Sunday, August 12, 2018

What Do You Do While the Kiln is Firing?

Me, I clean. There are some logical reasons for that - the studio is never more empty than when all the ware is in the kiln - and some squishier ones, like for some reason I just can't make myself start a new making cycle in the midst of the old one. NO OVERLAP, it's some kind of brain-cramp of a rule that I can't get past. So, I clean.

Sometimes I clean my house. Often I clean my studio - see above. Sometimes I drag all the random crap that has drifted into the shed like seaweed on a beach, throw three-quarters of it away, and then organize the rest. It's lucky I have firing days, because some stuff only happens then.

Today I had a flea infestation to address. As you may know, I live in the House of Many Cats, not entirely accidentally. We apply flea preventative medications regularly, but fleas do love hot, humid weather, and I found one on Finn McCool just yesterday - only two weeks after he'd had his monthly treatment. Time for drastic action! Which means, time to close the cats up in bedrooms, drag all the furniture into the kitchen, and shake Borax on all the carpets to kill flea eggs. It has to sit for a few hours before getting vacuumed up, so I still had time to do dishes & laundry & all my regular cleaning stuff as well. I did straighten the studio a bit as well, and re-arranged things so it's easier to glaze in there. Maybe that's why I don't like crossing the streams - I use the space differently during the glazing part of the cycle.

The bisque is nearly done now, and Doug & I will settle down to watch Guardians of the Galaxy.

I love Groot, don't you?


Thursday, August 2, 2018

'Tis the Season - for Raku!


I never tire of glowy-kiln images! I am always the one with the tongs, so not in  position to appreciate the visual spectacle while it is happening; I'm busy making sure all the pots survive the journey & no one gets burned. That's me, there, in the silver jacket & face shield. I know lots of people who raku without all the protective gear, and I will never be one of them! Just call me snowflake, I see no reason to be in pain if it can easily be avoided.

The photo above was taken after about half the pots were out.


We got some lovely pots out of the firing! I find I get better results if I don't try to cram as many pots as possible into the kiln: fewer pots means I don't have to hurry before the last ones cool off. I can take my time & position the pieces in the sawdust in a way that will benefit them, instead of just however they land. For example, bowls should be place rim down in the combustible pile! Copper lustres will turn bright & metallic, and all glazes will avoid the unfortunate crusty texture that comes with getting sawdust (or dry leaves or newspaper or whatever) in the puddle of still-molten glaze inside a bowl. Here are a few results, with thanks to Holly Johnson of Hurricane Mountain Pottery for all the photos I used today.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

TTFN, Pottery Stairs!

Just checking in with my pottery peeps! It's been a month or so since I posted, and in that time I have been busily making. Wholesale is all delivered for the season, and my next event is not until the end of August, but I am (for once!) not waiting until the last possible second.

And of course there are also consignment outlets to keep full.

Usually in the summer I would have a steady drip of income from the Pottery Stairs, but things have gone awry this year. While theft has always been factored in to the cost of my honor-system stand - occasionally someone would take an envelope & not send the money, or even every once in a while an outright theft of a piece or two - this year it's crazy. Like, every day a couple of pieces just disappear. Even when people took envelopes, which I take as meaning they intend to pay, only one of four envelopes returned to me with payment.
The Pottery Stairs in better days

While it's tempting to see this as further evidence that the world is getting shittier, I think two things account for the change. The outright thefts - someone just seeing something they like & taking it - are probably one person, or maybe two, together. The payments that never arrive are probably due to economic strains: people intend to pay, but every pay period, that pottery envelope is the least important thing, until it falls behind the radiator and is forgotten. Gas, oil, power, and food costs have all risen. Augusta's not a wealthy city, and real wages have fallen particularly hard in rural areas since last summer. People are hurting.

Whatever the cause, for now there's a moratorium on the Pottery Stairs. It's not just the loss of product - these are seconds, so any cash that comes in from them is essentially found money - but it bums me out. And with only one of four envelopes coming back with payment, it's not worth the hit my mood takes when the thefts occur; no one like to be stolen from, however minor the loss. So it's Ta-Ta For Now, Pottery Stairs.

Was that a bummer? Could you use a cute cat pic to cheer you up? If so, here is a cute cat pic:
Jack (orange), Petey (grey), Noodle (white w/ black) & Finn (black w white)





Friday, June 22, 2018

The Real Test

Though I have already successfully fired a bisque under the newly repaired arch, it hardly counts as a test. I could bisque in a trash can, with some minor modifications, or in a hole in the ground ( I actually have done that.) Today I am unloading the first glaze firing!

