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Campus Scene: The Train Kiln

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a student sits in the opening of the train kiln

It doesn’t look like much, at first.

A chimney and wall of bricks framed by steel slats. Two sliding concrete doors cover small archways in the stone. An odd fireplace that appears like it could come tumbling down if one pushed hard enough. But inside is where fire, wood, and clay meet, sometimes, to glorious effect.

Most of the time, ceramicists don’t succeed in what they set out aiming to do. But it’s in the trying that we find something else along the way worth doing, says John Neely, professor of art in ceramics at Utah State University.

He is a master of atmospheric firing and the inventor of this brick behemoth.

The train kiln he designed has a burry box at the bottom with a stepped grate system and an updraft chamber that serves as a chimney. It burns more efficiently than the Japanese Anagama model it was inspired by, reducing the amount of wood needed to heat the kiln by about half.

“It’s an accidental byproduct,” Neely says. “It’s not something we set out to do, but something we learned.”

At 19, an opportunity arose to study in Japan, and Neely spent the better part of the next decade in the country studying Japanese pottery. After joining the USU faculty in the ’80s he received a research grant from the university to experiment with new firing techniques.

The train kiln design went through several iterations before settling on the one standing outside the ceramics studio today firing one weekend in late October.

The design is in the public domain and has been exported abroad to so many countries Neely’s lost track. One of his protégés alone has built 22.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Neely says. “It’s a box of bricks. It’s really hard to patent a box of bricks. You can claim it and get accolades for it, but fundamentally I believe that information wants to be free. So, build it, adopt it, adapt it.”

– Kristen Munson
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1 COMMENT
  • George Harvey Dabling January 14, 2020

    About student food-insecurity: To realize this happening is a heartbreaking thing. I was an Aggie at a time when I could work 5-months fighting forest fires, and almost have enough money to get through a whole year.. A student loan didn’t murder me with debt, and a small part-time dishwashing job kept me well out of the ‘hungry’ category. But I know that financial circumstances for these young people have seriously changed. I see evidence of it here in Los Angeles too, as I have been auditioning for and performing in university student films. These are fancy, well-known colleges with high entrance requirements where I thought only rich kids went. It is a big enough and common enough problem that I decided long ago that I would never take fees or money from the student directors, not even for gas. I am so glad that USU is recognizing it and taking some mitigating measures as many of these universities have been doing. I hope we all keep this in mind as a society. A college food-pantry would be a great donation for all of us..
    Sincerely,
    George Harvey Dabling, ’73
    Forestry, Theatre minor

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