How to Pit Fire Pottery Clay Without a Kiln

How to pit fire pottery without a kiln

How to Pit Fire Pottery

How to Pit Fire Pottery

In the previous posting, I covered digging up and making your own clay.  By now, you are probably wondering what to do with all the things that you have made with your homemade clay.  The answer is you could either let your pieces air dry and call them finished, or you could learn how to pit fire pottery so they will last generations, possibly to be dug up aeons later by some lucky person.  A pit fire is the oldest known method of firing your pottery, dating back to 29,000 BC.  It works as a kiln using a hole in the ground as insulation and fuel to reach temperatures around 2000 degrees farenheit.

If you chose to pit fire, there are a few things to consider before learning how to pit fire pottery, since it involves an open fire.  Is it safe or legal for you to do this in the location that you have chosen?  If you are unsure please check with you local authorities to confirm, that it is in fact legal.   Also, remember to use all safety precautions when dealing with fire.  In other words find a suitable location and don’t burn down your house and don’t get burned. Pun intended! My back yard is not big enough, so I choose to pit fire at the beach or desert.

Pit firing can be a fun a rewarding activity for everyone.  It may take some practice to get the results that you want, but it is easily achievable with very little tools.  Hopefully by the end of your project, you will have made some amazing creations by digging you own clay and pit firing.

Tools you will need:

  • Shovel
  • Matches
  • Newspaper
  • Fuel for the fire (dry leaves and twigs, coal, sawdust or manure)

 

1.  The first step is to find the location.  A fun easy location would be a fire ring at the beach.  It will not only be fun, but you will be able to sleep at night knowing that you have not started a forest fire or burned down your neighbors house.  A location with a fire ring is the only location I would recommend since fires can easily get out of control, especially in this dry heat.

 2. The next step would be to dig a pit large enough to to put your pieces in including combustibles like sawdust paper and leaves.   A good place to start with would be to dig a pit about 2 feet in diameter with sloping sides and about 18 inches.  Be sure to keep away from any bushes, trees and grasses.

 3.  In the bottom of the pit you will need to build a layer of 3 to 4 inches of combustible material.  You can use anything from dry leaves and twigs, coal, sawdust or manure, which will all burn slowly.   Whatever you decide to use cover the entire bottom of the pit with an even layer.

 4.  Place your pottery or pieces on top of the combustibles on the bottom of the pit leaving an inch between each piece.

 5. Next you will need to cover your pieces with more of the leaves, twigs, manure or whatever you are using, building up a mound.  Be careful not to break or crack your pieces since they are still very fragile.

 6.  Make sure to use all safety precautions with this step.  Light the mound.  You may need to add twisted newspaper to the sides of the mound to get it to ignite.  After the mound is burning, let it burn until the flames die down and the fire is reduced to a smoulder.   You can then let the fire smoulder for several hours.

 7.   After several hours of smouldering you can then bury the pit with dirt or sand.  This will reduce the oxygen in the pit creating a reducing atmosphere giving the finished pieces more color and variation.

 8.  At this point, you can leave the pit until the next day.  Plus, you are probably tired by now.

 9. The next morning carefully dig up your pieces, but be careful they still may be hot.  If you chose the beach don’t worry just dig them up a few hours later.  You will need to start earlier so you don’t have to leave before the beach is closed.

 10.  The final step and the most fun.  Clean your pieces under running tap water and use a  scrub brush to remove any debris.

 

  1. Amy Reply

    This is a great article thank you! Will have to try this out sometime.

  2. Eric Cervantes Reply

    Ahhh pit firings, those were the days! Loved hitting construction sites in the middle of the night to get scrap wood for fuel….

    Thanks for bringing back a good memory!

    • Lisa Harris Reply

      We at the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma still do Pit Firings!! It’s an excellent excuse to have a big potluck dinner and have a party! We usually have around 200 pots that have to be fired so it’s a big event!! If you ever end up in Durant Ok, 30 minutes north of the Texas state line on highway 69/75 stop in and you might get lucky and be able to see another pit firing!!

      • david Reply

        Wow Lisa! Sounds like so much fun. I am sure it is an awesome event.

  3. Danielle Lucier Reply

    How do you treat the pottery beforehand? Does it require glazing afterwards or is it safe to eat off of? Is it already bisqued when you do this?

