Monthly Archives: June 2012

The First Firing of Our New Wood-Fired Pottery Kiln

Inside the kiln, a view through the peep-hole

Inside the kiln, a view through the peep-hole

We finished the construction of our new wood-fired kiln on June 16, 2012 and fired it the same day. It was a great success!

Inspecting a vase after the first firing

Inspecting a pot after the first firing

We started the fires at about 5:20AM and fed wood into the kiln for the next 12 hours. The temperature climbed steadily until it reached about 2100°F, then it began to stall. Toward the end of the firing, it is not uncommon to have difficulty getting the temperature all the way up to the required 2400° F.

Feeding the kiln

Fueling the fire

One of the men from the woodworking shop next door came by and gave us a few suggestions on how to stoke the fire, which helped a lot! Once we made some adjustments to how we were managing the fire, the temperature resumed it’s climb and reached 2400° F in roughly 45 minutes. Then we stopped feeding the fire and closed the fire box doors and the damper.

Unbricking the Kiln Door

Unbricking the kiln’s door

On Monday morning, when we unbricked the door (removed the bricks that form the kiln door) and began taking pots out, the results were beautiful! The colors were more vibrant than they had been in our gas-fired kiln, due to the influence of the ash on the glazes.

Inside the Kiln

A look inside the kiln after the first firing

Overall, we are very pleased with the results of the new kiln and look forward to gaining more experience with it in the weeks ahead.

Pottery at the end of our first firing

Pots fired in the first firing

Related articles

To read more about the kiln and how and why we built it, read the articles listed below:


Coal for the Blacksmith

Bituminous Coal

Bituminous coal


There are a number of fuels you can use to heat iron for blacksmithing. For most of our work at Heritage Forge, we use coal. Coal is available in several grades, including lignite, bituminous and anthracite. In this article, I discuss the ranking of coal, the type of coal best-suited for blacksmithing and several important points related to the use of coal in your forge.

Grades of Coal

Coal consists primarily of carbon and secondarily of hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen and nitrogen, along with other metallic and non-metallic elements and minerals. Coal is classified both by rank and grade. There is a lot that could be said about rank and grades of coal, but I will stick to what is most relevant to blacksmiths. Coal’s rank is determined by the amount of water, volatile matter and elemental carbon in the coal, as well as its heat content, also known as its calorific value (measured in BTUs). A higher rank coal contains less moisture and volatile matter than a lower rank and has a higher heat content. Grade has to do with coal’s economic value and depends on the amount of minerals, or impurities, contained in it. The composition of coal depends on the conditions in which it was formed, and in some cases, a low-rank coal may be of a higher grade than a high-rank coal. Though additional ranks of coal exist, as blacksmiths, we are concerned mainly with these three: lignite, bituminous and anthracite.

Lignite Coal

Also known as brown coal, lignite is the softest and lowest rank of coal. It is not far removed from peat in its composition and appearance, and it has a distinctly woody texture. Lignite is generally either strip-mined or mined in open pits. Most Texas coal is low-grade lignite, used mainly to power electric plants. As a rule, lignite contains the highest proportion of nonburnable minerals and sulfur of any rank of coal.



When you burn any type of coal, the nonburnable minerals in the coal, such as metals and silicas, will melt and coagulate in the bottom of the firepot, forming a sticky semi-solid mass known as “clinker”. As clinker builds up, it will begin to block the forge’s air flow and draw heat away from the fire. In fact, that is why old-timers called clinker a “thief”. Because clinker emits contaminants in a hot fire, its presence, even in small amounts, will inhibit forge welding. Although lignite can be used in a forge, it will produce more clinker than any other grade of coal, making it poorly-suited for blacksmithing.

Bituminous Coal

Bituminous is the coal-of-choice for the blacksmith. It is a soft, mid-grade, black coal. Mined from deeper mines than lignite, it burns much more cleanly. When burning coal in the forge, we keep a “stock pile” of wet coal on the sides of the fire. As it smolders, most of the impurities are burned away, leaving primarily carbon, in the form of what we call coke.


