People working on a kiln

Blue Ridge Community College fires up its new anagama kiln

Local artists recently started the process of seasoning an anagama kiln at Blue Ridge Community College, a rare sight on any college campus.

A large number of people have been involved with the kiln’s construction, which started in June 2020.

The term anagama describes single-chamber kilns built in a sloping tunnel shape. In fact, ancient kilns were sometimes built by digging tunnels into banks of clay.

The designer and builder of the kiln, Preston Tolbert, has built kilns all over the U.S., and was contacted by Blue Ridge lead faculty for the Department of Art Aaron Bernard several years ago with questions about the possibility of Blue Ridge housing its own kiln.

“This spring, Aaron contacted me — right before the pandemic started — and told me that he’d like me to start building a kiln for Blue Ridge,” Tolbert said.

Although he’s a seasoned kiln builder, Tolbert said he’s never built a kiln with these specific features until the Blue Ridge design; however, he said he’s had dreams of building it for nearly a decade.

The Blue Ridge kiln has a flat-top lid that can be jacked up and rolled off; this allows potters to load the kiln with their creations from above, thereby reducing the amount of wasted space within the kiln.

Traditional kilns, also called groundhog kilns, are much wider and shorter than an anagama, and fire pottery much faster.

Tolbert described the anagama as a very technical kiln, as most other designs are much simpler.

“It’s going to take about a week to get it fully seasoned,” Tolbert said. “But once it is, you can fire this kiln up in a single day.”

The anagama will use approximately two cords of wood by Friday, with each cord measuring 4x4x8 feet.

Artists from all over the Southeast started taking up residence at Blue Ridge on Monday, Oct. 12, all working together to not only season the kiln as a community, but also to contribute one or several pieces of pottery for the kiln’s initial test run.

One such artist is David Voorhees, who is known for having a large Instagram account devoted to wood kilns. Voorhees expressed his excitement at the anagama’s completion, and looked forward to adding some of his and his friend Remo Piracci’s works to the kiln.

“I’ve been following the construction of this kiln for some time. Preston designed this kiln and has added some incredibly innovative touches to it,” Voorhees said. “There’s an energy that happens around this type of kiln because of the participation it requires to operate. This is like having something akin to a cool sculpture in a city; people want to come here and be around this kiln. I think it’s great for the College.”

Another great example of community engagement involved in the kiln’s construction is from Hubba Hubba Smokehouse in Hendersonville, whose owner donated the stainless steel needed to construct the kiln’s chimney flue.

An interesting fact about the pottery being added is that none of the pieces have been glazed prior to being fired, and Tolbert explained this is because the pottery is “glazed” within the kiln by the ash that collects on each piece.

While some would argue that burning wood is polluting the environment, Tolbert disagrees. He explained that methane, which is harmful to the environment, is released in far larger quantities by allowing wood to rot than choosing to burn it.

“Allowing wood to rot actually does more harm to the environment than burning it,” he stated. “At the worst, wood firing is carbon neutral. At best, it’s carbon negative.”

One of the major ways the anagama benefits Blue Ridge students is by requiring them to work together as a team to operate the massive kiln. Tolbert said most ceramics classes provide students with an electric kiln, which requires the same amount of work as operating a microwave oven. By using the anagama, students will learn how to operate an unfamiliar machine, will learn which precise temperatures create their desired effects and the proper amount of wood and heat required for success.

“Students will also learn the difference between having a reduction, which is a lack of oxygen in the kiln, and an oxidation, which is having too much oxygen in the kiln,” Tolbert added.

When not building kilns across the country, Tolbert teaches at Catawba Valley Community College, where he plans to build a kiln in the near future.

“I really love Hendersonville and wanted Blue Ridge Community College to have an awesome kiln,” Tolbert said. “I’m happy to see it work well, because these students will be using this for years to come.”

To learn more about Blue Ridge’s ceramics courses which involve students working with the anagama, contact Aaron Bernard at (828) 694-1688 or