About Pit Firing

As soon as I discovered the process of pit firing I knew that it was a way of working that I strongly identified with, and I felt that I had found my creative direction. I am excited by its endless possibilities, by the fact that the pieces seem to have been created by nature itself, by the organic material, the seaweed, and the element of fire, with its power to transform the surface of the clay into a myriad of different patterns and colours.

Jane White Pit Fired Ceramics

The technique is a marriage between the artist and chance, experimentation and observation, where discovery becomes as significant as invention, and failures should be seen as just part of the process of learning. Each piece that is unearthed from the ashes is totally unique and I am inspired and intrigued by the fact that the beauty of nature itself seems have been encapsulated into the work when the elements interact. Consequently I am constantly striving to create forms that mirror the simplicity and balance evident all around us in the natural world, so that surface and form become seamlessly unified, as in nature.

The process of pit firing has endless possibilities, the pieces seem to have been created by nature itself, by the organic material, and the fire, which transforms the surface of the clay into a myriad of different patterns and colours, and each piece that is unearthed from the ashes is totally unique.

Early experiments started with simple smoke firing during Year 2 at Bucks New University  in 2007. We built a structure out of engineering bricks and used a heavy metal lid over the top. We used the kiln to fire low fired burnished pieces which we buried in sawdust for a 12 hour firing.

Key inspiration for experimentation during my final year at university was Jane Perryman. I attended one of her workshops in Suffolk, and it was there that I had my first experience of the exciting and totally unpredictable technique of pit firing.

Jane White Pit firing pottery

My first pit was dug with the aid of a JCB, and since then I have adapted the design several times. The pots are placed on 20-30cm sawdust in the bottom of the pit, and surrounded by a variety of organic materials and copper carbonate/sulphate. A large quantity of dry wood of approximately 1 metre depth is then put on top, followed by combustibles such as straw and paper. The fire is then lit and it burns for about 4 – 6 hours and then the pit is sealed for 70 hours for cooling.

Every firing is completely different, and the excitement of discovering the pieces all buried in the ash has been likened to an archaeological dig! The explosion of colours and organic patterns revealed when the ash is brushed off, and a light sealing of wax is put on the pieces, is like dropping a pebble into the sea, a miracle of the alchemy of the natural world, and the fusion of earth, fire and organic material.

  • Organic material you can use for pit-firing includes:
  • Seaweed and driftwood
  • Dried banana skins
  • Dried citrus fruits and skins
  • Avocado skins and stones
  • Pistachio and other nut shells
  • Copper wire wound around pots
  • Copper carbonate and sulphate
  • Salt and anything else you’d like to experiment with!

In my life I enjoy taking risks and chances, going on long journeys of discovery, and travelling to places where few people venture. By working in this way I am able to find the same challenges and adventure in my creative life, and I hope that my work conveys and retains the excitement and enthusiasm I feel when I am making it.

The Pit Firing process in Photographs

Photographs taken for the Ceramic Review Masterclass by Ben Boswell