Friday, April 19, 2013

The Petal Cups of Spring

This has been a busy winter! In my last post on the petal cups, I said that I would spend the winter producing them. At some point, I set a goal of 1000, and while I had no illusions of achieving that goal in a single season, I have made an impressive start! I have also made a great deal of progress on the technique of forming them. Compare this picture to the one in the last post on the subject and you will see a big difference! I threw most of those early efforts out.

I estimate that I am almost halfway to the 1,000 goal. In fact, the kiln is almost full and ready for the first bisque firing. The cups in this picture will be the last to get stacked before I close the lid.

As I mentioned before, the method for making the petal cups was not passed along, and those who were around at the time are either gone now or do not remember clearly how they were made. Petal cups have not been made in almost 40 years as far as I can tell, so I had to figure some things out. Here is what I came up with.

It all starts with a slab of clay. I am a wheel potter for the most part, and I don't have a slab roller, so I learned the art of wielding a rolling pin. Mind you, this particular rolling pin is 30 inches long and made for the purpose, so that helped.

But no matter how good the roller is, a nice, even slab is no small matter! I estimate that it takes me the better part of 15 minutes to get a slab rolled out to the correct thickness. There are all sorts of things you have to watch out for: Evenness of thickness, direction of the rolling action (it has to be changed several times), turning the slab over every few strokes (done by layering the slab between two sheets of canvas), and the dynamics of drying just to name a few. Fail in any of these, and the slab will yield unpredictable, often poor results.

Once the slab is made, it needs to rest and dry out for about a half hour before it can be worked. I stack the slabs between sheets of drywall for this purpose. The clay has to be stiff but plastic enough to bend and shape without cracking or breaking. The reason for stacking with drywall is to make sure that the top of the slab doesn't dry out any faster than the underside. If it does, the slab will warp - as will anything made from it.
I use a rose petal cutter for making what I call "blanks." Of course, nobody makes a rose petal cutter this big, so I had one made for me by the folks at Aunt Holly's right here in Maine (I love doing business locally). The cutter works beautifully with a little help from Murphy's Oil Soap, which I use as a releasing agent to keep the cutter from sticking.

I can usually get about 10 blanks from one slab, and with six slabs per run, well, you can do that math. Not all slabs fair as well. The slab in this picture only yielded eight.

Once the blanks are cut out, they are stacked and the stacks are wrapped in plastic to keep them from
drying out any further. Now the fun can begin!

I use a jig that I made for the purpose. It consists of a PVC floor drain turned upside down, a length of PVC pipe and a fitting into which I have glued an upside down wooden egg with the end cut off. Hard to picture?

The blanks are sponged to remove the pattern left on them by the canvas during the rolling out process. The edges are smoothed and rounded, and the maker's marks are put on the bottom. Then the blank is draped over the jig and the petals folded into place. The finished petal cup is allowed to dry at least one day and then is sponged again to smooth out any finger marks, rough edges and imperfections. Then they are allowed to dry for several days before stacking in the kiln. Because they are quite thin it doesn't take any longer than that.

In my first bisque firing of this year, I stacked only the petal cups. Not one was lost in the first firing, which is a great sign. In all, I ended up with 390 of them. Gad! Just short of an even 400. I need to get busy!

On Facebook recently, I stated that my production goal on petal cups is 1,000 this year. I just might reach it. But the tile project is calling my name once again, and I have already started on designs for holiday ornaments. You can't start too soon!

Monday, April 15, 2013

A New Home: Plans for the New Pottery Studio

Location for the new pottery studio

I have finally staked out the position for my new pottery studio. At least, I have staked out its theoretical position. There are still so many hoops to jump through...finding a contractor, finalizing the design, getting permits and - oh yes - figuring out how to pay for the thing!
The field in this picture is right next to my house on Front Ridge Road in Penobscot, Maine. It's not as big as it may seem. In fact, those four stakes encompass pretty much the entire area available to me under zoning and setback rules for my town - at least for commercial buildings like this. The front stake is 55 feet from the edge of the road and the area measures 24 by 48 feet. Really, that's not a terribly large building - particularly for a pottery - but I've seen a lot of pots emerging from smaller spaces. And since I reconsidered and put the gambrel roof back in, I'll have more overflow storage.
Designing a pottery studio turned out to be something of a fraught process. Deciding where to locate equipment and supplies meant designing for an efficient work flow. It's interesting how ideas and resources will suddenly pop up when you need them. An article in Ceramics Monthly magazine had a lot of good advice.

 Work Flow in a Pottery

This is the latest - and probably final - version of the pottery studio. If you have read previous posts on this, you will see that things have changed a great deal. There is more square footage and equipment has been shifted about.
The most important change is the attention to work flow. Ideally, pottery should go from wet clay to a finished pot in a single circular path around the studio. The more "back and forth" motion, the more expensive your production process. My earliest plans called for a full basement, the idea being that I would make pots in the cellar and sell them on the first floor.
Nice idea, but even at 54 years of age, I have determined that the less time I spend lugging clay around, the better. Somehow, carrying a ton of clay one 50-pound box at a time down the cellar stairs at least once each year didn't sit well. So, a concrete slab it is. With this design, clay is stored right by the door and only backs up once in the greenware area. From there, it makes a single clockwise circuit around the studio and comes to rest in the show area. The pattern looks something like this:
Pottery Arrow
Note that the kilns are in the center of all this activity. I fire twice in my process, to that seemed to make sense. Besides, I have engineered this building for energy efficiency, and it seemed logical to put what may amount to a secondary heating system in the center of things. It also does away with the clumsy issue of having to install them at least 2 feet away from flammable surfaces.
Is this a good place to mention that the lumber company added in a second door on the back wall for safety purposes when they estimated the materials cost?
Ah, yes. Materials cost. Well, that was a bit of a surprise. It came in at just about $35,000, which was a good deal less than I thought it would be. Given that I want this place to be as energy efficient as possible, the insulation alone was a large chunk of that total, so there is a little wiggle room. But not a lot.
Of course, that price does not include the concrete pad, heating, plumbing or electricity. Nor does it include labor. So I expect that cost to do some multiplying, which brings me to the final issue:

When Worlds Collide: The Dream Meets Reality

I will be meeting with a prospective contractor in a few days to go over this. It doesn't take much to run up a big bill, and I expect all those items not included in the materials estimate will at least triple the cost - if not quadruple it. I won't know until I ask, though. I want in-floor radiant heat and I need three-phase power unless I want to replace most of my current equipment, which I suspect would cost even more.
Here's the plan: figure out how much this will actually cost, then mount a KickStarter campaign to raise as much of it as I have to. The rest will be a matter of personal finance. It's a big, ambitious idea and nothing is certain - except my determination to keep this wonderful heritage alive whatever it takes.
So please, do sign up for my newsletter if you haven't already. And check back frequently to see how things are progressing! And buying pottery is a good thing as well! And while you are doing all of this, have a great Spring!