Sunday, December 9, 2012

A New Home for Lowell Hill Pottery?

That is the question. This has certainly been an eventful year for Lowell Hill Pottery. It looks as though this year will end in the black - a first and not at all bad for the third year of a five year start-up. If that happens, it won't be due to a lack of challenges.

First there was the scrap metal fiasco that lost me the pug mill, then the fuel oil leak (resulting from said fiasco) that had us all in a panic (but amounted to naught). Then Sheila Varnum passed away - perhaps the most traumatic of all the events.

The legendary brick path was closed to pottery traffic for the first time in 80 years - not an unreasonable thing since the house would be inhabited by new tenants. Most of the summer was taken up with renovation to the house. And make no mistake about it, the house is absolutely beautiful as a result.

The new tenants weren't so sure about living in a space that was also occupied by a working business. A few panicked phone calls and about three days of very nervous waiting resulted in a compromise whereby Lowell Hill Pottery could remain in the building for one more season, but had to move after that.

So there it is. 2013 will be my final year at the old Rowantrees building.

It's not a bad thing, really. The building is well over 150 years old and showing every day of that age. There is so much rot in the walls that you can scoop it out with your bare hands. Window panes have started falling out of their frames. Of course, there is no heat. There hasn't been since 2008.

Add to that the lead contamination - some from the Rowantrees years but most from the fact that the buildings are old enough to have been painted with lead paint many times over.

Yeah, it's time to go. I would have preferred to wait at least one more year, but for one other small detail: I really need to be able to work year round on pottery. Having only five months out of each year to do the work is not compatible with increasing business volume or turning this pottery into the business I want it to be.

So the planning is now well under way. I have drawn up a plan for a modest studio space to go in the field by my house. I have spoken with a contractor and will soon start the agonizing process of figuring out how to pay for this. Here is a sketch of the floor plan and a picture of how it will look:

The dimensions are 24 by 36 feet and it will be on a simple concrete slab. I had hoped for a walk-in cellar space for the studio with one floor above for the stockroom and sales area, but I learned a hard lesson about what it costs to build from scratch.

At first, I thought about a 24 by 48 with a walk-in cellar and upstairs with a full bath, office and closet space. Thinking that was going to cost too much, I drafted a second plan that reduced the floor space to 24 by 32. Well, that smaller plan got estimated at $182,000. No way.

The illustrated plan above is not much larger than a generous two-car garage and is currently estimated at $67,000. That's still pretty steep, but I do want to do this right. That means energy efficiency and good choices in building materials. I have good people ready to help.

So now it's about the money. I am preparing to launch a project at If you have never heard of it, Kickstarter is a web-based funding platform for creative projects. People like me who have a need for funding can put up a project and others willing to help can pledge support. There are premiums for those pledges as well. It's a lot like the pledge drives you see and hear on public broadcasting - but without the interruptions.

I will be posting updates on the studio project here, on my Facebook page, and on the Lowell Hill Pottery website. In the meantime, the most important thing I can do is build interest and community around this. Please help me spread the word about the Lowell Hill Pottery studio project so that when it is launched, there will be interested people ready to have a look.

The Rowantrees heritage and tradition deserves to survive.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

New Arrival!

You may recall my sad tale of the loss of the pug mill. The glorious old mill that Rowantrees had used for so many decades was removed against our wishes by a scrap metal guy. The details don't really matter. It's gone and I have missed it sorely this season.

Now its replacement has arrived.
By far, this is a smaller machine, and it's nowhere near as fast. But mills like the old one just don't come along every day, and this one has a lot of advantages the old one did not. It's a trade off that I can live with.

I have already learned how to use this mill to wedge and mix clay - and it only arrived this morning! Clay recycling will start very soon.

For the potters among you, this is a Peter Pugger model VPM-9 deairing pug mill. It's kind of difficult finding a mill that doesn't use a vacuum pump though they really aren't needed to pug clay well. The vacuum takes the place of aging, not wedging.

 For the non-potters, clay has to be as free of trapped air as possible to throw well. But the first step in clay preparation is to make sure that the water in the clay is as evenly distributed as possible so that every last particle of clay is wet. That is one factor in making clay as plastic and workable as it can be. Use of a vacuum pump in the pugging process pulls any air out of the clay, causing the water to move into the microscopic spaces that had previously trapped the air.

The pugging process is similar to a meat grinder. The clay is compacted by a screw auger and pushed through a small opening at the end of the barrel. This compacting process removes the air bubbles that can make throwing a real bear (not to mention the way pots can explode during firing).

