Saturday, August 27, 2011

You Know What I Hate?

You're glazing your butt off, just motoring along. You know how when you hit the groove, and glazing becomes fun? And then some bloody hurricane comes along and ruins it.

I was really loving it, brushing, trailing, listening to Beau Soleil because when I tried to listen to NPR the stupid emergency alert was going off every 20 minutes. Yes, yes, I know, Irene is coming -- anyone who doesn't know that by now needn't worry, because they must be already dead. I still have two good outdoor glazing hours, but now the winds are picking up - already! - and it's time to drag all the outdoor stuff indoors (or, more properly, into the various outbuildings.) Can't get to my glaze kitchen because Paddy O'Furniture is laying up in there; so much for the bucket of oribe I was planning to mix. I also should really secure the summer-studio-cum-glazing shed; it won't do for the door to blow open and all of my glazed ware get soaked.
Anyway, enough griping. We here in central Maine are likely to get off fairly lightly; regarding the expected tropical storm force winds, the National Weather Service has this to say:


Anyway. I ought to go and secure my garbage cans & such. Wherever you are, be safe!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Thursday Inspiration!

It's not just for Thursdays anymore!

Lucy Breslin is a Maine potter whose work makes me dream of starting a movement called Slow Pots; you know, the equivalent of the Slow Food Movement. Labor intensive and painstaking methods can be well worth the effort, and success is not measured by the number of pots on the board at the end of the day.

Uh-oh, I think I feel a class theme coming on...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

How to Not Hate Etsy

Remember when I broke up with Etsy? Seems like it was only yesterday, but it's been more than 18 months! So much has happened. Etsy has changed. I've changed.

It's not what it sounds like! I'm not going back to the way it was before, the endless forum-haunting, photo-tweaking, and re-listing. I just think there may be a place for Etsy in my life; my expectations are different this time. For one thing, we won't be exclusive. Etsy was never committed to helping my business. I know that now. Et$y is only after one thing. But I know what I want out of the relationship. All I really want is the Facebook tab.

Yes, that's right. I am doing it for the Facebook tab. Which isn't even a tab anymore but a tiny little link on the lefthand side.

This all came about as a result of all that math I was doing a few days ago. I left out a possible way to increase to kiln yield strictly in terms of dollars, and that is to sell more retail. Right now I have several big consignment and wholesale accounts, but only a few friends to whom I sell retail. (I used to sell to my friends at half-price, which I called the Friends & Family discount, but then it stretched to included acquaintances and co-workers and friends of friends. How do you tell someone, "I'm sorry, but while Suzy is a close enough friend to qualify for the F&F discount, you are not. It was a near thing, but I have to draw then line somewhere." Basically everyone I ever met was getting the half-price deal, which was unfair to my wholesale accounts, so I stopped doing it. Now it's immediate family only, and they are usually getting seconds anyway. But I digress.)

So. I needed a way to offer items for retail sale. I do sell through the sister blog to this one, but Etsy provides a way to showcase multiple items at once, and to have those items available on Facebook whenever anybody happens to want one. And it's only 20 cents every four months, per item.

So it's time to bury the hatchet with Etsy. With that in mind, I've compiled this list of all the things that drove a wedge between Etsy and me in past attempts. Here are my Top Ways to Not Hate Etsy:
  • The very best way to use Etsy and not hate it is to be a shopper. It's a lot of fun from that vantage point.
  • Stay out of the forums! This deserves subsections:
  • They are hatcheries for drama. I really don't give a shirt about resellers on Etsy, or someone copying someone's design, or what everyone thinks of the new relevancy search.
  • I can't resist clicking on those "Here's how I made a bajillion sales yesterday, and you can, too!" threads. Every single one of them was a list of things I was already doing ("Promote! Change your photos! Re-write your listings! Relist frequently! And if you are doing those things and the aren't working, do them more!" It's really frustrating and aggravating, so it's best if I just don't read them.
  • There's a creepy dynamic there between true believers, who worship at the church of Etsy, and people who apparently think Etsy is genuinely evil and yet they still keep selling there. Don't get sucked in.
  • Don't fall for that re-listing scheme. The more sellers relist, the more sellers need to relist to stay high in the search, until the ideal time between relistings is infinitely brief, and everyone is relisting everything, always. Counting on shoppers finding you through searching your category is a losing battle. Sure, it can happen, but when it does, it's like found money. I found $60 on a bar floor one time, but I wouldn't write it into a business plan. In fact:
  • Don't count on Etsy for anything. Money in the pot is the pot's money. A listing is 20 cents every four months, for which you get a link through which someone could buy something. It's up to you to do everything else to get the link in front of people, or nothing at all; it's only 20 cents.
  • Don't pelt your Twitter followers with links to your listings, unless you want them all to hate you.
  • This one might be specific to me, but I am choosing the "Made to order" option this time. Not custom -- perish the thought! -- but I will make pieces as people order them. That way I don't have to have a bunch of inventory here, languishing, when it could be sitting on a shelf somewhere, selling or helping something else sell.
I guess that's about it.

