Sawmills and Potters

This week I plan to cut and stack my wood for my firing in November. So, I’m taking this opportunity to talk about the history of sawmills and potters.

The Slabs

The slabs are the outer wood and bark that sawmills can’t use for lumber. This has been a source of fuel for potters kilns for about as long as the circular saw has been invented. For 200 years potters have utilized this “waste” from sawmills for the benefit of themselves and the mill owners, disposing of what the mill owners saw as unusable scrap lumber. Many times, the sawmill owner would give the slabs to potters just to get them out of the way.  But in the mid 20th century as sawmills became more automated, many mills began to see the “waste” as a potential profitable byproduct. Many sawmills started to chip their slabs into mulch and pulp wood for the building industry.

This innovation in the lumber business didn’t seem to affect the ability of potters to find slabs. There were smaller mills that could not invest in such automated systems, so it was fairly easy to find mills that still had plenty of slabs for the potter.

But in time, as some of the older mills went out of business and larger mills acquired more and more of the market, it became very difficult to find the only reliable source of fuel potters were using to fire their kilns.

Today, there are only a handful of mills where potters can still acquire slabs to fire their kilns. Most potters are very open to sharing their methods and sources of materials, but where they get their slabs can be one of those sources they are not willing to share due to the scarcity.

I wanted to bring you this information just to let people realize that pottery making is much more than wedging clay and turning. There are many aspects that are not seen by the public, and the procurement of the fuel for the wood-burning, ground-hog kilns, is just one hurdle that every traditional potter has to overcome.