I am a bit nervous about it, because even small changes to the kiln can affect the way it fires - and in addition to patching up the arch, I made a couple of other changes. I dropped the height of the bag wall one course. I used to need the extra height, or the soda would get sucked straight out the flue - this little kiln used to draw like a mad bastard. When I rebuilt the stack (2 summers ago? ) I built it one course smaller, which - I hoped - would diminish the draw a little. I'm only just now getting around to testing that idea, because the kiln was firing so beautifully I didn't want to rock the boat. If I can fire successfully with a lower bag wall, though, that will increase the stacking space, which will increase my yield: I'll get more pots & therefore more money, for the same amount of propane.

Assuming, of course, it works out. Let's see what we've got:


First peek looks good! My big fear - that the top half of the kiln would be pasty & dry - is alleviated. Now to go lower; we'll be looking for good coverage there as well, and hoping hoping for no major cool spots. 

w00t! Still looks good!

At that point I stopped taking photos, but here's the scoop: Most of the load was really good, but the bottom layer was a little cool. Probably salable, but they will be much better pots if I refire them, and really I lost almost none of this load to the usual mishaps: soda drops, random cracks, little hunks of kiln shit landing in bowls, so I don't mind pulling a few to get a jump on my next firing. So, mostly good news! I think if I had laid ^10 down flat, that would have been just enough to bring the bottom layer the rest of the way. 

Some of these are for a standing order (YAY STANDING ORDERS!) but most will be coming with me to the Center for Maine Craft tomorrow, where I will have my own mini pop-up shop from 10 to 3. Come see me! The Center is located at the travel plaza in West Gardiner - take exit 51 if you are coming north on 295. 
See you there! 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Shapes & Colors of June

The flowers of mid-June make the best bouquets! The enormous raspberry heads of peony, the delicate deep purple shapes of Siberian Iris, the fizzy lemonade froth of Lady's Mantle. All easy to grow, too,  at least here in Maine.

I made the little pitcher that serves here as a vase. As often happens, it was unappreciated when it came out of the kiln - many more immediately eye-catching pots came out of the same firing, and it was overshadowed. Over time it's quietly served its functions, and become a favorite. Like people, you get to know pots slowly.

Happy June, the second-best month in Maine - the best being September, but it's a tight call.

Friday, June 15, 2018

OM4 70 Neph Sy 30

Testing a new flashing slip recipe - I kind of just made it up, with crowdsourced suggestions. Let's do it.

Results to follow next week.

Kiln repair went well, I am unloading the bisque today. More info about that (for the kiln geeks among you - I love you, kiln geeks! 💙) soon.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Jacked Up


OMG I think this is going to work...sort of, anyway.
I propped the arch for on four jackposts, high enough to lift the weight of the arch from the walls. This allowed me to straighten the walls a little and pop in the fallen brick. I couldn't completely correct the spread tho - I'd need to pull down the walls for that. I might do that next summer but for now I need to get this kiln working again - I have orders to complete. So! Because the walls had spread, there was an inch & a half gap in the front ring of the arch, and a much narrower wedge of gap in the second ring.

Solution? Castable.

On the suggestion of my friend Tyler Gulden - let me here put in a 100% sincere plug for him: if you have a few bucks to hire your kiln built, he's the guy you want, and his services are affordable to the point of ridiculous!Anyway, on his suggestion I got a commercially produce high-alumina castble product called Noxcast 32, durable to 3200°F and non-reactive to soda. When I do my someday-rebuild, I am going to line the interior of the kiln with this stuff!

It comes in a 50 lb bag - way more than I need but whatev - and cost about 50 bucks. If it works it'll still be a bargain!

I needed it not to stick to the wooden arch form, so I melted paraffin wax & poured it into the gap, then heavily applied cooking spray. I mixed the castble into a thick-but-pourable consistency, then scooped & dribbled it between the brick until the space was filled.


 It will need to set overnight but by tomorrow AM I should know if we are good to go!

Sunday, May 27, 2018

It's Fine, I'm Sure It's Fine

That's what I keep telling myself, but I'm not sure I 100% believe it.  Like a lot of repairs, the kiln has to get worse before it can get better, freaking me out a little bit every step of the way. I had to (of course, but still) remove some of the brick around the doorway in order that the arch form fit in, and though I was pretty careful to stack the brick exactly as they were in the doorway part of me wonders if I will be able to put them back correctly. Half-assedness is so ingrained in my nature that even when I try to be meticulous a fair amount of half-assery slips in.