I'm so thrilled to have this little shop assistant. I hope to be using it for many years to come. Profound thanks go to my dear friend Judy who made this possible.

The next large equipment upgrade will be a much larger kiln - but that's not this year's issue. Soon, plans will be underway for the new studio. There will be plenty to talk about then.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tea Pots!

I got an order for a large tea pot recently so i decided to tackle this Goliath head on. Tea pots are probably the greatest challenge any potter can face. Shape, proportion, fit, line, and all of the creative design issues all play a part. And having the design established for several decades does nothing to make the job easier. Last year, I made several of these pots and was satisfied with none of them. There were those that were passable, but nothing that really looked exactly the way it should.

So when I got the order, I was a little nervous. I wanted this to be right and look the best it could. There was nothing for it but to aim for a high goal, so I decided to make 20,

Now 20 tea pots is really 60 pots. You need 20 pots, 20 spouts and 20 lids. That doesn't even count the handle and the leaf on the lid. Those come later.

Once the pots, spouts and lids are thrown and trimmed, they need to be (gulp) assembled. That looks just a little like this:
Not the best photography in the world, I know, but you get the idea. It's a lot of eyeballing, eye crossing, cutting, shaving, whittling, cursing, fitting, sticking, and smoothing.

Did I say 'cursing'? Ok, I admit. It;s just as well that customers weren't flooding through the doors on the two days that I was engaged in this enterprise. I wasn't at my friendliest. But I got through it. And I have no doubt the next time will be just a bit easier. No less time and effort, but easier.

A bit.

Sunday, July 29, 2012


I love pictures like this. All those rims and handles lined up in rows. Every item like the others but not exactly because they were made by hand, not machine or mold. Mugs drying out on a warm summer day. Soon they will be ready for their first firing. They will be stocked with the bisque ware until needed.

I have a use planned for them. You will be able to read about this int he near future. History is in the making here!

And Here Comes Another Change

As any follower of this blog is aware, Lowell Hill Pottery has been operating in the former Rowantrees facility since inception. It was always clear that this arrangement would not be permanent, but with this season came word that I will need to relocate by the end of next season.

This is not a bad thing. Plans have been hanging about on the sidelines since the beginning, but now they need to shift into high gear. I will be measuring out the land next to my house on Lowell Hill (the namesake of my fledgling enterprise) to see how large a building it can accommodate. Then I'll talk to the folks at Efficiency Maine to see what sorts of idea they have regarding the most efficient designs. I want a building that is as inexpensive to operate as I can get it, and since I will be starting from scratch, this is the time to start making that happen. Once all that is done, it will be time to talk to contractors to see what they think the costs will be.

Then it's time to talk financing. Gulp...

This is going to happen. And you can follow the whole story right here. I'll be giving you blow by blow accounts of the building project and posting pictures as often as possible.

This is an exciting time for Lowell Hill Pottery. And I will do all I can to bring it to reality. I've come this far and hope you will join me on the ride ahead.

Friday, July 20, 2012


It's funny how things can jump out at you at odd times. Things that have been right in front of you (literally) for years but that you failed to notice until some random moment when your guard is down.

A lot has changed since Sheila Varnum passed away in April. The house is under renovation with new tenants expected to move in on August 1st. I have made a lot of changes down in the pottery, moving things around and putting up display shelving. People who used to travel through frequently don't do so these days. The energy is different but that was to be expected.

And still, pieces of the past pop up.

When I was working at Rowantrees, Sheila told me about something that employees used to do in decades past.

This rocky ledge can be seen from the window next to my wheel. It was usually the first thing to appear from under the snow cover when spring melting was underway. Employees came to think of it as a harbinger of spring and would make bets on when it would make its appearance.

That practice declined and disappeared for a long time until one day in late winter when Sheila and I decided to make a bet on the ledge. I would have forgotten all about that episode if I hadn't seen this on the wall right in front of her old wheel:

I don't recall what year we made this particular bet, but that's my handwriting.

I think Sheila won.

Monday, July 9, 2012

We're on YouTube!

Lowell Hill Pottery has made it to YouTube. This project was in the works for almost a year and has come to fruition. Many thanks to RBY Productions, Quail Creek Editions and Herbminders of Maine for the parts they all played in making this a reality.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Sign of the Times

Three signs,really. Four if you count the "open" flag. And the times are indeed a-changing.

