Between a Rock and a Hard Paste

We have been sweltering here in 40 oC heat for a couple of weeks now. We were very fortunate to be blessed with 3 days of rain in the middle. It saved a lot of our plants from just shrivelling up. Fortunately, we don’t have any bush fires near here this time. However, I did start up the fire fighting water pump and sprayed water through the sprinkler system that I have installed on all the building here, in this case, on the pottery tin roof. I used it on the worst couple of days, to cool it down a little. It is good to run the pump every now and again to keep it in good working condition and cycle the fuel through the carburettor to make sure that it doesn’t ‘gum’ up.

I’ve been making use of the hot weather to crush and grind my collected porcelain stones. They have to be put through the big jaw crusher first, then the small crusher, then sieved to remove any over sized pieces and these are put back through the crusher again. Once it’s all of a suitable size, it goes into the ball mill to be ground down to a very fine paste.

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Once it’s out of the mill. I let it settle and flocculate for a few days and then remove any excess water from the top and it goes into a plaster basin to dry out until it is firm – sort of plastic. Except that it never really gets to be fully plastic. This is because it is just ground up rock dust and not clay. It does have a very small percentage of clay in the stone due to weathering of the minerals, but it is not a lot. It really takes years for this stuff to become workable in any normal sense of the word as potters might understand it.

If I were making bulk clay for stock, I’d be using the big ball mill and pour out the slip onto the drying bed on filter cloth. Once firm, I’d lay it down for several years in a cool dark place, but I don’t have that luxury on this occasion. I have posted these stones back from overseas on my recent trip. there are only just a few kilos of each sample, so the batches are quite small. Just enough to make a few pots out of each. I’d like to have more mineral to work with, but it costs about $100 to post a few kilos of stones back from places like Cornwall, Korea, China and Japan. So I have to work within my budget, as many countries have abandoned sea mail postage and the only option is now air mail. On one occasion, I was offered a cheaper option of ‘slow’ air mail. It made me wonder how the plane stayed up in the air if it was flying slowly?

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As these bodies are not aged, they respond to being worked something like ‘halva’! it just snaps if you bend it. It has to be coaxed along very slowly and gently, sort of seduced into changing shape.  I can’t even cut it in any normal way with a wire, it just tears! I can’t throw anything large out of this stuff, but I don’t need to. I only need a few excellent fired examples of the stuff to include in my exhibition at Watters Gallery in August, called ‘5 Stones’. This will be an exhibition of single-porcelain from all around the world, from the five places where single-stone porcelain was independently discovered and developed.

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When it comes time to trim the shapes into some sort of elegant form. The paste just tears and chips, instead of turning off in fine strips. The pot has to be very firm and almost bone dry to turn to a fine finish. However, I do need to remove some of the bulk of the weight from the base to get it to dry without cracking, so some leather hard trimming is necessary, and what a mess it looks to begin with! But it does clean up OK when it is dryer. I do struggle with some of these rock-paste porcelain bodies. I’d be a much better potter if I could spend all my time working with this stuff, but I have to do other things, like building kilns, to make a living. No complaints! I have a wonderfully creative, independent life. I’m very lucky. But I do suffer from the feeling that I could always do better. Nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect and nothing lasts! This is reality.
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These dry rock dust bodies are so aggressive and abrasive, they make normal turning tools go blunt after just one pots is turned. I have to use tungsten carbide tipped tools to withstand the grinding effect on the cutting edge. The ‘clay’ is really just rock dust paste, so it is very abrasive to my fingers too! I have had to start wearing rubber finger stalls to protect my finger tips. Otherwise the ‘clay’ grinds off the skin from my fingers and they wear through and start to bleed.
I’ve spent the past 15 years researching these places and going there, making contact with individuals and working in-situ, where that is still possible and also posting home the raw stones to be processed here in my workshop then fired in my kiln. This will produce a very different look and feel from the work made on-site.
I have written a book about my travels and porcelain experiences during this research. I have 90,000 words written, with just two more chapters left to write. It will be around 150/160 pages, in full colour, soft cover. I hope to have it for sale for under $50
It will be launched at the opening of my show at Watters Gallery in August.

Of Passata and Porcelain

The summertime heat brings on the tomatoes, zucchini, chillis, aubergines and sweet basil. They love this hot weather, as long as they get the water that they need. This means I have to start making passata sauce. We are now harvesting more than we can eat each day. This is just the start. At the moment we have to harvest the tomatoes each day in the small numbers that are ripening. It has taken a week to build up sufficient quantity to fill the boiler. This is the first batch of passata. Soon it will build up to 2 batches a week. I will continue to make this sort of tomato sauce right through the summer and into the autumn.

Tonight I’m making a small batch to start with for our dinner, so I’m including a lot of zucchinis and aubergines as well. This will be a sort of variation on the ratatouille theme. All these vegetables grow together, they ripen together and they taste so good together.

