Oct 22 2011

Clay

I like this time of night, after everyone has gone to sleep, I can slip out to the studio and do some late night throwing.  I’ve been working on a fairly big order of mugs, and I’m over half way there.  Some mugs are in the bisque kiln as we speak, and the rest line the shelves waiting their turn.  I have to shift gears now and throw some other things. I’ve found that the gas kiln just filled with only mugs (my kiln at least) doesn’t make for a very good glaze firing.  I have to fill the kiln with pots of a variety of sizes and shapes so the flame has different paths to go, for the kiln to fire off best and most efficiently.   Spent a good chunk of the day wedging clay, weighing out balls, and prepping my wheel for another throwing cycle.  I’m ready. In fact, I am boiling the kettle right now so I can warm up my throwing water and get going.  Its so much easier to get into a groove with no interruptions.

Clay MixerThe week before I went to Canada the last time, we mixed some new batches of native clay. As you know, we use a 1915 dough mixer to do the actual mixing, but we also use a converted concrete mixer to help make a smooth clay slurry or slip.  Clay that we have ‘slaked’ down (dry clay is added to water breaks down into a slip or liquid clay) or turned into a slurry goes into the mixer first, then dry ingredients are added.  Just as when mixing bread dough, as the clay gets mixed and becomes dryer, it starts to pull together and away from the mixer walls, then its a matter of finding the right consistency you’re looking for. I like the clay to be plastic, yet still moderately soft when it comes out of the mixer.  A rough gauge to determine this is to take a small piece of clay out of the mixer,  roll it into a little coil, then twist it. If the coil breaks easily, the clay is what is considered ‘short’, and needs to mix longer. If the coil twists easily without cracking, its just the right consistency.  If mixed correctly, again, like dough, the more the clay is mixed, the better the consistency; it gives the particles more of a chance to align and become ‘plastic’ (or ‘elastic’ in consistency, in the case of bread dough).

Looking inside mixer hopper while its running

Looking inside mixer hopper while its running

Its loud and can be treacherous work, if you’re not careful. Its dusty (silica dust) too, so its important to wear a mask with a NOISH approved air filter. If you don’t have your wits about you and mess up and reach into the mixer for some reason while its going and the mixing paddle (for lack of a better word) is rotating,  before you know it, it can grab you and pull you right in. Really.  That puppy is strong and you can lose your arm or worse (!).  Sickening thought, isn’t it?  Kind of like using a pugmill. You never stick your hand in the hopper while the auger is moving, or you can say goodbye to your hand.  So much for that peaceful zenlike impression you had of making pottery!

Its a lot of work mixing your own clay, but the process doesn’t end there. After its mixed, we haul it inside where it ages some in a barrel, then it gets run through a pug mill, then I wedge it. I’ve found that despite being very careful to screen the clay, there is still a little junk left in the clay, so after it comes out of the pugmill, I wire cut the clay, pick foreign matter such as wee rocks or other undesireable bits out, and slam wedge it on my table.  Slice, pick bits out, slam the two pieces of clay down on the table.. slice, pick bits out, slam. And so it goes until the clay looks right.  Its a bit of a process, but I’d rather pick bits out now than when I’m throwing/finishing a pot, or worse yet, find popouts on pieces coming out of the kiln.  The slam wedging also helps to work air bubbles out, and helps to make the clay easier to work (easier on my wrists) when I do my final spiral wedging.  If I were just making brick or flowerpots I might not be so particular, but when the clay is going to be used for functional ware, I find its well worth the extra steps.


Nov 24 2008

In Pursuit of Perfect Clay.. part deux

A couple of weeks ago we had a dumptruck load of clay delivered from the new clay deposit.  I guestimated the pile was around 5 tons or so, but as it turns out, our neighbor, who drives for the same kind of truck, told me one of those trucks heaped up with clay like it was, holds something closer to 27 tons (or more?)!!  All 27 tons, just for the cost of trucking it to our studio not 15 – 20 miles away.  (If you have bought commercially prepared clay, you can probably do the math for what the equivalent would be).

We’ve left the dumped clay uncovered and open to the elements now for two weeks or so, in order for the rain to wash away a little of the residual sand off that was picked up in the dump truck onto the clay’s surface. The mound is already starting to turn from a reddy orange to more of a amethyst-y pink clay color.  Yesterday I broke apart a clump  to reveal a piece of nice, clean, sandless solid clay.   Since the time the of the delivery, three or four batches of clay have been mixed.  I have thrown some of it,  and the rest I have left to age a little more.  ..well, until tomorrow, at least, when I start my throwing cycle again.

best digging toolBefore it was time to mix the second batch, though, Lowell took me out to the new deposit site for the first time to help gather some dryer clay for the mix, since the clay we already had at the studio was still a little too damp to crush to a powder.  So off we went..

We drove for about 20 minutes down familiar roads and around familiar turns, when all of the sudden Lowell turned into a little dirt driveway entrance.  It was a lot closer than I thought it would be.

clay mountainWell!  I thought the truck load that was delivered was a lot, but I saw where it was excavated from and it took barely a dent out of the mountain that lay before me.  Here is a picture of what I first saw.  It stands about 20 feet high and is at least 60 feet long .   Its mostly pink clay, though there are layers of white, and red, and a layer further in the middle of some dark shale-like material which I assume is the remnants of decomposed vegetation .

