unrinal-kiln, would have little truck with any such nonsense...

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

New Kiln: The Path of True Love

Having a new kiln is like acquiring a new lover: the anxiety in pursuing your dream kiln, the choosing which to have while wondering if you can you really afford it. Will it want to devour the most expensive daytime electricity the whole time or will Economy 7 do - nights anyway? Have you the space - can you live together? What about your other studio mates? Will it get on with their work or will there be tantrums? And will it be 'high maintenance,' demanding your attention the ENTIRE time, or will it be reasonably self sufficient? Really, on second thoughts, perhaps a new lover would easier. Kiln's hotter though. The spark's there and the electricity - oh the electricity - who could argue with that?

The deliberations were endless. First I thought I'd get a top loading one, easier to move and cheaper, I thought. Then I was chasing round after second hand ones - I mean I'm not hung up on virgins or anything. Then, when I'd settled on which studio I was going to be renting, I realised that I'd chosen one with a narrow doorway. Only a very small kiln could get through there. Back to the drawing board. A flat pack kiln was what I needed but that was just the stuff of jokes, surely.

I Called Northern Kilns. 'What's the nearest thing you've got to a flat pack kiln, Adrian,' I quipped, - oh how I laughed.
'Go on,' comes the reply in a 'sock-it-to-me' sort of voice.
'Doorway's just a normal domestic-doorway-width,' I say, beginning to sound more like I actually feel.
'No problem,' comes the cheerful repost. 'We make 'em in two halves - join 'em up in the studio.'
Could it really be that simple? I couldn't believe my luck. A kiln willing to be split in half just for me? My dream kiln - OMG! Could this really be true?

So I dived right in and ordered my dream kiln - added heated swimming pool, palm trees, ten piece band, cocktail bar - the possibilities were endless it seemed.
KW rating? Bah humbug who would worry about that faced with the possibility of flat pack kiln? So, the KW rating quietly rose and eventually I talked to the electrician.
'Phwooor,' said Jim, 'That's a bit bigger than you were talking about before.' Mutter mutter, 'We might have to route that back to something or other else.'
'Yes yes,' I say, 'Don’t worry about that. As long as it works.' I was getting my dream kiln, after all.
So then Jim rings with the estimate. 'Uurh, Ahem, something something, all told, £800.00.'
Yikes, I thought. But I was getting my dream kiln, so what did it matter?

July 1st and the kiln moves in. Dylan and Stuart from Northern kilns appear at 9.00am in a van with a kiln in two parts and deftly move it into the space: my modest studio doorway welcomes the new bride which is at least four times its size. July 1st also distinguished itself by being one of the hottest days of the year - by 12.00 midday, the room temperature had reached about 30C but, piece by piece, the kiln took shape. Stuart put the finishing touches while Dylan plugged in the Stafford controller and showed me how to work it. In essence it works the same way as any other but you do have more choice about how you're going to set your programmes.

A week later and it's wired in. The meter has yet to arrive, but no matter. I pack the kiln anyway and prepare to do a first firing. Confident I'd be able to set the programme and start the kiln in a matter of minutes, I saunter over the studio in the afternoon thinking I'd get to a friend's for dinner by 7.30.

The controller, however, had other ideas. I closed the kiln door, closed the interlocking system, turned on the power and the controller lit up. It started to go through its steps, but didn't show the ambient temperature - which is what you'd expect at this point. Carefully I read through all the notes in the manual. According the Stafford, the temperature was ranging from -40 to 500C in a matter of seconds. I don’t suppose even the Hadron Collider does this.

My heart sank through the floor and on into purgatory yea unto the very depths of hell - but still no chance of a firing. No matter what I did, I couldn’t override this apparent floating temperature. I tried all manner of things, but nothing worked. Eventually I set off its alarm and, at that point, admitted defeat.

On Monday, after a day's therapeutic gardening, I called Northern Kilns and described the behaviour of the controller.
'Dont like the sound of that,' says Adrian. First he asks me to unplug and replug in the kiln, just to make sure the connections are sound. They are. It makes no difference. An hour or so later, after a call to the manufacturer, he calls back to say he's coming down Tuesday 20th to sort it out. 'Controller’s goosed.' Goosed. I love that.

So, the first firing has yet to happen but my devotion remains undimmed. Adrian and Dylan, Guardian Angels of the Mighty Northern Kilns leave no stone unturned in the quest to produce the perfect kiln and make sure it’s just as you need it. As to mine, it’s as I said: Getting a new kiln is like getting a new lover. The path of true love never did run smooth.