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I bring it all to the boil and simmer it for a few minutes, just enough to soften the zucchinis and egg plant chunks, then scoop out a bowl full each for dinner. It’s summer on a plate!

After dinner, I add in all of the other chopped tomatoes and cook it down into a sauce. After it cools I put it all through the mouli sieve to remove all the seeds and skins, then reheat and seal in pre-heated jars to keep for the winter.

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The other thing that I like to do in this summer heat is to make porcelain from my collected stones. They are so hard that I need to put them through the rock crusher first thing to reduce them down to grit, then I can sieve the grit and re-process the larger pieces to get it all to pass through a 3 mm screen, then into the ball mill to be reduced to ultra fine grade.

 From this I can make glazes and/or more throwing body, as required.





The simple pleasure of a dull job

It’s that time of year again. I need to make some more wadding for packing the kilns. Making wadding isn’t fun. It isn’t even interesting really. If truth be told, it’s a rather dull job. It just has to be done. So, to make it as bearable as possible, I make it up in a monster size batch, so that the pain is all in one go and then there is the relief of knowing that it won’t need to be done again for another year.

Wadding is used to seperate the pots from the kiln shelves and the kiln props from the kiln shelves. It has to be refractory and remain crumbly and friable after being fired to stoneware temperatures, so that it can be removed easily, even allowing for the deposition of the fluxing effect of wood ash during the firing.

I make it up in big batches of 120 to 150 kilos. Every wood-firer has their own ‘secret’ recipe. I don’t have any secrets. They’re all up here on this blog. Some potters use various mixtures of silica and clay, but I don’t want to use fine silica dust anywhere if  I can help it, because of the risks of silicosis. Others use alumina powder and clay, which is very refractory, but expensive and in my opinion it is overkill. There is too much of an embedded energy debt tied up in aluminium and alumina processing. It takes massive quantities of electricity to extract aluminium from bauxite, most of which comes from burning coal, so it is rather unethical to use alumina powder, unless it is absolutely necessary. We use a small amount in shelf wash, but it amounts to just a kilo a year. I can live with that.  The other thing that I really dislike about alumina in wadding is that unless you are particularly careful, you end up putting stark white finger prints on the pots that are being packed after handling the wadding. You really have to wash your hands after every time you touch the stuff.


I have decided to make this batch of wadding out of ‘fat’ sand. Fat sand is also called ‘bush sand’,  ‘brickies sand’ or ‘bush loam’. It’s a coarse quartz sand with a fair amount of clay in it. It also contains some limonite or hydrated iron oxide, so it looks a bit yellowish. I mix this with some powdered kaolin. This is a great use for powdered kaolin. I don’t use a lot of it, but is is very useful for this purpose. I mix it in the ratio of one 25kg bag of kaolin to 4.5 buckets of damp washed sand and one bucket of water. When I can get clean saw dust I also add two buckets of saw dust, but this is getting harder to find these days. The last time I visited the local timber yard, they had been cutting some synthetic wood products that were a rich canary yellow. This stuff looked like it was loaded with resin glue. I thought that it might be particularly toxic if it were burnt in the kiln as wadding. So I didn’t collect any.  So, this batch of wadding is just going to be sand and clay.


Adding saw dust is great for wadding that use on new pots that are once fired, as it can leave an interesting charcoal grey to black shadow mark. It doesn’t work on bisque, only once fired work.

When it is freshly made wadding like this is rather short or non-plastic, being so sandy, but after ageing for a few months it develops quite good plasticity and after a year or so, the last few bags are plastic enough to throw with. Not that you would want to, but I think that it might be possible. I’m down to my last bag of the old batch now and it is very easily worked into coils and small balls. This new batch will have a month or two before I need to use it.


I make it up in a couple of batches in the dough mixer and then bag it up into 15 kg packs and store it away.

Security is a years supply of wadding.  Now, when I look down on my stash of wadding I get the simple pleasure of knowing that I won’t have to do this job again for another 12 months. It’s a nice feeling!

fond regards from the well wadded potter.


A Trip to the Mountain

We are taken on an excursion to the mountains. It’s a foggy moist kind of day with intermittent rain showers. On the way we pass a really obvious white pegmatite dyke in the side of one of the hills near the road. I’m keen to stop and look, but it appears to be on private land and there is no easy access to it. We drive into a trucking company’s yard to get a closer look, but it is still a bit too far away and it is raining. I don’t fancy bush bashing in my good ‘going out’ clothes. So we let it pass for today. I may try to come back here if there is time on a fine day.

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We press on over the mountain top, past a very pretty water fall. Yesterdays rain has brought it to life today. It wasn’t flowing like this the last time that I was here.


