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Published June 12 2012

NDSU’s new wood-fired kiln takes shape

FARGO - In the back of North Dakota State University’s downtown Renaissance Hall, a labor of love is taking shape, brick by brick.

There, David Swenson, associate professor of visual arts at NDSU, and Dan Siverson, visual arts technician, are building a wood-fired kiln with their own hands – a project at least seven years in the making.

The brick kiln will accompany three gas and three electric kilns already used by the visual arts department.

Conversation about the project started when both Swenson and Siverson expressed interest in creating more opportunities for students involved in the arts curriculum.

“We always want to make the facility better and more interesting for students,” Swenson says. “The more we thought about it, the more we wanted to do a well-crafted kiln that would meet their needs.”

Both Swenson and Siverson have personal and professional experience in wood-firing, which they say offers a more unpredictable experience than gas kilns.

After several years in the works, the project’s progress accelerated in the past two years thanks to strong funding and support from the department and the division of fine arts.

And now, just a few weeks away from test-firing it for the first time, they’re excited about the possibilities that the kiln is going to bring.

“We’re trying to build a learning tool for a non-traditional classroom setting so kids can get inspired by this and learn about firing at a primal, basic level,” Swenson says.

A wood-fired kiln differs from typical kilns in that the burning wood affects pots in different ways, leading to different final creations.

The ash of the burning wood, Swenson says, creates a glaze on the pot, while the patterns of the flame can affect the pot’s texture in different ways as well.

“You turn off the electricity, and you put in the wood, and you see how the wood burns and what sort of temperature it creates,” Swenson says. “You put in your pot, and you see flame patterns and how that results on the clay.”

The new structure at NDSU has two chambers, a chimney and a control system that Siverson says will allow students to have flexibility in how they fire pots during the academic year.

“The real interesting thing about designing a kiln is, what do you want it to do?” he asks. “A lot of the design elements are to integrate it into an academic cycle.”

“The flexibility was paramount in the design – what really makes sense for a small academic unit?” Swenson adds. “The design was really focused on that.”

Siverson estimates that 20,000 bricks have been used during the construction of the kiln, which cost about $40,000.

“(That) might sound like a large number, but it’s going to give you a much longer return,” Siverson says. “What we’re doing is fairly deliberate. We’re hoping this will extend beyond when we’re not here.”

A small gas kiln, which typically only lasts for eight years or so, costs roughly $20,000.

The wood-fired kiln is expected to last much longer.

“We’re thinking this will last a long, long time,” Swenson adds.

The kiln will also have a unique regional aspect, because its exterior bricks come from the Hebron Brick Co. in Hebron, N.D.

“Why just build any old kiln when you can build something more interesting?” Swenson asks. “This will be more regional and more specific to our department.”

The company’s bricks were incorporated into the construction in part because the department also gets its clay from the company for free, Siverson says, estimating that students go through roughly 12 tons of clay per year.

“That was real intentional. We wanted to get some of their brick in to the kiln,” Swenson says.

Once it’s completed and has become a part of the department’s curriculum, Swenson hopes the kiln will help put NDSU on the map for its arts curriculum.

“Hopefully it’ll act as a recruiting tool to bring students from across the U.S. to study here,” he says.

The first test-firing of the kiln is planned for the end of the month. Then Swenson and Siverson will make any necessary final adjustments before a larger public celebration during homecoming week in the fall.

In the meantime, they’re hoping they haven’t overlooked anything during construction that might cause a setback, especially after having dedicated so much of their own time to the project.

“It’ll be a big learning experience for us, to finally fire the thing we’ve been working on for the last seven or eight years,” Swenson says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535