I was chipping away dry surface clay and filling up my bucket, as  the fog gradually cleared.  It was almost like a dream.  Off to my right, was another clay mountain .. and yet another further on.

excavated hillside revealing striationHere is a photo of a hillside that had been excavated with a backhoe.  Sorry,  I couldn’t get the entire hill in the shot but you can get an idea of the various strata.   This layer starts down about 6 feet from the surface and, in this spot, is about 4-6 feet thick.

I’ll try and post more pictures as I can.


Oct 27 2008

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.


Nov 20 2007

In the Studio: Clay loving bugs


Yesterday I was just getting ready to cut and slam wedge some native clay that had been sitting on the wedging table to dry out, as I often do to pick out the odd little rock or left over hard chunks of debris. Found this little fellow “hunkered down”, as they would say here in the South. He had chewed and burrowed his way about an inch into the clay.

Earlier in spring and summer, we are pestered by some much smaller black beetles, resembling this one, actually, only about 1 to 2 millimeters in length. They come out once the sun goes down and make their way into the studio, seeking out leather-hard pots and damp clay. Groups of them will actually burrow right through the sides of pots. Sometimes I think they make a point to go for those pots you have spent the most time on trimming or carving a design into …pure coincidence, of course.

Since we don’t have screens on the windows and the studio is kind of open, we usually try and wrap or cover pots with dry cleaner’s plastic. We have to also make sure we turn the lights to the studio off when we leave, since they don’t seem to nibble in the dark.


Oct 15 2007

Blog Action Day October 15

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Today is Blog Action Day when blogs everywhere talk about one thing: the environment.

Potters tend to have a reputation for being frugal. Some stems from necessity, some stems out of principle. I started thinking about ways in which we here at the studio try to make a difference to the environment and recycle:

– Building: recycled wood & windows in building studio (reclaimed lots of waste wood from hurricanes which would otherwise be taken to landfill or burned).
– Plastics: We recycle grocery bags & use them for shows (people don’t mind when you tell them it is for the environment) as well as dry cleaning plastic which works perfect for covering pots & protecting controlling how they dry
– Paper: Newspaper and newspaper roll ends are used in the studio for a multitude of uses. Also excellent for packing pots away for/at shows
– Metal: We bought a can crusher and while they don’t pick up recycled items here, we take our tin/aluminum cans to the recycle depot when we are in town.
– Appliances: We have two defunct refrigerators & freezers make excellent damp cupboards and places to keep moist clay.
– Old Machinery: our clay mixers are 2 recycled old machines: one is made from an old WWII anti-aircraft gun and the other a 1915 dough mixer.
– Waste wood & pine needles: We get scrap wood cast offs from the local wood mill and use them to fire the wood kiln. Wood and pine needles burn much more efficiently and with less smoke at the temperatures we fire the kiln to, than it would in a burn pile.
– Cast offs: We use cast-off bisque ware (cracked and unusable) in holes in our driveway, and try to use as many of the glazed cast-offs as bird feeders, planters, dog bowls, etc.. Lots of other shards go to a friend who does mosaics. (We have also used waste oyster shells from the local fishery to fill holes in the driveway – smells a bit at first, but definitely organic)
– Our clay: Now that our clay mixer is operational again, we try to pay extra attention these days to recycle all of our scrap clay into a new batch of mixed clay and make it go as far as possible. A lot of the clay we use, we dig ourselves. The white and bubble gum colored clay that we like to use is considered waste clay to contractors (not good for road base) and they are quite happy if we cart as much as we like off.
– Organic Gardening: We try our best to garden as organically as we can. We have several neighbors with horses that are glad to part with their more than ample supply of muck.
– Commuting: Our little chunk of land houses both where we live and the studio, so thankfully I don’ t have to commute anywhere (except to shows, wholesale customers, and some of my suppliers, of course).
With a group of like-minded artists, we also started a small artist collective to hopefully open up more marketing opportunities closer to home and cut back on travel. Less traveling not only saves us expense, time, and wear and tear on our vehicles (and us) but also means less fuel consumed and less impact on the environment.

Coming from away, I couldn’t help but notice the absence of things such as public transit for commuters and carpooling lanes when I first got down here. SUVs are the vehicle of choice it seems here and its not uncommon to see a Hummer or 2 cruising up the road. No attention to carbon emissions on old vehicles either. Big cars, big boats and often big inefficient houses too. How do permits get granted to construct on valuable wetland? Always has baffled me how a place with so much sunshine has so few people taking advantage or even the slight bit knowledgeable of solar power. Welcome to the Alabama Coast. Consuming with very little thought of conservation. You used to be able to see to the bottom of Mobile Bay not 50 years ago, apparently. Not now though. Pollution from industry-friendly Mobile and other places upstream have unfortunately taken its toll. Its a pity.

Southerners are known to be resistant to change but hopefully they will sit up and take notice before it is too late.


Jul 22 2007

Mixing clay.


Today was the first run of our “new” clay mixer. In the spirit of recycling, the mixer is a converted 1915 dough mixer from an old bakery.


As you can see here, its powered by the still useable motor portion of an old generator.

(Our other mixer, which served us well but finally rusted out this spring, was made from a Second World War anti-aircraft gun.)