Final Inspection and Prepping for Clay Making

We have been working a bit frantically to get all the things on the list completed so that we can get our final inspection, which, if our building passes, will entitle us to get our occupancy certificate. Once we have this, we can legally move in and fill the place up with pottery equipment and start to use the space as it was intended.
The Council Building Inspector called in today in the late afternoon. He gave our work a good scrute and declared that we had completed everything on the list to his satisfaction. He issued us with a carbon copy of his Final Inspection Report and was very complementary about the way that we had transformed a cheap, kit form, tin shed(s) into an interesting building. He commented on our sandstock brickwork and the arch window that visually links the new pottery shed to the Old School building and our use of recycled, old gal iron to enhance the visual amenity of this historic site. I was chuffed.
We celebrate with a dozen oysters off the fresh fish truck that come up from the coast on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, paired with a couple of cheap sushi trays.


Now we can legally move in. Actually, he didn’t comment on the fact that we already had moved in our kilns, clay mixers, rock crushers and ball mills, the benches, pan break and guillotine, they are all in there and ready for work. I have been using the maintenance shed for a couple of months now to restore my machines and actually make the components to fit out the rest of the building.

One of the first things on my list now, is to make some clay, so that it can ‘age’ for a while, to improve its plasticity, so that when we start to make pots again, the clay will be more workable and respond better on the potters wheel. Having a bit of time to age is very important for freshly made clay, when it is made from powdered materials.

Ageing isn’t so important when clay is made by the wet method involving a slow stiffening back from a liquid mix where the raw material is in the crude natural form straight from the ground.


It might be worth explaining here a little bit about clay. When clay is in its natural crude form, it has a multitude of fine, flat, hexagonal particles, sort of laminated like pages of a book. When the clay is soaked in water and stirred into a watery ‘slip’ or slurry, these flat sheet like crystals are slowly liberated one by one and flake off from the ‘book’. This process takes time. The finer the particles, the more ‘plastic’ and workable the clay can be, realising the best of its potential, but it also takes a long time to get the water in between the various surfaces. 


Stirring the clay and water mix or ’slip’ up into a fine slurry, sieving it to remove any unwanted particles and then letting the slip sit and settle takes time. Sometimes, the clay particles in the slip don’t settle out due to gravity allowing the water to come to the top where it can be decanted off. If the slip doesn’t settle out, then the mixture has to be tested, measured and treated. This involves measuring the pH of the slip. Usually, the clay will need a small addition of an acid to change the pH to very slightly acid.

 
Clay particles have an electrostatic charge on their surface. Clay chemistry is very complex, but suffice to say briefly here that clay particles are a little bit like small magnets. What is needed is to get the positive and negative charges to balance so that they attract each other and not to repel. If they are repelling each other the clay will never settle, but stay suspended and cloudy forever. Once acid treated they can be made to become attractive and will form larger clumps that are affected by gravity, and so settle to the bottom, allowing the water to be forced up where it can be decanted off. This process is called ‘flocculating’ . Think of a mob of sheep forming a flock.


I’ve tried many different ways of flocculating my clay particles. Old red wine that was undrinkable due to cork taint, there isn’t much red wine that I wont drink, but cork taint is one that isn’t drinkable, then I’ve tried cheap commercial vinegar, even cheaper imitation vinegar, dilute brick cleaning acid from the hardware, or epsom salts, but my ‘go-to’ dilute acid is the water in our old pottery water tank full of rain water ( carbonic acid) that has been affected by the constant fall of gum tree leaves onto the old pottery iron roof. This caused the roof to rust and created a moderately acidic solution of carbonic and tannic acid. It came out of the tank pale brown, like cold black tea. When I used this water to make slip I didn’t need to add extra acid. I much prefer this natural method of flocculation. It suits my life philosophy of living naturally as possible and treading gently combined with minimal consumption. Once the clay has settled to the bottom and the excess water removed, the thick slurry can be placed out side in the sun and wind to stiffen. 


This wet method using crude clay is a very slow process. So to speed thing up potters use can use dried powdered kaolin and powdered non-plastics like felspar and silica blended together in a set recipe in the dry state and then just enough water is added to bring the mix to the required plastic consistency. This is akin to making a cake. Although fast, this method doesn’t wet all the available fine particles and the clay doesn’t develop its full potential plasticity. Its a compromise like everything else in life. This dry mix method is fast and efficient and with a tiny addition of some extra plasticiser like bentonite, the preemptive addition of some acid to the water and a period of ageing, then a reasonable result can be obtained. That is what I intend to attempt this coming week. 


