German(y) for WoodFirers

Presenting at SturtA very personal view.

This is the presentation that I made for the Australian Woodfire conference 2008 at the Sturt Crafts Centre in Mittagong, NSW. Of course, some things are outdated. I.e. I have a different kiln now. But maybe there is still something to enjoy…

The presentation included over 80 slides, some of them are published also here. 


The Titel of my lecture is a little bit different from what was published in the timetable, you will have noticed that „y“ in brackets. Well, when I started thinking about how to present Woodfiring in Germany to you it was quickly clear that I didn’t want to do something like reading a phonebook, and I have to apologise to all my German colleagues that I will not mention here.

holzbrand.comBut what else than a phonebook? I sometimes write or translate for German or English ceramic magazines and so I thought, maybe the different languages could be a good point to start from. Our language unites and divides us at the same time: language is a fundamental condition of human beeing and community because it is one thing that we cannot do without having someone else to talk to. We can split and stack wood, make pots and fire kilns alone, although it makes sometimes sense to collaborate with other people. But it doesn’t make sense to speak when we are alone and with some right doing so is recognised as a sign of insanity. But when we speak different languages that fact divides us from each other; the way how we say something is closely connected with our special history. The english word „translate“ comes from latin translatus „carried across“, the German „Übersetzen“ in the basic sense of the word means „ferry, convey in a boat, esp. across a short stretch of water“, and, as language is, water was always connecting and dividing people at the same time. »Wood« in German means „Holz“, »Fire« means »Feuer« and sounds very similar because of common roots, because of a common history. But Woodfire in our, in ceramic sense, isn’t translated with „Holzfeuer“, because this means every way of burning wood, so for example in an oven. But we can try the word „burn“, which is of German origin and translated as „Brand“. And indeed: the correct translation for woodfire is „Holzbrand“. So if you come to Germany and like to visit woodfirers, type into your Browser „“ and you have the special kind of phonebook that you need to just pick up the phone and try if someone in the chosen studio speaks English. This site cannot compete with Arthur Rossers, but it gives you a good first access to further informations like for example the websites that some colleagues have.

map of German woodfirersUnfortunately there is no map so I tried to draw one to give you an overview about the locations. All the red points show studios that are wood firing.  And you will quickly recognise that the most of them are located in East-Germany and here again the most in the North. I think that this fact is a good reason to concentrate a little on this region, despite the fact that my own workshop is also located in this area called Mecklenburg- West pommerania.

I live at Alt Gaarz, a hamlet on a peninsula near the biggest German lake, called the Müritz. A very picturesque landscape with a lot of lakes that were formed during the glacial period. This means: no stoneware clay in this area, and no long established pottery tradition. The clay deposits here can be used for red bricks or, at stoneware temperature, as a glaze. The state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania is actually the sparsest populated area in Germany. This factor allows for additional freedom, and this not only under communist conditions. Or as the Russians always have said: Russia is wide and the tsar is far away. Together with the usually sufficient distance to the neighbour this sparseness might be one of the reasons for the relatively high number of woodfiring potters: lists 15 woodfirers here, more than in all the west German states together! But for sure there are more reasons, so we might go a little into the depth of the history of east-German woodfiring. „History“ is translated into German as „Geschichte“, and this word that has a second meaning: Story.

 I like the imagination that history comes from telling stories and I could now try to tell you the story, that the english word „history“ also contains a „story“, but I’m a little bit afraid that some linguistic educated people might be in the audience who know, that this word comes via Latin from Greek „historia“.

Mario Enke's kilnSo I’d like to go a little back into that time when I was an apprentice. At the eighties me and many others dreamed of building themselfes a woodfired kiln for salt firing and some made their dream come true. Among them was my teacher, Mario Enke. As a Member of the examination jury for apprentices as well as for Masters and as an IAC Member he was of some importance at that time. In the nineties  he moved away from his place and now works as a painter. He had many apprentices and trainees and all of us had an huge effort from his extraordinary throwing techniques as well as from his great technical and chemical knowledge. His very effective 4.25m3 kiln reached 1360 centigrade within 12 hours. To achieve the surfaces he wanted Mario fired at least at 1460 centigrade. His kiln had the side-stoked firebox under the chamber floor, a little bit like a phoenix-kiln, but with the chimney at the opposite. I built my kiln in 1987, only one or two years earlyer than Mario. The kiln has over 3 m3 stacking space and takes 12 to 16 hours to the end temperature of 1350°C. For soaking and salting I take 4-6 hours, so together with the following cooling procedure it is always a long working day for me. The afterburner and the pre-heated secondary air help a lot in saving wood, epecially when it is not dry enough. Usually I take a mix of pine and hardwood, such as oak and beech. I find it very inconveniently to split wood to the size of chopsticks, especially because I need relatively much wood: 4 RM per firing, 1 RM (space m) is a stack of wood of 1m to 1m to 1m and contains 0,7 m3 of plain wood. In Germany Wood for burning is usually cut and sold in pieces of 1m length. This way it is easy to handle and easy to stack. But this amount of wood together with the fact, that the firebox is inside the kiln chamber gives a little bit more ash than salt fired pots in Germany usually have.