We go to Okawachiyama for a 2nd visit. I don’t mind, I’ve been here before, but Janine hasn’t. It’s a pretty place and there is always more to see. You can’t see everything on one visit. There are still lots of lanes and little walkways to explore. This remote valley once housed the Nabeshima Clans’ potters. They were held here in captivity to create the finest, whitest, polychrome enamelled porcelain. They managed to find the whitest of materials and restrict their use for the shogunate only. The creamy white clay glaze combination that they created is still a wonder to this day. It’s purity and translucency is just remarkable. I went on a geology tour of the local porcelain stone sites last week with Kanaiwa san. We visited many places around this district, but we couldn’t find the lost kaolin mine of the Nabeshimas. Kanaiwa san has made a life long study of the ‘nigoshide’ white effect. He has managed to make a modern synthesised version using 3 of the local varieties of porcelain stones. I don’t know his technique, but his knowledge of froth flotation technique that be came obvious to me during one of our early conversations, leads me to believe that there might be some fertile ground there for experimentation. I have certainly found it an essential way to remove iron from otherwise ‘dirty’ rock samples back home in Australia.


On our walk up the steep Okawachiyama Valley road, we call in to see one of the last ladies that  can do the seamless cobalt background brushwork. It is a very difficult technique and is now almost lost. These days this kind of background is either sprayed on, or transfer printed. Of those who still hand paint the ‘gosu’ cobalt blue background. and there are only a few of  these left as well, the technique used these days is to gently squeeze the ‘fude’, pronounced ‘foo-day’, brush to control the flow of the gosu pigment and loop the brush tip back and forth, producing a layered, slightly overlapping, background pattern. The Nabeshima technique used here is to hold the brush by the handle, not the hair, so no squeezing is used, They tilt the brush, up and down, to control the flow of the pigment. It is a truly astonishing technique.




Tracking the Elusive Wild Felspar

Porcelain stone occurs in many of the hills around here in Arita, where the local white granite has weathered down into a softer white to off-white, mixture of kaolin, silica, felspar and specifically sericite. Sericite is a white, plastic mica. This means that it is throwable on the potters wheel as well as vitrifying to a translucent glassy matrix when fired. A very rare and specific combination of qualities.

Today I ventured up into the hills to look for some felspar/porcelain stone deposits that I’m told are all around here. Most were closed because they were worked out of the most precious ultra white material. The deposits around here were very small and used by the potters in the immediate locality. Each little district had its own small mine. This used to give the different villages a slightly different quality to their work. However, ultimately, none of them could compete with the large-scale and very high quality sericite that is being mined at Amukusa, just a couple of hours from here. Economies of scale and the quality of the product, along with increased specialisation of the work force made every one concentrate on producing saleable product and abandon self-reliance.

We can drive up the mountain to the scenic lookout and then park the car and go on foot. This is the ‘Black Hair Mountain’ and I’m told that it is a very spooky place. It’s a dark, wet and cloudy day and the Mountain is shrouded in mist. I’m not spooked, because I don’t believe in ROUS ‘Rodents of Unusual Size’ ‘Fire Swamps’ and ‘ Lightning Quicksand’. The Princess and I press on, the track is very wet and slippery after last weeks constant rain. In dry weather we could have gone a bit farther by car, but not today. So we walk. The little track wanders around the contour of the hill and would have been quite manageable at the time when it was in use and repaired to handle constant traffic of the ore down hill. We head off up the hill on a stone staircase to get to the top. It takes some time before we realise that we are on the wrong track. We go back and try again.


This time with more luck. We find a diagrammatic map along the way that shows us the location of the old mine, but not in much detail. Up the hill, over the bridge across the river. Through the ‘Fire Swamp’ and the valley of ‘Lightning  Quicksand’. We keep going until we reach the water fall and then it shouldn’t be too far, according to the map, and then there ought to be another bridge to cross back to the other side of the river. Through Dead Mans Gulch. Then up along The Valley of No Return,  up the sacred mountain to the water falls and then a righthand fork should lead you straight to it. We do and it does – more or less.

Except that I lost my nerve when we didn’t find any sign of a mine after such a long trek. The road became very narrow and washed out after some very heavy rain. There were trees across the track. The sound of crunching twigs under foot coming from the forest around us and an owl hooted, while a black raven swooped overhead. It was quite obvious that nobody had come this way for a long time. This was indeed the path less trodden!

We retraced our steps and consulted the map. This time I photographed it. It seemed that we were almost there when we turned back. We tried again and this time found that the turn off to the old mine was just another 100 metres up and around the side of the mountain. What we found was a rusty steel mesh gate with large red warning signs all over it. I can’t read Japanese, so what I read into it, was that this is the place that you are looking for. ‘Keep going, it’s just a little way on from here”. Almost there!

Of course it could also have said. “This is the old dangerous mine site. No Entry! or  “proceed with caution!” Or maybe it said that the bridge is closed because if you tread on it, it will collapse!