When life settles down a little and we have more time, I will make the next batch of clay body by the wet method, using my larger ball mill to mix the liquid slip and allow the slip to sit as a liquid in a large plastic drum for some time and then slowly dry the slip out. This is designed to realise the maximum potential plasticity of the clay body, and is what I have been doing for the past decade to get the most out of my porcelain stones. As they are not inherently plastic, they need all the help that they can get. Tragically, In the fire I lost several tonnes of milled porcelain stone body that I had been ageing for up to 10 years for use in my dotage. 


Before I can make this first batch of quick and dirty clay, I want to make a clay storage box to keep it in. Clay ages best somewhere cool, dark and where it will keep damp with a minimal amount of condensation, that means no direct sunlight, so a plastic lined, heavy duty wooden box has worked well for us for the past 35 years. 


Luckily, back in 1983 when we were building our last pottery shed, after our 2nd fire, I saw two packing cases on the side of the road placed there outside a factory for the taking. 1200mm x 1200mm x 900mm. Big enough to hold a tonne each. We would fill them and when we had used up the first tonne of clay, we would make another tonne to replace it, and then use the other box full while the freshly made tonne was left to age and improve. We kept up this swap and go method of ageing our clays for many years.
Unless I can find two more suitably sized packing cases on my way to the timber-yard today, I’ll be buying a couple of sheets of ply wood and a big sheet of heavy duty plastic, to make some new clay storage boxes.


I still need to line them with plastic – maybe tomorrow?

Finishing Touches – This week it’s plumbing

There are still a lot of small jobs remaining that we have to complete before we can call the Council Building Inspectors and apply for a final inspection. We need the final inspection to get our Occupancy Certificate, then we can be potters again instead of being stuck in this perpetual builders labourer mode. One of the main jobs on the list was to bring water down form the big new water tanks up near the street in front of the barn down to the pottery.
This sounds simple if you say it quickly, but like all jobs it develops a life of its own. Firstly I needed to dig just over 100 metres of trench to bury the plastic water pipe. The trench has to go down the side of the new shed and around the back, across the back retaining wall, across the courtyard and finally up to the North wall of the pottery studio and into the sink inside. 
I wasn’t going to have a sink in this new pottery. We had lived without one in the old pottery for the past 36 years, just using buckets to bring in water from the water tank outside. This avoided any problems with silting up, or clogging up of the drains. However, it was the building inspector who came to do the site visit who talked me into it. He told me that it was a simple matter of getting an S64 certificate, nothing!
Well it’s something! But once committed, I’m following through. First we needed a seepage trench 600mm x 600mm by 10 metres long, then a grease trap, ’S’ bends etc. It all takes time and money and a lot of effort, but we are almost there with the pottery sink and all that it entails.


We are lucky that have very good friends who have a half share in a trench digging machine, so I asked to borrow it for a day last Saturday. It’s a fantastic gadget. I was able to dig the 100 metres of trench in a little over 2 hours. I hit a lot of flat iron stones that are very common in this soil. They sit horizontally in layers not unlike shingles, so digging through them is quite an effort with a mattock and crow bar. The last time I did it manually to do a short 11 metre trench for some storm water pipe on the barn, it took me most of the day, and I ended up digging a trench 300 mm deep x 300 mm. wide flaring open towards the top as I prised out the multiple pieces of flat stone. I only need to bury 9cm. pipe, but the hole was more like the Suez canal!
So on this occasion the powerful machine makes short work of such matters as flat iron stone. But there is always a down side, and that is such that as the machine loosens and evicts each large flat stone, it jambs the drive mechanism. So I had to put it in reverse to spit the stone out. It does this easily, but in so doing, it spits the stone and all the dirt along with it back into the trench just dug. I proceed onwards and will deal with that later.
I was finished with the machine by lunch time. I spent the rest of the afternoon digging the flat stones and soil out of the trench and cleaning it of rubble and roots.
Sunday was spent laying the pipe work. I decided that if I was going to dig such a big trench, to save time and effort later, I would put 4 different pipes into the trench at this time, so that I can use those other pipes to supply high pressure water from the fire pump to the fire fighting sprinklers on the walls and roof of the new shed. Fitting the sprinklers doesn’t need to be done now in the midst of winter, but laying the pipes now is a good idea.


I put in a 2nd trench to the front of the pottery shed to take the fire fighting sprinkler line to the front of the shed while I was at it. This is all taking more time now and is a bit off putting and seems a bit like a waste of time seeing that I’m in such a rush to get this shed finished and passed, but it will be so much easier later when I get up to that job.
With the trenches filled with the 4 different pipes, it was time to refill the trench and cover the pipes. The chickens love to be busy where ever there is fresh dirt exposed.


While I was involved in the plumbing side of things, taking the sprinkler lines up the walls, attaching them and caping them off. Janine and the chickens back filled the trenches.