Coke formed by heating bituminous coal in the forge

Having been reduced, coke burns very cleanly and hot, and it is what we heat the steel with. When you properly build and maintain a fire in the forge using bituminous coal, it will produce coke that sticks together in large chunks. The heart of the fire emits a very intense light that can be harmful to your eyes, but by maintaining the fire properly, the smith can keep the heart of the fire covered by a dark layer of coke to shield his eyes from the intense light.

Bituminous has a low sulfur content, which is important for several reasons. Sulfur lowers the quality of the coke, contaminating the steel you are working and causing it to become brittle. It also pollutes the air with sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide. When combined with oxygen and water, it forms sulfuric acid, which is very corrosive to all the metal parts of the forge and chimney.

Coal fire in the forge

Coal fire in the forge

Anthracite Coal

Anthracite is the hardest and highest rank of coal available. It is considered a metamorphic rock. When split, it has a bright, shiny cleavage. Anthracite is generally the cleanest burning coal, and it contains the most energy (BTUs) per pound. However, unlike bituminous, the pieces of coke that anthracite produces are small and tend to blow up and out of the fire. Because of this, it also does not shield the smith from the brightness of the heart of the fire and is not as commonly used for blacksmithing.

In the U.S., anthracite is mined from deep mines in small areas of Pennsylvania and Oregon. An interesting historical fact is that during the American Civil War, blockade runners used anthracite to fuel their steam boilers. Any smoke would give them away, but anthracite was so clean-burning that it produced no visible smoke.


In conclusion, bituminous is the best coal for the blacksmith. It is relatively clean-burning, cokes up nicely, making it easy to manage the fire well, and it produces relatively little clinker. Some of the best bituminous coal in the south is taken from mines near Birmingham, Alabama, which are the source of the coal we use at Heritage Forge.

Online Benefit Auction for The Ploughshare

Online Benefit Auction

A few of the items in our online benefit auction are shown above. To see all the items in the auction, visit

We invite you to participate in our 2nd Online Benefit Auction.

The auction features:

  • One-of-a-kind Heirloom Furniture
  • Hand-sewn Quilts
  • Award-winning pieces

There are 21 pieces in all.

All proceeds will go to benefit The Ploughshare Institute for Sustainable Culture.

To view all items in the auction, visit the link below:

View Items in the Auction

To register so that you can bid in the auction, visit the link below:

Register for the Auction

More Information

Here is your opportunity to purchase a one-of-a-kind heirloom piece of furniture or hand-sewn quilt while supporting a worthy cause.  This auction has expanded significantly from the first auction, held in 2011, and will feature several unique, custom furniture pieces hand-made by a number of craftsmen including Frank Strazza, master woodworker and teacher at The Ploughshare’s Heritage School of Woodworking in Central Texas. The auction items are available to view online now, and bidding will open on Thursday, June 21. Bidding closes at 8PM Central, Sunday, June 24.

All proceeds from the auction will go to support The Ploughshare in our efforts to continue to expand our class offerings and student capacity.

Again, this is a great opportunity to own a unique and valuable piece of artisan craftwork while investing in a worthy cause—helping to promote and teach traditional trades, crafts and sustainable living skills to people around the globe.

To view the items in the auction, click the link below:

View Auction Items Now

Register for the auction by clicking the link below:

Register to bid in the Auction

Taking Baskets off the Shelf

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


Growing up, there were baskets all over our house—decorating the walls; filled with balls of yarn, toys or books; tucked into nooks and crannies on the shelves. My mom collected baskets, and often when she went out, she would come home with yet another beautiful basket. Although I enjoyed doing a wide variety of crafts, such as sewing, knitting,  crocheting and cross-stitching, the thought of weaving a basket had never occurred to me. It wasn’t until I started looking for something new and different to make for my best friend’s birthday that I had the idea to weave a basket. She was newly engaged, and I wanted to make her something for her new life, so I wove her a Shaker cat-head basket and filled it with cloth napkins and several other gifts. I thought making a basket would be a fun, one-time project, but after that, I was hooked. I read basketry books, ordered supplies and jumped straight into basketry, not knowing where it would lead.

