Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Economics & Ceramics: Wood Firing Vs. Gas Firing and The Story of Lee Tae Ho

Not all ceramics are made the same. One of the biggest factors affecting the price of ceramics is whether a piece was fired in a wood burning or gas kiln.

Pieces from traditional wood burning kilns carry some value in Korea just because they employ methods that are 'traditional' and 'natural'. These factors also permeate all faucets of tea culture in Korea. The natural details created by pieces fired in a wood burning kiln such as flecks of ash, a rougher surface, and warping due to uneven heating are also highly valued. These details are not created by the hand of the artist but are imprinted by the hand of the wood burning kiln. These are factors that the ceramicist can't completely control. So in this way a measure of good luck is required to create a good work with a wood fired kiln. These pieces are valued by our eyes, but more so, our touch.

Gas fired works struggle to recreate the natural surface of ceramics. Not only is the process mechanized, art created in the gas kiln also exudes a certain 'artificialness' to it. The glossy finish and smooth, sleek look often characterize gas fired pieces. Although, to the western mind, these adjectives may sound like they should increase the value of a given work, in the wabi sabi tradition where perfection and symmetry are seen as unnatural, these pieces aren't so sought after.

Also costs of production must be taken into account. Wood burning kilns are expensive and labour intensive to make, but are much more expensive to actually run. Wood isn't cheap, especially in Korea. And especially when you consider how much lumber you would need to properly achieve the firing temperature. In gas kilns achieving, maintaining, and controlling the firing temperature is as easy as a turn of a dial, in wood burning kilns this is an art in and of itself. It takes not only more money to fire ceramics but much more time also.

In todays tough economic climate, one wonders if lesser known Korean ceramicist are switching from traditional wood firing to cost effective gas firing? Certainly one has heard of talented struggling ceramicists making the jump from wood burning to gas firing before.

One stumbled across some colourful teaware in a Daegu shop some time ago. Unable to determine the artist in question, one asked the store clerk who had produced such interesting, natural works. He went on to tell how the owner of the store discovered Lee Tae Ho.

As it goes, Lee Tae Ho had been artist for a while, but unable to crack the market, he only managed to make enough money to get by. His pieces were created from the naturalness of the wood fired kiln so naturally he charged appropriately for such works. At one point he realized that he wasn't getting anywhere selling these more expensive wood-fired pieces, in fact, he was barely making it day to day.

The store manager heard that Lee Tae Ho was having an exhibit so went to check out his work. She was perhaps a bit shocked to find out that his exhibition was at his 'new' home, an old abandon building, not the typical art gallery. On display he had many inexpensive gas fired pieces that almost pass as wood fired pieces.

Pictured are some interesting pots by a truly 'starving artist'.



terre et feu said...

hello Matt,

This is very interesting, i have made 10 years research to fired the clay by gaz in wood firing way, now i almost control the process (in Nanban technics),this process have help me to developpe a little woodkiln(anagama type)with i can use less wood less energy for more results (small kiln= more firing=more control).....more pots to sell with small price.I think korean Mundengi woodkilns are a bridge between gaz and wood, Ho Soon Taek Have some very good reasults with unglaze teapots

I will be in Mungeyong teabol festival,so if you come you will can see this reaserch, after the festival i will stay at Kim Jeong Pill house.

MarshalN said...

Indeed -- gas and wood fired yixing pots look different, and one of the great problems with earlier wood fired pots is that they are often under-fired, creating a duller look and more porous surface. Gas (and electric) kilns are easy to control and will always fire at the right temperature, but you have other problems with that, such as the perfectness that you talked about, and also a shiny sheen to the pot that sometimes just looks wrong.

Anonymous said...

now, we can control the probleme of the shiny surface from gaz firing,
we use the technic of cooling reduction, and water...
When we stop the woodfiring,the amber inside the kiln still working on clay,
the cooling procedure can help to come close to the woodfiring texture.
But woodfiring realy work on the heart of the clay,and something we can not control by technics...wind, aire, type and age of wood we used.
And also the rythme we give to the woodfiring make something we can not have whith gazfiring.

MarshalN said...

