Termite clay kiln and pottery

I built this pottery kiln and some pottery from termite mound clay to test an alternative clay source to my usual one from the creek bank. I started by making a large grate from ordinary clay. It was just under 50 cm in diameter. Next, I took dry chunks of termite nest and put them into the pit in front of the tiled roof hut. The chunks were crushed and water was added to slake the clay. The clay was trodden on to mix it. Dead palm fronds were added to the clay to stop it from cracking as it dried and to add insulation to the kiln. The mixture was trodden on again and then taken from the pit. A trench was dug to form the firebox of the kiln and a wall of clay was made in the front of the trench. A hole was dug into the wall to allow air flow into the firebox.

The grate was placed on top of the firebox and the walls of the ware chamber were built around the grate. When the kiln walls were finished, grate bars made from termite clay were placed into the firebox. Grate bars are important for fireboxes as they lift the firewood off the ground allowing air to move up through the fuel bed for more efficient combustion. Burning wood as a heap on the ground allows cold air to flow up and over the coals, cooling the kiln and leaving the air unreacted with the fire wood. It still works but is much less efficient than using grate bars. The finished kiln was 50 cm tall (above grate height), 50 cm in diameter and with walls about 12.5 cm thick. The pit/firebox was about 25 cm deep and 25 cm wide with grate bars sitting half way between the ground and the circular kiln grate above.

Next, for the pottery clay, I selected a termite mound built on red clay soil. I took it to the kiln area and slaked it with water and mixed it in a small pit. I crushed up an old grate from a previous kiln and mixed it into the termite clay as grog. Grog prevents pottery from cracking as it dries and helps prevent breakage when firing. I then shaped the clay into a small urn. I also made some barrel roof tiles and a smaller pot from termite clay. I then stacked the kiln with the termite pottery (the urn, small pot and 5 barrel tiles) and some pottery made from normal clay (the housing for the forge blower and 2 barrel tiles).

To fire the pottery, I collected a large pile of dead wood and started a fire in the firebox. I heard some explosions in the kiln early on and knew something broke but continued anyway. To prevent explosions you should make sure all the pots are completely dry and slowly heat the kiln. Within an hour the kiln had heated up well and the pottery was glowing red hot. By the second hour the temperature went down illustrating an important point: if you over fill the firebox with wood the kiln will choke it and not burn efficiently. Realising this mistake I merely let the wood burn down a little so more air could get through. It’s important to watch the inside of the kiln and see how hot it’s glowing, try adding more or less wood and observe the effect on temperature. By 2 hours and 30 minutes the kiln was firing nicely again with all the pottery glowing low orange (about 845 c or 1550 f). I kept it at this low firing temperature for another 30 minutes. The whole firing process took about 3 hours from start to finish, a relatively short period of time for firing pottery.

When I took the pottery out, one tile had broken and the urn had spalled (a piece of the outer pot broke off) possibly due to still having moisture in it. The urn was still useable though and I use it to water the cassava patch. The forge blower was well fired and is now immune to water damage, no longer needing to be carefully protected from the rain. I put it in the barrel tile shed for storage. I put the broken tile and spalled piece from the urn in a special heap of broken pottery. When I make pottery in future I can crush up these broken pots and mix it into the new clay as grog to strengthen the new ceramic items. Finally, I stored the good tiles at the barrel tiled hut as replacements for broken tiles in that structure should there be any damage in future.

Termite clay is good material for making furnaces and an OK substitute for good pottery clay should it be difficult to find a better source. The termites have already processed the clay by the fact that their mouths are too small to include sticks and pebbles into their structures. As a result, the clay is very smooth and plastic. Too smooth for my liking, in fact, I’m used to working with coarser clay that has silt mixed into it naturally. I find that termite clay is either too runny when wet or cracks too easily when drier. It was difficult to form into complex shapes and it took me 2 attempts to make the urn. But for forming objects like tiles it’s OK, it can be pressed into shape and it will hold without difficulty. In future, I’d be likely to use termite clay for mass producing formed objects such as bricks, tiles, simple pots (formed over a mould) and possibly pipes, thereby conserving the dwindling clay supply from the creek bank which I’ll save for more intricate pottery. In summary, termite clay is able to be used to produce basic pottery if no other source can be found. If you have a termite nest you can make basic pottery from it.

29 thoughts on “Termite clay kiln and pottery

  1. Is there a particular ceiling as to how far you will take things in terms of basic technology? Like would you build simple machines like a catapult for instance? Love your videos BTW. Extremely interesting stuff.

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  2. Do you think it would be possible to make a notched wood hut with the materials you have there. I am thinking it could be a cool project. Anyways, thanks for making videos out of this! It is amazing and i love it!

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  3. Hi

    That clay idea is ingenious.

    Have you ever thought of fashioning some primitive clothing in any of your videos?
    I understand that you probably aren’t in dire need of any such apparel, considering the relative sanctity of the areas you film in, but I imagine it’d be a very interesting video topic (especially in your hands).

    P.S. those pots have a nice ring to them

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  4. What would be a ideal spot to you in order to do most of the projects you do in these videos? Ive always wanted todo stuff like this but dont know what a good spot should contain.

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  5. When building the kiln walls would using rocks work for insulation, like you used for the tiled roof hut walls work or would just clay be a better insulator?

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  6. Another triumph! I’m sure it was a lot of hard work, but you make it look so effortless. I’m curious why, when making the urn, you scored some layers before adding a new coil but not others. And again, thank you for this videos.

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  7. Great video! One quick questions:

    You’ve mentioned previously that smoothing the pottery with a shell/stone before firing can prevent cracks/breakage. Was that done on this latest batch? Or would it be a little too risky considering your difficulties making the urn without that step?

    Big fan. Hope yourself & your creations make it out of the impending hurricane unscathed.

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  8. Asked on YT too but, are you making a living through your channel yet? Close?
    Did you ever thought your efforts would be so well received — the world over? An impressive result to say the least.

    Also, did you see that you might be sharing the woods up there with as yet undiscovered thylacine?

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    • Yes I make a living from it. No, I didn’t think it would get this much attention and thought it would only be an interest to a niche group of people. I heard about that but think the university is searching further north after hearing about sightings. But who knows, there are echidnas living here that I never see, so there might also be Tasmanian tigers here too. Thanks.

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      • Imagine the extra attention you’d raise if you were to actually film an echidna, or other curious beasts in your area. The net loves animals…

        You’ve not doubt read Robinson Crusoe, he raised parrots and goats. I could see you reliving a version of that novel, in small bites. Just a thought.

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  9. where do you find the clay? I’m so interested in native american stuff. my brother and i have been working really hard to find clay. visit my web it is not done yet butt it will be soon.

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  10. Where did you get the idea for termite dirt? Was it your hypothesis or did you read it from a source. Hadn’t heard of it before (but I am no expert), so I was just wondering. It definitely makes sense. Awesome job, as always.

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  11. I’ve browsed your comments and I don’t think I’ve seen an answer to this: You say several times that you live in modern housing and that this is a hobby-turned-vocation for you. But in the long-run, if you had the opportunity to live full-time in the structures you build, using the technologies you use, would you?

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