Thursday, October 30, 2008

Terrified of Writing

As a freshman at the University of Florida in 1962, we had to take a reading and comprehension test and I made the 15th percentile of all freshmen. I had not written much in high school and I did not want to write much in college either so I majored in Electrical Engineering. We had to take subjects like Humanities and American Institutions which required a lot of reading and I struggled mightily with those. I just could not read fast enough and my comprehension was terrible. I was determined to not write any papers in college -- quite stupid as I look back on it, but this was a real fear for me and I gave in to it. 

My first course in Electrical Engineering was early proof that I was not going to be a successful engineer either so I switched to Math, a subject that I was good, very good, but not great at. I did make it through college without writing any papers and stayed for graduate school in Math. I took every course but one for the PhD but somewhere in here I discovered Ceramics, got my Master's degree in Math, and began to study Ceramics. I did have to write a Master's thesis -- On the Structure of Pre-P-Rings -- a subject that I could not tell you one thing about today. Well maybe one but not much.

I went to graduate school in Ceramics at The University of South Florida in Tampa and got an MFA in 1972. I had to write a thesis -- Some Structural Possibilities for Smoked Raku -- and so I got 3 degrees writing only two papers. Ten years of college -- combined writing under 40 pages.

As I look back on this attitude I find it to be incredibly short sighted. It's very difficult for me to sit down and express myself and organize my thoughts in a cogent way. I also struggle with organizing my workday and the overall management of my time. It's about seeing the "forest" and the "trees" at the same time, and I tend to see one or the other, but not both. I think the two things -- that is: the inability to write and the inability to manage my time and resources -- are linked to a place in the mind which is just underdeveloped.

My wife Anne has a degree in English -- actually the subdegree is called "Creative Writing and Linguistics" from UF here and she is quite a talented writer. See an Example. She is also a good organizer and manager. 

This blog is my first attempt to overcome this shadowy past. Hopefully the writing will improve as I become more practiced. But mostly I hope to achieve a new level of organization and consciousness through written expression. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Tapping to Center

Tapping to center is something every potter should know how to do. It was taught to me by Steve Jepson when I was just a sprout. It's easy to learn. In fact many of the people who have worked at the shop have learned it and they were not even potters. Here's how to learn it. 

Take a coffee can and fill it with about 1/3rd sand. Get a bat with some sort of foam or a bat with something that will offer friction like surf board pads. Place the coffee can on the bat, start the wheel slowly, and start tapping the can with your left hand (if you are right handed) until it goes to center. Then place it off center and start tapping again until it gets to center. At no time are you to try to understand with your mind where to tap the can. You just tap it and when it gets to center you move it off and start again. Do this for 5 or 10 minutes and then stop. Do this every day for 3 weeks and you will be able to do it like a pro. 

The reason you want to use your left hand is that you will have a trimming tool in your right hand and you don't want to have to put it down. 

Tapping to center is way more flexible than using say a Giffen Grip. A Giffen Grip is a very useful tool and I would not want to be without it -- I use it to trim mugs when the bottoms are too soft to hold at center after tapping, but tapping to center is so versatile and quick that it is the best solution the vast majority of the time. It will save hours in the course of a year for almost anyone who makes pots.

Say you have a pot which needs to be trimmed in a chuck. (I sign my chucks "Charles" because they are very formal). You tap the chuck to center and then place the pot in the chuck and make sure the bottom of the pot is horizontal and then you have to center again because the chuck is not quite round and neither is the pot. So you tap the chuck to center again. It's not the chuck that you center but the pot.

Now you can trim the pot and if something goes off center you can just tap it back.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Katy Rush to SOFA

This afternoon Katy brought another of her sculptures to be fired. She doesn't have a kiln down here yet and I'm firing a kiln load for her. They are going to be shown at SOFA in Chicago -- Katy leaves next week to drive up. 

This last one is going to have to dry for a few days -- it's much better to move them at this stage of drying than when they are absolutely dry. 

They are hand built porcelain with no glaze. 

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Jeff Zern to Berkeley, CA

Yesterday was Jeff's last day working here. He has been helping me the last few weeks and has been invaluable. He is very thoughtful and methodical in his approach. 

He is a very talented ceramic sculptor with a degree in Ceramics from the University of Florida and he is moving to Berkeley, CA next month after a time with his family in Pensacola, FL.

He wants to work and check out graduate schools on the west coast. If you are in Berkeley and need help here's a guy who works hard, is fun to be around, and is serious about clay.

According to Jeff, "There is no strong coffee, only weak men." He takes his black.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Glaze Micrometer

It's also important in glazing crystalline pots that the glaze thickness be checked as the glazes are very sensitive to how thickly they are applied. My answer to this problem was to take a Starrett JZ 643 Dial Depth Gauge and modify it so that it works as a measuring tool for checking the thickness of a glaze. The base of the shoe is 7/8ths of an inch by 3/16ths of an inch. This gauge will measure the thickness of a glaze to the nearest half thousandth of an inch. 

To use the meter you press the button on the top and a needle like point comes out and you stick that point through the glaze until it hits the bisque and then, while still maintaining pressure on the point, you allow the bottom of the shoe to rest on top of the surface of the glaze. 

This is one of my most valuable tools. I would not glaze without it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


My friend Bill Schaaf took this picture of me in a full yawn. I'm about that tired now. Time for bed. 

Mixing Glazes for Brushing

One thing that crystalline potters must be aware of is that certain crystalline glazes do not store well. If they are zinc oxide based, they could develop actual crystals in the wet glaze in just a couple of weeks. These crystals change the formula of the glaze and make it not so good.

