Jun 8 2009

Welcome Back, Tried & True: Bisque Tile Bats

dragonfly landingI’m afraid its been another long while since I’ve been able to post here.  The end of school year means a whole lot more demands at home and an adjustment period for everyone until we all settle into the new summer routine.  That compounded by a week of being laid up with an intestinal bug (moms are the last to get these things it seems), I am more than ready to get back to the clay.   Well!  Where shall I start?

When I first learned to pot, I learned to throw right on the wheelhead. I remember struggling after running the cutting wire under freshly thrown pots and trying to slide the pot off the wheelhead without distorting it. I wasn’t always successful, I believe partially because I didn’t seem to have the coordination at the time,  I didn’t know the material (clay) that well,  and my newbie pots were usually full to saturation with throwing water, making them particularly easy to smoosh.

Needless to say, I was very excited when my teacher finally let me try throwing using a bat.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, a bat is simply a rigid piece of wood, plastic, plaster, tile, etc., that becomes a throwing surface placed over top of the wheel head.  Once a pot is completed, the bat and pot are removed together and the pot can remain undisturbed on the bat until its leatherhard and ready to trim.

Yes, I know, bats aren’t absolutely necessary.  I find it useful to  throw some things off the hump  and other times, I just pick pots directly off the wheel and put them onto a ware board.  No biggie.  I do still like to use bats for some things.  It just works for me.

For the last 9 or so years, I’ve been using, for the most part, plastic bats made by Creative Industries, as well as some amazingly rigid Plasti-bats from Amaco.  Don’t get me wrong, both are great, but if you look at any of the pricelists out there, you’ll notice they are not cheap  ..nor is any commercially manufactured bat it seems, for that matter.  I was noticing just today that the price of some bats out there on the market were more expensive than a kiln shelf!  Hello.   Is it just me or is there something wrong with this picture?  ..regardless

Tile-Batt pottery throwing bat systemIn my last studio,  however, I used less expensive pressed-wood/MDF bats from my local supplier,  as well as a bat system (which I made out of marine plywood and masonite, modelled after one my teacher had ) , with a recessed area cut out in the center to accomodate a bisque 6×6 commercial tile.  I remember being pleased with both at the time.

Last spring, in an online discussion about pottery bat systems, someone had mentioned they had seen one using bisque tiles.  I was curious, so I followed the link.  Sure enough, there was the one I used years ago, only the price was less than if I were to try to make one myself.

Tile-Batt with 6 inch Dal-tile bisque tile insertI went ahead and called Pottery Supply House and ordered one (they have it listed as a “Tile-Batt“) and am so pleased I did.

It only came with one tile, but I decided I would forego the shipping from Canada, and try and get more tiles locally.  I went online and found a Dal-tile distributor right in Foley, not 10 miles away.  Since the bisque tiles aren’t a stock item, they had to be special ordered and it took about a week to come in, but that was okay.

There are lots of reasons why I like this particular bat system. I think the chuck cost me all of $11 USD plus shipping, and a box of 25 Dal-tile bisque tiles worked out to be around $0.75 a tile or so from my local flooring distributor (vs $1.10 a tile from the ceramics supplier over in Gulfport, which is actually an hour and a half away from here).  I really didn’t think that was such a bad deal, especially considering the CI plastic bats around the same size were about $7+ a piece.

I also like using the bisque tiles because they stay rigid and are porous (whereas the plastic bats can bend and it takes considerably longer for the clay to come away from them).  Using these tiles, I can throw mugs in the afternoon and by evening they detach nicely from the tile and are ready to flip over. The mug is a nice even consistency from top to bottom and ready to trim and handle a lot sooner, which translates in less chance of joins cracking and faster production.  The tiles also take less room on my ware boards, and if they break, they are easy and inexpensive to replace.

Modified PSH Tile-Batt with additional pin holesYou may notice here in this photo  that I made a couple of changes to the chuck when it arrived. I had to drill an additional set holes  to accomodate the bat pins for all our wheels in addition to the Soldner (Bat pins on a Soldner wheel are set a bit wider than on other wheels), plus I added a little additional notch to help remove the tiles a little easier, but that’s about it.

Even Lowell seemed impressed,  so  I just ordered a second Tile Batt, only this time for him, and picked up 2 more boxes of bisque tiles.


Oct 7 2008

Throwing a simple bowl

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Oct 29 2007

Favourite tools to have at the wheel

When you first start learning how to make pottery, you follow your teacher’s lead. You follow the same techniques, use the same tools, and emulate your teacher as best as you can. You take what you learn with you throughout your potting career. Lowell’s favourite thing to say to students as they start out is “First you learn the rules, then you learn there are no rules”. Sure, there are other ways to do the same thing, but as with learning a language, getting a good foundation in the fundamentals is important.

Over time and with experience, we all come to find techniques, tricks, or tools that work better for each of us. Its always fun visiting other peoples’ studios. I’ve noticed over the years that no 2 potters work in exactly the same manner. And potters, while for the most part a kind and friendly lot, are pretty quirky. The longer they work alone in their studio, it seems, the quirkier they get too. …but that’s another post for another day!

Right now I am throwing on an old Creative Industries wheel. I had been throwing on an even older Soldner wheel, up until August when, unfortunately, the 35 yr old motor finally bit the dust (hoping to repair it after this next show).

The chair I use to sit at it is actually an old stool from a yard sale, cut to height. The front legs are cut 2 or so inches shorter than the back legs which makes it less of a strain on my back when leaning over to throw. A low-tech and inexpensive way to work smarter and save your back.

