We are potters again!
We have our hands in clay again – finally. It’s been 19 months and 3 days since the fire.
Today we made our first batch of clay in the new pottery clay making room in the new shed.
I spent part of Friday fabricating a wedging bench, because there would be nowhere to work the new batch of clay coming out of the dough mixer into balls and then blocks, before bagging them up, and moving them to the new clay boxes. So I needed a strong bench.
Every step has been considered and planned, so I have already built the plastic lined clay boxes. Installed the dust extractor. Rebuilt the dough mixer – for the 2nd time after it was burnt in the pottery fire in 1983 and then again in 2019. Making the wedging/clay prep bench was the last step.
I incorporated a marine ply splash back on my bench, so that in the future, I can stack clay on to the bench quite high prior to pugging, without it falling – that is, once we manage to get a pug mill. We have had one gifted to us, but as we are all in lock down. I can’t get it.We are making clay anyway and bagging it up to age in the new clay box, so that when we get a pug mill, we will vacuum pug it and can use it straight away.
All the dry powdered ingredients are accurately weighed out on the scales and placed slowly and carefully into the dough mixer bowl to minimise any flurry of dust rising up out of the bowl. Any dust that does rise disappears up into the bright orange tube of the exhaust fan mechanism and is issued outside.We mixed the powders dry for a few minutes, until all the ingredients were the same colour and all sense of difference was mixed and mingled in together. Then I added the exact, measured amount of water and let it continue to mix for several more minutes, until the batch becomes stiff and starts to ‘ball-up’.
I’ve learnt that this is the time to add the remaining small amount of water that was withheld from the first pour. This last issue of extra water wets the stiffer ‘balled-up’ ingredients and softens them, I then Iet the mixer run for several more minutes until everything is smooth and plastic.
Amazingly, when I rebuilt the mixer this time around I had to reshape the mixing bowl that had gone out of shape during the fire and had 4 large splits in the metal rim.The bowl had been a little bit pear shaped since the first fire in ’83. So much so that the mixing arm used to bang into the side of the mis-shapen bowl and had scraped all the paint off in one place. Now after this last fire and re-working, I had to clamp it into some sort of semblance of a round shape as I panel beat it back into a useful shape. I had no real idea of how to approach a job like this. I’m not trained in metal work, just entirely self taught. I muddle through most difficult jobs, lurching from crisis to crisis. I manage to succeed by shear graft and persistence, rather than knowledge and skill. So, I was totally amazed that when I came to use the dough mixer this time round, I discovered that I had indeed managed to make it almost perfectly round again. Well, not perfectly round, it still has a distinct wobble in it, but there is no impact on the wobbly side anymore. There is no wobbly side! Just a general overall wobble. Sort of evenly wobbly! I managed against all the odds to repair it really well. I fully expected it to be worse, not better. I’m no panel beater. So I am really amazed! it’s such a fluke! I am very pleased.
As the clay absorbs the water, it stiffens and balls up.
The hardest part of this ‘dry-mix’ clay making, is having to dig the stiff and sticky plastic clay out of the mixer bowl by hand. In the past, I would unload the clay from each batch into a bathtub next to the mixer. I used to make 8 batches in a row, one after the other, and that would make up a tonne of clay. Enough to fill one clay box. Then I would pug it all through the pug mill with no vacuum to speed up the process (the vacuum process slows down the speed of through put). I stacked all the first pugs of clay in a large pyramid stack and then re-pugged it all again with the vacuum on. This time slicing off all the ends of the previous pug sausages and mixing them all together in one handful into the pug mill hopper. This ensured that any mistakes or slight variations in the 8 different mixes were all averaged out in the final pug sausages.
It used to take me all day to make up, twice pug, then bag and box a tonne of clay. It was a long day and quite hard work overall. I stopped making dry mix clay over a decade ago. For the past ten years or so, I was crushing, grinding, and ball milling all my porcelain stones, to make my porcelain stone ‘clay’. The only time that I used the dough mixer in the past few years, was to make a big batch of wadding for the wood fired kiln.
However, now, on this occasion, we have no pug mill, so it’s all to be done by hand, we work it up by hand into round balls of a couple of kilos, pounding 3 of these together into a block and stacking 3 blocks one on top of the other, before bagging the lot.Each batch we make is 130 kilos and we make 2 batches. It has taken us about an hour and a half for the first batch, but we get better at it, and the second batch only takes one hour to weight out all the ingredients, mix them and unload the batch and bag it all up and place it into the clay box.
I scrape down the mixing bowl between each batch, because I don’t want the thin remnants of clay drying out and going hard between batches and causing lumps later, that will need to be hand wedged to be sorted out.
After we have finished the 2nd batch, I sponge down the mixer and clean the bowl, ready for the next use.
As I made the mix a little wet, to allow the water to fully integrate into the clay as it ages. We left the last 25 kgs out over night to stiffen up a little, so that we can wedge it up tomorrow, wire cutting it and kneading it to remove the air bubbles and get this small amount ready for the wheel. I will need to make a series of clay test to get to know this clay, but also to provide tiles for glaze testing. We aren’t ready for any throwing yet.
We haven’t moved the potters wheels that we have been given and loaned by our friends out of the storage barn yet. There is no room to install them in the studio just now, as it is full of stuff that I am still working on, but the time is getting closer. I still need to finish welding up the benches and table for the centre work station of the studio and a table for the gallery. That will be my next job. Meanwhile, the clay is resting in the clay box and hopefully ageing and improving a little
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