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So we did. It meant swinging out over the stream to get around the gate. Then onward and upward. We knew that we had reached the correct place when we found the boarded up mine shaft entrance.

There was plenty of spalls all around on the ground outside. So no need to go in. The material looks just the same all over the world. Similar colour and texture, similar fracture angles, but the hardness varies due to the amount of weathering and decomposition of the felspars down into kaolin.

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The softer the stone, the greater the degree of weathering and the more refractory it will be with an increased kaolin content. so it will be more plastic, but less fusible at high temperature. The harder it is, the more fusible it will be and the more vitreous at high temps, but the less plastic to work with. Somewhere half way between is a good compromise, or a blend of two different stones will achieve the same result.

This stone is quite hard to break and is probably quite high in felspar, sericite and quartz. It feels to me to be a useful glaze stone. We walk back down the mountain, happy trekkers with a pocketful of samples. I learn the next day that the reason that this site was closed, was because there was a mine collapse 30 years ago and a number of miners were killed there. Very sad, but not spooky.

News travels fast. The next day, Mr. Akio Kanaiwa san. A retired geologist and lecturer in ceramic chemistry from the Ceramic University here, specialising in porcelain stone, calls in to see me. Miyuri san, the local cultural guide here in Arita has met him and mentioned me and my special interests to him. We get along very well and in just a few minutes we manage, even with so little language, to exchange our views and knowledge about porcelain stones. We both can read chemical analysis, X-ray micrographs, SEM data files and ceramic Seger formulas. He shows me some of his research that he has brought along. As he flips through his files. All in Japanese. I can read them out to him. He realises that I know exactly what he is trying to tell me in chemical terms. The only  thing that I can’t do is understand his excited Japanese Arita dialect. It turns out that I am the only person that he has met that has his own Denver cell for froth floatation separation and purification of ceramic minerals. The only difference in our techniques is that he uses pine oil and I use kerosene. Amazing!

We arrange to go on a geology excursion the very next day with Tsuru Miyuri san as our translator. It turns out to be a very full day, as Akio Kanaiwa san has a quite a few sites that he plans to take me to. I am thrilled. We both really enjoy our time together with Miyuri san. She is amazing, such good value. She is so knowledgeable about ceramics in Arita and her English is excellent, so she is so good to have along on a trip like this. We go to site after site. He really knows his stuff. Through Miyuri, we exchange ideas and analysis data.

At one point we all have to stop and laugh, as Kanaiwa san and I find ourselves agreeing on the importance of secondary mullet crystals in the development of strength, translucency and slump resistance in porcelain bodies. Miyuri san, who is quite faithfully translating our conversation, back and forth, is stunned and mystified by what she is having to say, as she doesn’t understand a word of the technology involved. When Miyuri doesn’t know the word or a suitable work-around sentence to convey the meaning, Kanaiwa san and I revert to writing the chemical symbol or formula. It’s a wonderful, positive, cultural exchange.

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Miyuri san explains to Kanaiwa san how I collect most of my materials where I live in Australia and my amazement at how similar they all are to these minerals that we are looking at there. The only difference is that these minerals are mostly much cleaner and lower in iron. Only one of the sites is still being used, an open-cut quarry where an interesting felspar/quartz stone is being mined for use in electrical insulators and industrial tiles. It is called ‘The Dragon Gate’ mine. There is a lot of iron present here, but it is in bands and veins, so could be sorted out or extracted.

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Our last visit in the afternoon was to a glaze stone mine in Takeo. The ‘3 splits’ mine. This name causes a lot of muffed laughter. Apparently it is not really the true name of the mine. It is named after the combination of hills and valleys that look like the gap between someone legs. This is a name that can’t be said by a lady. A more literal translation might be ‘fork’, as in ‘a fork in the road’, but more likely ‘crutch’, as in the gap between a persons legs? I don’t end up knowing what it is called. Perhaps it’s 3 cracks? Because if you go up the crack it ends in a tunnel?

No one will say it in English. So I’m calling it the 3 splits mine.

Kanaiwa san says that I look like Indiana Jones or Harrison Ford in my hat. I reply that I can’t afford a whip, but my name is Harrison.

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There had been several attempts at mining here over the last few hundred years. Some open-cut and others in deep shafts and drives. All closed now. Again, the shaft is barred by a wire fence that declares that this is the correct place alright. The fence seems to have fallen over at one of the mine shafts, so I can’t read the sign that might say ‘don’t enter’. So there is nothing to stop me. – Except the fact that it is all flooded inside.

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The water is a pretty translucent  pale blue. Just like blue celadon over porcelain!

I explain that this is the most dangerous site that we have visited yet. Not because of the risk of mine collapse, scrambling through flooded water or drowning, but because of the crumbly asbestos fence!