The last part of this job is to run the pipe into the studio and install the goose neck mixer and taps. We found this set of old hospital taps in a junk shop 40 years ago and bought them for $40 to use in our house when we were building the kitchen way back then. It turned out that they didn’t fit in the place that we envisioned them to go when the time came, so I put them in storage in the barn wrapped in an old tea towel, and there they sat until now when we remembered them. Luckily for us, they were stored in the part of the barn that didn’t burn down. The barn caught fire, but I was there on hand and was able to fight the fire and stop it from spreading too much, so I managed to save most of the barn. These taps included. 


I gave them an overhaul, I pulled them to bits and replaced all the seals and washers, then lubricated all the working parts, reassembled them and gave them a good clean and polish. They never looked so good. I had an old piece of 6mm thick solid brass plate given to me many years ago. It was an off cut from a big job at an engineering place that closed down. I couldn’t ever really find a use for it that justified cutting it. So it just remained stored in my kiln factory. After the fire, I saw it sticking out from the ashes, all bent and twisted and a little bit melted in one corner. Luckily it was on the floor in a part of the shed that didn’t get too hot, in amongst metal machinery and up against the mud brick wall. 


I spent the best part of a day straightening it out and hammering it flat. Well, as flat as I could get it. I gave the centre part a bit of a polish to show that it really is brass, and left the rest with its fire-scarred patina. It makes a suitably steam punk splash-back for the ancient taps.


Making Progress, but it’s oh so slow.

For the past couple of weeks we have been fully occupied with building benches and tables in the pottery studio and the kiln room/mill room.I decided to build all the benches with steel frames to minimise the amount of wood in the building. In the old pottery, we had the benches and tables made of wood, but with a material called ‘plasply’, for the bench tops, which was a kind of concrete formwork plywood. It had a water proof coating that was very hard wearing. We could pile up thick wet slurry and let it stiffen and dry, and also place big platters upside down to stiffen on their rims. The moisture didn’t cause the ‘plasply‘ to warp or rot. It proved to be a really great utility surface.As far as I know, ‘Plasply’ isn’t available any more. It was an expensive Australian made quality product. We had that board on our benches and they lasted 36 years of constant work and scraping and sponging of clay off them. These days, I can buy a similar product, but it is made in China now. It is a fraction of the cost these days, which is easier on the budget, but I’m concerned that they may not be as water proof, flat, stable and long lasting as the old stuff. Time will tell.
I used the 17mm thick ply version for the bench tops. They are all screwed down onto the metal frame and the whole unit is very solid.


The benches wrap around the walls of the studio, and incorporate a shelf underneath. The shelf space can accomodate both 20 litre and 10 litre buckets.



This bench with the 250mm x 80mm thick re-cycled hardwood planks will be my heavy work bench for maintenance, hammering, drilling and sawing. I was given these slabs just in time  to be able to incorporate them into this bench top. They look and feel just right. This work bench has filled up with tools and ‘stuff’ in the process of building the other benches.



I thought that I would have been finished by now, but the jobs just keep on coming. As soon as I finish one lot of jobs and clear the list. It occurs to me that there are still a host more to be completed. Not just that, but every job takes twice as long as I estimate. As I haven’t built a pottery for over 36 years. I’m completely out of touch with building. I have to accept that I’m incompetent at estimating. I have completed the benches in the studio and the kiln room, but still have the gallery room to do. 
A few weeks ago, an ex-student and friend called me to tell me that she had to vacate her rented studio and wanted advice about what to do with her kiln. I had built her kiln 26 years ago and my ex-student had looked after it very well. I told her that I was interested to buy it back off her, as I will be in need of a good kiln very soon. Of course, I have the skill and experience to build myself another one easily enough, but buying back one of my own kilns, that is still in excellent condition would save me 6 to 8 weeks of extra work, possibly more at this time, as I don’t have a fully functioning kiln factory any more.
Janine and I made a trip to see the kiln to check it out, and then hired my friend Dave and his small truck to go and collect it. I measured the kiln precisely, to make sure that it would fit through the door of the pottery. It worked out that we had 20 mm. to spare if we took the door lock handles off. It was do-able if we worked carefully and slowly.

The kiln in its former home of the past 17 years. It has had two owners, before being here, it lived in Ryde for almost 10 years. A genuine 2 owner that was only used on Sundays and never fired in the rain!

It just fits.

Settled into its new home here.



She was so sad to see it go. She would have preferred to keep it if she could. I promised her that she has visiting rights any time. I also told her that I will sell it back to her in a few years, once she is more settled in a better and more permanent place and as soon as I can get established again and can build myself a new one to replace it.
So I am saved 6 to 8 weeks of work, but straight away I realise that I now have to finish the gas line, fabricate and install ventilation ducts and manufacture a tall flue for the chimney, to clear all the combustion products from the building.

