Breathe …is there anything more important?


Next time you bring the marshmallows

Originally published on, summer 2009. Republished here because no longer exists.

This blog and the pictures are for everyone who told me they were interested in the results of my first barrel firing. To make the kiln and do the firing I used the instructions from the book, Alternative Kilns & Firing Techniques, by Watkins & Wandless. The downdraft kiln originated in Europe around 1800, then was widely used in Japan. Randy Brodnax is given credit for this kiln design. For me thisĀ  was a "scrounge" project. I made an attempt to scrounge and reuse materials.

I coated my pots with terra sigilatta or sealed earth, which is a mixture of ball clay, EPK clay, sodium silicate and water. To make the "terra sig" the ingredients are mixed and left to settle. The top layer is then siphoned off, the second siphoned and used. The bottom layer is discarded because it has larger particles.

Down-draft barrel kiln

This my downdraft barrel kiln made from a 55 gallon drum. A downdraft firing is supposed to be hotter than a regular barrel firing because of a downward airflow. The pipe going across the bottom is slotted. I found this double walled pipe at the Habitat store.

Bottom of barrel kiln

I loaded the barrel with a variety of combustibles: kindling, construction scraps, cutup boxes, lavender stalks, a couple banana peels, pine needles, newspaper, Miracle Grow and sawdust. Amongst this melange of flammables I placed my pots. I used foil saggars, or compartments for my pots and sprinkled in a tasty mix of the colorants: copper carbonate, copper sulfate, and red iron oxide. It seemed that I was whipping up a yummy lasagna. I also put chicken wire between layers so if a pot fell during firing it wouldn't hit one below it. (Marlene's tip.)


I went through my checklist: water hose, matches, lighter fluid. (Things I should have had on the list, a comfortable chair and a cold drink.) I finally lit him off asking forgiveness from Mother Earth for doing all this burning. The barrel burned for most of the day and put out a lot of smoke. This is probably not something to attempt in town.

Fire it up!

Things didn't work out exactly as pictured in the book. The downdraft never happened. I tried priming the pipe as instructed by putting burning charcoal directly into the pipe. Since my husband Charles securely fastened the pipes together with screws, this entailed climbing a ladder.

Smoke in the stack?

Maybe the air got confused because my pipe was double-walled rather than single walled? Maybe the slots I made were not big enough? Perhaps it was the way I loaded the barrel? I have an idea of what I'll do next time. Perhaps the air needs a clear shot down the barrel. Think I'll use some cardboard tubes placed vertically.

Barrel-fired pots

I unloaded the next morning and despite my dysfunctional barrel kiln, this is the result. These pots look kind of like instant artifacts. In a few places the "terra sig" was put on too thick and flaked off but nothing cracked or broke; and the big surprise is that a couple pieces were greenware. I put them in just to see what would happen. The fact that they survived certainly gives me more creative possibilities for making decorative pieces.

Barrel-fired globe

Next time you bring the marshmallows.

Comments (6) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Wow! That round one is gorgeous! I love your creative and adventurous spirit!

  2. Thank you Martha. The results one gets when barrel firing are unpredictable.

  3. Have you tried this downdraft barrel kiln again. I’m wondering if you got the downdraft to work like described in the book. I just bought the book and was going to build this barrel kiln and then I saw your blog.

  4. No I haven’t tried to fire this kiln again and no, unfortunately, I never got the downdraft to work like described in the book. I wrote to Randy Brodnax to ask him for suggestions but he never responded to my email. I have had lots of fun, however, speculating and theorizing with others about how and why it didn’t work and how to modify it to get it to work. Everyone seems to have their own interesting opinion. So do you have any ideas?

    Thanks for commenting.

  5. The double walled chimney is your problem. The fire in the barrel heats the chimney to create the needed updraft, you must use single walled pipe…. other than that it is a great design, I am going to copy it for my downdraft barrel kiln

  6. Thanks Dutch. Yes, you confirmed what I had been suspecting.

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