Right, I thought it has something to do with the way wood fire works vs gas or electric firing -- the radiation heat that you get from the latter, especially electric kilns, are not the same as what you get from a wood flame? I'm no expert and am just starting to read up on this topic. Your comments are very instructive.

Matt said...

Terre et feu,

This is an interesting topic- how modern technology and new techniques are closing the gap between wood fired pieces and gas fired pieces. It is true that modern artists are really doing a good job making it more difficult to determine which method of firing was used especially in unglazed works as you mentioned.

One full agrees with you that “wood firing works on the heart of the clay, something that you cannot control by techniques”. There is something true, essential, and loving that only wood firing can bring about.

One is very interested in your research on kiln productivity.

Thanks so much for you insight, enjoy the wonderful Mungeyong teabol festival. You are lucky to be in the presence of such great ceramicists like Kim Jeong Pill.


One has been closely following your series on zhuni pots and sincerely appreciates the detail of both your writings and photography. One has learned a tremendous amount.

Many thanks for dropping by.


Matt said...


It seems we’re posting over each other.

One particularly liked Terre et feu’s comment about the uncontrolled variables of wood firing. The ‘rhythm’ of the wood burning kiln, or how the fluctuations in maintaining the temperature change the final product, is an important and often overlooked factor affecting the piece. More importantly, it solidifies the relationship between man and nature resulting in a work that is as much made by man as it is by nature, a pact or compromise by both.


Jason Fasi said...

Matt / Marshaln:

It's not just the flames and uneven heating during the firing that causes big differences in the final works.

Gas, wood, and electric kilns cool differently. Wood kilns can slow cool for days, depending on how big the kiln is and how it is built. Also, the cooling occurs as unevenly as the heat distribution in most wood kilns. Gas and electric kilns can slow cool, too, but do so more evenly.

Slow cooling vs. fast cooling a glaze fired to the same temperature can yield two extremely different glaze surfaces, sometimes even different glaze colors, as it effects the final crystalization of the solidifying glass.

Probably not such a big deal for unglazed work, like bizen and yixing wares, but for celadons, shino/hagi, and jian ware, cooling is very important.

Wishing I had a gas or wood kiln,


Matt said...


Terre et feu mentioned how cooling reduction techniques can help the problem of an overly artificial looking finish. Thanks for going over this in such detail.

The creations on your blog are really coming along. One imagines that there are not so many wood kilns here in North America. Do you, by chance, know of any famous ones?


Chris C. said...


Hello there. Being a potter, this is a very interesting topic. In North America I think we tend to associate or attribute a potter's work to the individual rather than the kiln site where it was fired. Although there are always exceptions. One very well know kiln is the East Creek Anagama located in Willamina, OR.

Simon Levin (very well known for his wood fired work) is currently compiling a map of wood kilns here

You have a fantastic blog, by the way!

yolande clark said...

Hello, This is a wonderful blog and an important topic. My husband and I are currently renovating our anagama, (used to be a hikarigama with a catenary arch back chamber that we salt-fired--sometimes in conjunction with the anagama, sometimes separately-but the back chamber has just come down) in order to do a 9 or 10 day firing in about 3 weeks. While its true that certain techniques in a gas kiln can create interesting effects, I would argue that the heavy natural ash glaze Shigaraki-style effects from long wood-firings are impossible to duplicate in terms of depth and richness with a gas kiln. Not only that, but for us, the rhythm and process and ritual of wood-firing is necessary for our spiritual happiness...we fire without cones or pyrometers, choosing instead to use our intuition and the relationship we create (accept) with the kiln and the flame...Love. Oh, and we're pretty broke. Woodfiring is an all-consuming passion though, and this is our life. So of course, we persist joyfully.

Matt said...

Chris C.,

Sorry for the late reply. One has been on the move, it's consuming.

That site is brilliant, although North America seems a bit over represented. :)

Thanks for that contribution.


Yolande Clarke,

Firstly, you and your husband's works are beautiful. Please readers do check out the link.

You sound as though you really know your kilns. You understand the true nature of potter and kiln- its soul, its rhythm.

Thanks so much for your deep hearted words.