Fire in the Hole: Bethel Potters Crank Up Their Kiln

Sunday, July 19, 2015
Bethel — Nathan and Becca Webb’s pottery business revolves around the enormous wood-fired kiln they built on their Bethel property.

Shaped something like an igloo, the structure is sheathed in homemade adobe and made of various types of “fire bricks,” designed to withstand the kiln’s corrosive environment, reflect the heat or insulate.

It can hold about half a year’s worth of the couple’s work, and firing it is a highly anticipated, if time-consuming, process.

One cycle of filling, firing and unloading the kiln takes four or five weeks. It’s heated slowly to prevent the pottery from cracking and ensure a sufficient accumulation of ash, which acts as a glaze. Bringing it up to temperature is an intense four-day affair requiring round-the-clock monitoring. And the Webbs, owners of Two Potters and the parents of a toddler, can’t do it alone.

Working in shifts, the couple, family members and friends stoke the kiln, ensuring the temperatures rise evenly in its chambers, eventually reaching 2,200 degrees. The Webbs’ most recent firing, which wrapped up earlier this month, drew a small crowd eager to help.

On the final, most demanding day, Becca Webb brought lunch to the crew and sat down with daughter Zoe to eat.

“It’s been a fun week. It’s part of why we do this,” she said. “Wood kilns just build a community.”

Most of the “guest stokers” are potters who trade firing space in the kiln in exchange for their time. Breaks between feeding the flames or monitoring the kiln’s various ports found them discussing the complexities of glazing and firing pottery.

Nathan Webb, who oversees the firings, took some chemistry classes as a pre-med student in college, before changing his major to art. But during his years as a potter he’s dug deep into the science and its applications for ceramics.

He helped her tweak her process when they first met, said Becca Webb, who was using a gas kiln at the time. “He’s got such a great sense of firing.”

Potters use “pyrometric” devices, such as clay rings or cones, to gauge what’s happening inside a kiln. On the final afternoon of the firing, when Nathan pulled a ceramic ring from the kiln, everyone gathered around.

“Oh, that’s beautiful,” said Patty Goodman, one of several potters helping out that day.

Webb peered closely at the ring.

“Green ash glaze, that’s what I want to see,” he said, holding it up. “It’s looking really good.”

The kiln is also cooled slowly, again to reduce the risk of cracks in the pottery. A side benefit is that glass can develop crystals, creating a more varied surface with a little more depth, Nathan Webb said.

But it’s not until the kiln is unloaded that the effects are revealed.

Now in her 60s, guest stoker Holly Walker has been working with various kinds of kilns since she was very young. Yet, to this day, lifting the lid is still “a thrill.”

Even if the results are disappointing, she always learns something, which “kind of fuels the next round,” the Randolph resident said. “What amazes me is it captivates you for a lifetime.”

For the Webbs, unloading happens a week after the firing ends — they don’t enter the kiln until the temperature inside has fallen to 80 degrees.

While they sometimes experiment with different glazes and designs, their most recent firing was more targeted, more of a “business firing,” he said. The couple, state-juried members of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, sell their wares online, in their studio, and at farmers markets and craft fairs. With show dates looming, they’d focused on bestsellers, such as fermentation crocks and butter keepers.

“We got what we needed,” Webb said, taking a break from packing up their trailer for a craft fair. “It looks good. It’s what we expected. We’re on target.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210