Swings and roundabouts. The jobs just keep coming.

I need two of me just to keep up with the multiplying job list.

Winter Solstice

We have survived the longest night of the winter. The frosts have cut the last of the soft plants from the garden. We have harvested the last tomatoes from the dried brown burnt stems of the last surviving tomato plants. We come inside earlier these days at 4:30 and light the fires in the kitchen stove and the lounge room heater. We have just picked the first of the red cabbages for our dinner.


Fortunately for us, we have almost finished all the immediate outside work on the new pottery shed, at least until spring, and we are now concentrating on working inside each day in the relative warmth and comfort of the passively heated and draft free environment of the new pottery. It’s quite amazing how warm it gets in there with no heater on, with just the sunshine in through the north facing windows. 
It is particularly noticeable that there is no draught inside from the gusty cold chilling wind outside. This is the first pottery that we have had out of the 4 of them that has had no draughty gaps somewhere in the walls, roof or around the doors. 
Our first 3 buildings burnt down over the 47 years of our life together as potters, All the previous potteries were all home made buildings, as we have never had sufficient money to employ builders. These earlier buildings were created from recycled and scrounged materials, plus home made mud bricks, all with ill fitting and odd shaped windows and doors and no insulation. The last pottery did at least have silver paper in the roof, but no insulation, as it was just too expensive for us at the time.
This new pottery is just a tin shed, but the wall cavity is stuffed full of insulwool and all the doors and windows are mostly BAL rated commercial units. We have done all this to get a high BAL fire rating and to prevent this one from burning down in any coming catastrophic bush fire, of which there is bound to be one sometime in the future. 
This past week I have been lining the pottery studio room with the timber planks that we milled from our own home grown pine trees. Janine and I planed them and sanded them over the past few weeks and now we have had the satisfaction of actually installing them in the metal frame shed. This is just about the only timber in the whole complex of 5 the rooms of the new pottery. It looks great, It is just so nice to have some timber in the place to give that warm natural look and feel. It’s even better to have some of our own home grown timber in the throwing room. The place where we will spend most of our time.


As the big maintenance shed is now almost finished, and I had access to my friend Dave’s big crane truck, as he was working just down the street from me. i got him to move my pan break and guillotine into the new shed while the opportunity presented itself.

Dave picked them up from their temporary home in the new car port building that we hastily built as soon as possible after the fire to house all the equipment that I was busy trying to restore and protect from the elements.We installed them in their new, and hopefully permanent, home in the big new shed. We only just finished the ceiling of this shed a month ago, so this is very timely. It’s also important, because my friend Dave is selling his truck at the end of this month EOFY. After that time it would be a whole lot more difficult to get jobs like these done.


Such an incredible machine, so powerful! This big crane can lift a tonne up to 16 metres from the truck and lifted my big 3 tonne pan break 9 metres into the shed

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Everything seems to be moving along at speed now. I’m beginning to feel positive and optimistic again

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Janine made a beautiful morning soyachino coffee with a gingko leaf



I had it with my piece of toast and some delicious goats milk curd, creamy smooth and with a delicate acidity. Lovely.

Lining the Studio

We have been spending some time, on and off, over the past 3 weeks in planing the stack of pine lining boards that we milled out of the dead pine trees that used to grow over our house. Killed by the fire. I couldn’t just let them go. I needed to use the wood for something positive. I also wanted to incorporate something of the old into the new studio. An act of reconciliation. Creating something positive out of this disaster. A creative, positive gesture.

Having sawn the planks to 250mm x 30mm. out of the logs last February, they are now dry enough to use, and we are now ready for them. We spent a week pushing them through the planer machine, thinning them down 1/4 of a millimetre at a time, because the machine is only a toy, and the blades are blunt. We only need to remote most of the circular saw teeth marks. I don’t want them perfect – they’re not, they are full of natural imperfections like knots, resin filled hollows, splits and what might be felling shakes? Half a day at this was enough each day, as there was always so much else to get done. Plus we both have sore arms from a bit of over use.

Last week we spent half of each day sanding the boards. First with a belt sander using a 40# grit belt, then again with a 60# belt. We could only work at this work for a few hours a day as the vibration from the sanding machine affected our hands. Too much of this kind of work can cause pins and needles in our fingers. This is natures way of telling you to stop doing whatever you’re doing. So we did.

We used an orbital sander the next day to get a finer finish, we used a 80# paper for this session. After this finer sanding, we wet the boards to raise the grain and stood them up in the pottery to let them dry over night. After drying out, the next day we sanded them all again using a 100# paper. This final sanding left them pretty silky smooth, but still with a lot of their ‘natural’ character. There are 120 boards to be done 4 times over. That’s why it has taken a week.