Vintage Porcelain Clay and Other Simple Pleasures

Everyone seems to be obsessed with money these days, as if it solves everything. I heard on the news last night that the 3 richest Australians have more money than the bottom 10% of the nation. Pretty shocking! It’s a shame that there isn’t a way of making life a little bit more even and equitable for the disadvantaged. The Lovely and I have done very well for ourselves, being able to have built a simple, largely non-aquisitive, organic lifestyle here, without ever having had a ‘real’ job. We’ve managed to ‘get away with it’ for all this time, living an engaged, creative, self-employed, part-time amalgam of a life. Without credit card debt or interest payments, doing almost everything ourselves. Living within our self-determined means. We’ve never been on the dole and never asked for handouts. Money may be essential in the modern world, but we don’t let it ruin our lives.
I think that money is a like a tool. You pick it up when you need it to do a job, and it’s so much easier if the have the right tools at hand. Then you put it down when the job is finished and don’t think about it again, only taking care to make sure that it is well looked after while not in use. Having tools that you don’t use is a useless waste, better that someone else who needs the tool should have it and get good use of it. That is how I believe that it should be for money too.
I think that a lot of people have too much ’stuff’ that they don’t appreciate or really need. Probably bought on hire purchase or credit card debt. We’ve made a point of avoiding that as much as possible.
When I’m fasting, I really appreciate a glass of water. It tastes delicious, I’m so happy to be able to drink it. Such a simple pleasure – and so rewarding. When I get to eat that first small simple meal after the fast. It’s really appreciated. I’m so grateful to be able to eat some small simple thing. A salad, a piece of fruit, some steamed vegetables. They are so wonderful, because of my self imposed state of self denial. Everything is relative. In the 5 days between my fasts, when I’m well fed. That same glass of water isn’t very interesting. A glass of wine seems to be so much more appealing with a nice meal from the garden!
Fasting isn’t just about food. The controlled, personally-imposed state of self-denial is a state of mind that applies to money and posessions, just as much as it does to food. When  we began to live without a lot of money to pursue our artistic dreams, it was a kind of self-sacrifice. To get the time to make art, we had to forgo paid work. After we had survived like this for long enough, We started to realise that we just didn’t need so much of it. Not buying, renting, or serviceing the loan repayments on ’stuff’ saved us loads of money, to the point that we just didn’t need to go to work every day any more. This is how we have found the time to make pots – but we still needed money. It all changed when we bought our house.
It’s pretty clear that you can’t save up enough money to buy a house outright, so we borrowed money for that, just like everyone else, but not since then. We built nearly all of our house and workshop ourselves, over time, paying for parts and materials as we needed them. I did nearly all the trades, except the electricals. Making everything ourselves. It saved us a fortune. We built the house for the cost of the materials, about $25,000 and the workshop for $4,500.
We have managed to live most of our lives without debt. We keep our cars for 10 to 15 years. We save up and buy them when it’s needed. I do all the serviceing and maintenance myself, and by doing all the repairs and maintenance around the house and property, we end up not spending very much money at all. It’s a badge of honor to keep the 40 year old kitchen stove repaired and working, as well as the 25 year old lawn mower, the 22 year old washing machine and the 15 year old truck. I’m not so nieve to think that everybody should life their life this way. I’m not recommending it. It’s suited us and we have been very successful living this rich rewarding life.
I think that money is certainly very useful stuff, but the cost of earning it is very high. I have to give up all the things that I really prefer to do to stop and earn money. So, once the basic minimum and a slight little extra for security against the the unexpected is earned and achieved, then it’s time to stop earning money and take time off to do something much more interesting and rewarding. In our case that something is gardening and making pots. Gardening doesn’t earn us any money, but it saves us from spending some. Pots don’t earn very much money, but the returns on investment are exponential, if measured in satisfaction and enjoyment. We don’t have much in the way of superannuation, but I have spent the last 25 years, laying aside special batches of clay whenever I could. This is one peculiar type of super. However, It would be worth a lot more if it were red wine and not clay!
At 64 I realise that I will not be able to lay down clay for anther 25 years, as I have done in the past. I can’t see myself still being here when I’m 90!  I spent the afternoon working up and then throwing some of my oldest porcelain body, made back in 1990. The kneeding of the rather hard paste was a lot of effort. It needed wetting down a little and then re-working, that really mucked up my wrists for the rest of the day.
I have other batches of my milled stone pastes that date back 10 years and more. I get them out every now and then and try some of it out all over again. Just to see how they are improving. Slowly whittling away at the original dozen kilos, that I first stored away in these plastic packs. These non-plastic pastes are so much better with a few years of age under their belt. It’s amazing how a little time can cause such a great change in the rheology of these finely ground mineral coctails, and time is cheap anyway. It cost me nothing to leave it there – especially when I was younger!
Now that I’m not in a position to take advantage of the cheap option of time any more. I’m making use of some of the banked age that I have been accumulating in my clay store over the 40 years of our time here. This is now the time to make withdrawals from my clay bank. I have been slowly working away on a special project for the past decade and it’s starting to come together now. I’m feeling pretty good about it. Perhaps in another year or two, it will result in a nice show of special work?
We decide that it would be nice to have this months red meat meal tonight, so I BBQ a couple of choice eye fillet pieces with the bone on, along with slices of zucchini, aubergine, capsicum and trimmed orange pumpkin slices with the skin on. We have been growing these marvelous little orange gems all summer. They have been so prolific that we have taken the majority of them to our son’s restaurant as we can’t deal with them all by ourselves. There are just so many of them, we are harvesting 3 or 4 of them a week. These things are so tasty and delicious when BBQ’d. 
It’s a lovely evening, our visitors have left and we rejoice in the tranquillity of the sunset and our time together as the air cools and settles. We move the table out from under the verandah and on to the lawn, where it is cooler. I do the BBQing while The Lovely finely slices one of our cabbages to make a sort of coleslaw salad, except that it develops as she goes along, adding chillis and shiso leaves and an Asian inspired dressing, using vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil. Suddenly its all changed and becomes something else, quite exciting and interesting. No mayonaise in sight!
It’s delicious and so appropriate, crunchy, salty, sharpe and very slightly oily. It matches well with the bbq’d meat and veggies
I love being able to eat the dividends of our investment in our garden in this way. In so many ways it’s better than what money can buy. It’s all organic and super-fresh. We couldn’t afford to eat like this if we were buying it or going to restarants and eat out.
Small simple pleasures.
Best wishes
from the simple but industrious, cash restricted, but life-quality rich, Steve and Janine