So it's prudent to not mix up too much glaze, especially if you are working alone or in a small studio. When you are only mixing up enough glaze to apply to the pots immediately, the problem of how to apply the glaze comes up. Basically it comes down to whether you want to brush or spray your glaze. For many reasons, I decided to brush the glazes on my pots.

So what is the best way to prepare that glaze for brushing? It's pretty complicated but I'll try to explain it here and also let you know that I am still tweaking the process. Here is how I mix up 300 grams of glaze, my normal amount. 

Be sure to wear a mask and rubber gloves. You can get the purple ones at Sam's Club for cheap and just throw them away every time. 

Add the dry glaze ingredients to a one quart yogurt container. Be sure to have a check off system so that you don't make a mistake. I always make a check mark on my glaze mixing notes when the yogurt container that I am using to weigh the chemicals is on top of the yogurt container that is holding the glaze. That way I know what I have done and the materials have a chance to settle a little. It's good to have a slight breeze away from you too. 

When you have all the ingredients in the container take a dry heavy duty plastic fork and stir them until they are homogeneous. You don't have to go overboard here, just make sure you don't have large clumps of single materials. 

Add a measured amount of pure water. Don't use tap water as it will change over time. I usually add between 250 and 300 ml of water to the glaze, but this will depend on how you like your glaze. All I am saying is that water is one of your glaze ingredients and you want to know how much you are using so that when you get it right, you can add that amount each time.

Allow the glaze to sit for a few minutes so that the water can penetrate the dry ingredients.

Add about 3 tsps of CMC solution. 

When I mix CMC I put hot water in a blender and add CMC powder until I can't add any more -- the powder is not going into solution. I let it blend for a minute or so and then pour it into yogurt containers and let it set for a couple of days until the clumps dissolve. My solution is kind of thick -- not real thick like honey but sort of thick like maple syrup. 

Mix the glaze with a hand blender until you have dissolved all the clumps and it is ready to pour.

Pour it through a 100 mesh sieve and then back through the sieve into the original container, which has been washed out so that no granular stuff is still there. So you sieve it twice. 

At this point your glaze should feel somewhat watery because you have deflocculated it with CMC. You don't want to leave it like this or it will settle.

Bentone EW is a suspender that works much better than Bentonite or V-gum-T or Macaloid. I got some years ago from a paint chemist and I do not know where to get it now. I'm still playing around with the amount to add to the glaze but today I added one gram of Bentone EW to  300 grams of glaze and it thickened it and suspended it a lot. After adding the Bentone EW you have to blend it into the glaze and let it sit for at least a half an hour.

If the glaze seems perfect then you are done. But I usually add a few drops of Calcium Nitrate solution to help with the fluidity of the glaze. You will again want to use the hand blender (I just got three of them on sale at Macy's for 19.99 each).

If you get the right amount of Bentone EW you don't need the Calcium Nitrate solution. 

At this point, your glaze should be ready to brush. You may have to adjust the water so that the glaze is to your liking. 

Mixing Calcium Nitrate:

Add 5 pounds of Calcium Nitrate pellets to a gallon of water and blunge until the pellets are in solution. There is all this crap in the mixture and you have to get it out somehow. Some you can get off the top and some you will have to wait until it settles and then take the clear off the top. It will take you a few days until your solution is totally clear. You just keep decanting the clear. I have tried pouring it through coffee filters but even the very fine stuff  -- probably EPK -- goes through. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lap Wheel

Today we prepared pots for a post fire reduction. 

The first thing you have to do is fire the pot in it's normal firing and this one just came out of the kiln this morning. After separating the pot from it's pedestal and catcher it is wet ground on this lap wheel until the bottom is smooth and the glaze which might be on the bottom is gone. This is quite easy with this tool, which is actually a Crystalite Crystal Master Pro 12 with a 120 grit diamond pad. It is a wonderful but expensive tool -- if you do a lot of grinding of crystalline glazes, this baby will save you an enormous amount of grief and time. 

We have the kiln loaded and candling for the firing tomorrow. 

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lennie Kesl

I have been making collaborative works in red earthenware with my friend Lennie Kesl for over 28 years now. For a time we both taught at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville and one day I asked him whether he wanted to paint on some pots and he did. Here is Lennie at the ripe young age of 82.

This is one of the platters from the last batch. It's about 25 inches in diameter and is glazed with underglazes and glazes, used in Lennie's somewhat unique manner. He doesn't know anything about ceramics so he just uses the materials like paints. He might have an underglaze a half inch thick, or he might take dried up underglazes and crush them into little pieces and build little mountains. He really loves the glaze crystals that you get from Amaco.

During the time we were working on this series of 8 platters, our friend Rusty Hammer was making a video and you can watch it by clicking here.  It's called Making Plates.

Pottery Shop

I have lived in a spiritual community north of Gainesville, FL since 1978. 

This building has been my workspace for over 30 years. It was originally intended as a storage place for a construction company and I was given a small space in the corner, but over time my "Empire" expanded to include the whole downstairs.

When I first moved to the community I lived upstairs in a small room. Everything I had could fit into the back of a pickup truck. It's not like that anymore. I still like to keep my stuff to a minimum, but it would now take a  semi to move the shop. 

If you look to the right you can see the kiln room out back.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Porcelain -- My Favorite

Here is an example of the porcelains. This is a pot that was fired in the gas kiln and reduced during the final growth cycle of the crystals. It's not a type of firing that I do often because my kiln is not quite suited for crystalline glazes. Kilns for crystalline glazes are ideally nimble, and my gas kiln is anything but.