Monthly Archives: May 2012

Building a Wood-Fired Kiln — A Photo Essay

As described in the update on our wood-fired kiln, our new kiln project is nearly complete.  We thought you might enjoy seeing a photo essay of how it was built.

The base of the fireboxes are laid out, along with the first one-and-a-half courses of fire brick.

Base of the fireboxes

Mortaring and constructing the fireboxes.

Mortaring the fireboxes

Setting the hard bricks for the fireboxes.

More setting of hard bricks for the fireboxes:

Setting hard bricks for the fireboxes

The completed fireboxes with the firebox roof in place.

Completed firebox

One of the fire rods. These are made from a ceramic refractory material that last a lot longer than steel pipes. The wood will be fed into the fire on top of these rods.



The inside of the fire box.


Inside the firebox

The flue, where smoke and fumes will exit the kiln. This channel connects the fireboxes to the chimney.

The flue

The first course of bricks for the firing chamber.

The first course of bricks for the firing chamber

Setting the firebrick in place.

Setting the firebrick in place

A view of the firing chamber after several courses of brick have been laid.

Top view of firing chamber

The firing chamber at about one-half its height.

Firing chamber

Laying bricks from the inside and out.

Laying bricks from inside and outside

Some of our helpers.

The firing chamber at its full height, before the roof has been added. The iron frame is being put in place. The bulk of the kiln is constructed using a method called dry-stacking. The bricks are laid so that they interlock, and the iron frame holds it together.

Firing chamber at full-height

Bolting together the frame.

The completed chamber and framework — ready for the roof.

The completed chamber and framework

The free-standing arched roof from the inside.

Inside view of arch

The arched roof from the outside.

Top view of roof

The kiln with roof in place.

Kiln with arched roof in place


Related Articles

For more information about the kiln see Update on our Wood-Fired Kiln and Our Plans to Build a Wood-Fired Kiln.


Update on Our Wood-Fired Kiln

Wood fired kiln

The new kiln is nearly completed.

As mentioned in the spring issue of the SustainLife journal, we recently began building a wood fired kiln. We have been using a gas-fired kiln for the past twelve years, but due to some design flaws and repair needs, we decided to build a new one.  This new wood-fired kiln will be a big step toward sustainability for us, as potters. The only cost in firing the new kiln will be our labor, as we will be able to heat it by burning scraps of wood.

We started laying bricks in March, 2012, and as of May 21, we have completed the construction of the fire boxes, the walls of the firing chamber and the arched roof. The next thing we will build is the chimney.

Most of the kiln is built from dry-stacked, high-temperature, insulating fire bricks, in a double-walled construction. The fire boxes are an exception, as they are mortared together and constructed of very hard, dense higher-temperature brick.  These high-duty fire bricks can handle the intense heat of the fire boxes better than the insulating bricks used throughout the rest of the kiln.

The arched roof is also made of dry-stacked brick. To lay those bricks in place, we built an arch former of wood. It’s top surface matches the shape of the kiln’s arch. We braced the arch former from inside the kiln, then laid the bricks in position on top of it.  Once the arch bricks were all in place, we removed the arch former, allowing the roof to stand on its own, held in place by the weight of the bricks, the side walls and the design and shape of the arch.

Inside view of the arched roof

Inside view of the arched roof

We have done most of the work with volunteer labor, including help from some of our eager students who wanted to place a couple of bricks on the walls!

Wood fired kiln

Pottery students helping lay bricks.

Our goal for completing the project is June 1. We hope to fire the kiln for the first time shortly after that.


See also our photo essay on building the kiln.

Plans to Attend the Mother Earth News Fair, June 2-3

The Ploughshare will have a booth (#711) at the Mother Earth News Fair on June 2 and 3, 2012 at Puyallup, Washington. The Ploughshare’s Butch Tindell and Josiah Wheeler will be staffing the booth.