Here I present the new sign that now hangs at the end of the driveway into the shop. For decades it stood at the end of the brick pathway and had the Rowantrees sign hanging from it. That sign is now resting in my showroom space although it will probably end up at the Blue Hill Historical Society at some point.

The sign post got lowered somewhat in the move, so the bottom sign is uncomfortably close to the ground, but a new sign bracket will take care of that.

Clay arrives tomorrow. I am glazing madly right now to stock the shelves. Orders have started coming in. It's starting to look like pottery season!

I hope to see you soon!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Another Big Change

Some things can be planned on pretty easily. Other things make perfect sense even though they don't occur to you right away or someone else has to point them out.

Another era is coming to an end. Starting in July, customers will no longer be able to follow the brick path to the pottery shop. There will be new residents in the house once occupied by Sheila Varnum and their privacy needs to be respected. The path winds very tightly around the house - and right past many of its windows. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want complete strangers walking right past my windows and through my yard all day long, so I can't expect someone else to feel differently.

The pottery entrance will now be at the back of the building. The sign has been moved to the driveway at the lower end of the property. Drive up that driveway and you will find plenty of parking space and what used to be the employee entrance to Rowantrees.

It's the customer entrance now. It will take some time to reverse almost 80 years of customer habit, but I want to be a good neighbor.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Housekeeping - The Other Kind

April was a busy month, no doubt about it. The studio was a mess from last year's activities, this year's disastrous junk removal antics, and about 75 years of gradual buildup. The net result was a behemoth in sore need of a bath. And a few other things.

I started very early in the month with the clay room and progressed gradually through the rest of the building spending no small amount of time on hands and knees scraping up decades worth of caked on mud, oil (don't ask) and who knows what else, loading junk into trash bins and carting it all off to the dump.

Along the way there were some repairs and maintenance that  needed doing. The kiln needed to have its ventilation system rerouted. After two years of venting into the chimney, I made the startling discovery that the chimney actually went nowhere. I don't know when that roof was sealed over, but it took me a couple years to notice it.

Then I decided I needed more show space. That meant shelves. And they had to be built before the cleaning could be completed because all of the pottery in the current show space was covered with wood ash secondary to the above mentioned junk removal fracas.

Add in the passing of Sheila Varnum and the fact that we are once again experiencing a wet, frigid spring, and I have to conclude that April was a...challenge.

But the challenge was met in the end. Here are a couple pictures of the new show area:

The item to the right in the top picture is a potter's wheel that hasn't been used in about 30 years. But there it sits. I intend to remove it and replace it with shelving, but that's a project for another time.

I don't want to gild the lily overmuch, but here are some pictures of the clay room:

You can see the new vent hose slithering up the wall at the far end. The hole was already in the wall thanks to a stove pipe that used to be there. That pipe was intended to remove dust from the area while grinding rock. It never really worked. Now that the rock grinder is gone - thanks to said junk removal fiasco - the pipe could be removed and a new purpose for the hole in the wall realized.

At last the floor is visible. The filter press is long gone. That was supposed to happen. But the table now sits where the pug mill used to be. I am still in mourning for the pug mill. It disappeared during the great junk hoohah despite the fact that the gentleman doing the work was told to leave it alone. Never mind the additional work not having it will create, I had grown attached to that old antique. Only the motor remains. It can be seen in the first clay room picture above behind the right hand end of the table. It's a 3-phase 5 hp motor and despite its age, it still purrs like a kitten. But it's out of a job. Sad.

Maybe I'm being overly sentimental, but that pug mill sat in that one spot since the 1940s and was a work horse right to the day it was dismantled. It deserved a better fate.

And I need a pug mill. But that's an issue for another day.

For now, I await warmer weather. It's May, and despite record breaking heat in March, temperatures have been in full retreat. But the studio is ready and so am I. As soon as it warms up even 10 degrees, I'll be at it again.

I can't wait.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sheila B. Varnum Howard 1925 - 2012

Sheila B. Varnum Howard passed away peacefully at her home in Blue Hill, Maine on Sunday April 15, 2012 with her family at her side.
Although Sheila came to be almost exclusively associated with Rowantrees, she actually lived a rather varied life that included overcoming a dreaded bone disease as a very young child, attending the University of Maine, working on behalf of the war effort in Boston in 1944, running a small store in Brooksville with her first husband, working as a reporter for the local newspaper and being a tireless advocate for human rights.

