Round-the-clock feeding of a Japanese kiln ‘similar to a fiery dragon’

31 July 2015

At around 10 am on Tuesday, 11 August: Researchers from Oxford University are involved in a project to fire up a Japanese potters’ kiln in Wytham Woods. It is styled on the design of the anagama kiln, meaning ‘cave’ kiln, a wood-fuelled type used all over Japan and Korea for hundreds of years. The art lies in baking the pots inside at around 1150 degrees Celsius and holding that constant heat for about five days round the clock. Once lit, the 11-metre-long, roofed-tunnel kiln promises to look like a big fiery dragon as flames and smoke billow from holes running along both sides. Before the kiln can be fired up, however, the researchers need members of the public to volunteer to help stoke the fires for a few hours each as part of a rota.

Project leader Dr Robin Wilson, a social anthropologist from the University of Oxford, said:‘This is a great opportunity for artists, potters and people who are just generally interested in getting involved to experience this community event of baking stoneware pottery. This is a major project involving researchers from different disciplines across the University and will result in a series of exhibitions and talks that will be open to the public later this year. It will be a social experience as well as an educational one, sitting around the kiln poking the fire through the stoking holes just as the Japanese and Korean communities did for generations.’

Such kilns were first used in Koreans in the 6th century and later adopted by the Japanese. They largely disappeared in the 17th century apart from in the province of Bizen where Japan’s oldest pottery-making technique still carries on today. A team from Bizen in Japan will arrive in Wytham at the end of July to prepare and help supervise the firing of the kiln. It is designed rather like a chimney on a hill-side with the hot exhaust drawn out of the far end and nothing to separate the stoking space from the stoneware baking inside. Around 200 pots of all sizes will be stacked onto an interior kiln shelf in the middle of the kiln before the firing. It will then take three days to build up the heat, five days of baking, and an additional three days before the kiln is cool enough to unpack the fired pots.

The kiln was fashioned from a woven willow mould covered in hessian and clay before being left to dry out for a full month. Before it is fired, the willow structure will be removed to leave a hard clay shell, which is the kiln chamber. It will be fuelled with around eight tonnes of wood, a mixture of sustainably sourced hard and softwood from Wytham woods. A variety of wood types produce different flame temperatures at different points in the firing. ‘The beauty of the anagama stoneware lies in its great variation in colour and texture,’ said Dr Wilson. ‘A sort of alchemy happens inside the kiln due to the interaction of the flames, the ash, and the minerals in the clay. Every piece comes out looking unique.’

The patron of the project is 80-year-old Isezaki Jun, who is designated the Living National Treasure of Bizen by the Japanese Government and is highly venerated in Japan. His former apprentice, Kazuya Ishida, who has produced many of the pots for the project, will be at the first firing and is the chief kiln loader. He has the job of crawling through the very small kiln entrance to stack up the pots before the fires are lit One of Britain’s best known potters, Jim Keeling, founder of Whichford Potteries in Warwickshire, is also co-directing the project.

The temperature is slowly built up by feeding a large fire within the lowest space within the kiln shell. The entrance to the kiln at its base is sealed with fire-bricks, which are stacked and unstacked to allow wood to be fed into the kiln. Eventually the firebox will start to block up as the amount of charred ash becomes too great to continue the fire. At this point, fires will be kindled via the side stoking holes and this way, the fire climbs up the kiln as firing progresses.

A larger kiln made of bricks is also being constructed alongside the historic willow anagama kiln by a professional kiln-building team who have been sent from Bizen by Isezaki Jun. This second kiln is due to have its first firing in November when Isezaki Jun is expected to make a special visit to Oxford. The project will involve the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, and research teams from Bizen, as well as Oxford University researchers from anthropology, geology, archaeology and woodland science, and traditional potters from all over the UK.

Members of the public who want to volunteer for helping to stoke the fires of the kiln can visit the project website:

NOTE: The best time for filming/pictures of the kiln fully fired up with flames appearing out of stoke holes is expected to be Friday 14 or Saturday 15 August. Filming at dawn or dusk is likely to produce the best chance of good stills/footage.

For more information, contact the University of Oxford News Office at +44 (0) 1865 280534 and email: [email protected]

Further information

  • Images of the kiln are available to media on request. They show the anagama kiln being built and examples of anagama pottery.
  • Master Potter Isezaki Jun, the Living National Treasure of Bizen, will make a special visit to Oxford to give a lecture at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on 23 October when there will also be an exhibition relating to the kiln at the Wytham Room.
  • Provisional timetable for the willow anagama kiln:
    29 July: Begin loading kiln.
    11 August: Start firing the kiln.
    14 or 15 August: Best time for filming the flames from the kiln (at dawn or dusk).
    15 August: There will be a family friendly party in the afternoon near the kiln. This is also good for photographs/filming.
    25 August: Open and unload kiln.
    14-15 November: Oxford Christmas Art week. Pots go up for sale at Wytham.
  • Provisional timetable for the brick kiln
    6 July: Begin building brick kiln.
    17 August: Brick kiln complete.
    24 October: Isezaki Jun officially starts loading brick kiln.
    14-15 November: Oxford Christmas Art week. Public leave their pots for firing.
    16 November: Fire brick kiln.
    28-29 November: Finish firing.
    7 December: Pots for sale.