How to pit fire pottery

How to pit fire pottery

Pit firing pottery is an ancient technique used by cultures around the world to create unique and beautiful ceramics. It involves firing pottery in a pit or hole in the ground, which creates unpredictable and stunning effects on the surface of the clay. This step-by-step guide will walk you through the process of pit firing pottery, from preparing the materials to the final result.

First, you will need to gather the necessary materials for the pit firing. This includes clay, which can be found at art supply stores or online, as well as various organic materials such as sawdust, leaves, and straw. You will also need a pit or hole in the ground, a fire source such as wood or charcoal, and a metal grate or wire mesh to hold the pottery above the fire.

Next, you will need to prepare the clay by shaping it into your desired forms. Make sure to smooth the surface and remove any air bubbles to ensure an even firing. Once your pottery is ready, you can begin the pit firing process.

Start by creating a fire in the pit using your chosen fire source. Make sure the fire is hot enough to reach the desired temperature for firing the clay. As the fire burns down, add layers of organic materials to create smoke and ash, which will interact with the pottery and create unique patterns and colors on the surface.

Place the pottery on the metal grate or wire mesh above the fire, making sure it is evenly spaced and not touching. The pottery will need to heat gradually to prevent cracking, so monitor the temperature and adjust the fire as needed. Once the pottery has reached the desired temperature, you can let it cool naturally or carefully remove it from the fire and cool it in water.

Once the pottery has cooled, you can remove it from the pit and admire the beautiful effects created by the pit firing process. Each piece will be unique, with no two pieces turning out exactly the same. Experiment with different clay bodies, organic materials, and firing techniques to create your own one-of-a-kind pit-fired pottery.

In conclusion, pit firing pottery is a fascinating and ancient technique that allows artists to create stunning ceramics with unpredictable and unique effects. By following this step-by-step guide, you can master the art of pit firing and create your own beautiful and distinctive pottery.

What is Pit Firing Pottery?

Pit firing pottery is a traditional method of firing ceramics that dates back thousands of years. It involves using a pit or hole in the ground as a makeshift kiln, where the pottery is fired at relatively low temperatures.

This technique is often used by indigenous cultures around the world as a simple and accessible way to create pottery. It doesn’t require specialized equipment or expensive materials, making it a popular choice for artists and craftsmen who want to experiment with different firing techniques.

During pit firing, the pottery is placed directly on the ground or on a support structure made from materials such as bricks or metal. The pieces are then covered with combustible materials, such as sawdust, leaves, or straw, which create a smoky environment when burned.

Once the pit is prepared, it is set on fire, and the pottery is left to heat and cool gradually over a period of several hours. The smoke and flames from the burning materials interact with the clay surface, creating unique and unpredictable patterns and colors on the pottery.

This method of firing results in a distinct primitive and rustic look, with pottery often displaying earthy tones, subtle color variations, and smoky patterns. It is a stark contrast to the more uniform and controlled results that can be achieved with modern kilns.

Pit firing pottery is not only an artistic technique but also a cultural practice that connects us to our ancient roots. It allows artists to explore the elements of fire, earth, and air, and to experience the transformative power of the natural environment on their creations.

The Origins and History of Pit Firing

Pit firing is one of the oldest methods of pottery firing, dating back thousands of years. It is an ancient technique used by many different cultures around the world. This method involves burying pottery in a pit or trench and firing it using combustible materials.


The exact origins of pit firing are unknown, as it predates written history. However, evidence of pit firing has been found in archaeological sites dating back to the Neolithic period, around 10,000 BCE. It is believed that early humans discovered pit firing accidentally, as they observed that pottery placed in the fire while cooking would harden and become more durable.

Early Uses

Pit firing was initially used to create functional vessels, such as cooking pots and storage jars. The firing method was simple and accessible to ancient cultures, as it did not require specialized equipment or materials. It allowed early humans to transform clay into useful and durable objects for everyday use.