Although baskets today are often used as decoration, for thousands of years baskets served as useful containers; and having been custom-made for specific functions, they filled many needs in people’s daily lives. Newborn babies slept in hand-woven cradles or bassinets. Children gathered freshly laid eggs into egg baskets which perfectly fit this task. Made with two rounded side pockets, ribbed egg baskets allow the eggs to gently nestle together so they don’t jostle around and break. Wicker hampers and laundry baskets held the family’s laundry.

Field baskets of all sizes were perfect for harvesting crops ranging from green beans to cotton. People walked to local markets to shop, carrying their goods home in market baskets. Picnic baskets with lids were ideal for transporting the family’s Sunday meal for “dinner-on-the-grounds” after church. Dough rising baskets left their pattern imprinted on finished loaves of bread, and once removed from the oven, the hot, crusty loaves were served in bread baskets. Fishermen tossed their catches of fish into wicker creels slung over their shoulders, and some still do so today. Lining the creel with moss and then dampening the moss allowed the fisherman to keep his catch cool all day [1].  Using basket making skills and materials, people fashioned sandals, fences and even dwellings. Whatever needed carrying or storing, people would make a basket to fit the  need—backpack baskets, totes with woven handles and even tightly woven baskets for hauling water. Ancient baskets even served as the forms on which clay vessels were shaped. It’s only more recently that baskets have found their primary place on the wall or the shelf as a decoration.

Traditionally, people crafted baskets from materials that grew locally. Indians in Florida, Louisiana and Texas stitched coils of pine needles together with fern roots or swamp grass; whereas Indians in New Mexico coiled bunches of Sacahuista (Nolina microcarpa), stitching them together with yucca to form sturdy, functional baskets. White oak trees grew plentifully in the Ozark and Appalachian Mountains where basket makers would search for and select the “perfect” tree for pulling splints  to weave into apple baskets, egg baskets, pie baskets, market baskets and many others. In northern states such as Maine, New York and Massachusetts, basket makers would make splints from logs cut from Brown Ash or Black Ash trees. Honeysuckle vines, grapevines, wisteria vines, cattails, climbing okra vines, corn husks, willow, rattan palm and bamboo are just a few of the many natural materials that you can harvest, prepare and craft into useful baskets. When harvesting natural materials, one rule of thumb is that if you can wrap a green vine around your wrist without it snapping, it is flexible enough to use for handles, spokes and the basic framework of a basket. A vine that is flexible enough to wrap around your finger without breaking will work well as weaving material.

Knowing when and how to harvest and prepare local, natural materials and weave them into a basket takes skill. Traditionally this know-how was passed down from previous generations. Children easily learned these skills because basket making was a way of life. I learned to make baskets from books because I knew of no one at the time who made or even knew how to make baskets, though I’ve met a number of basket makers since then. That was several years before I married and had my first child. Later, while my children were still young, I made quite a few baskets and taught classes to children and adults. As I wove baskets, my children would watch and play with the scraps, fashioning them into their own “baskets” and other interesting structures. One day, when I had been weaving a ribbed egg basket, I put it down for a moment to attend to something else, and my oldest daughter, who was almost four years old, picked it up and began weaving. To my surprise, she wove several rows quite well without any help or prior instruction. As she grew older she continued to make baskets and helped teach others.

Soon after I had made my first basket, I became interested in weaving baskets from local materials, so I started reading anything I could find about that. We found a few articles on honeysuckle, so we went in search of honeysuckle vines. Books said honeysuckle grew on the ground in long straight runners, but the only honeysuckle vines we found grew all over fences in tangled, gnarled clumps. Undeterred, we pulled, cut and hauled home masses of vines. The instructions I had read said to boil the vines for four hours, then strip the bark and soak the vines for another thirty minutes before using. That sounded simple enough, so we boiled the first batch in a water bath canner on the kitchen stove. At first, the smell was pleasant, but after four hours of boiling, the smell wasn’t nearly as pleasant. (After that lesson, we boiled our honeysuckle vines outside.) We took the boiled vines, still curly even after boiling, and twined them into round baskets that looked rustic and primitive but were strong and sturdy. These were my mom’s favorite baskets. We felt a joyful sense of accomplishment at having made baskets from what we had harvested ourselves, and this inspired us to look for and use other materials. The whole thing was quite an adventure—those times of being entangled in honeysuckle vines as I worked together with my mom and sisters to pull the vines free, or the times when I took my class of young basketry students to harvest grapevines. Most of the children in the class were small, and as they tugged on the thick grapevines hanging from trees, they would  invariably end up swinging in the air instead of freeing the vine. Peals of laughter would fill the air, and we all had a good time.

