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This was originally published in 2010 in the Journal of Australian Ceramics Vol 49 No 1, pages 15-19 and was re-published in Dao Clayform 2010 No 2, pp113-117 (Fuping, China – in English and Chinese)


by Owen Rye

The 1970s were the time of great cultural changes that started elsewhere in the 1960s, the time of Whitlam, and the freedom to try anything with anyone. The time of the hashish trail through Afghanistan, vacant eyed faces with distant stares sitting on every veranda between here and England. The time of the Australian hippie, living independent of the regular economy, growing their own, the potters among them firing with wood because it cost labour instead of money. The Middle East wars of 1973 that almost meant the end of Israel but for a bad mistake by Egyptian generals made the then common potter’s fuel oil, much more expensive. Wood looked like a good alternative. In hippie central on the NSW north coast, Tony Nankervis and Kerry Selwood, Dennis and Malina Monks made woodfired salt glaze.

Leach’s A Potter’s Book, which was really about the 1930s, was passing into history. Abstract expressionism had evolved in the dull grey 1950s and was commonly exhibited in painting galleries in Sydney when I was a student in the 1960s. The National Gallery bought Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles in 1973 amid great controversy. I was not the only one to read books on Japanese ceramics: Hugo Munsterberg’s Ceramic Art of Japan from 1964; Herbert Sanders World of Japanese Ceramics from 1967; and best of all Daniel Rhodes Tamba Pottery of 1970. Here was how to do ceramics that spoke about abstract expressionism, that united in the words of that old cliché, East and West. Here was revelation, an almost divine insight. As they say now, way to go. Louise Cort’s Shigaraki book of 1979 was the final clincher. Woodfiring was the future.

Not to say firing with wood was new to Australia. Colonial potters and many brickworks started it. Harold Hughan had a woodfired kiln. Ivan McMeekin was mainly responsible for the development of the Bourry kiln. But the Korean-derived Japanese anagama and noborigama were being studied by westerners. Peter Rushforth was an early visitor to Japan, Milton Moon came back and built Australia’s first anagama, Col Levy visited Bizen before he began firing a kiln here based on that experience. From the US Jeff Shapiro, Randy Johnston, John Neely and others studied in depth in Japan.

So we can safely say the contemporary Australian woodfire movement in which the originally Korean style kilns are so prominent began its course mainly if not entirely originally in the 1970s. We can see economic and cross-cultural drivers for its beginnings. I would like now to consider a technical imperative without which the woodfire movement might never have developed. The pragmatic reason for the growth of woodfiring is the chainsaw.

To see why let’s do a once-upon-a-time back to the 1950s. In NSW in the small town of Berridale where I grew up the Oddfellows Hall was the centre of secular social life. There were no movies then. We went to the pictures and saw classics like Swamp Thing and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and watched Audie Murphy, the Bruce Willis of the 50’s, win World War 2 singled handed. And at the local concerts and dances Pinky Harris and Sid White sang Hank Williams, playing their guitars in the plinka plinka plunka plunka style of country music of the day. On Sundays the good folk of the district went to church.

The rest of the world seemed far away – and was, the Snowy Mountains area was very isolated. The dirt roads were too slippery and boggy to go anywhere much when the snow got too deep, or even in heavy rain. There was no general electricity supply. We had a kerosene fridge, lamps for light and wood for heating; a wood stove for cooking, a wood chip heater for hot water for a bath and an open fireplace with wood for warmth. As a kid coming in from the cold of winter, I associated the feeling that all was well with the world with a wood fire, a powerful personal reason for taking to woodfiring later.

I started learning about firewood and how to make it burn at an early age, by having the job of putting wood on the fire to keep it going. Later as a 12 year old – maybe younger – I learned about firewood by helping my father get it. We would go out in the bush to find fallen logs. Chopping down trees with an axe was too slow and was a quick way to kill yourself unless you were an expert. Somehow we got the heavy logs loaded onto a borrowed truck, and at home dumped them in a large pile. It was heavy work but in some ways almost relaxing, as a day in the bush often is. The next part, and this is the point of this story, was not.