Ute DreistAnother student of Mario Enke is Ute Dreist. Some Australian Potters will know her because last year she worked with Sandy Lockwood and took part in the Gulgong Event. She has a Phoenix type kiln and is indeed to some extend responsible for the fact that many potters in Mecklenburg- West pommerania built that type of kiln. It was in the end of the eighties, when someone of the east German potters get a copy of the „Studio Potter“ volume 7 number 9, which was published in 1979. The beautiful and informative drawings of Gerry Williams’s kiln were very impressive. So they were copied by hand and Ute saw those copies and built her first kiln according to those plans. The kiln worked successfully and so it became a blueprint for some following kiln buildings. This is actually Ute’s „New Kiln“ which was built in 2005. You might have noticed that there is a different firebox than the one that you saw at the "Studio-Potter"-drawings. This is due to the use of the kiln for salt firing, which requires a more solid firebox.



stone grateThis picture shows the principle of this stone grate, but this is actually another kiln. This grate is very useful and became very common in Mecklenburg-West Pommerania. Ute mostly produces vessels in her kiln, but nevertheless she dreams to make pots in an Anagama.






So another impact to the east german woodfirere-scene is La Borne in central France, a traditional potters centre that hosts now a lot of woodfirers and is well known all over the world for events like »La Borne en feu« or »La Borne s’enflame«. On this way Japanese influences came to north east Germany, as well as French traditions.



Eric Astoul and me kiln loadingIn 1997 I organised an exhibition in Rostock to which we invited the French ceramists Eric Astoul, Josette Miquel and Hervé Rousseau. Together with my wife I transported the remaining pots back to La Borne and Henrichemont. This journey left a deep impression. We were happy to enjoy the hospitality of Hervé Rousseau and to watch Eric Astoul setting his kiln. (right side of the photo) I have to travel a relatively long distance to the nearest woodfirer. Here in La Borne you could see one woodfirer stacking his kiln while the neighbour was firing, and around the corner another was just unpacking.


No wonder this place has had such a great influence on all the potters in Mecklenburg!




platter, Markus Boehm

For example in La Borne I saw how plates were placed in the kiln to protect areas of other pots from fly-ash and vapour. I adapted this technique for my own purposes. I treat the surface of those plates like a paper collage: a mixture of different clays, slips and porcelain together with wadmarks and ash.










anagamaadeIn 2003 my colleague Armin Rieger had the idea for a woodfiring project: Anagama Adé. Johannes Mann, another Mecklenburg Woodfirer, had built a longer catanary arch kiln with additional side stokes in 1989/90. The unusual distance between kiln and chimney was due to a maybe planned prolonging of the kiln in case of expanding the studios production. But in 1990 things changed: the demand for pots decreased dramatically and Johannes had to work and fire alone. The 3m3 (106cuft) kiln took about 30 hours minimum for one firing with salt. Like me Johannes is not the type of guy who likes to organise and teach a firing crew, especially in the rural north-east. So the last firing took place in 2000. 3 years later the kiln looked very romantic with all the plants around and the damaged kiln shed. Johannes thought about dismantling. So the idea was to fire it once again just to say good bye (or adé), together with other woodfirers for an extended period without salting.




Here in Mecklenburg my colleagues are using mostly small and efficient down-draft kilns up to 2 m3 (71cuft) for salt-firing, often with a Phoenix-design. Nobody has had any experience in woodfiring without salting, but for making the adventure complete Armin and I organised a couple of following exhibitions.






After easter 2004 the loading begun in a very exciting atmosphere. Three days after a small fire for preheating was ignited. The further day went on very unexpected: after 18 hours of relaxed firing the 135 pyrometer cone touched toes which means that the end temperture of 1350°C was reached. The word “pensioners kiln” was born. 38 hours of soaking followed. The kiln was sealed and left alone for a week. The results had been amazing – for us, at that time. This for example is one of my teabowls from limoges porcelain. The outside has no slip or glaze, only the gifts from the kiln. So in the happy end we had enough work to present some good exhibitions.