Global Practice

Throughout history, pit firing has been practiced by various cultures around the world:

  • Native American cultures: Many Native American tribes, such as the Pueblo and Hopi, have a long history of pit firing. They used this technique to create pottery for utilitarian purposes as well as ceremonial objects.
  • African cultures: In Africa, pit firing has been practiced by numerous tribes, including the Zulu and Yoruba. This method was used to create pottery for everyday use, as well as ceremonial and spiritual objects.
  • Pre-Columbian cultures: Before the arrival of Europeans, civilizations in Central and South America, such as the Maya and Inca, practiced pit firing. They developed sophisticated techniques and produced intricate pottery for various purposes.

Modern Revival

While pit firing declined with the advent of more efficient kilns and firing techniques, it has experienced a revival in recent years. Many contemporary ceramic artists and potters are drawn to the unpredictable and unique results that pit firing can produce. It offers a connection to ancient traditions and a chance to explore the natural beauty of fire and smoke on pottery.

In conclusion, pit firing is a time-honored technique with a rich history that spans across cultures and centuries. Exploring this ancient firing method allows us to appreciate the skill and creativity of our ancestors while creating pottery imbued with a sense of tradition and connection to the past.

Materials and Tools

Before you start pit firing pottery, you will need to gather the necessary materials and tools. Here is a list of what you will need:

  • Clay: Choose a clay body that is suitable for pit firing. Typically, low-fire clay or Raku clay works well for this technique.
  • Pottery tools: Have a set of basic pottery tools on hand, including a clay cutter, clay carving tools, and a sponge.
  • Bucket and water: You will need a bucket filled with water to moisten your clay and tools, as well as to create slip for decorating your pottery.
  • Burnishing materials: Gather materials such as smooth stones, spoons, or metal ribs for burnishing your pottery. Burnishing helps create a smooth surface and can enhance the pit firing effects.
  • Bat: Use a bat to support and transport your pottery during the firing process. A wooden or plastic bat works well for pit firing.
  • Kiln shelves or metal grates: These items will be used to create layers in the pit for stacking and supporting the pottery during firing.
  • Sawdust, wood chips, or organic materials: These materials will be used as fuel to create smoke and achieve the desired colors and patterns on the pottery.
  • Metal tongs: Metal tongs are essential for handling and moving the hot pottery during the firing process. Make sure to use tongs designed for high temperatures.
  • Fireproof gloves and goggles: To protect yourself from heat and potential hazards, wear fireproof gloves and goggles when working with the pit fire.

Make sure to gather all the necessary materials and have them readily available before you begin the pit firing process. Being well-prepared will help ensure a smooth and successful firing experience.

Preparing the Clay

The first step in mastering the art of pit firing pottery is to prepare the clay. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do it:

  1. Gather all the necessary materials for clay preparation. This includes clay, water, a mixing container, a mixing tool, and a flat surface for kneading the clay.
  2. Start by adding a small amount of clay into the mixing container.
  3. Add water to the clay gradually, while mixing it with the mixing tool. The goal is to achieve a smooth and pliable consistency.
  4. If the clay becomes too wet, add more dry clay and continue mixing. If it becomes too dry, add more water.
  5. Once you’ve achieved the desired consistency, transfer the clay onto a flat surface and start kneading it. This helps to remove any air bubbles and ensures the clay is evenly mixed.
  6. Knead the clay by pushing it away from you with the heels of your hands, folding it back over itself, and repeating the process. Continue kneading for about 10-15 minutes.
  7. If the clay feels too dry or stiff, add a small amount of water while kneading to restore its pliability. If it feels too wet, add more dry clay.
  8. Once the clay is well-kneaded, divide it into smaller portions for ease of use. Shape each portion into a ball and wrap it in plastic wrap to keep it moist.

Now that you’ve prepared the clay, you’re ready to begin shaping and forming your pottery pieces. Remember to keep the clay moist throughout the process to prevent it from drying out.

Building the Pit and Preparing the Fire

Building the pit and preparing the fire are essential steps in the process of pit firing pottery. Follow these steps to create the perfect environment for your pottery to be fired.