It doesn't help that I am making this up as I go along. The Kiln Book covers building an arch but not repairing one without taking the whole thing down & starting again. My consolation is, if this doesn't work, taking it down & starting again is always an option.

It's clearer than ever how much the walls have spread. Note to self & all other kiln builders: next time, make holes for two tie rods: when one breaks, the other will hold long enough to replace the broken one. Just think, for the 5 minutes it would have taken to drill 2 additional holes I could have avoided all this work, if not forever, at least for several years.

I've now completed the easy part...now to figure out how to jack up the form under the brick. It may be that my plan to support the center, just enough to pop in the missing brick, will need revisiting; possibly there is no way to do this without pushing up the whole arch. Right now the plan is to use a pair of jack posts to hold the form in place while I do the repair. Will let you know how it goes.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Speaking of Arches

Photo by Monica Hurley Lawson
My husband & I recently traveled to his home state of Massachusetts. His mother is in the hospital recovering from a fractured femur. While there we visited War Memorial Park in West Bridgewater, where we saw this amazing dry-stacked stone arch bridge. The stones of the central arch are interleaved with the arches on either side, and each relies on the others to buttress its weight. Each span is about 15 feet wide.  Delicate little snowflake that I am, I am groaning about building an arch with bricks cut specifically to fit the form; the builders of this bridge had to make random flat fieldstones fit. I am awed and delighted by the craftsmanship that went into this structure.

Photo by Doug Watts
These arches have been standing for almost 200 years! Would that my kiln arch were so sturdy. (Yes, I know, apples to oranges, comparing the durability of a barrel arch to a spring arch.)

Speaking of, the baby step I took today on that project was to take down the bag walls, which I had to do with a sledge hammer, they were so thoroughly glazed together. Next I will build a 2x4 frame to place the arch form on; then I will lift the form up with a pair of jackposts to remove the weight of the arch from the walls. Taking down the bag walls was a small step, but the day was not wasted; we devoted most of it to gardening - got our raised beds full of compost, bought some hot pepper seedlings, and watered a new patch of lawn.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Progress in Progress

Did I mention I hate kiln building in all its forms? But I do love me some feeling of accomplishment. I've had to break down the task of repairing my arch into extremely tiny baby steps - re-read the chapter, take the measurements, look up the table, buy the plywood, and so on - which is my strategy for dealing with jobs that I dread doing. After enough steps are done the job begins to gain some momentum, and working on it gets easier.

So it is with my arch form! The form is built, and now I need to get some 2 x 4s to prop it up under the remaining bricks of the arch.

Baby steps are all fine and good, but there is some time pressure here - it's almost June & stores are waiting on their summer orders. When I get tired of the whine of the saw & the thunk of the hammer, I retreat to the summer studio to throw. I estimate the repair will be completed by the end of the holiday weekend, and I hope to have enough to fill a bisque shortly after.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

My Bricks are Numbered

I build my kiln in 2010; not the first kiln I've ever built, but the first one that I've been the brains of the operation. I love every aspect of making pottery - the wetwork, obvs, that's easy to love, but also glazing and loading and firing. I even love mixing glazes, in a way: the methodical concentration necessary creates almost a meditative state that shuts down the shouting of the world. Somehow I have never come to love kiln building and maintenance! Maybe I just haven't done enough of it. That's what I tell my students when they tell me they don't like pulling handles (and I am right.)

Possibly about to put a few more hours of kiln building experience under my belt. For several weeks I approached my flattened-arch situation by walking out every day & staring at the loose bricks for a while and then going back in the house. Finally I decided to grab a mallet & try to tap the bricks back into place. I didn't actually think it would work - they dropped for a reason - but I knew it would either a) work or b) cause the loose bricks to fall, thus ending the endless indecision over whether I really needed to go through the whole tiresome business of building an arch form.


The answer, of course, is yes, yes I do need to go through the whole tiresome business, and at least I have got that clear now so I can begin.

Since I sort of expected this result - that the bricks would fall - I put some scrap insulating foam board inside the kiln, so they would hit the floor and break. As you can see, I have numbered the remaining brick so I can just put them back where they were - they aren't all the same, some are #1 arch brick, some are #2 [insert extremely childish LOL here], and some are straights. I don't want to have to figure it all out again, so I went to work with my trusty sharpie marker.