My friend Len Smith gave me all his power tools when we started to rebuild after the fire. Len built his own house, so had collected all the tools that you need to do this sort of work. I used to have a similar set. Having Lens tools allowed me to get a lot done, and saved me a lot of money. Thanks Len!
This week I started to put the first few planks up on the wall. It’s very slow work, as each plank has warped around the knots, so has wobbly edges. Fortunately, Len gave me his circular saw and his electric planer. Even so, it still takes time to get the individual warps in each plank to match fairly evenly. Added to that the planks also have some degree of wind and camber. In other words, they have warped in 3 dimensions, like a snow ski and a banana on its side simultaneously. I don’t aspire to perfection. I want a more natural feel. I’m not perfect. We all have our quirks. I don’t expect my pottery studio to be perfect. I want it to express something about me, just like the work that will be made in it.



12 boards up in three days, tediously slow, but kind of rewarding. I’m happy doing this work slowly by myself. Although I’m in a rush to get this epic job finished. I don’t want to miss out on any of the joy of actually doing it, enjoying the feeling of achieving something at each completed stage. This is a hand made shed for potters making hand made pots. It has to have the apropriate character. Although we purchased 5 commercial kit form steel sheds, for speed and convenience, we have given them a character or quality that reflects us. Hopefully it reflects all the thought and effort that we have put into it.There is an aphorism about the journey being more important than arriving. I really feel that to be true just now.

Collecting and Restoring Some Old Pottery Equipment

As the year has dragged on into 18 months since the fire. We are flat out busy with the re-building project. We had a slow start waiting for the insurance company to decide what to do, then putting plans to Council for building approval. Everything takes time. We weren’t sitting on our hands during this waiting period. We shifted the burnt out orchard and all its well composted and richly fertile soil up the hill so that we could build the new pottery on the old orchard site. We were able to get that done before the end of winter, so that we could plant all the new bare rooted fruit trees before bud burst.


Although we spend every day working on the building, there is always a few minutes or and hour here and there that can be stolen from the shed project to work on restorring these odd bits of old machinery. I found a couple of unloved bits of machinery that were worth restorring. One was so corroded that it took an angle grinder and then a hammer and cold chisel to clean the rust and scale out and get it unseazed and rotating again. I have become a lot more familiar with bearings, oil seals, gear boxes and pulleys these days.

This is about as bad as it gets before the rust eats through the wall of the machine.

After chipping away at the flakey scale, then attacking it with an angle grinder with a rotary brush, then finally hitting at the stubborn bits with a hammer and cold chisel…

It has come good and has now had a coat of rust converter, phosphoric acid.

There isn’t much that an angle grinder, wire brush, hammer & chisel, then a few coats of rust converter and primer can’t fix. – and a week of evenings!

John Edye, eminent potter and my Friend and collegue of over 40 years has retired from making pots.  When I heard that he was retiring last year, I got in touch and asked what he was intending to do with all his equipment. I was very lucky that I was first to ask. As we lost almost everything to the fire in December 2019, It crossed my mind that he may be interested in selling some of it to me. I was particlarly interested in getting a dough mixer for my clay making. As our old one has now gone through two fires, in 1983 and again in 2019. I was lucky enough to get it going again in ’84, although it was quite wobbly afterwards. After this last fire the burning roof beams fell in on it and the main shaft was so badly bent, that I couldn’t rotate anymore.

We bought John’s dough mixer, damp cupboard and some pot boards.
It was a bit of a job getting them out of John’s very beautiful, but remote country property, deep in the wet forested gullies between Kulnurra and Wollombi. John was well prepared and had all the gear up on pallets, or steel pipe rollers. My friend Dave has a truck with a pal finger crane, so we were able to get in there and lift the gear out.
Everything was much easier at my end, as I have a concrete slab floor for the first time in my life and a pallet lifter trolley to move heavy bits of machinery.

John’s mixer in its new home, with a nice view from the window.

I have started to grind and clean the inside of the bowl. It’s had its first coat of rust converter. it still needs a couple of top coats of a hard wearing oil-based machinery paint to suppress the rust.

I have also been offered a pug mill, shimpo wheel, Leach style kick wheel and various other bits and pieces of pottery gear from other friends who have surplus equipment, are also retired or are choosing to go smaller, but these are yet to arrive here.

The crusher room in the machinery shed is filling up slowly as I tinker away in my spare time after work between midnight and dawn as I slowly pull apart, clean or replace, then reassemble and finally paint this diverse collection of antique crushers and grinders. This is such a different aspect of my philosophy of self reliance, but actually quite rewarding and enjoyable.

I have painted them up in bright colours like big toys – just to cheer me up a bit.