Gather Materials

Before starting, make sure you have all the necessary materials. You will need:

  • Bricks or cinder blocks
  • Metal grate or wire mesh
  • Firewood or other combustible materials
  • Tinder or kindling
  • Newspaper or other ignition materials
  • Water source

Select a Location

Choose a safe and well-ventilated outdoor location for your pit. Make sure there are no overhanging trees or structures that could catch fire.

Build the Pit

Start by laying a level foundation using bricks or cinder blocks. Create a rectangular or circular shape based on the size of your pottery and the number of pieces you plan to fire.

Next, place a metal grate or wire mesh on top of the foundation. This will provide a surface for your pottery to sit on and allow air to circulate beneath the pieces.

Prepare the Fire

Layer your combustible materials, such as firewood, in the pit around the grate. Stack the wood in a crisscross pattern to allow for optimal airflow.

Gather tinder or kindling, such as small twigs or dry leaves, and place them on top of the wood. These will help ignite the fire.

Add newspaper or other ignition materials on top of the kindling. This will help start the fire and create a good amount of heat.

Light the Fire

Use a lighter or matches to ignite the newspaper or ignition materials. Make sure to stand back and be cautious while lighting the fire.

Once the fire is lit, monitor it closely. As the flames grow, add more firewood to maintain a consistent and controlled fire.

Keep a water source nearby in case of any emergencies or to control the fire if needed.

Following these steps will ensure that your pit fire is well-built and the fire is properly prepared. This will create the ideal environment for your pottery to undergo the pit firing process.

Stacking and Firing the Pottery

Once you have finished preparing your pottery pieces for the pit firing process, it’s time to start stacking and firing them. This step is crucial in achieving the desired results, as the way you arrange the pots in the pit and control the firing process will affect the final outcome of your pottery.

Here are the steps to properly stack and fire your pottery:

  1. Prepare the pit: Choose a suitable location for your pit firing. Clear the area of any flammable materials and create a pit by digging a hole in the ground. The size of the pit should be large enough to accommodate your pottery pieces and the burning materials.
  2. Prepare the fuel: Gather the fuel for the firing process. Traditionally, organic materials such as sawdust, leaves, and wood chips are used. These materials will create the smoke and carbon needed to achieve the unique patterns and colors on the pottery.
  3. Arrange the pots: Carefully arrange your pottery pieces inside the pit. Make sure to leave some space between each piece to allow for proper air circulation and heat distribution. Consider the size and shape of each pot when arranging them to ensure even firing.
  4. Add the fuel: Layer the fuel material between the pottery pieces. Start with a layer on the bottom, then place a layer of pots, and continue to layer the fuel until all the pottery is covered. Make sure to leave a small opening or chimney in the center of the stack to allow smoke to escape.
  5. Ignite the pit: Use a long stick or torch to ignite the fuel material at the bottom of the pit. This will start the firing process. Be cautious and ensure you maintain a safe distance from the flames.
  6. Control the firing: As the pit starts to burn, monitor the temperature and adjust the airflow to control the firing process. This can be done by partially covering the pit with a metal sheet or using other means to regulate the oxygen supply. The exact firing time will depend on factors such as the size of the pottery and the desired effect.
  7. Cooling and unstacking: Once the firing is complete, allow the pottery to cool down completely before unstacking them from the pit. This typically takes several hours or even overnight. Use caution when handling the pottery, as they may still be hot.

Following these steps will help you achieve successful pit firing results with your pottery. Experimentation and practice will further refine your skills in this ancient technique.