As you can see, it's a bonded arch, so entire sections don't fall if one brick gets loose

This job still seems intimidating, despite the helpful numeration, and the fact that I built this arch in the first place, so I need to break it down to baby steps:

  1. Measure span & rise...or I may have those values in an old blog post. 
  2. Do the math to arrive at the radius of the imaginary circle this arch would inscribe were it continued. 
  3. Get plywood & slats
  4. Draw the necessary fraction of the imaginary circle on the plywood, twice
  5. Cut 2 slats the depth of the interior of the kiln, and screw the plywood to the slats to properly space the arch supports
  6. Attach slats between the plywood forms, along the curve
  7. Profit!
  8. No wait
  9. Ugh that's enough for one day

So, that's my to-do list for tomorrow! Fun City.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

My Devices Fail Me

Hello, friends! Long time no post...not that I didn't want to! My laptop conked out at the least convenient time, just a week before the pottery tour. Not that there is ever a convenient time for such an occurrence.

(In spite of that the tour went well - we had about 60 visitors and a steady stream of sales all day. In asking participating studio for their results, it seems sales varied between less than $100 to over $2000. [Note to participating potters, for future tours: the first one to break 5K can buy me a beer. 😉] I can't point to anything specific to explain the disparity, though I know the top earning studios did do a ton of promotion.)

My laptop failure can be a learning experience for you all, at least! Remember my motto, I screw up so you don't have to?  Well, here's the lesson: don't plug your laptop into a zipcord. I live in an old house, with not enough power outlets. I used an extension cord so I could sit up in bed & read the news or watch Dr Who - or write blog posts! I used the first extension cord I put my hand on, a zip cord - the kind with only the two slots, no space for the ground wire. I also have an adapter to make it possible to plug a three-prong plug into a two-prong hole.

Yeah, don't do that...

While waiting for my laptop to return from St. Louis, where the Geek Squad sent it to be fixed - I hope it had fun, I love St. Louis, used to live there - I thought I'd buy the cheapest available option as a stopgap. I found a $98 tablet, decided I could use that for a couple of weeks, and then pass it on to Doug, who is still working on an iMac he bought in 2004. So I bought the Smarttab.

Yeah, don't do that either...

Turns out there's a reason why it's the cheapest tablet available...because it is, hmm, how you say?...a piece of shit. It loaded pages so slowly that the connection timed out. I brought it back for a refund the same afternoon. Instead I dug out my old laptop, which at least allowed me to receive & respond to emails, although web browsing was mostly either impossible or too slow and aggravating to be worth it.

My beloved Gray Lady also experienced a minor failure. Well. not so much a failure as one of those expected maintenance issues: brakes & shocks. You know you are going to need to replace brakes & shocks, you just don't know when. Again: just before the pottery tour was a super inconvenient time to be without my truck! Luckily Doug has a friend with an actual lift in his garage, and they did the repairs themselves. No waiting! And, buying parts at the auto parts store cost about a third of what the repair shop will charge you for them, so it was way, way less expensive than it would have been. Crisis averted.

My kiln also has been out of commission for a while due to a flattening arch. For several weeks I have been addressing this by staring at it, trying to decide how to begin or even if I really needed to do anything. Finally, during a slow stretch of the tour weekend, I decide to hit it with a mallet. My thinking was, either I can tap those bricks back into place, or they will fall and definitively answer the question of whether a repair is necessary at this time, or if I can put it off until things get worse.

The bricks fell, of course; but only 6 of them. Well: 3 whole bricks and three halves. So, arch repair it is. I dug out my Olsen and started reviewing the math. This afternoon I with my trusty mallet began removing the castable layer so that I could get to the arch from above. I have two possible plans: Either A) Build a support for the remaining bricks and drop the missing ones back into place, with spacers if necessary, then re-apply a casable layer (this is the minimal plan) or B) Since building the arch support is really the pain in the ass part, if I am doing that much anyway maybe I should just take the whole arch down, straighten the walls, and replace the angle iron frame with a thicker gauge - essentially floor-up rebuild. Or, hell, the floor is in worse shape than the walls, if I am doing that maybe I should replace those brick. Ugh, just thinking about it makes me want to go to bed & pull the covers over me.

Wow, this post got long! I have another machine-failure story to tell you - a tale of three lawn mowers - but perhaps I will save that for another day.


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