I need to stop lazing around and get some real work done! The pottery studio needs to be finished, as this is the last room to be completed. Then we can apply to the Council Inspectors to get our final inspection and a Occupation Certificate. I know that there will be many little items that will need to be done and ticked off to get it all through. I just don’t know what they will be yet, not until the inspectors tell me what are.

I’ll deal with them when the time comes.

The Day of the Long Knives

I have moved on to a good place this week. I have started to work on the wood work phase, lining the pottery studio with our own timber boards. I am much happier working with wood rather than steel. I can work with steel perfectly well, but I like the feel and smell of freshly worked wood. It’s somehow very satisfying. I have spent the past few days planing the pine boards that we milled out of our burnt pine trees last year.

I was tempted to call this post ‘Just Plane Board’. Not because, I’m just plain bored, but because ‘All I do is just plane boards’ all day long. Doing just this, I quickly wore out the old plainer blades, they were mostly pretty blunt from from doing a lot of work in the past, so I had to change them over, which wasn’t too hard. I found, without too much surprise, that the work went so much easier with the sharper blades, but after a few hours, it slowed down again. This 130 year old home grown Caribbean pine is very solid timber, very tough to mill and now just as tough to plane. I’m only 1/4 of the way through this job and I can see that I’ll soon need to change the blades in the planer again. I can only take 1/4 of a millimetre off the boards with each pass. Anything more stalls the machine and activates the overload switch.

I am quite capable of sharpening knives, scissors, tin snips and small hand planer blades. Any blade up to 100mm. wide. Above this length, it gets tricky, as my widest honing stone is 80mm. so after that I have work diagonally or lengthwise for the longer blades. This works well with hand held sharpening of curved chef’s knives. Geordie (my son, who is a chef) and I used to do a sharpening session every few months or so, and did all our kitchen knives in one big session. We got quite good at the fine grinding and gentle finishing on the 4 graded Japanese whetstones, ranging from 400# to 8000# grit.

However. When it comes to a very thin straight planer blades, these are called knives in the industry, then what I need is a very long stiff jig that I can bolt the blade onto to keep it stiff while grinding it. as these long knives are 330 mm long but only 1.5 mm thick x 200 wide. To hone a long thin and flexible knife like this, I would need a long grinding stone and then a very long honing stone, As the planer blades are 330 mm long, so I will need a honing stone at least this long, preferably longer. I don’t know if there are even stones this long available. Obviously there must be, because these blades are being manufactured somewhere. However, I suspect that these kinds of knives are sharpened in the industry on rotary grinders and honers.

My first thought was to contact the original retailer, only to find that they had discontinued this model of machine a decade ago and no longer carry any spare parts for it any more. I’m not surprised, it’s only a cheap hobby machine. I should have spent the extra money and bought a better quality ‘name brand’ that would still be available. I went on line to see if there were any non-branded, no-name products that might suit my machine. My initial search didn’t bring up anything that might fit this model. So with this option eliminated, I have to find a way of getting the only blades that I have resharpened.

The is a new shop in Mittagong specialising in sharpening tools! I noticed its sign in the street a while ago and made a mental note. I called in there today and asked if he could sharpen my planner knives. He couldn’t. Not only couldn’t he do it but the place that he sends difficult jobs to get sharpened professionally doesn’t do these very long thin knives either. They only do the thicker, stronger machine knives. So I was feeling a bit snookered. but my enthusiasm wasn’t blunted, in fact I’m keen to have a go at building a jig to hold them firmly supported while I pass them over my own bench grinder. It can’t be that difficult – can it? It’s the final honing of them on a 200mm long, or should I say 200 mm short, stone that is going to be the hard part.

The worst that can happen is that the knives shatter while I’m grinding them. If that doesn’t happen, then the next worst thing that will happen, will be that they aren’t completely even, or have a few rough areas along the knife edge. Well, as long as they are sufficiently keen and sharp enough to take off the circular saw blade marks, then that will be fine by me. Any little rough areas on the blade that leave long straight grooves in the wood can be sanded down with the belt sander. I’m doing this anyway because of the current state of the blades.

Watch this space.

Getting on top of it – 5th Ceiling done

Over the last week I got all the materials together for the completion of the large ceiling in the big machinery and maintenance shed.

In my Walter Mitty dream, I imagined that I would be able to collect together sufficient old recycled corrugated iron roofing to do this ceiling. But alas, I couldn’t find enough to do the job. I was sort of counting on one particular old rusty corrugated iron roof being replaced before now, and I had my name on it. But it stubbornly remained in place. I have run out of time now. I need to start to put some machinery in the shed soon, and once that is done, there is no chance of moving the mobile scaffolding around on the empty floor.