8 New Clay Tests

I have been using the warm weather. In-between rain storms. To dry out some of my new batches of single-stone porcelain clay test batches. The 50 litre batch of 12 month aged porcelain slip is now almost stiff enough. It should have been ready to lift off the drying bed a couple of days ago, but with this last series of rain storms, the atmosphere has been very humid lately, so we have slow drying weather. The mornings start with a heavy mist that doesn’t burn off until later in the morning when the sun get up.

I have used the plaster tubs to dry out some small batches and I now have 7 different new clays to test and throw. They are all just about the same on the wheel, not a great deal of difference. I have dug out a bag of special ‘vintage’ porcelain from my clay store. I don’t have a date on the bag, but reference to my clay-making diary tells me that it was made in 199o! This is the oldest clay in my cellar at 26 years of age. It has stiffened a bit too much to be throwable now, so I have to dampen it down a little. I’m amazed how well it throws. The reason that I put it away in the first place was because it was so short that it was unusable. Now after 25 years of ageing, it throws like a normal porcelain. It does have a slightly peculiar ‘grainy’ texture though. A little bit odd for such a finely milled clay. Some sort of bio-chemical change has taken place in the intervening years of ageing.


I remember co-responding with Harry Davis back in the 80’s. He asked me if I had any experience with clays that went grainy after long periods of ageing. He had left clay in his clay store while he went away for 10 years and worked up in Izcuchaka in the Peruvian Andes on his and May’s private aid project. When he returned, all his clay had changed texture and become grainy. I hadn’t experienced anything like it at that time. I wasn’t old enough to have clay laid down for ten years at that time! Now I am, and I suspect that it is some sort of aggregation of the microscopic clay particles into larger flocs over extremely long periods of time. This happens in slip if left in a slightly acid condition. So, perhaps it’s possible in the plastic state as well?

Of these 7 different bodies, there are 7 different colours, from iron stained yellow, through to almost white. Of the bodies that I have made from my ‘bai tunze’ single-stone porcelain stone. There are variations in colour due to the fact that there are veins of iron running through the rock. I crush the stones through the large, primary jaw crusher  and then spend some time sorting and separating the iron-stained pieces from the white material, these are them processed separately to give yellow, cream and grey clay body mixes.

The iron stained bodies respond well to the wood firing by flashing to a mahogany red colour, where the paler coloured mixes flash in the wood kiln to a pale pink to crimson colour. All the milled stone body mixes grow a series of organic algae and/or fungus come moulds of some sort or another. The clear plastic bags that I store them in turn green and/or buff/brown where daylight can get to them. A little bit off-putting, but it seems to increase workability/plasticity rather than decrease it over longer periods of time. I’m not saying that the presence of algal growth increases plasticity, but the time spent ageing the clay increases the plasticity and the algal growth is a natural sign of this extended time taken.


Because I don’t add anything to my milled local porcelain stone bodies, except a small amount of bentonite and the slightly acidic tanninised tank water. The whole thing is alive with all sorts of organic material from both the natural stone and the water. It’s a living thing! It doesn’t happen straight away, but over time stuff grows in there where-ever the conditions are right.

