Wood-fired kilns in La Borne

La Borne, a forgotten story

Nicole Crestou

The name of La Borne as a potters village appears at the beginning of the 17th century. No excavation nor archaeological or historical research fully retraces the origins and evolution of ceramics in this stoneware country. The presence of potters is attested in the neighboring villages well before their establishment in La Borne, which is not located on the seam of clay. The construction of Henrichemont initiated in 1608 by Maximilian of Bethune, Duke of Sully, in honor of King Henry IV, required a need for bricks, floor and roof tiles. The pottery workshops are grouped in La Borne, halfway between the quarries and the future city.

While the surrounding potteries disappear, there’s no interruption of pottery making in La Borne due to the high concentration of pottery workshops. The shape and size of wood kilns and their evolution is consistent with economic and social changes. Today, more than thirty kilns are operational.

The origin of firing to stoneware temperature in France is shrouded in legends. The local stoneware clay has certainly been used in the making of ceramics fired at a “terracotta” temperature before the ‘lying’ kilns, which permit the potters to fire up to 1300°C, were built, as they were previously built in Germany around the Rhine, in Lower Normandy, in Beauvaisis  (in the second half of the 14th century), and then in Puisaye.

In China, firing at high temperature was probably already done more than 3000 years before it was achieved in Europe; their kilns are comparable: horizontal, single-chamber and sloping, but they’re built inversely. The kilns of the Far East diminish in size at the chimney side and are wide open at the front for packing the wares via the fire box, which is then closed for each firing, while the French kilns are narrow at the front and expand to the back through which the kiln is packed before being bricked up for the firing. To fire, the first Bornois kilns were closed by a wall. But this lack of chimney lengthened the firing time and resulted in large temperature differences, from overfired work near the fire box to the work still porous in the rear of the kiln, which meant that this work was only usable for certain functions.

Most very large kilns have two chimneys between which there is an opening for the packing and unpacking the kiln. But for the chimneys, these “whale” kilns know little evolution. In the 16th century, the slope was increased for a better draft, and an ashpit was dug under the firebox to facilitate removing the embers without loss of heat.

Stoneware fired at 1300°C is impermeable and strong, non-susceptible to frost, and resistant to salt and acids. It is therefore used to make big storage jars; for salt, terrines, and “packaging” for transporting and storing food. Larger work must be fired in large kilns, which belong to several workshop owners in order to be profitable. At La Borne, at the beginning of the 18th century, a count of the population identifies 19 heads of household as potters, which makes it difficult to identify the kilns. The Prefects survey of 1805-1810 shows 21 workshops and 11 kilns. More recent archives make it possible to list these kilns and to estimate volumes from 16 to 90 m​3​: there are still 11 in 1852. The Big Kiln of 75 m​3​, which is still standing in present time, is built between 1861 and 1893. Before 1914, 11 kilns are in operation; in 1928 there are 8, used by 10 workshops; in 1948 there are 7 kilns for 7 workshops; and the last 2 which were still active in 1968 are extinguished in 1972 and 1975.

In 1926 when the activity was much less than before WWI, there is no less than 1220 m​3​ of pots, thrown in 3 workshops, coming out of two whale kilns (16 and 75 m​3​).

During the first half of the twentieth century, the kilns belonging to a workshop are gradually extinguished, as they are seen as unsuited to developments in production. Changes in society, new materials and new manufactured objects, diminishing rural clientele and demand from farmers are transforming the pottery business.

Attempts by traditional potter masters to reduce the capacity of large kilns were inconclusive, as was their conversion into the manufacture of fantasy pottery. If each workshop now has its kiln,
it is much smaller; suitable for the production of one potter or a couple.

Other down draught kilns were also used at La Borne: the catewnary arch kiln and more recently the Feller kiln, which is more economical and less polluting.

More recently oriental reclining kilns have responded to the search for personalized materials.

The wood kiln is the potter’s essential tool.

According to an unpublished text About some active wood furnaces in La Borne or having been, Christophe Lemarchand and Nicole Crestou.