Thursday, September 11, 2014

What Disaster Can Tell You

It makes no difference how much experience I garner, every now and then I will do something monumentally stupid. Several weeks ago, I had a ware board full of ramekins. I placed the board on a shelf with about half of the board extended out over the edge of the shelf. Then I set to work unloading the board.
Starting at the wrong end.
Almost immediately, the ware board with all those beautiful ramekins began tipping like an insane seesaw causing several ramekins to "introduce" them selves to the floor. Sancho Panza put it best when he said, "...whether the stone hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the stone, it's going to be bad for the pitcher."
I lost four ramekins to that little act of idiocy, but it's interesting what such a disaster can tell you. Not so much about my working methods, but about the product I make.
Many years ago (actually, it was decades ago), I was working in the pottery studio of a private school. I actually worked in the kitchen of that school, but they allowed me to putter about in the pottery studio when I was not at work. It kept body and soul together for the few months I was there. The students were aghast at my habit of cutting pots I had just thrown in half so that I could see how the wall of the pot looked. I can remember the teacher telling them, "You guys should be doing that more often."
I rarely cut pots in half these days. I don't really need to as the lesson of an even wall has been well learned. Still, it's always interesting to look at the profile of a pot when it meets an untimely end. And truth be told, I have actually broken pots on purpose to get the sort of information the little beauty in the picture above revealed.
So what can I tell from what I see? Three things.
First, I can see that the wall is nice and even. No surprise there. You may also notice the slightly thicker rim. That makes the pot less prone to warping during manufacture and chipping during use.
Second, I see that the pot only broke into about four pieces - most of them quite large. That means that the pot is extremely strong. A weaker vessel would shatter into a lot of small pieces.
Third, I see that the glaze perfectly follows the same break pattern as the clay. That means the glaze fit is exceptionally good. I knew that, given the tests I put the glazes through. But it's good to see it up close.
Most people don't realize it, but a glaze has to fit the clay it's applied to perfectly. The critical measurement is what happens when the pots cool in the kiln. Everything expands while heating and contracts while cooling. If the glaze contracts more than the clay does, it will be under a lot of tension. In a case like that, something has to give, and the glaze will form a fine network of stress cracks. Potters call this crazing. Crazing weakens a pot and will inevitably shorten its life. Some glazes are specially formulated to produce the same crackle pattern seen in crazing without causing problems for the pot, but crazing as a gaze flaw is something to be avoided.
If the clay shrinks more than the glaze, then the glaze can pop off, resulting in tiny, razor sharp pieces of glass that can end up in the food or beverage the pot was holding. This problem is called shivering and it is one issue that can keep a potter up at night.
Ideally, a glaze should shrink slightly less than the clay, but not enough to cause shivering. That assures that the pot will be the strong and last a good long time in normal use.
And the best way to prove the strength of a pot is to break it on purpose - or, in this case, by accident - and see how many or few pieces it breaks into. The fewer the pieces, the stronger the pot. If the glaze margins align perfectly with the edges of the broken clay, the glaze fit is perfect.
I make high quality pottery. The picture proves it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Bucket Dance

Like a lot of potters, glazing isn't my favorite thing to do. I like being behind my wheel throwing pots and getting my hands muddy. But if you are a potter, you probably spend the least of your time throwing and trimming pots.

The fact is, nothing I make is finished without its outer coating of colored glass. So glazing is a necessity and needs to be done with great care. Gazes are fussy creatures. Each wants to be applied in its own way and its own proper thickness. Each wants it's own special spot in the kiln where the temperature and heat work are just so.

Really fussy customers, glazes.

It starts with the chemistry. If you have read my blog for any length of time, you know something about those tribulations. Trying to figure out what that bucket full of liquid mud will look like when it's fired is a mixture of educated guess, scientific calculation, trial and error and pure luck. And your first guess is usually dead wrong. The second usually is as well.

So when you have a glaze that works for you, you keep to it. I have eight of them.

So now that I am moving out of the old studio, I am feverishly mixing large quantities of them. You see, I have this idea of continuing to produce at least some of my smaller items. I have my kitchen studio with its own wheel and can make small items if I can find a kiln to fire them in. That search will be job one soon. But I won't have the ability to mix new batches of glaze once everything is in storage.

That means five gallon buckets. Eight of them full of glaze. Never mind the space considerations, I need a lot of the stuff to carry this plan out.

So now begins what I call the bucket dance. There are big buckets and little buckets. Little buckets contain the glazes and each glaze has its own bucket with its name on it. Big buckets contain wash water, and again, each glaze has its own. That way, I can recycle glaze that I wash off of my tools and equipment. I end up with a big bucket full of watery glaze that can then be used to make more glaze. Less waste, lower cost and far more environmentally friendly.

But now the glaze needs to go into the big buckets and the wash water in the little buckets. So it takes two little buckets, one ball mill and one big bucket to make the transition. But of course, nothing is that simple. You see, the ball mill can't hold all the glaze in a little bucket. So it takes three ball mill jars to grind and mix all the glaze in two little buckets so that they can be poured into one big bucket. When the process is finished, I should have one big bucket and one little bucket with the name of a glaze on it.

A few days ago, I did this with the turquoise glaze. I have one big bucket full of glaze and one little bucket with nothing in it that says "White" on the outside. No, I don't know how I managed that, but not to worry. They didn't get mixed in together. I'm just grabbing clean empty buckets to make this happen.

I have been boxing up all of the throwing supplies and tools. A couple days ago I brought a pallet in and started stacking things up on it. I now have all the tools, bats and pads packed away.
Progress comes in some odd shapes and sizes. But progress is progress. One step at a time.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Moving On

Last year I wrote about needing to move out of the space I have been using and said I had to be out by the end of the year. Then I updated that to state that I had been reprieved and could stay for the foreseeable future.

In June of this year I was told that the property was being put up for sale but that nothing would be happening for at least a year. No panic. That would give me plenty of time to make some plans and let people know what is happening.

In July, I was told that things might be going a bit faster than expected, and next April would probably be the deadline to consider. Well, that's not far off from a year from now, so still, no panic.

In early August, I got a letter via certified mail informing me that I would need to be out of the building by September 15.

Time to panic. But still, I didn't. I just started making plans. What else do you do?

A few days later, I got a phone call telling me that I had until November 15.

The emotional roller coaster ride is over for me. If someone told me that I could stay at the Rowantrees building for another year at this point, I would still be moving out. There comes a time when you just have to step out and figure your way from here.

So what is my way going forward?

Shortly after getting the first notice, I stopped throwing new pots. From wheel to glaze firing, it can take several weeks to finish a pot, so there isn't much point in starting new ones. As of this writing, my wheel and all of my throwing tools are packed up and ready to go into storage.

Right now I am glazing for all I'm worth. I have a lot of bisque ware just waiting to be turned into finished product and I'll get as much of it done as I can.

As I finish each part of the process, the tools and equipment used for that part are getting packed up and ready to move to storage. The finished inventory will be the last to move.

Don't misunderstand me. I am NOT going out of business. Everything I have will be reflected on the website and will be available for purchase. For all intents and purposes, the coming cold season will be just like the last four. After everything is in storage, I will turn my attention to the Kickstarter campaign. I will need to raise $175,000 to build the new studio space.

Believe me, you will hear from me when the time comes!