Commercial clay doesn’t do this. I recently opened a bag of commercially prepared paper clay to find that it smelled of ‘dettol’ antiseptic fluid. Nothing is going to grow in that! I’m an organic gardener and I am trying to live a simple, creative, organic life. If green algal mould is the result in the bags of clay, so be it. At least I know that it is alive, and not dead and even possibly toxic.

One of the batches of my ball milled baitunze, batch JV15db, was milled for a little longer than usual to get it extra fine. However, I seem to have milled it a bit too long this time, 16 hrs. I suspect that this was too long, because when I threw my first bowl out of it, it shrank and cracked in the base where it was thickest. This has happened once before. I will have to blend it with a coarse milled batch now to reduce the shrinkage a little.

For dinner we try yet another variation of ratatouille with todays pick of  French beans, we par-boil them, so that they are still crisp and then add them into the mix of ingredients from the garden. I partially BarBQ the egg plants and zucchinis while grilling some long yellow capsicums. Janine reduces a boiler full of very ripe tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil and basil. We finish it off in the flat flan-pan, then pop it under the grill and melt some grated cheese topping to a golden yellow/brown crispy finish.
This is what we have, so this is what we eat.
Best wishes from the algal greenie and his all greenie gal

Sour Dough Clay

We try to allow ourselves a little time ‘off’ over the summer from the usual on-going procession of jobs. This year we had two lots of relatives visiting, so that was a good excuse to not do any other work for a week or two. Then I taught a Master Class in fine throwing and turning techniques up in Sydney for a week. So now it’s back to work. The very real work of essential property maintenance and more clay making while the weather is hot.

I have been spending time over the summer to prepare ‘clay’ for the coming year. When I say ‘clay’, what I mean by ‘clay’ and what other potters understand from that term are completely different things. I have been crushing and grinding my local porcelain stone down to a fine powder and then ball milling it into a fine impalpable stone paste with a little bentonite to make my native bai-tunze porcelain body. It isn’t plastic and sticky like most potters clay. This wet rock dust is just that. Wet rock dust. It needs a long time weathering and souring to develop any sense of cohesiveness and plasticity. The 15% of illite clay mineral that is present in the stone, gives it some similarities to the weathered ’sericite’ mica bodies of the orient. Illite is closely linked to fine weathered mica minerals, so it does give it some plastic qualities after a few years of ageing.
I’m constantly trying new ways to see if I can improve the workability of my local stone somewhat, but there isn’t much that you can do with non-plastic rock dust. Other than to add some kaolin and bentonite, which is what I already do and what I saw them doing in the porcelain clay factory in Arita.
Same problem, same solution!
This last year I experimented with another approach to plasticising my rock dust. This time last year, I set aside one 50 litre batch of ball milled porcelain stone slip, and instead of stiffening it on the drying bed, then setting it aside to ‘age’ in a plastic state. I have tried to leave it to settle, flocculate and ‘age’ in the slip state. This produced a very interesting result. The slip developed some sort of ’skin’ on its surface, but below the clear water that appeared above the slip as it settled. This ‘growth’ of skin must be some sort of living material like algae or something similar? I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was quite strong, as I was able to depress a bulge down into it to get the bucket into the barrel to drain off the water from the top. The skin didn’t break and allowed me to recover all the surface water without disturbing the clay below. It even held together well as I lifted it up off the surface of the slip underneath. There was some greenish algae-like growth around the edges of the bucket, where light could get in. This isn’t unusual, as I get loads of green algal-like growth in my clay bags that are set aside to ‘age’. I make my bodies from natural stone powders that I grind myself and I use mostly naturally acidic tannin infused water from the water tanks connected to the pottery roof. Tannin is well documented to be beneficial to plasticising clay materials, as is maintaining an acid pH to counter the natural release of alkalis from the broken down stone fragments as they are ball milled. The overall effect of these natural ingredients is that there is no chlorinated water used in its production and no sterilisation of the powders or any heat treatment of any kind, so the clay is still alive with whatever organics there where in it in the first place.
I’ve kept the ’skin’ to investigate further. I may be able to use it like a sour-dough starter to inoculate the next experimental batch of porcelain body?
When I started to mix the settled and aged slip, it was very viscous and then when I poured it out onto the drying bed and scraped out the bucket, my fingers started to stick together with the extreme viscosity of the slip. I haven’t felt anything quite like this from porcelain slip before. I once had a bucket of porcelain glaze that I kept for special purposes, and then didn’t use for a few years. When I open the bucket and stirred it up. It had set to a stiff gel and took a bit of effort to stir. My fingers stuck together with the viscosity of the glaze at this time too. Ageing has this plasticising effect and is a good thing to do if you can afford the time. I’m 64, so I don’t have a lot of time to do these kinds of experiments over the very long term. I’m keen to see how this specially aged liquid slip batch of porcelain body develops and throws this time next year.
Only time will tell.
Summer is also a time of fresh garden salads and veggie BBQs. We have a lot of tomatoes, zucchini, aubergines and basil at the moment, so every meal is some sort of variation on ratatouille. Baked, poached, pan-fried, BBQ’d and/or grilled. I’m trying to keep it varied and interesting in lots of different ways.


