Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Some time ago I started working on a tile project. I was inspired by a visit to the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown, PA a few years ago and decided to teach myself a process for making different types of tiles. I blogged about it in December 2010 and January 2011 - four posts in all.

At the time, I was working on tiles with a mosaic look. I am still working on that idea, but it has been modified. The tiles are now taking the form of three-dimensional sculptural pieces. The metamorphosis was sudden, following as it did, a visit to the now closed Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, MA. There I saw a collection of armor and arms that was quite impressive. But more importantly, I saw heraldic animals and crests that gave me new ideas. I stopped in at the museum's gift shop and found several books of designs including mythological animals found in architecture the world over. One appealed to me and I started working on it.
I modified this and started a rough cut. It became clear that I would need a combination of addition and subtraction to make this creature come alive. Here is the first rough cut:
Like a quilter, I quickly figured out that there was too much detail for this to work, and I also needed finer tools for the detail I would keep. I ordered a set of dentist's tools and kept at it. :After carving and adding clay, the tile looked like this:
The feet...yeah, I know. The idea was to start big and carve them out. They went on and came off several times before I figured out that the whole creature was pretty goofy, so goofy feet wouldn't really matter that much. A little while after I drew that conclusion, I also decided that carving the feet wasn't going to work and I started sculpting them instead. That resulted in:
Snowshoes! Well, this was a learning curve, and at least I was moving forward. With a little more perseverance, I managed a pair of acceptable feet:
Then the process of casting a mold could begin. Plaster is not a medium I have a lot of trouble with, so this was pretty easy. Of course, it did mean destroying the original because I cast with a moist clay original. It has everything to do with the way clay shrinks and my lack of desire to do the appropriate math. But once you have a single mold that works, you can cast as many originals and make as many more molds as you wish. Here is the result of my first casting in the new mold:
Note the bits of plaster around the edges. The border was a bit off as well. More castings needed to be made before I got some good, clean tiles. Once I had them, I was free to make more molds!
These five are currently drying over a heating vent and should be ready to go into production in about one week. Then there will be tiles! In time, I will use a press to make these (for now, I'm using a rolling pin). The process of getting a press made that will do this has also been one of discovery, I started with a homemade one-armed bandit that had no mechanical advantage and was impossible to operate without hanging from it like a crazed monkey:
I'm no engineer as this picture illustrates (although I must say I was pretty proud of my work here). From this humble beginning, I looked to make improvements. Books were read, websites were Googled, lots of research was conducted. And finally, I found this great idea:
It's a 12-ton shop press that I will be modifying into a tile press. There will still be a learning curve. I'll have to figure out how much pressure to apply to make a tile in a press mold without turning the plaster mold into dust. I probably better make more molds...