Layering the Pottery in the Pit

Once you have prepared your pottery pieces for pit firing, it’s time to start layering them in the pit. Layering the pottery in the pit allows for even heat distribution and a more balanced firing process. Here are some steps to help you layer your pottery effectively:

  1. Create a Base: Begin by creating a base layer in the pit using sawdust or newspaper. This base layer should be about 2-3 inches thick and cover the bottom of the pit.
  2. Place Pottery: Carefully place your pottery pieces on top of the base layer. Make sure to leave some space between the pieces to allow for airflow and even heat distribution.
  3. Alternate Layers: Continue layering your pottery by adding another layer of sawdust or newspaper on top of the first layer of pottery. Then, place another layer of pottery on top of the sawdust or newspaper. Repeat this alternating process until all your pottery pieces are layered in the pit.
  4. Fill Gaps: As you layer your pottery, make sure to fill any gaps or spaces between the pieces with additional sawdust or newspaper. This will help to create a uniform heating environment within the pit.
  5. Final Layer: Once all your pottery pieces are layered in the pit, create a final layer of sawdust or newspaper on top. This layer should be at least 2-3 inches thick to provide insulation and even heat distribution.

It is important to note that the layering process can vary depending on the size and shape of your pottery pieces. It may also be helpful to refer to any specific instructions or guidelines provided by the pit firing technique you are using.

After you have finished layering your pottery in the pit, you can proceed with the firing process. Remember to follow proper safety precautions and monitor the firing closely to achieve desired results.

Firing Techniques and Temperature Control

Mastering the art of pit firing pottery requires a good understanding of firing techniques and temperature control. The process involves heating the pottery in an open pit or kiln, using organic materials as fuel.

Fuel Selection: The choice of fuel can greatly influence the final results of the pit firing. Organic materials such as sawdust, leaves, and wood chips are commonly used. These materials produce unique effects and colors on the pottery surface.

Pottery Placement: The placement of pottery inside the pit is crucial for an even firing. It is important to ensure that the pots are not overcrowded and have sufficient space for airflow and heat circulation. Placing the pots on layers of combustible materials like sawdust or straw can also create interesting patterns and markings on the pottery.

Firing Process: Pit firing involves a slow and gradual firing process to avoid thermal shock and cracking of the pottery. The first stage is the preheating stage, where the fuel is ignited and allowed to burn down to hot coals. The pots are then carefully placed on top of the hot coals.

Temperature Control: Achieving the desired temperature during a pit firing can be challenging as it is largely dependent on the type and amount of fuel used. Observing the color of the flames and the amount of smoke produced can provide an indication of the temperature. Reducing or adding fuel can help adjust the temperature if needed.

Duration of Firing: The duration of the firing process can vary depending upon the desired effects and the thickness of the pottery. Generally, pit firing can take anywhere from a few hours to several days. It is important to carefully monitor the fire and adjust the temperature as needed during this time.

Cooling and Uncovering: After the pottery has been fired, it needs to cool gradually to prevent any thermal shock. The pots can be left to cool inside the pit or transferred to a separate area for cooling. Once the pottery has cooled down, it can be carefully uncovered, revealing the unique patterns and colors created during the firing process.

In conclusion, mastering the art of pit firing pottery involves understanding and experimenting with different firing techniques and temperature control. It requires patience, observation, and a willingness to embrace the unpredictable nature of the process to create unique and beautiful pottery pieces.


What is pit firing pottery?

Pit firing pottery is a traditional method of firing ceramics that involves burying pottery in a pit and firing it using organic materials, such as sawdust and leaves, to create unique patterns and designs on the surface.

What are the advantages of pit firing pottery?

Pit firing pottery has several advantages. First, it is a relatively low-cost and accessible firing method, as it does not require expensive kilns or specialized equipment. Second, it allows for a great deal of experimentation and creativity, as the results are often unpredictable and can vary widely. Finally, it creates unique surface patterns and textures that cannot be achieved through other firing methods.

What types of pottery can be pit fired?

Almost any type of pottery can be pit fired, including earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. However, it is important to note that each type of clay may react differently to the pit firing process and produce different results. It is recommended to experiment with different clay bodies to achieve desired effects.

Can you pit fire pottery at home?

Yes, pit firing pottery can be done at home. However, it is important to take proper safety precautions and be mindful of any local regulations or restrictions. It is also recommended to have a designated outdoor area for pit firing to avoid any damage to property or surrounding areas. Additionally, it may be beneficial to consult experienced potters or participate in workshops to learn more about the process and techniques.


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