One of those exhibitions took place in the Westerwaldmuseum in Höhr-Grenzhausen. This city is very famous for its long history in salt firing and has still lots of studios and ceramic and glass industry. Koblenz, the city that hosted the saltfire-comptition is nearby.


kannofenThe traditional kiln type for saltfiring was for a long time the so called »Kannofen«, which could be translated as »Pitcher Kiln«. It is an woodfired updraft kiln. Updraft because at that time nobody wished to have wood ash on his pots and indeed the pots from such a kiln don’t show ash deposits. The wood ash would have destroyed the painting on the pot. Although in earlyer times some kilns didn’t have a kiln shed most of the kilns were part of a whole building. 

Law was passed in 1992 which made illegal the firing of these traditional kilns, although most of them already had been replaced in the 50s and 60s.

In 2005 I was invited to take part in firing the small 6,5 m3 Kannofen at the Institute for Artistic Ceramics and Glass at Höhr Grenzhausen. This is the Head of the ceramic workshop, Arthur Mueller, together with a chinese student stacking the kiln. This kiln was originally a part the ceramic studio that was the basic for the foundation of the Institute. The former director, Barbara Stehr, was very interested in preserving this old kiln, wanting to make it an historic monument for the Westerwalder salt-glaze. Stehr applied for an industrial hertage order, and this application included the option to fire this kiln up to 3 times a year.



I had the graveyard-shift on this kiln and fired it from 300 to 850 centigrade and later on the afternoon during salting. For me it was very exciting to see, how sensible this kiln reacted. And, sure, it is a great view to see all those Flames coming out of the kiln.





JP Planke and S. BoehmerThis is actually another Kannofen in Höhr-Grenzhausen, or I should better say it’s THE other Kannofen because as far as I know only those two are left. For maybe 40 years this kiln was not used and conseqently it was in a bad condition. It is one of the bigger kilns with about 30 to 40 m3. This long sleep ended, when Jens-Peter Planke and the owner, Charlotte and Siggi Böhmer, decided to to rebuild and fire the kiln.

Jens-Peter Planke is the guy that runs the website and he is a woodfirer from Mecklenburg-West Pommerania some 700 km from Höhr-Grenzhausen. Here he is standing in the Kannofen during repair together with Siggi Boehmer.

He makes traditional slip-glazed stoneware in his 4 m3 downdraft kiln and is successfull with his business. This allows him to engage himself in such larger projects that require a long time for preparing.

Because of the size of the kiln many helpers were involved.

Pictures 60- 73: rebulding, making wood, stacking, firing






Another well known German kiln type is the so called Kassels Kiln named after the town Kassel which is surrounded by very special refractory clays. From this area I buy my wadding clay, which is very plastic, very sticky and very refractory at the same time.

This is Kathrin Najorka, loading her more than 100 years old Kassels Kiln. Until the first world war it was used by the grandfather of her grandfather to burn roof tiles and bricks. After world war 2 the factory changed into a pottery. The 16 m3 kiln was fired once every week with 6 tons of brown coal. Work around the clock with pressing plant pots during pre-heating. At least the quality of the coal became so wrong that her father had to shift more ash out than he shoveled coal in. In 1976 the electric kilns that had been ordered 10 years before came, and in the kassels kiln less and less firings were done until firings stopped. For this lecture here I asked her about the reasons for re-animating this much too large kiln. She wrote to me that as a young girl she never ever wanted to fire this kiln because of the hard labour. But some years later the dream to fire once again became stronger and stronger. 

K. NajorkaShe asked Jens-Peter Planke for some help and in winter 2001 he and Johannes Makolies, Hanno Leischke, Birgit Hasse und Detlef Leps came in to work at her studio and fired the kiln for the first time. She didn’t want to say much about this first time, only that the next firing was 4 weeks later and much better.

The kiln eats 3 tons of clay and 30 RM of wood. With preheating one firing takes 2 days.

Like an Anagama the kiln is accessed through the firebox, although the arrangement of the firedoor is a little bit different.

For getting the heat more to the back of the kiln 2 holes for sidestoking were drilled into the kiln. And please have a look at the chimney at the right side with the passive dampers.


And this is a picture that she sent me one week ago, showing the building of her new Anagama. She decided to built this new kiln after she met Svend Bayer at the potters festival in Aerystwyth.


Kathrin Najorka's AnagamaI hope you realised that with mentioning svend Bayer I’ve finally got a more or less direct connection to the ogama at Sturt, Mittagong, New South Wales, Australia, which had been fired some days ago.


So for now I only have to say „thank you“ to all the people that did almost every effort to make my stay here as good as possible. And for sure: I will make every effort to come back.