Jun 17 2013

Hot enough to boil a monkey’s…

The weather here has finally changed.  Summer is officially here. The Heat index the other day was a grim 100 degrees F.

We redid my workspace this past year and one of the genius additions, besides windows and doors that actually close properly, is an air conditioner. I finally caved and put it on 2 days ago and, oh my goodness, its pure luxury.  Its so much easier to concentrate without sweat dripping down and stinging my eyes.  I truly love it and am thrilled at the fact that I will be able to work comfortably all summer. So here I sit in coolness sipping hot coffee!

Now the bad thing about a/c. Artificial cooling and heating plays havoc on the drying process of clay. I’m working on a custom mug order using a high fire white clay (somewhat more finicky than native clay) and, despite draping plastic over the pots at the usual stage, I  had handles and sprigs pulling off the pots. Oddly enough, the attachment was fine and strong, but where they didn’t dry evenly, and clay shrinkage was happening at different rates, cracks occurred in the area around the attachment, not the attachment itself.   This is pretty rare. While I do have some loss, its not usually because of this.

Upcycled Refrigerator used as Pottery Damp ClosetGenerally when I have pots with attachments I use an old delapidated refrigerator as a damp closet (turned off and unplugged, of course). I’ve mentioned this previously. Not only is it a great tool for keeping pots damp and for clay storage, its a great way to recycle an old fridge or freezer instead of sending it to the landfill.

So keeping pots damp isn’t too difficult. While some people put a small cup or container of water in the ‘fridge’, I usually just mist or spray the interior of its compartments to raise the humidity, then its ready to use. So when I am doing mugs, for example, I put them in the old fridge and keep them there for at least 24 hours or until the pot and attachments are all the same consistency, then I can take them out and let them dry.  Has worked great so far.  Maybe I need to inspect the door seals and see if they’re toast.  Another possible option I may have to consider doing to prevent this cracking is to work in smaller batches. Well we’ll see.

As you may be able to see in the picture, these old fridges make for a convenient dry erase board (I use it, for example, to keep track of how many pots I’ve made for orders on the go, and at what stage they are at, how much clay I currently have on hand, or a list of glaze ingredients that are out and/or need to order ).  I have these fridges in the same part of the workspace where we I glaze, mix glazes, store ingredients and clay, and keep the electric kilns. Since they’re right by the kilns, they’re also a handy place to keep a cone chart, quick reference info re how to program the kiln controller and a list of custom programs I use, as well as a firing record. While I’m fine with just using magnets or tape for this stuff, I suppose you could paint the door or sides with chalkboard paint. Lots of possibilities!

The workspace, fortunately, is large enough to accommodate these fridges under cover. I used to have to keep one outside just because it was too cramped inside. It still worked for what I needed it for, though.  Pots never froze if the temps dropped outside (it actually does get below freezing here in late December and January) and they never dried out even in the most sweltering heat, but it wasn’t the most pleasant thing having to add and remove pots from it  particularly when it was raining, or having to navigate stairs and a doorway in/out of the building. Not exactly ideal.

I know lots of people for whom an upcycled fridge damp closet just isn’t an option, for a number of reasons.  To get around that, they’ve been forced to be a little more creative, wrapping shelf units in plastic for makeshift damp closets. I’ve known other people who take Rubbermaid containers and set an inch or so of potters plaster or hydrocal in the bottom, dampen it and use that to keep pieces or attachments damp. I was recently at a workshop where the presenter used a plastic container as well, only instead of plaster (which he said was really heavy and harder to transport), he took a piece of canvas or towel, spritzed it with water to get the humidity up in the container, put his pots in and tightly closed the lid.  I tried this while there to keep pots in a working consistency, using a container I brought and it worked great. My only complaint is the dampened fabric developed a serious hum and over a period of just a few days, smelled pretty rank. The pots still smelled fine though 😉

 

 

 

 


Mar 21 2011

Ups and downs of firing

Just catching up here. Didn’t I just finish talking about things that can go wrong just as one’s getting ready for a show…? Perhaps I jinxed myself.

From 2 weeks ago:

Woke up this morning ..well I didn’t actually wake up, I was still up.. I wasn’t feeling too good about how the day ahead was shaping up to be. Thanks to the mega storm system blowing in from the west yesterday (tornadoes actually touched down not 15 miles north of us), the kiln didn’t get lit until mid afternoon, much later than I had planned or anticipated.

Propane tank freezing upThis firing cycle, the multimeter I’ve been using as a pyrometer for the last 9 years finally decided to bite the dust just as the kiln temp hit around 1200 degrees Celcius and it started to stall. Great. Felt like I was firing blind. Not only that but I was running out of propane..just 7% left in the tank and it was starting to freeze up. (You can see the 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick layer of ice toward the bottom of the tank in this picture). Its at times like this I get envious of people who fire electric…

Bleary eyed, I dragged the hose around and started a water trickle on the tank to hopefully gain back some of the gas pressure I was starting to lose. Took a breather, made coffee, headed for the phone, sat down and waited for the Amerigas office to open.

Amerigas manThank goodness.. By some miracle, the gas company informed me that they could come out and bring me more propane that morning. Not too happy that the same amount of propane was going to cost $70 more than it was last year, but under the circumstances, now was not the time to quibble. I was just happy to know I’d be able to finish this firing.

Went back out to check on the kiln and cone 8 was starting to bend on both top and bottom. Phew! An hour later, I hear a familiar beeping sound of the propane truck coming down the drive. Total relief.