I managed to recover over 130 sheets of iron from the old feed mill demolition job, that my friend Andy helped me with, but that was only enough to finish all the internal walls and do 2 ceilings. I had 5 sheets left over at the end of that saga. That left 2 more ceilings to be insulated and lined. I decided to use some very cheap bracing plywood sheets to do the last two ceilings in the gallery and pottery. I was more or less out of options, as any other material is too expensive for our increasingly restrained budget. So I decided to ask Andy what he could think of, as he is a clever and very experienced builder, and I am running out of energy and ideas. He came up with the great thought of using rolls of ‘anticon’ style insulation. This is a type of wide roll of insulwool insulation bonded to a heavy duty layer of aluminium foil blanket.

This provides three solutions in one product.

1. It’s not too expensive.

2. it provides insulwool insulation 75mm thick, at an R factor rating of 1.8. Only moderate, but just enough to be useful. Better than the existing aluminised foil backed foam that I had the builder put up under the roofing as anticon. That aluminised foil backed foam only has an R rating of 0.2 So almost anything is better than not having any more insulation up there.

3. The silver fabric can be screwed to the ceiling top-hat rafters to hold it up in place with some wide washers. A little bit difficult, slow and fiddly, but not impossible.

4. It’s non flammable!

I had Andy and Tim here for one more day last week. That’s the 5th day that I have employed them, and we have completed 5 ceilings. We managed to get this ceiling up in the one day. Installing 11 rolls of insulwool and using almost 600 x 40mm. dia. wide washers and metal ‘tek’ screws to hold it all up.

This quilted looking ceiling is not my best option, but is what is achievable and affordable. It’s done now and will have to do.

A total of R2.0 insulation is OK and the 3 layers of silver foil with a confined, still air, gap will cut the summer heat very well I’m reasonably confident. it looks a bit Dr. Who – space age – 2001 A workspace odyssey. But I’ll be busy working in there and won’t be wasting any time spent looking up.

Finally, some woodwork – but not too much.

I spent the weekend milling and putting up the intermediate cover strips over the cheap plywood joints in the ceiling of the pottery studio.



I figured out a way of holding up the batons single handed using a couple of wooden props. They hold the wooden baton in place securely until I can get the screws into them, and fix them permanently.


Now that the ceiling is complete, it’s time to move on to the next job, which is to prepare the lining boards for the walls of the studio.We used to have three 120/130 year old pine trees growing over our old school house all our lives here for the past 45 years. They were quite skinny little things went we arrived here, as were we. But have put on quite a bit of girth over that time. As have I!


The fire killed them, so we had to cut them down before they started to drop the dead branches onto the roof.We managed to get them felled safely in January 2020 and hired a portable saw mill to cut up the logs into planks for use in rebuilding later on. 



It’s now later on. 16 months later on in fact, and we are ready to start lining the pottery studio walls.We milled over 100 planks at that time. They are now pretty well seasoned, having been racked and stacked in an airy covered pile for all this time.
The planks need to be milled through my very ancient little thicknesser for a few passes, each time taking another millimetre off the thickness.This poor old machine is only just capable of milling these now dry 250mm wide boards. I have to take it easy on the poor old thing. I need it to last the distance. It’s pretty worn out like me. It was just a cheap hobby machine when I bought it 20 years ago and not really meant for heavy work over long hours. nor am I these days!
I only still have this machine now, because i stayed to defend my home during the fire. This gadget was stored in the barn, which caught fire. I was lucky enough to be on hand and see the fire catch hold, and put it out. Actually I didn’t put it out. I called the fire brigade shed to ask for help, but they said there was no help available. In fact no fire truck ever came here until a full 8 hours after the fire. The first fire truck to come past was meandering along the road hosing out smouldering logs on the sides of the road. i saw them and called them in to finally put the fire out.
I had been carrying buckets of water for some hours, throwing it onto the burning corner of the barn. The power for the electric pump that was feeding all the wall and roof sprinklers on the barn came from the pottery, so when the pottery burnt down, the power went off to the barn, even though I had a Tesla battery to power the whole place, the line came via the pottery. There is a lesson here. Only use independent, petrol engined, high pressure, fire fighting pumps in future! 
The sprinklers saved the barn from the initial onslaught of crowning fire and ember attack, but when they failed the ground fire caught up to the building. I managed to stop the fire from spreading to the whole building, but couldn’t actually put it out. As every time I went back to the water tank on the station building 30 metres away to refill the buckets, the fire would re-ignite in some of the smouldering, heavy wooden beams in my absence. I was pretty exhausted after 8 hours of this and the fire truck from Sydney finally arrived.
So I’m lucky to still own this old planer machine. Once the planks are mostly smooth, but not perfect. I then use the belt sander to clean up the few hollow areas. I initially use a 40# grit sanding belt for the first pass, then a 60# grit belt for the second pass. These boards will still need another go over with an 80# grit sand paper on the orbital sander to finish them off.