The fair is located at:

110 9th Avenue Southwest
Puyallup, Wash. 98371

The Fairgrounds are 35 miles south of Seattle and 10 miles east of Tacoma.

The fair will be open:
  • Saturday, 9AM-7PM
  • Sunday, 9AM-6PM

If you can make it to the fair, drop by and visit us at booth #711.

The Mother Earth News Fair will feature practical, hands-on demos and workshops about gardening, small-scale agriculture, renewable energy, green building and more.  To find out more about it, visit:


Food Preservation: A Big Step toward Sustainability


This article is an excerpt from the Spring 2012 issue of the SustainLife journal.

Food Preservation


Growing and preserving your own food is one of the most important aspects of sustainability. Traditionally, food preservation was a way of life, and families passed down their skills to successive generations. When looking to preserve their harvest, today’s gardeners are confronted with a gap in cultural knowledge. Many did not grow up preserving their harvest or even growing a garden to harvest. Our grandparents may have preserved their own food, but with the arrival of the Industrial Age and the mass production and mass transport of readily available food, many people no longer considered food preservation a necessity, so the knowledge was not passed on. As a result, many people are unfamiliar with the different ways to preserve food. Using salt, sugar, oil, vinegar and alcohol are all interesting methods our ancestors may have used to keep their harvests. In this article we will briefly discuss five of the most common ways you can preserve food. We will first look at three methods that predominated for millennia before the Industrial Age, and then we will discuss two more recent approaches.

Natural Storage

Natural storage simply means to preserve fruits and vegetables in their natural state. It is an excellent way to store an abundant harvest. Some foods lend themselves to natural storage more than others. Nuts, beans, peas and grains store well in their natural state if you keep them in sealed containers to avoid bug contamination. To keep our onions and garlic, we braid their leaves and hang them from the porch eaves, where they will keep for months. You can store potatoes, winter squash, pumpkins and sweet potatoes in a cool place for up to six months. In northern climates, if you have a root cellar you can store apples, cabbages, carrots, turnips and similar produce there through the winter. Although root cellars are not as useful in the south for these winter crops, we store our sweet potatoes in a root cellar, and they keep from fall harvest until summer. Beets and carrots are crops you can bury in buckets of sand and keep cool in order to continue eating them fresh through the summer.


Dehydration has been used for centuries. It works by removing excess moisture and making the food’s water level insufficient for bacterial growth. Drying foods involves little cost, preserves more vitamins and nutrients than other methods and requires very little storage space because dried foods are so compact. Fruits are preserved well by dehydration, and there are many vegetables you can dry effectively. A hot, dry climate lends itself to solar dehydrating. In humid climates there are many kinds of dehydrators you can purchase for home use. Here in central Texas we have had success sun-drying fruit such as peaches, apricots and tomatoes.


Lacto-fermentation is probably, for most people, the least familiar way to preserve food. It preserves food by converting the natural sugars to lactic acid, thereby creating an acidic environment in which food-spoiling bacteria cannot survive. Usually salt is added as part of the process. Lacto-fermentation works best for vegetables and can even boost their nutritional value because it breaks down food in a way that makes the nutrients more available. For example, sauerkraut has 25% more vitamin C than the raw cabbage from which it was made. The food is simply sliced or shredded, salted and packed into containers, then allowed to sit at room temperature for three to six weeks or until the fermentation process is complete. Homemade sauerkraut is very simple to make and tastes far better than store-bought, canned sauerkraut!

Food Preservation


In the early 1900’s Nicholas Appert discovered how to preserve food by heating it to 212 degrees (F) or higher to kill microorganisms that could cause spoilage. This gave birth to the canning industry as we know it today. As canning became increasingly popular, the more traditional methods began to slip into the background, and some have been nearly forgotten.

You can use boiling water bath or steam canning to preserve high acid foods such as fruits, jams, jellies and pickles. The food is packed into jars, covered with lids, then placed in the canner, brought to 212 degrees (F) and held at that temperature for a certain time, effectively killing all molds and any food-spoiling bacteria that can survive in a high acid environment. A canning reference book, like the Ball Blue Book, will list the correct canning time for each food.