Porcelain Curio case with dogwood relief design in celadonYou just never know for sure what you are going to get until you unbrick that kiln door. Despite my misgivings and struggle to keep the kiln lit, the firing turned out better than I had anticipated and I actually did get some decent reduction. Here is one of the porcelain pieces you saw in my last post, now glazed in celadon and fired. I love the way this kind of glaze feels and pools, giving a carved design more depth.

Ah yes.. my pyrometer. As an aside, picked up this new multimeter at Lowe’s for $21. It measures both in both Celcius and Fahrenheit and is a good alternative to more expensive pyrometers, like Fluke, out on the market. Thermocouples are available at most pottery suppliers, but I managed to find a group lot on eBay at a really good price a few years ago. I like this one better than my last, actually, as the screen is bigger and easier to read. pyrometer2.


Nov 17 2008

Even the big boys have disappointments

Ontario Clay and Glass AssociationSeveral years ago, when I was *very* new to clay, I attended my very first clay conference.    It was really my first introduction to the clay community.  I remember it being a wonderful and unforgettable experience.  I got to try rakuing for the very first time at the preliminary workshop hosted by Ottawa Valley artist Leta Cormier in her, as I remember, extremely immaculate studio.  I also got to take part in my first mug exchange in which I remember receiving a lovely salt-glazed mug by potter Jackie Seaton.  My name was even drawn and I won some nice oriental brushes. But that was not all (and this was the pinnacle for me), John Leach, of  Muchelney Pottery, was the main presenter.  His pots were like nothing I had seen before (I told you I was new to clay) and I was impressed by what a real person he was … very gracious, generous, and down to earth. He left a lasting impression on me.

I recently discovered John’s brother Simon Leach has posted a series of videos on YouTube over the last year or so, showing demos, kilns, visits back to England and to friends’ studios, his philosophies, etc etc.  What I like is he presents things face on and shares his victories and disappointments, the good and the bad,  taking it all in stride.  I don’t think a lot of people are aware how hard it can be to be a potter and that things, quite beyond your control, can go extremely wrong after many, many hours of hard work, and all for naught.  Here is the 2nd of 2 of Simon’s videos taken while unloading Seth Cardew‘s kiln:

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Nov 7 2007

"Oh what a lovely hobby!"

My pottery teacher of years ago once told me (warned me, actually, when I expressed interest years ago in potting full time) “Pottery is a hard way to make a living”. It is very true. A potter needs to be a skilled artist, technician, manufacturer, marketer, administrator, and sales person, among other things, as well as being physically able and have a thick skin.

Throwing pots on the wheel, in reality, only represents a small portion of what goes into producing a finished pot. For every two three days of throwing, there are four or 5 days of doing other tasks. Pots still need to be trimmed, have handles attached and decoration applied, and patiently monitored as they dry slowly before they are loaded into the bisque kiln. If they survive the bisque firing , they are then glazed and loaded into the gas kiln. Because our shelves are so badly warped we also “wad” the bottoms of our pots before the final firing (wadding: dry china clay and alumina hydrate mixed and formed into balls which are strategically stuck to the bottom of the pots to evenly support the base of the pot on the kiln shelf).

A few examples of other tasks we do involve: clay preparation (digging clay, pounding/sifting/”slaking” it down, mixing it, moving it back to the drying area, pugging it (if you have a pugmill, we dont) wedging/kneading it for right consistency); Glaze preparation (measuring out raw materials and mixing glazes in 5 gallon batches; testing of new recipes or color variations also done in smaller batches; doing glaze chemistry); Kiln building/maintenance; Lifting/Carting bags of raw materials & clay; Loading/unloading the kiln; Shipping; Setting up web site / online sales; assembling and maintaining a sales display to take to shows, for example; preparing for and traveling to shows; Find ways to market work (new shows, online marketing, wholesale & consignment opportunities, etc.); etc

When things go wrong with pottery, they tend to go really wrong. Its very disheartening & demoralizing when you have lost half or more of a kiln load of pots that you have worked weeks to produce, due to some glaze, clay, or firing problem. Its even more disheartening when equipment is inevitably going to conk out when you most need it (usually in the last stretch toward a show). Things can go wrong even when you do things right.

We just had a string of bad firings where some of our usually most reliable glazes, thanks to an ingredient problem, not only came out unrecognizable, but fluxed out and ran all over and destroyed shelves. (Raw materials used in pottery are different clays and minerals all mined from the earth, are only as pure as the mine, and can change over time and according to the mine.) The problems are still not quite resolved. I lost I would say at least 1/3 if not more of the work I’ve made this fall due to one thing or another, but mostly due to these glaze problems. Its not just the financial loss, but the emotional strain that hits hard, and doubly so when you have to cancel that show that you were counting on the income from. When you make pots you’re not just manufacturing; you are so connected to your product in every aspect of production, its a lot more, well, personal. For a while there I didn’t want to see clay.

A friend of mine similarly had some very bad luck with some commercial clay (for which, incidentally, the shipping cost more than the clay) she made all of her pots out of for her fall show season. A week after her big fall sale, a customer brought back $300 worth of pots, then another customer did the same. All or most of the pots had quarter-cent sized hunks of the side of the pot popping off. Lime pop-outs apparently, which can take up to 3 months after the firing to appear. Months of work, large financial commitments (show fee, natural gas, clay, etc), and possibly her reputation tarnished, all because of a faulty raw material or the clay not being mixed properly by the supplier. The supplier was very gracious to replace the clay, but the propane has been burned, the pots have been sold, the money has already been spent, and the remainder of her inventory is questionable… and her pride bruised.

We keep making pots because there is always something that pulls us back. Art for arts sake? Bull. Working artists still have to eat and still have expenses like everyone else. Its not impossible to survive off of one’s work but making pots for a living (or any art full time) takes commitment, perseverance, and drive, it is not for the faint hearted.