Firing Pottery in a Pit Kiln

Some of the world's most beautiful ceramic ware has been produced by firing pottery using an outdoor pit kiln.

| July/August 1981

070 firing pottery 1 unfired pottery

A pit kiln can be a little finicky, so before firing pottery make sure you practice on expendable pieces. These are good quality pieces.


In 1909 the head of an archaeological expedition in New Mexico asked Maria Martinez—a member of the San Ildefonso Pueblo—to duplicate several types of ancient pottery. With nothing to go on but a few shards the team had recovered, Maria accomplished the task by means of a very old technique that has been used, with slight variations, by primitive potters all over the world.

Firing pottery in an outdoor pit kiln like the one Maria constructed (to keep her reproductions as accurate as possible) is a method perfectly suited to the needs of today's rural craftspeople, too. In fact, it can be built by anyone who has access to an open space, some dry cow or horse manure, twigs, scrap metal, and a supply of broken pottery.

Scavenge a Kiln

The necessary quantity of each of the above kiln-making materials will be easy to determine after the first firing, since any "recipe" mistakes made during the initial attempt can be adjusted the second time around. Needless to say, you won't want to start with your best artwork. Fire only your expendable pieces on the trial run.

For a small firing of 10 six-inch pots, you should gather at least a large shopping bag full of twigs and one of manure. The scrap metal can be rusted roofing, large flattened cans, or old stovepipe and so forth. If no pottery shards are available, cracked ceramic dinnerware can be used as a substitute. Just keep in mind that you'll need enough shards and scrap to prepare a layer of each under the to-be-fired pottery and over it.

Patience Makes Progress

It's best to process your wares on a cool and windless day (early mornings are often the best). Otherwise, the smoke—instead of going straight up—may be forced into the kiln's interior, where it can discolor the clay. Furthermore, of course, wind adds to the difficulty of safely tending an open flame.

After first clearing away any brush or grass that might be sparked into an accidental blaze, use a generous quantity of twigs to build a camp-sized fire in a shallow hole in the ground. Set the pots around it, making sure they don't touch one another or become directly exposed to the flames.

2/3/2009 4:38:01 PM

I really liked the article and found it very imformativebut did not understand how long to fire or how to tell if my pots were fired completely to bis ware.

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