In Pursuit of perfect clay

As you may know, the majority of the clay we use for our functional ware is native clay which we dig locally and process right here at our studio. (I posted previously about our clay mixer)

A few weeks ago we got a lead on a new clay deposit, again, here in Baldwin County.  We are quite lucky here in this part of the country because you don’t have to dig very far from the surface to find clay.  Typically it can be found along road sides, waterways, and construction sites.  The clay we use is not of any use to anyone but potters, it seems. In construction, it is just cast off or covered over and is sometimes referred to it as “chalk”.  Of course its not chalk, but its not the kind of clay that’s good for road base, like that bright orange clay one typically sees everywhere down here and what Alabama is known for.

The clay we look for is typically bubble gum pink to white in color.  We fire it to cone 10 (approx 2400 degrees Fahrenheit), but I know through experience that it can go higher.  It makes for a nice durable stoneware body, that usually fires to an offwhite to toasty light brown in reduction.  Clay that is more yellow or orangey red (more iron) seems to have a lot more imperfections causing problems in firing such as popouts, bloating, pinholing etc.

Unprocessed native clayAnyways, I wanted to share a photo of what the clay looks like right out of the ground. Its very pretty and is almost amethyst in color. In fact, its probably about the pinkest clay I’ve seen since coming here.  It is remarkably clean and relatively free of debris, and it crumbles so nicely.

Over the weekend, the first batch of it was slaked down and mixed. This batch has about 85% of this ‘new’ clay and the rest is reclaim.  Unfortunately its still a little wet to try to throw so I’ve got some drying out on the wedging table.  Its very strange to see it next to our usual clay which I always thought had a bit of a pinkish tinge, but this new stuff is positively rose colored.

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8 Responses to “In Pursuit of perfect clay”

  • cynthiaNo Gravatar Says:

    Digging your own clay is cool! I know I read about someone who does it in Colorado, I should do some sleuthing….

  • annewebbNo Gravatar Says:

    It is.. especially when its such a pleasure to use. I’m not a purist, but there is certainly something wonderful to be said about being able to make a pot from clay you’ve dug from the earth yourself.

    Its a lot of work though. I know we need to streamline our processing methods to make it more time effective and less labour intensive. Aside from the clay mixer, its mostly hands-on. I don’t even have a pugmill! Hopefully that will be our next major purchase. Then.. a clay crusher (We’re working on a design for a water powered one)

    When the price of clay from commercial suppliers is going up up up in price and, it seems, becoming increasingly unreliable, for whatever reason, digging clay looks better and better every day.

  • cynthiaNo Gravatar Says:

    I just requested a book called “The Potter’s Alternative” by Harry Davis

    Here’s a bit pulled off of http://www.potters.org:

    “Harry Davis died in 1986. The book which I am aware of which describes
    the techniques for building equipment from scratch is: ‘The Potter’s
    Alternative’ published in the USA by Chilton Book Co. in 1987. It was
    also published in Australia(I think) by Methuen Australia Pty Ltd. It’s
    ISBN is 0-8019-8006-2, so any library should be able to locate it.
    It has a wealth of information and has helped us build or modify
    equipment in our studio.”

  • Linda StarrNo Gravatar Says:

    That clay looks almost too pretty to use.

  • annewebbNo Gravatar Says:

    cynthia.. yes i have a friend who has that book. Thanks for reminding me of it. He built his own pugmill and I think he sent me plans for a filterpress at one time. Would definitely be a good book to own. Hope you’re able to track a copy down.

    linda.. yes, isn’t it beautiful..? I threw some before I left for my show this weekend and it was pretty incredible. Incredibly plastic. I’ll be sure to post the firing results after this next firing. :) (I can’t wait)

  • Scott Bulger PhotographyNo Gravatar Says:

    That is very cool! Great information.

  • garyNo Gravatar Says:

    I, too, use only local native clay. I turn mine into slurry, strain and dry on plaster. It is so labor intensive, but it connects me to my work and to the Earth. I would never buy commercial clay again. My clay is not the “end all”, but I have learned to work with its shortcomings and am thankful for it. Your work is so beautiful! I know it comes from a beautiful soul. I’ll read through all of your posts as I get time.

  • UndauntedNo Gravatar Says:

    That clay looks too pretty to not use!

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