Just don't say "I told you so."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Tenth Time is a Charm

Happy birthday to me! I spent the first hour of it having the traditional conversation with Suburban Propane, some variation of which I have every single time I call for a delivery:

Me: Good morning, could I get a propane delivery?
Lady at Suburban Propane company: We just delivered to you two weeks ago.
Me: Yes, well. Thanks. But I need another delivery.
Lady at Suburban Propane: It's August.
Me: I know. I use propane to fire my kiln, not to heat my house.
Lady at Suburban Propane: What does the gauge read?
Me: The gauge doesn't work.
Lady at Suburban Propane: Have you been using the kiln alot?
Me: I only need to use it three times, and if it runs out in the middle of a firing, all the propane that's gone towards that firing is wasted. So I prefer not to run out.
Lady, dubiously: Alllll-right, I'll let the driver know....

What's worse, I guarantee I will have to call at least once more, and probably twice, because the driver will look at the order and say, "Nah, she's nuts. I just delivered there." It's almost like Suburban doesn't want me as a customer, because I use too much propane, necessitating a lot of pesky deliveries and stuff.

If it didn't cost hundreds of dollars to install tanks I would have switched companies months ago. As it is I am considering becoming cranky. So far I have been relentlessly pleasant and polite, but maybe the problem is pleasant, polite conversations are less memorable than cranky ones.

I'm not that good at cranky, though, and it ruins my day as well as perhaps the person on the other end, who has lots of customers to remember, not just me. Still, I am losing patience. They presumably utilize a computer to store information; there must be some way to make a note on my file that if I call for propane, it's because I need it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Math is Tough

Sometimes I agree with Teen Talk Barbie: math is hard. Or not so much hard as immutable, inexorable, and scary. In fact I didn't even do the math, except in a most general way, before I quit my job, because if I had I am certain I would have been intimidated out of taking the step. Sometimes it's necessary to burn the boats.

But now the boats are smoking hulks, and I need to make my new situation work. So I figured out how much, in clay & glaze materials & propane, each firing cycle costs, how many firings I can do per month, and how much income I need to replace.

Skipping all the overly personal stuff about what my precise income needs to be, I determined that I need to take $1100, wholesale, of salable ware out of each kiln load. My last load added up to about $750, or would have if everything had been salable, which it wasn't and it never is. We have a gap of about $400 between ought and is. I am at this time selling every single item that comes out of the kiln: for the last 3 or 4 firings, every single piece has already had a destination - a sold destination - when I loaded it.

First thing I notice: I need to charge more for the big pieces, big bowls and platters especially. They have a high failure rate and they occupy kiln space inefficiently; I can make twice as much, or more, money from a shelf full of mugs as I can a shelf full to serving bowls. Bowls are also magnets for little bits of debris that would bounce off a casserole or mostly likely miss a mug altogether. But I can't change that yet, since I am filling orders the prices of which are already set.
What I can change: I just purchased (from Ebay) some kiln shelves that fit my space better. I was still using the old shelves from my old kiln, because I couldn't afford all new furniture on top of the expense of kiln building. But these were a bargain & will increase the two layers on which I can use them by about $100 each. So there's half the problem solved.

I also need a few new stilts; I need some 6 inchers, I've only got soaps & half soaps, and not many of the halves. I also have a few bits of broken kin shelves to act as spacers. I've got about one million soaps, so I don't even have to buy brick, I jist need to get down to INFAB in Lewiston and get tehn to cut my brick. I think I can fit another layer in, doing that; that's around $100 depending on what is on the layer. So that's 3/4 of the problem, also for short money.

Which leaves a $100 gap. I have a couple of ideas - miniatures? - and of course there's always the ol' price increase option. I could also try to replace some of the income through classes & workshops, which seems like cheating, somehow, but whatever works. I am stone out of things to cut back on, so increased frugality is not an option.

Anyway. This is just the beginning of the math process, so I am sure other ideas will occur to me. I wonder: do other potters do this, or is it more seat-of-the-pants?

I am not tempermantally well-suited to seat-of-the-pants.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Side Effects, and How to Pour a Plaster Drying Block

There are all kinds of small issues involved in ramping up ceramic production, issues that you don't really think about until confronted with them. Stuff like, where to keep the extra ware while it is in progress. (Answer: Build more shelving, and clean up the studio. A lot of the crap in there is just that, crap.)

I've been noticing that I can no longer keep up with my reclaim clay. I used to scoop out a slabfull of slurry every few days, and that was enough to keep the buckets to a minimum: one wet bucket & one dry. I had to bring in a second wet bucket and then a third; when I make more stuff, I also make more trimming scraps and throwing slurry. Answer: I need to increase my drying space, by making another plaster slab.

I've actually never cast anything in plaster before, as I had heard horror stories about how, if you don't get it exactly, precisely correct, it cracks or crumbles or just never dries at all. But I happened to have a 4-pound box of plaster lying around (can't remember what I bought it for...) so I made a small, test block: no problems at all. Onto the real thing!

