Susan Mulroy Ceramics, Ceramics and clay workshops


Fast Fire – Fast Build

Thursday 19th October

9.30am. At last! A message to say the kiln funding has been granted, planning stage over and time for action. I order a skip and rush off to the brick company with a brown paper envelope full of money. The only way to get the bricks delivered before the weekend.

4pm.  An unexpected call. The 33ft trailer skip of wood that should have arrived Monday is full and on it’s way and has to be emptied today, if the site isn’t ready then it will be at least another week before any more wood will be ready.

6pm. In a burst of activity, the farmer uses his digger to clear the rubbish filled site and puts down the cast concrete slabs we are recycling and using as a base just in time for the arrival of 10 tonnes of waste wood. By torchlight I watch an avalanche of wood out of the tipper truck create a mountain that covers the entire kiln site.


8am. I attempt to excavate the kiln base from under the wood. Cutting one piece of wood at a time with a bow saw before stacking it causes great amusement amongst the farm workers. I feel like a solitary ant trying to move a bag of sugar.

Fortunately distractions arrive, in the form of 5 pallets of bricks, and then a delivery of metal for the strapping and fireboxes, and even more welcome, reinforcements of volunteers from a local potters group. Frustrated by the mountain of wood I go to the local tool hire and rent out a generator and power tools.

pm Although I spend most of the day making forays for the last of the materials, fantastic help from friends means that the mountain of wood is receding, the kiln base recovered. The site is awash with a sense of purpose and, for the first time, I can believe that the kiln might be fired before I go to Oxford Ceramic Fair in a weeks time.


5am.  Dreams of the screwed rod being too short wake me in a sweat and I rise to double check my figures, in the cold light of dawn with exactly a week till my deadline and not a brick of my kiln laid I don’t feel quite as optimistic as in the heady atmosphere of the previous night.

A friend uses fire cement to lay the base of heavies level, and then I discover that the brick company has sent end arch bricks instead of side arch, and so a contingency plan of a flat roofed chamber is hatched. The day is spent dry laying the fireboxes assisted by a wealth of potters and their families.  A sense of community and purpose now surrounds the project. I feel optimistic and buoyed up by the support.


Putting the metal strapping in place and my nightmare is realised – the screwed rod is a cm too short! Minds join to solve the dilemma and a connector is manufactured. The chamber rises rapidly, and completing the project by my deadline still hangs in the balance, swaying on a knife edge with every brick put in.


A miracle happens – I contact the brick company and discover that if the mistake hadn’t been made over the arch bricks my original order would still be waiting in the 10 day cutting queue as there are no side arch bricks in stock. Because of the mistake, my bricks leapfrog the queue, and are ready to collect by early afternoon.
My team labours on, and I return to a well constructed flue. I call it a day, no roof on the kiln and the deadline galloping towards me


The most anxious moment in the entire process – removing the arch former – the skill and the will of the company holds all together and the chamber is complete. A skim of fire cement strengthens the arch, and we finish it off with ceramic fibre.
Although I intended to construct a metal chimney out of the scrap metal laying about on site a brick chimney seems a more practical solution, so I order more bricks, unfortunately not the right size, initiating a lot of cutting and filling to make a good fit.
Although the chimney isn’t finished, the end is in sight and I finish the fireboxes with metal still hot from the welder. Then I pack the kiln, preheating the damp chamber during the packing process, finishing in the dark and deadly silence at 1 am, well aware that Halloween approaches.


The scales seems to have tipped in my favour at last, flames lick the firebox and we gentle the kiln up to 200° through the day, giving the kiln and furniture time to dry out and adapt to it’s task as we finish the chimney.

4 pm The firing starts in earnest, moving the fire into the front of the fireboxes and temperature rises. At 600° the flame becomes dirty and lazy and the kiln holds back and we struggle up to 700°. Hours of effort and consultation later the balance has swung, seemingly unstoppable, against us, even 1000°c seems unattainable and we shut down, knowing that the dawn will bring light to raise the chimney and hopefully enlightenment. Left to finish packing up the site, Dave and I discover enough left over lightweight bricks to make a difference to the chimney height, and after only a moments hesitation choose to rise again to the challenge presented by the deadline, reopen the fireboxes, and restoke the fires.

Rebuilding the chimney at midnight, with one weak torch and an opportunistic borrowing of a builders ladder gives new hope, which is dashed by running out of bricks after achieving an extra 3 ft with no discernable improvement in the pull from the chimney.

We are immersed in what is becoming an epic struggle, and I throw cement at the joints in the chimney, hoping to seal any cracks and make it draw more efficiently. I throw off the tiredness and the pressure of deadlines, and engage my brain.
The kiln isn’t pulling properly and that indicates a problem with the flue so we undo the door in the back of the chimney, intended for setting a fire to improve the initial draw, and shine a torch into the darkness.

The flue is clear, apart from a lone brick, an expendable part of the damper setting. Using a long metal rod, we manage to manoeuvre the brick away from the flue channel and into the back of the chimney. Whoosh! The flame roars past us and soars up the chimney, illuminating the ineffectiveness of my recent efforts at pointing. A true eureka moment, and at last we have a chance to achieve a rapport with the kiln. Exhausted I nap in the car for an hour, whilst Dave feeds the flames, still such slow progress. At 3 am the pyrometer gives out and has to be removed, at only 1150° all still seems hopeless but then … tenacity is rewarded!

4am I detect movement in the cones, our efforts are rejuvenated, the last lurch in the balance, the kiln is with us and we are with the kiln. (we are at one with the kiln?)

5 am Shut down. We have cone 10 down top and bottom and I am ecstatic!

Copyright 2004 Susan Mulroy ©