    • david Reply

      Danielle, there is nothing you need to do to pit fire your pottery. Just be sure that your work is bone dry and not too thick. As far as food safe, it would not be considered food safe by US standards, because it will be porous, which could harbor bacteria; however, the natives used vessels such as this for cooking all the time. So you can decide. Also you clay body should be free of contaminants such as lead. If you are unsure you can get a lead test kit online. Best of luck!

  4. Caleb Reply

    I have wanted to do this for a year and I finally am! I started living on a sailboat and the beach near the marina has huge clay cliffs. I got clay and properly saturated and strained it. Today I made a pipe and am looking forward to firing it on the beach! Cheers!

  5. Mary Reply

    Thank you for this. I was visiting my family farm in southern Ohio last week and remembered all the pockets of blue/gray clay. Your article is the clearest I’ve encountered. Thank you so much.

  6. Chris Reply

    I live in Florida and was thinking about using this method. I want to make my own floor clay tiles. How do I make them waterproof for when mopping? Also since it’s very humid where I live should I let my pieces dry for few weeks under plastic before firing in pit fire. I know nothing about pottery, so this will be trial & error. Thanks

  7. Lynne Reply

    Thanks David, This is nice and clear. I’m hoping to do this in my garden. We’re in Spain and of course I must be really careful because its so dry here. I was wondering whether it might be better to contain the pit a bit with bricks. Obviously I’m worried about fire in our climate.

    Is it possible to colour the pots too. It sounds like you’re saying only fire for a couple of hours, am I right? Also, is a pit fire the same as a raku kiln which I thought could be made in a dug out pit, the same, or in a metal bin. We’re totally off grid so want to be basic in our approach and as I’ve just got a treddle pottery wheel, I thought it would be fun to fire in a home-made kiln.

    Thanks for your article, Lynne

  8. Mark Reply

    I want to pit fire some small pieces. I am thinking about throwing them in my oven as a poor-man’s bisque firing. Should drive off any water, and make them a little sturdier.

    • Pamela Kincaid Reply

      Thinking about doing the same thing. Does it really work?? I let mine air dry for a week or more. And how hot should the oven be?? Pam

  9. Laurie Reply

    Can’t wait to try this! Thanks for the great info.

  10. Vicki Reply

    Thank you for the info! Would you tell me how long should the piece air dry before it is kilned?

    • david Reply

      Vicky, sorry for the late reply. Your pieces should dry until they are bone dry, however long that takes. The climate and air circulation has the most effect on drying time.

  11. Vicki Reply

    Should you air dry your piece before kilning?

  12. Paola Reply

    David, cogratulations for your work!
    Question, I dig a hole 2feet tall and I mounted a kiln 6feet tall on top of it, I fired my pieces for more than 10 hours and this afternoon after work I went to check and the fire inside the pit still on? What sould I do?

    • david Reply

      Thank you Paola! That sounds like quite a project. It is hard to say what to do without knowing too much about your setup, but I would turn off the gas or let it burn out, depending on if it is gas or wood fired.

  13. Patricia Reply

    Did you burnish your pots before you put them in? They look burnished, I was going to use raku glaze but have never burnished raku…. What do you recommend? Loved your article

    • david Reply

      Hello Patricia, I would not raku glaze the pieces before you pit fire them. Bare clay that has been burnished looks amazing. The beauty of a pit-fired ware comes from the reduction and the environment on the claybody.
      David

  14. Jay Reply

    I’ve just moved from Oregon..is it legal to do this on the beaches in LAC?

    • david Reply

      Hello Jay, here is a list of beaches that still have fire rings. Any of these should work fine providing you can stay for the hours needed to complete the firing. I would call the beach or the website before you plan a trip, since there has been some controversy about fires on the beach and air quality. You may also want to verify the open hours before you go.

      https://www.tripping.com/guides/california-beaches-that-allow-bonfires/

      Best,
      David

  15. Deborah Glasser Reply

    My friend and I have been taking pottery classes since high school about 55 years ago and still at the wheel. We wanted to try our own methods to fire at home. This is exactly what we’ve been considering. Now I have no fear that it may work after all. If I’m allowed to play with fire without “Adult” supervision.

  16. Pamela Kincaid Reply

    Great page. So one firing should be all you need ??? Been watching Youtube for info. I make greenman masks and have 6 of them to fire plus some incense burners. And I am just going to stain them after they are fired. I think pit firing would be safer then trash can firing. I am also going to wrap them in foil when I fire them. What kind of gage do you use for the temperature reading? I have a point and click but I don’t think it goes up to 2000. Thank you Pamela Kincaid

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