We learned to make pine needle baskets, too. The pine needles that grew near us were short, but driving back home to Texas from a trip we had taken to the East Coast, we passed through Louisiana after a bad storm, and there were branches of nice long pine needles lying all along the sides of the highway. We stopped and searched the car for as many empty bags as we could find, then stuffed them full of fallen pine needles. Once we got home, we spread the fresh green needles on our front porch to dry. Later, we stitched them into coiled baskets and coasters.

Shortly after I had made my first basket, I started teaching basketry classes for children. Martha May was one of my students, who started making baskets when she was fourteen years old. From the beginning, she showed a strong interest in basket weaving and did well with it. After a few years she began to help me teach, and now she is The Ploughshare’s main teacher of basket classes, along with teaching classes to children and adults in our community. She has made many beautiful baskets and continues to broaden her horizons, making sandals out of canna lily leaves and raffia, cradles for infants and beautiful pine needle baskets that are sold in our fine crafts gallery.

Basket making is a skill nearly anyone can learn, and you can take basketry to any level you desire—from making simple, functional baskets that you can complete in a few hours to making finely crafted masterpieces that take days or even weeks to complete.


[1] Wikipedia – Creel (basket).


Visit SustainLife journal for more information about the journal.


Ancient and Heirloom Wheat Trial Varieties

Red fife wheat

Red Fife Wheat

As discussed in A Wheat Trial of Ancient and Heirloom Wheat Varieties we have begun a trial of a number of different wheat varieties.  Here is a list of varieties we are working with:

Early Stone Age—also known as Einkorn. This is a very rare and ancient wheat that was cultivated in Switzerland, Spain and the eastern Caucasus several hundred years ago. Analysis shows that it is more nutritious than modern wheat.

Emmer Wheat

Emmer Wheat

Emmer—another heirloom from ancient times. Emmer was found in some of the earliest farming areas in Turkey and Greece. It is one of the parents of modern wheat.

Pacific Bluestem—one of the most popular wheats in California and the Northwest over 150 years ago. A flavorful wheat that is reputed to be the wheat used to make the famous San Francisco sourdough bread.

Japhet—is a British heritage variety known as “Red Marvel” in England over 100 years ago. Also known in France where it was used to make the famous French artisan breads.

Mirabella—is from ancient Italy and can grow up to 84 inches tall.

Milagre—a landrace wheat from Portugal grown in pre-industrial times.

Mauri Wheat

Mauri Wheat

Globe—an unusual wheat from pre-industrial colonial India. The kernels are small and round.

Sin El Pheel—another landrace wheat from ancient Iraq with very large kernels.

Mauri—from ancient Afghanistan. This wheat was know as Cone and Rivet in England and was widely grown in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Kamut—also known as Polish wheat. Kamut has very large kernels and probably originated in the Fertile Crescent. Reputed to be more drought tolerant than most wheat.

Kamut Wheat

Kamut Wheat

Red Fife—came to Canada from Scotland in the mid-1800’s and became the foundation wheat for the large Minneapolis flour industry.

Turkey Red—originally from Turkey and was grown extensively in the Ukraine prior to 1850. When the Mennonite people had to flee Russia due to persecution, they brought this wheat with them to the U.S., sometimes sewing the seed in the hems of their children’s garments. Turkey Red became the foundation of most American wheats and is a major reason that Kansas became know as the “bread basket of America.”

Russian Beardless—a variety of wheat that we have grown on our farm for the past 16 years. Obviously, it came from Russia and continues to be planted in much of the wheat growing regions of Texas. We are using this variety as our control variety to compare to all of the other trial wheat varieties.