Low acid foods such as meat, beans and vegetables, necessitate the use of a pressure canner. Pressurized heating allows the temperature to reach 240 degrees (F) inside the canner, which safely kills all food-spoiling bacteria that could thrive in low acid foods, including botulism. Although pressure canning is safe for low acid foods, the higher temperature kills beneficial enzymes and nutrients, likely sacrificing the food’s fresh flavor and some of its nutritional value. Despite this drawback, canning is a very dependable way to store food in our unpredictable Texas climate.


In more recent years canning has given way to freezing. Freezing is convenient. It doesn’t kill microorganisms, but the low temperature hinders their growth. It preserves more nutrients than pressure canning. Most vegetables must be blanched before freezing, but fruits require very little preparation. Freezing is not truly sustainable in most climates because it depends upon a source of non-renewable energy, but if you are just beginning to build your food preservation skills, it is a good place to start.


In conclusion, we have briefly touched upon natural storage, dehydration, fermentation, canning and freezing, but we have by no means exhausted all the ways you can preserve food. Aside from natural storage, each preservation method that we have discussed changes the food’s natural state by either removing moisture, heating, freezing or acidifying it. As you experiment with different approaches, you will find the one you and your family prefer for each crop. When you are first beginning to put up your excess harvest, one of the best ways to learn is to work with someone who has experience preserving food; or, take a class. As you gain experience, many books are available which give guidelines on food preparation, canning times and temperatures, blanching and dehydrating times and salt and acid amounts. Growing food and preserving the excess are big steps toward sustainability.

Visit SustainLife journal for more information about the journal.


A Wheat Trial of Ancient and Heirloom Wheat Varieties

Kamut wheat

Kamut, also known as Polish wheat.

Wheat is the world’s most important grain crop, and approximately 70% of all agricultural land is planted to wheat, more than any other crop. For generations people have been sustained by this important food staple. However, recent research has raised questions about the possible detrimental health effects of wheat, most notably gluten intolerance, allergies and celiac disease. Increasingly, it seems a greater percentage of the population is suffering from these maladies, more than has historically been seen before. Since people have been consuming wheat in some form for millennia, researchers have begun to question the recent increase in these health issues. Some research has pointed to modern varieties of wheat that have been genetically selected and adapted for high yield and high gluten (protein) content. For centuries, farmers have been selecting plant varieties for better quality and yield, however continual selection for yield over other traits can lead to the loss of beneficial nutritional qualities. Wheat that has been bred for higher gluten content allows large, industrial baking operations to produce more bread per day per oven because the higher gluten content will cause the bread to rise more quickly. However, some dietitians and nutritionists believe that longer rise times as well as fermentation (sourdough) and pre-sprouting can develop more flavor and enzymatic activity which aids digestion and assimilation. Many older varieties of wheat require this slower artisan process in order to produce quality bread.

Red fife wheat

Red Fife Wheat

In addition, most modern wheat has been bred to grow shorter so that large combines do not have to deal with as much straw during the harvest. However, small-scale horse farmers prefer the taller varieties because they are more easily harvested by horse-drawn grain binders. Also, straw is a valuable commodity on a sustainable farm, serving as mulch, compost material (carbon source) and animal bedding.

Drying heads of wheat

Drying the Heads of Grain

This past year the research farmers at The Ploughshare searched and found several old varieties of wheat and are now growing them here on our research farm in order to determine which varieties perform best in our climate and soils. For the past 16 years we have grown and saved seed from Russian Beardless Wheat, an heirloom variety that has been a consistent performer. We are using this wheat variety as our control variety to measure and compare to the wheat varieties in the trial.

For more information on the varieties used, see: Ancient and Heirloom Wheat Trial Varieties

In addition to the wheat trial, we have several other agricultural projects underway.