Cutting the wood to length to fit the stove or fireplace came next. This involved the typical bush approach - use whatever was available to get the job done. Like the ways of closing a bush gate, no two setups would ever be exactly the same. Ours used the chassis and engine off an old Hudson straight eight car bolted down to heavy wooden posts, to drive a big circular saw in a wood framed sawbench sitting about four metres away. The bench had a sliding top so the wood could be pushed past the saw to cut it to length. A pulley on the bench, connected to the saw, was driven by a five inch wide belt of rubberised canvas. At the other end the belt ran around the jacked up back wheel of the Hudson. The middle of the belt had a twist so it spun the saw blade in the right way. The car engine was started with a crank handle that would kick back and break your arm if you were tentative. To get it all going in second gear you stood on the chassis rails on one foot, the other on the clutch, and tried hard not to fall onto the tailshaft when it started revolving. You didn’t need to be a graduate of a nationally recognised university to work out what would happen if your foot slipped. The belt flogged and flapped around as it spun at a furious speed, sometimes breaking and flying off in any unpredictable direction. There was no really safe place to stand, and being able to jump to one side very rapidly was a useful survival skill. As the engine roared and the belt spun clouds of steam poured from the 44 gallon drum connected to cooling hoses on the engine and we had to stop it all occasionally when the water boiled too much.

On the saw bench an oval shaped cast iron plate said it was made by Jas Smith of Ballarat. They still make saw benches but with a vastly safer setup than the one we used, which I can say with heavy irony was constructed well before the term OHS was invented. It had a circular saw blade bigger round than the length of a big man’s arm. The saw spun half exposed above the sliding wooden benchtop, its teeth hissing like some insane malevolent creature plotting to bite you in half. Two people were needed to place the big logs of wood on the bench and then it was pushed along so the wood moved through the saw. The sawn piece fell off to one side and the log was slid along so the next piece could be cut off. My job was to help bring the heavy logs and place them on the bench, avoiding the spinning drive pulley with the belt whizzing around it and the saw as I slid them across, meanwhile constantly kicking away small pieces of fallen wood to avoid stumbling. My father worked the bench, pushing the logs through the whirling blade and then helping to move the log into position for the next cut. That was wood cutting. Everything about the whole show had to be done like you meant it; there was no room for caution. Doing all that and being alive afterwards gave me much confidence about the later almost kindergarten job of using a chainsaw.

Which brings me to my point. I believe one of the main factors in woodfiring starting up in Western countries around the world, where labour is not cheap, was the general introduction of the chainsaw. This affordable tool could be taken out in the bush by one person who could cut logs to a length where they could be loaded into a trailer or ute by that same one person, and if a bit of commonsense was used the whole operation would be safe enough. When the logs got to the kiln they could be split with an axe by that same one person, again a safe job. Hard work, but woodfiring always has involved hard labour.

The modern approach to getting wood that I use now is pretty much standard worldwide. Offcuts from sawmills, basically the unusable sides cut from the logs, are delivered in bundles strapped together with hoop iron. To cut these to length with a chainsaw, some simply cut through the bundle but I need two different lengths of wood, one of finer longer pieces for sidestoking, the other thicker shorter pieces for the front of my anagama. So I sort the pieces of wood and stack them in a frame so I can use the chainsaw to cut them to length. All being well this eliminates the need for any wood splitting down to the right diameter because the sawmill waste is usually thin enough. If not I can hire a log splitter for the few days it is needed at little cost. The total cost of wood for me for a 4-5 day anagama firing, including truck hire, is about $ 200. I like the fact that my wood comes in a Mack truck, normally a gravel truck, owned by David O’Brien. Not many people in the arts have their materials delivered in a Mack. David has a gravel quarry where I can get other materials such as clay and the gravel I use in my wadmix.

In addition to the sawmill wood I use some from fallen trees or branches on my place. This is cut to length with a chainsaw and then split with an axe. As someone said once, first you cut it down and then you cut it up. With the welcome help of my adult sons we can get a truckload of wood ready for the kiln in a long day, or at worst a weekend.

If we had to use the methods of the 1950s to get our wood ready, even if we modernised by using machinery everywhere instead of labour, and used a saw bench driven by a tractor, I would be firing with biodiesel – to who knows what aesthetic.