They come out pretty well for home grown, home milled, home seasoned, and now home planed and sanded planks.



16 planks roughed out, 50 to go.
They won’t be prefect. They have loads of technical faults, but they are mine. I grew them and nurtured them, milled them and sanded them. Their faults are my faults.What is most important to me is that they are so completely local with no travel miles, carbon debt, no fertilisers or irrigation, no middle man, and no coal fired power was used. We run on sunshine here, just the way the trees do. All the electricity to power these electric tools comes directly off our roof from our new solar panels
They just grew naturally for the past 130 years, and soon they will contribute something positive to the new rebuilt pottery. I like the idea that there will be something of the old place incorporated into this new building. Some sort of continuity that we have managed to amalgamate out of the shreds of this disaster. Hopefully it will be a positive link to the past and not a terrifying one. My psychologist says that I’m doing well and has decreased the frequency of my appointments. So I’m hoping all will be OK in the end. But the eczema and irritable bowel syndrome that came on after the fire still persist.
All of the corrugated iron used on the out sides of these sheds was recovered from old building sites where they otherwise would have gone to the tip. All of the corrugated iron lining was likewise recovered and repurposed from the old Moss Vale feed mill. There are so few new materials in this shed. The use of these home grown pine plank lining boards will mark a fitting end to the saga of this building project, as this is the last room to be lined. I am concerned that having any wood at all in this shed will be a point of vulnerability. I’m just hoping that with the iron cladding pretty well sealed and then the 90mm of insulwool stuffed into the cavity, it will stop most of the sparks from the next fire from getting into the building and reaching the timber lining. Having lost the 3 previous pottery buildings to fire has made me very cautious.
I really like the concept of being self reliant. This project has given me the chance to be more completely self reliant, while also incorporating more ‘creative’ and ‘Green’ concepts in my day to day life. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to rebuild our life in a reasonably sustainable, clean, green way.

I stare at my ceilings, but all I see are their flaws

Over the past few weeks we have come to the phase of our recovery project, where we needed to put up some ceilings in our new shed.With such high ceilings, I realised that I needed to borrow some scaffolding from my friend, a semi-retired builder, who had this gantry set sitting idle.
The gantry, allowed us to get up high safely, and being on wheels, it made moving around the room so much easier. I am so grateful to my friends for all their help over the past 17 months of our ordeal. We wouldn’t be so far advanced in our recovery without all of you and your generous and thoughtful support.


To get this difficult job done as safely and quickly as possible. I decided that I couldn’t do this part on my own as I have with most of the other trade-related tasks. I employed our wonderful brick layers and electricians for this same reason. I could have completed those jobs on my own, but I would still be at the beginning. There are just so many man-hours involved in building a project like this.
So to this end, I employed my friend Andy and his off-sider Tim, for 4 days to help me get the ceilings done. One ceiling per day more or less, but we did a few other difficult jobs as well while they were here, Many hands etc.
With these two young blokes up on the moveable gantry and me on the ground cutting, prepping and passing up the materials. They were free to stay up there and get the job done efficiently. I learned this when I used the gantry myself last month to secure the tallest sheets of gal iron sheeting that I put up on the walls of the very tall maintenance shed. I spent more time climbing up and down the scaffold than I did actually working up there.


Tim and Andy were terrific and I didn’t get worn out as part of a 3 man team, although I was very tired by the end of each day and had to have a lay down before dinner. Now our ceilings are almost finished, I can stand back and admire what we have achieved. 
Two of the ceilings were made of corrugated iron sheeting, using up the last of the recycled roofing that I recovered when Andy and I demolished the old feed mill factory in Moss Vale. The other two ceilings were made of quite thin plywood. Not my preferred choice, but the best of a poor bunch of options that were available to us on our tight budget.To save money, I searched out some quite thin 4mm bracing plywood at just $11 per sheet. This is just one third of the price that the big hardware stores are charging. It is so thin, that is it easily deformed by the weight of the insulwool above it that it is supporting. But I can live with that. 



These sheets are intended to be used as bracing ply, and are not meant to be seen. They are not even flat, but quite wavy, even when laying flat on the pallet. I have attempted to minimise some of this wavy distortion in the ceiling, by adding pine cover strips that we milled ourselves from the dead pine trees next to the house that were killed in the fire.The pine strips don’t stop the distortion, but by creating a straight line next to the wavy ply, it distracts the eye from the unevenness and will stop the ply from distorting more over time from the weight of the insulation. A cheap and creative, but effective solution to a difficult problem.


I’m not too concerned about my cheap and amateurish look of this choice of ceiling wood work. If I were building a brothel, where 50% of the customers might be staring at the ceiling, then it might concern me!

But this is a pottery shed. No one will be looking at the ceiling!