by Owen Rye
First published in The Logbook, Issue 2, May 2000, pages 3 to 7.
Sounds like an acronym for some obscure government department: WADS. I am slightly
worried that in writing about wadding, I might be getting mired in the trivial.
I am reminded of a Northern English character in a television sketch by Mjchael
Palin, endlessly comparing shovels and the slender distinctions between them,
with his audience falling asleep standing up.
Nevertheless, I will persist on the basis that the ultimate quality of work
coming from a wood-fired (or indeed any other) kiln is derived from subtleties
explored and perfected in every aspect of the process. I have spent much time
working to get all aspects of my process working together so that there is a
harmony in their consequences. This includes seeming trivial considerations
such as wadding.
In my first ventures into anagama firing some 20 years ago, I simply stacked
the pots in contact with each other in the kiln. The consequences were not as
bad as you might expect. Some of them did stick together slightly but generally
they separated with nothing more than a minor scar, which contributed to the
character one critic called ‘rustic’. This technique is one I would
still use in firings where the temperatures are held low deliberately in order
to achieve dry glaze qualities.
Looking back at some of these earlier works reminds me that keeping anagama
temperatures below about 1160 — 1180°C (2120—2156°F) throughout
firing gives some very beautiful dry ash qualities, subtle colours and very
delicate contact colours — soft pinks and oranges. High iron clays under
the right circumstances give very strong red colours (see for example wadmarks
on some Bizen ware by Fujiwara Kei).
Firing higher produces more melting of ash, hence more variety of surface
corresponding to microclimate variations in temperature and atmosphere. Surfaces
become more complex and forms become more distorted depending on stacking methods.
The extra melting of surface ash deposit can fuse pots together, or to shelves
or the kiln itself. To get them apart without destruction we use wads. At their
most basic wads exist for separation. The basic thinking is that if wads are
very refractory then they will not fuse to anything, and further, if they have
a high alumina content they will not become glazed by ash themselves. Hence
the old idea of wads being made from half fireclay, half alumina. In terms of
glaze resistance and separation they work very well; but to my eyes they produce
an aesthetic disaster. The marks they leave where in contact with pots are pale,
anaemic and deathlike, and invariably contrast extremely harshly with the various
colours produced by wood-firing. I see them as visually leaving holes in the
The next step is to consider the ingredients. Fireclay makes sense. Wads need
to have no fusible materials such as feldspars or mica. This precludes low firing
clays also because they tend to fuse at high temperatures. Alumina does not
necessarily make sense. It is refined and expensive either as alumina hydrate
or calcined alumina, and the wads will be thrown away after firing. So cheap
is better. My thinking is: what is the cheapest local material I can get? Maybe
if I lived in the north of Australia I could try bauxite (alumina ore with some
iron impurities) but when I moved to the area where I now live the best looking
stuff was sand from a quarry down the road. Simple test — put some in
a small unglazed bowl, fire it to cone 10 and see what it does. The local sand
does nothing in particular, still looks the same after firing, so for years
I have gone down to the quarry with a bucket and shovel and stolen some from
the roadside where it spills from the trucks.
Coarse siliceous sand and fireclay make a good woodfire wadmix. The coarse
sand leaves a mottled marking on the clay surface under the wad. If the mix
is made up using as little fireclay as possible, just enough to hold the wad
together when it is squashed slightly in the hand, then after firing the wads
will be removed easily because they will be so fragile and crumbly. I hope it
is unnecessary to add that siliceous wads are not advisable for salt-glaze firing.
If I were still doing saltfiring I would try to get some crude bauxite from
some of my friends in the north of Australia to mix with a slightly coloured
fireclay (low iron content).
The next consideration is to get a good colour on the exposed clay under the
wads, and especially to avoid the dead white colour. Here the selection of fireclay
and sand is crucial. I have used Hallam fireclay from a pit near Melbourne for
many years (and having published that fact years ago I now note that many other
woodfire potters around Australia have begun using it).* This fireclay, apart
from being very refractory, is a pinkish colour when fired and diffuses some
of its iron onto the pot surface, giving a pleasant pink colour to the wadmark.
Unfortunately my original sand gave nothing to colour development so I have
been experimenting with others from the local garden supplier. The best looking
one is a road gravel, ideal for paths because it has a good particle size grading
from dust to 3mm (1/8 inch) so it packs down well. I like the look of its handsome
orange colour, with no trace of any fusion, after firing to cone 10- I’ll
tell you how it works after the first firing in my new anagama in July. Perhaps
I’ll try a few wads in someone else’s firing first. The best feature
of this gravel is that it costs Aus$10 per tonne (about US$6 / £4). The
second best feature is that it is only available locally so no one else can
copy using it. A further bonus is that Barbara can use it for making paths in
Other wad materials I have known include flour and sawdust mixed in with fireclay
and sand/alumina, One firing I did with Tony Nankervis taught me the perils
of flour, which he included in his wadmix. Since my stacking an anagama is slow,
taking 4—5 days, the flour starts to decompose and the kiln starts to
smell like a reopened massacre burial site. Whatever its advantages I can do
without them. I might add that Tony works faster than me.
Sawdust might have the effect of giving some extra reduction under the wads,
but carries the disadvantage that it can reabsorb moisture from the air, and
will certainly crack raw pots if left too long before firing. The sawdust also
makes the wads slow to dry.
An alternative well known to all is using shells. The principle is that calcium
carbonate does not fuse to clay, and after firing has been converted to calcium
oxide which then combines with water in the air to form calcium hydroxide, which
conveniently becomes a powder easily dusted off if left for a few days after
firing. Sturdy shells can be used as is: more fragile ones can be filled with
fireclay for strength. The main advantage of shells is that gathering them provides
the excuse for a day at the beach ‘working’. Their use has become
something of a cliché unless used creatively. Chester Nealie is a master
of this: (I mean that he is creative!! -see Ceramics Technical No. 2 1996 for
examples). I like the quality obtained from shell marks when a slip or glaze
is applied over them and the work refired. If using large shells, they may be
difficult to break in order to use smaller pieces. The trick is to calcine them
to about 600°C (1100°F) to soften them (calcium carbonate does not decompose
to CaO until around 870°C (1600°F). May I suggest that the shells should
be clean before you calcine them: or that you leave town for two days to avoid
the smell which ranks (yes, I used that word deliberately) with Nankervis’s
flour wadding. In retrospect its worse.
Finally but foremost, all parts of the process of wood-firing must fit together
into an organic whole when the work is complete. If forms are precise, glazing
uniform, all pots stacked in the kiln standing upright, then the wads may well
be the neat little round ones placed under the foot. If, as in my work, the
clay is crude, the forms erratic, the stacking at all angles and surface deliberately
variable, then the wads become a handful slapped on somewhat casually. Not often
you see a man in greasy jeans driving a Rolls Royce, or a man in a suit on a
grungy Harley Davidson rat bike.
Note – since this article was published the Hallam Fireclay pit has closed.
I have stockpiled a 20 year reserve.