And yes, she worked at Rowantrees. Her first job there consisted of pasting price labels on the bottom of pots that were to be put up for sale, but eventually she went on to become a "thrower." When Laura Paddock took over the business following the death of its founder, Adelaide Pearson, Sheila became the manager. Following Laura Paddock's death, Sheila became the owner of Rowantrees.

Sheila often told me (and anyone else who listened) that she was never a business person. She far preferred working for the business over running it. But she felt an intense sense of responsibility to both Pearson and Paddock to continue the tradition that they had established. She also instilled that sense of responsibility in the employees she hired to work for her.

Including me.

It's hard to describe Sheila's generosity because it is so rarely found these days. She had the dubious honor of teaching me how to live in the real world as I came to Rowantrees fresh out of college and (despite my opinion to the contrary) inexperienced in such matters. Someone had to point that out and Sheila drew that particular short straw.

As an employer, Sheila was patient to a fault. She was as much a teacher as anything else. When she hired me, she told me that she would put about three years into making a potter out of me. I thought she was crazy.

She wasn't. That's how long it took. And I'm still learning.

In my full-time job, I manage a small ambulance company with a staff of about 25 employees. The manner in which I treat them is always informed by the way Sheila treated me. Do unto others...

I will miss the consultation sessions I had with Sheila after I started Lowell Hill Pottery. I will miss being able to show her my work and get her feedback; how the mugs need to be a little straighter up the sides or how the curve on the inside of that bowl looks good. Or not.

A major influence in my life has taken leave of this world and that's not easy to take in all at once. Walking into the pottery feels different than it did just a few days ago. It's hard to describe.

What isn't difficult to describe is the incredible manner in which Sheila chose to make her exit. Yes, I said 'chose.' She had been in declining health, and when medical treatment could not offer any improvement, she called her family together and informed them that she wanted to cease medications and allow nature to take its course. Her family honored her wishes Sheila spent the next few days holding court as a procession of friends came to say their goodbyes. I spent some time in a final conversation with her and that experience will remain with me for the rest of my life. How often do we get to say goodbye when we know it will be the last time?

We said some wonderful things back and forth. I'll always have that.

Sheila's family took impeccable care of her for seven days, never leaving her side and tending to her comfort. It could not have been easy for any of them, but I marvel at the way in which it all came together. Hospice - a concept I truly believe in - was present as needed and came through beautifully. It was Old New England as few get to experience it.

Sheila, you will be sorely missed, but forever loved. Rest in peace.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Legal Housekeeping

"We care about your privacy!"

How many times have you seen or heard that? Well, get ready to read it again. Lowell Hill Pottery will soon post its privacy policy. It may seem hard to believe that something like that is needed by anything other than a bank, healthcare facility or investment broker.

But yes, in these days of Internet shopping your privacy is an important issue that needs to be addressed. You have the right to know what information about you is gathered and how it is used. You also have the right to expect that care will be taken with the information you entrust to me or any other merchant.

It's more than I can cover in a blog post, so here's the skinny...

The first step in protecting your privacy is to make sure that you can be confident you are doing business with the real McCoy. So effective March 25, 2012, the Lowell Hill Pottery website is officially certified by This means that when you navigate to my website, you can expect to see a small certification seal at the bottom of each and every page. The seal must be "clickable," which means that you can click on it and read the certificate. What this all means is that you are now assured that when you go to my website, it is actually my website that you are visiting. It seems that some online thieves like to impersonate e-commerce websites with the idea that unsuspecting customers will enter their user ID and password, which the thieves can then harvest and use. Many people use the same ID and password on everything (a bad idea), and this can lead to big trouble if they end up on a "spoof" site.

The certificate is proof that you are on my site and can shop with confidence.

Lowell Hill Pottery collects minimal information from you - only what we need to process your order.

Lowell Hill Pottery does not collect credit card or bank information from you. When the day comes that we offer online payment, we will do so through third party secure servers like PayPal and Intuit Merchant Services.

You can read more about Lowell Hill Pottery's privacy policy and how information you entrust me with is used. The policy will be live on the website by April 1st.

No joke!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Coming Out of Hibernation

Well, actually I haven't been hibernating at all. Instead, I have been working on a number of projects and planning for this year's potting season. The new flyers will soon go to the printer. I hope to get that mailing out by late March or early April, so if you are on my mailing list, watch for it!

If you aren't on my mailing list and would like to be, you can send an email to and I will be sure to add you. Don't worry, you won't get inundated with junk mail. At most, I send out two mailing each year.