First thing: you don't need to get pottery plaster, if you are just making a drying block. Pottery plaster is better for molds because it is finer and takes detail better, but for my purposes plaster of paris from the hardware store is just fine.

Second thing: Prepare the mold before you do any mixing. I used the lid of a case of paper. These are easy to come by -- ask at Staples. Or any office, even the so called "paperless" offices, will still use a case or two of paper every week. I coated the inside of it with vegetable oil (no need for fancy sprays or mold release soap.) In hindsight, I perhaps should have used paraffin; the corners of the mold sprung leaks under the greater pressure of the full-sized block. Paraffin might have prevented this; as it was, I stopped them up with gobs of clay on the outside of the box.

Third: add the plaster to the water, NOT vice versa. I filled up a bucket with cool water: Four pounds of plaster needed 5 cups of water, which is more than the directions stated, but it was obvious once I started that the suggested 3 cups were not going to be enough. So, for 25 pounds, I'll use about 30 cups of water.

Fourth, when you add the plaster, sprinkle a handfull at a time onto the surface of the water, wait for it to sink, and then sprinkle the next handful. Do this as quickly as the material will allow. Toward the end I had to mix with my hand, to squish the lumps.

Have a scraper or smoother ready. The plaster might be thick enough that it won't flatten out by itself.

Plaster sets up very quickly but it takes a long time to finish curing. I won't use my new slab for a week, to make sure it's ready.

New Name

I am going to re-name my business Mishaps Pottery! This time a cone pack exploded.

It could have been worse -- the pack was on a shelf that was overhanging the burner channel, so it's likely that the debris mostly fell in the channel, but you just know some of it got in something. I was also lucky that the "important" cones - 012, 05, 8, 10, and 11 - were still standing. The oopsie only took cones 3, 6, and 9, and who needs those anyway? This event inspired me to make up a bunch of cone packs in advance, so next time the will be all dry & ready to go.

At this point no one will believe this but I am not a complete and total clown! And what matters are result, right? We'll see those on Wednesday. Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Tumblin' and Rollin'.

I can cram an amazing amount of stuff into my little kiln when I need to! Thank God you can tumblestack greenware.

The glaze firing is, obviously, unloaded, and I am rolling right into the next cycle with this bisque. I learned something with this firing. (I mean, something besides "Check the propane gauge before beginning." Although it turned out that the gauge was broken so it wouldn't have mattered.) I learned that my kiln climbs faster in heavy reduction (within reason). This doesn't entirely make sense to me, as I know that an oxidizing flame is hotter. My theory is that pushing in the damper forces the heat to stay in the chamber instead of rushing right out the stack. This is good news, as it also fires more evenly in a heavier reduction; no surprise there. Also, some of my glazes are much more interesting and successful in a deeper atmosphere.

I learned another thing, too, from yet another error: I've always prepared the soda salad with soda ash, baking soda, and whiting. I forgot the whiting this time and saw no difference in the outcome. I never did know what it was for, but now I can guess: nothing.
All of my pots have destinations and are packed up for their journey, but here are some images of the pots my apprentice-for-a-day brought to the firing:

One bad note: I did have a kiln shelf crack in the firing, sending a shower of debris into a few pieces. I lost a big bowl and a couple of smaller ones, open shapes being more susceptible to such mishaps.

Friday, August 5, 2011


I have two standing rules regarding unloading the kiln: I won't open the door until a twist of paper, stuck in through the spy, does not smoke or smolder. This tells me that the kiln is below 450°. The second rule is that I will not unload any pots until I can do so with bare hands. Even my most sensitive glazes are not more sensitive than my hands, and if they were I'd replace or reformulate them, because a glaze that can't handle hand-comfort level also can't handle the dishwasher or the microwave.

But boy: the temptation. I am dying to know if the whole kiln is as good as the front sundae dish, and also, there something funny going on further back, like maybe a pot slumped?

Anyway. I'll find out soon enough. Well, not soon enough, but soon.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Thursday Inspiration - Tara Wilson

"Pots physically capture and record their firing process is similar to the way sedimentary and metamorphic rocks speak of their history."
- Tara Wilson, Artist-in-residence, Archie Bray Foundation, Helena, Montana

See lots more here.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Can You Bisque in a Soda Kiln?


When I was planning the kiln, I looked everywhere and asked everyone this question: Can you bisque in a soda kiln? As an answer I got the same thought that had already occurred to me: You might get fuming on the ware that interferes with how the piece accepts glaze. I went ahead & built the soda kiln anyway, because a) my old kiln was about ready to fall down, so I had to do something; and b) if it turned out that the soda kiln was inappropriate for bisquing, I could always buy an electric - a readily available (if expensive) solution. But I am now in a position to answer: The soda kiln can double as the bisque kiln. I have observed some minimal fuming; a few pieces appear a bit darker in spots, as if they've been lightly toasted. But I have not noticed any difference in glaze application. So, mystery solved. If you are pondering, consider this question answered.

Not that I have any reason to do so, but I could probably diminish the fuming even further by scooping the remnants of the soda salad out of the burner troughs.