There are a few things I like to have around the wheel:
– A straight sided 2 or 3 gallon water bucket – rim ideal for scraping excess slip off of my hands; clay particles settle nicely in bottom and don’t get stirred up each time I moisten my sponge.
– an old cup to hold my main throwing tools – pin tool, sponge, wooden knife
– a plastic rectangular container for ribs – not pictured, but is an recycled old baby wipes container . The size and shape is just right as was the price
bats – on the left side of the wheel table there is usually a stack of 7″ Creative Industries square bats that I use for smaller items. They have 2 sets of notches molded on the underside to fit different bat pin spacings for both this wheel and the Soldner. Also have 12″ & 14″ round CI bats, and a few Plastibats (which are actually superior, very sturdy and don’t bend, but are unfortunately more expensive). Nice thing about these plastic molded bats is they never rot and seem to last forever. The drawback is they are more expensive, limited in sizes (nothing more than 14″ in diameter). The Creative Industries ones have a tendency to bend when pots being taken off the wheel, so you have to be extra careful.
– a kitchen scale – for weighing pieces of clay out for throwing
– a mirror – (not pictured) helps with seeing the contour of pots while both throwing and trimming. I threw for 2 weeks without one, bending to the side to see the profile, and not only did it kind of slow me down and make my neck/back hurt, but my pots looks different too.
– big table – (the one pictured here is an old door on sawhorses with canvas stretched over it). I will throw a series and when the table is full, get up and move the pots to ware racks.

There was one time I had bins of tools. (Can you have too many tools??) Well, I still have them, but I have narrowed it down to a few that I actually use regularly at the wheel:
– a pin tool;
– a wooden knife;
– a sponge (a medium sized natural sponge; cellulose sponges also work great in a pinch);
wooden ribs (a small kidney shaped and larger one, both Kemper);
2 Sherrill Mudtools – soft/red & hard/green (I like these because unlike a rubber rib they don’t break down and have so far kept their smooth edge; rubber ribs tend to break down within a few months in this climate);
a long metal rib;
– a chamois on a fishing bobber – stays floating in bucket so I don’t ever lose it and its easy to see; cutoff wires of different thicknesses;
– a metal scraper from hardware store;
– a Bison trimming tool
– a Giffin Grip
– a Grabber pad attached to one of my plastic bats mentioned above
– a 16″ square piece of plywood (very low tech) for trimming larger bowls and platters on.
– many sets of metal calipers for fitting lids


Oct 26 2007

Working Smart: Potting with the help of Occupational Therapy

Making pots is very physically demanding. Tasks range from lifting heavy bags of ingredients & clay, bending and straining to load and unload kilns, and repetitive movements that can lead to overuse injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Potters need to think ahead and work smart to make sure their bodies can hold up as long as their love for clay does.

Sometimes, though, illnesses and injuries happen no matter how careful one might be. Two of Canadian potter friends of mine haven’t been so lucky when it comes to their health. One has quite serious back problems and has had surgery, but problems persist. My other friend has had epilepsy for years but recently, she has been coping with some pretty serious unforeseen complications relating to her condition. Both friends sought the help of an occupational therapist (O.T.) in hopes that they might help them continue to pot.

In this sort of situation, the Occupational Therapist comes to the workplace, observes the working environment, the working habits, and the tasks that need completing, then makes an assessment and suggests a plan of action.

The occupational therapist recommended to my friend with the back problems, working at the wheel from the standing position. Due to another pre-existing condition, she was not going to be able to be on her feet for any extensive period of time, so the OT worked with her and together, they designed a special “stool”, built specifically to her physical proportions. It wasn’t meant to sit at per se, but it was contoured in such a way that she could take some of the weight off of her legs/feet while still throwing standing up. (Sorry, unfortunately I don’t have a picture.) The other recommendation was that she take on a partner or assistant who would do tasks such as loading the kilns and other such tasks. This worked out quite well for her.

My friend with epilepsy had suffered some major set-backs due to some related neurological conditions, resulting in problems with balance, vision, fine motor skills, hearing, and increased frequency of seizures. Tasks such as throwing, manipulating a brush, and pulling handles were becoming increasingly difficult and sometimes even invoked seizures. A couple of the suggestions that she successfully implemented for working at the wheel were wearing an eye patch while throwing, and throwing with the help of a mirror (no more leaning over). Put simplistically, since her seizures were invoked by certain visual stimuli and physical movements, changing her visual perspective (covering one eye and using the mirror) and way of working, has helped to retrain her brain (much like retraining the brain of a stroke victim) to use different neural pathways to complete specific tasks, including throwing, and work relatively seizure free. So far so good. She is back to throwing again and is doing her first show in as many years this weekend.

I really have to admire my two friends for having the gumption to find a way to keep making pots despite their debilitating conditions and for seeking help from an occupational therapist. I know how difficult it must have been for both of them, after so many years of potting, to have to adjust to new ways of working, but both have made the adjustment successfully and sing praises of their OTs.


May 24 2007

Michael Cardew pottery clip from the archives


The other day, after a chat with my friend in Manitoba, I went to searching the CBC broadcast archives and this one on Michael Cardew came up. Michael Cardew, in case the name doesn’t ring a bell, is an internationally well-known and well-respected British potter who, as I discovered after watching this clip, was actually the first student of Bernard Leach. Nicely presented on this video.

The description from the CBC site about this video:

“After a lifetime at the potter’s wheel, making a bowl is second nature for Michael Cardew. He starts by kneading a hunk of brown clay to remove air bubbles, then positions it on the spinning wheel. He drives his thumbs into the clay, creating a depression in the centre. With intense concentration, Cardew pulls the sides up and out to create a bowl shape. The process, known as throwing, is the focus of this clip from the CBC series Hand and Eye.”

Video link: “How to throw a pot” with Michael Cardew