Archive for the ‘kiln accidents’ Category

The Potter’s Tale

October 30, 2022

Although I post this bit of autobiography near Halloween, you might not read it until much later. In any event, I suppose I’m just feeling the spirit of the season…

Years ago I apprenticed to a potter who had a gigantic, 65 foot long, five chamber “tepugama,” or “split bamboo,” style wood burning kiln (which is far superior to the “anagama” in every way – for potters who live in these particular weeds I’ll just leave this one out there).

This was a life defining time period. Kilns like these are both a delight and an extreme challenge to operate. Over half a year’s preparation can go into each firing. All that scheduling. Thousands upon thousands of pots. Cords upon cords of properly cut and stacked wood. All that scraping and cleaning of kiln shelves and kiln furniture.

The excitement builds. The fire is lit. It won’t go out for the next several grueling days. Overnight stoking shifts are the best, though – after all the party people leave, it’s just you, the fire, the kiln, and the stars overhead. Magical.

For all the physical labor involved, potters easily get hooked on these kilns. It gets to the point where one begins to hear (and think) disparagements about electric kilns. So small. So predictable. So simple. Just press a button.

…That was me at one time…

There can be appreciable heat differences between the middle, and the top or bottom of a decent sized electric kiln. And even then, some low temp glazes are sensitive to being too close to, or too far from, the elements. And you have to keep an eye on those pesky elements. And those pesky relays. And those pesky thermocouples. What if they fail in the middle of a firing? What if the power suddenly goes out? Oh, and my Skutt kilns pull over 60 amps at their peak. So proper wiring and grounding are sort of important.

…Still, what could possibly go wrong…

There is a realization that eventually hits every former wood firing potter who uses electric kilns for a living; Whereas firing a big wood kiln is truly like a waking up a fire breathing dragon, firing an electric kiln is like walking past a really mean neighborhood dog.

…Still, what could possibly go wrong…

The Life and Times of James Egbert

October 19, 2014

Dedicated to my friends Joe Jostes and Sue Skinner of S&J Pottery, with wishes for a safe and successful move.

There are any number of reasons why a potter would move away from a perfectly good pottery shop.  If the shop were in New York City and the year was 1795, the potter would probably be following hoards of panic stricken people fleeing the plague.

Waves of yellow fever swept through New York City almost annually from 1795 to 1805.  Entire neighborhoods were decimated within weeks.  Whoever could leave town would do so.  Many plague refugees traveled up the Hudson River to sleepy little villages like Poughkeepsie – far enough to be safe but close enough to keep up with city events.

Most refugees returned to New York as each plague episode abated.  But some, potters included, saw advantages in establishing a foothold between the metropolis and the growing hinterland.

One enterprising young stoneware potter, William Nichols, went so far as to set up shop in Poughkeepsie in anticipation of a possible plague outbreak in 1823.  He figured he’d be ready to supply pots to refugees as soon as they arrived.  Unfortunately, yellow fever didn’t strike that year and poor William lost his shirt.

Poughkeepsie’s first potters were also plague refugees.  James Egbert and Durell Williams fled New York City’s initial 1795 yellow fever outbreak.  Durell Williams was a stoneware potter and James Egbert had been a carpenter.  Durell had convinced James to try his hand at the stoneware business.  Durell eventually moved back to New York City.

But James seems to have liked both Poughkeepsie and pottery.  He continued the Poughkeepsie pottery for a while before ‘shopping around:’ working in both stoneware and redware potteries throughout the region.

James apparently had a long and healthy life, according to a June 29, 1842 article about him in the Newburgh Gazette.  But that same article told of disaster.  His kiln collapsed while he was preparing for a firing.  James Egbert survived the plague only to be crushed to death by his own kiln.


Poughkeepsie Potters and the Plague.  George Lukacs.  Arcadia Publishing/Charleston, SC.  2001.