The Sèvres wood-fired kiln
An exceptional event
Every five years, the lighting of the largest of the Manufacture's six original wood-fired kilns for a traditional large-scale firing gives rise to an exceptional event bringing together craftsmen, artists and the public around a practice dating back to the origins of Sèvres' long history of know-how.
This spectacular firing is a rare moment of conservation and transmission of techniques associated with the ancestral practice of the Arts of Fire. It has also become a very special occasion to invite artists to participate in this exceptional moment of tradition by giving them a carte blanche to imagine and create original decorations for the objects that will be part of the single batch of each edition.
Following Nicolas Buffe, Philippe Cognée and Barthélémy Toguo for the previous firings, Annette Messager, Hélène Delprat and Ulla von Brandenburg have been invited for the most recent edition in November 2021 to create works on vase shapes from the Sèvres repertoire.
Applied directly to the still porous porcelain vase, the paint applied with a brush immediately penetrates the surface and the artists are not allowed to make any amendments. After the interventions of each artist, it takes 33 hours of firing at nearly 1300°C and about a month of gradual cooling before the opening the kiln door and the discovery of the long-awaited result of the whole operation.
A traditional technique
Built in 1877, when the current site of the Manufacture was built, the 6 wood-fired kilns in Sèvres - each of which is two stories high - had not been used since 1968. After its restoration in 1990, the largest kiln (9 metres high) was reactivated in 1999, 2006, 2016 and 2021.
Although the current high-temperature firings at the Manufacture are now carried out in gas kilns, it remains essential to maintain this traditional wood-firing technique, which allows the transmission and conservation of a unique know-how, and whose kiln capacity alone allows the firing of exceptional pieces over one metre high.
Made of brick, the Sèvres wood-fired kiln consists of a firing laboratory (12 m3), a globe, a hearth equipped with flues, four alanders (fireplaces) and a chimney. For each firing operation, 20 steres of wood are required. Birch wood is best suited to this operation, as it produces a long, clear flame and the least amount of ash.
Firing is carried out in two phases: the low-fire phase (up to 700°C/900°C) and the high-fire phase (up to 1280°C/1 380°C). It is conducted in direct flame up to about 180°C. The means of adjustment during the high fire are the closing or opening of the firebox by the movement of a plate; or the adjustment of the four registers operating the four chimneys.
Calibrated "fuse-watches" corresponding to the different temperatures are placed in front of the manholes - pierced in the wall allowing a view of the firing chamber and closed with removable mica plates - and their points are lowered at each stage. This means of control, invented at the Manufacture in the 19th century, is accompanied by platinum thermoelectric couples, which transcribe the temperature in the form of diagrams (firing curves).
Firing is stopped when the watches have fallen in front of the four eyes of the kiln and the recorder indicates that the desired temperature has been reached. At the end of the firing, the natural cooling of at least three weeks avoids any thermal shock and maintains the unique suspense that precedes each opening and un-firing associated with this ancestral technique.
Wood-fired kiln 2021