Yet another way to stay in touch is currently under development. Plans are underway to develop an e-newsletter through Constant Contact. This will allow customers to receive news and (yes) occasional promotional specials in their email once in a while. That letter is also expected to go out only a couple times each year, but a lot will have to do with what you the customer wants.

So that's the administrative side of things. What has been happening? Well...

Winter in Maine is rumored to be a cold, snowy experience. It wasn't this year. We did have cold weather, and there was even some occasional snow, but it was generally mild. Mind you, there was enough chill in the air to keep me away from the studio. Regardless of how warm it seems, the pipes have to stay drained if there is any chance of freezing. So there you are.

The tile project has progressed nicely. I am in hopes that the first edition of the Maine Lighthouse tiles will be out this summer. Each step of the way has its challenges, and right now, it's the glaze firing and overall shrinkage issues that need addressing. Those are fairly minor, though.

A new tile design is under development as well. These will feature geometric and natural designs for use in wall and table panels. More on this when I have designs worked out.

And of course, the Rowantrees reproduction line - arguably the star of the show - will take center stage. I have been working on and fine tuning glaze formulas over the winter. That's a job that is never completed because raw materials change from time to time and those changes have to be compensated for. As Sheila Varnum once told me, there is always a mystery to solve in this business. To me, that's part of its allure.

There were other developments over the winter. Some good, some not so good. That's essentially what they call life. In the not so good department, a couple of machines that I had been using at the Rowantrees facility were removed by a junk removal guy. One of those was the old rock grinder. It was used to grind the granite used in the glazes. There are other ways to grind granite and I have plenty done up ahead, so this wasn't all that much of a blow. Besides, the old grinder really was pretty worn out. Still, it was an historic piece of machinery made by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (better known as 3M) way back in the 1030s. I would wager that parts were still obtainable for it but they would have cost more than the machine itself. So when it comes to the granite, it's ball milling from here on in.

Less good was the loss of the pug mill. Through a misunderstanding, the junk guy - who apparently didn't understand, "Don't take this!" dismantled the pug mill and removed it. While I wasn't planning on taking it with me (although my resolve was weakening), I was still using it. It's difficult to operate a production pottery without a pug mill if you value your wrists.

But on the good side, a friend nee benefactor who believes in this project has decided to gift a new pug mill to me. We are currently in discussion on how that will work. It's not going to be possible to replace the machine that was removed, but it won't be necessary to do so. I'll post a picture of the new mill when it is in place.

Also on the plus side is the removal of the old filter press. This was beyond saving, really, and was the actual reason the junk guy was there. Its removal has made for a lot more room.

There is still a lot to do to get the studio ready for this season. I will spend most of April just cleaning. It's amazing how much dust settles in just a few months. I will be away on my first actual vacation in three years in May, and then I will return with sleeves rolled up and ready to go.

But no matter where I am or what I'm doing, my web site is up and available for ordering. And I will be checking mail and messages frequently.

My plans are ambitious but realistic for this my third year in operation. I look forward to seeing you!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Registry is Now Open!

The long winter's nap is going to be coming to a close sooner than we might expect. At least I certainly hope so. It has been a relatively mild winter, which just makes it more frustrating because it's still too cold to work in the studio. Just not by all that much!

So what to do in the meantime? Well...

I have started a Gift Registry for one thing. Currently it is aimed generally at weddings, but there is no reason to restrict it to that. And it's pretty simple to use both for those giving and receiving gifts. Here is how it works (I'm using the example of a wedding for ease and clarity):

Those wishing to register at Lowell Hill Pottery can download the Lowell Hill Pottery Gift Registry form. The form is in PDF format and can be filled out right on a computer - although the data can not be saved. It can also be printed and filled out by hand.

The completed form is then mailed to Lowell Hill Pottery along with a set-up fee of $30. Techies who wish may print, scan and mail their completed form if they wish and send the set-up fee separately.

Once the form is received, a special web page will be posted with a complete listing of all the items desired. A link to the site will be sent to the contact for the wedding party that can then be sent along to guests, friends and family members.

Anyone navigating to the link will find the complete list and links to the specific products chosen. They can then purchase on the site, by phone or by email. As items are purchased, they will be removed from the party's registry page to avoid duplication.

Every effort will be made to deliver all purchased gifts in time for the event. If an item can not arrive in time, a certificate will be delivered detailing the nature of the gift, who sent it, and when we expect it to arrive.

People wishing to register with Lowell Hill Pottery should do so no less than two months prior to the date of the event. The further ahead the planning, the better able we will be to meet your expectations.