Best wishes from all-natural, sour-dough, clay-boy

The First Tomatoes of the Year, Ratatouille

Yesterday, we harvested the first ripe tomatoes of the year. This is only the second time that we have managed to get ripe tomatoes before Xmas. The only other time was last year. Global warming, What global warming?

We also made our first pickings of our large green capsicums and smaller yellow banana capsicums, added to the sweet basil and yellow and green zucchinis, we have the makings of the first ratatouille of the summer. The egg plants bushes oblige us with the first few small aubergines and suddenly, there is our dinner in a basket.

The weather is very hot now 39 0C during the day. Our friends in Adelaide have had 4 days in a row of  41,42,43 and 41 oC. Way too hot to be able to work effectively outside. I make clay while the sun shines, inside under cover of a roof, but still sweltering. Porcelain slip dries very well on the drying bed in this weather. It’s a good time to make single-stone porcelain.

In the evening we sit outside and cook our produce, Ratatouille with the addition of a small jar of last years concentrated tomato, onion and basil ‘sugo’. I lightly brown our new-season onions in olive oil and then add in our crushed garlic. The roughly diced vegetables are added and turned in the oil a few times to coat them, then the sugo is added and the lid placed on to allow it all to simmer and soften for a few minutes.

We sit and chat into the cool of the evening. A nice chilled glass of rosé goes very well with this simple, fresh and very delicious Post Modern Peasants repast. The flavour of summer!

We have really earned this meal. We started making this meal three months ago, when we spread the compost and planted the seedlings. Now it’s payback time. It explodes in our mouths and takes us back to last summer. I can feel myself starting to relax into the idea of taking a little time off over the solstice break. This is a well earned, beautiful moment.

I am grateful!


6 New Bowls

The Xmas show at Watters Gallery opens on Wednesday night at 6 pm.

I have 3 of these new bowls in their end of Year show. I have been developing the Balmoral Blackware body that I make by washing rotten basaltic gravel in water then throwing away the gravel to obtain the micron thin film of hydrated ceramic dust off the surface of the rotten stone fragments.

It takes a long time to prepare, as it takes quite a while to get enough sediment to settle out, so that I can stiffen it up into a plastic state and pretend to throw in on the potters wheel. I throw on an old fashioned, handmade wooden ‘Leach’ style kick wheel.

I ‘throw’ the inside of the form and the rim, leaving the outside and the lower form quite thick, so that it supports the fragile, non-plastic material.

After the forms have stiffened over night, I ‘turn’ away all of the excess material that was necessary to support the form from underneath, then shape the foot ring. Turning away all the excess clay and revealing the form, the way that I had conceived it.

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I fire these forms at the front of the 2nd tier of kiln setting. If they are fired too close to the front, they melt. Quite literally, the extra heat is enough to make them turn to liquid sludge. i quite like it when they are just caught at their liquid limit, when they are just starting to melt. I particularly like the pots that are very slightly warped in the firing. Their endurance in the contest of the fire sometime brings about a lovely quiet, natural distortion in the precision of my original form that is very appealing. This piece below, has developed a gorgeous satiny surface of deposited natural ash glaze during the firing. The ash has soaked into the body and started to run down into a rivulet near the foot. It is almost invisible to see, but lovely to feel. The ash has also turned the mat black clay surface to ripe plum reddish brown.


In developing the blackware forms, I have managed to achieve a couple of exquisite  pieces that really exemplify the potential of this material. I have also been spending a lot of time in working on my native bai tunze stone materials. I spent time both in China and Japan this year trying to extend my understanding of single stone porcelain. These initial results are very encouraging , and I feel that this work is starting to pay off.

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This form above shows a build up of natural  ash glaze deposit that was built up during the firing. It is slightly greenish in colour where it is thicker and there is a very delicate grey/black carbon inclusion trapped around top of the rim. It defines the rim and completes the form.

I have two pieces of single stone white, unglazed porcelain in this show, they are quite subtle and delicate. I have explored both high footed forms as well as seemingly footless forms like the traditional ‘tenmoku’ forms. I was lucky enough to spend time in China earlier this year, studying both single stone porcelain as well as a trip up-river, in China to study the ancient ‘tenmoku’ ware sites.


These pieces are are both translucent and made from 97% ground native porcelain stone pastes. The remainder being 3% sticky bentonite clay. This helps ‘glue’ all the stone fragments together so that they can be ‘thrown’ on the wheel. What I do isn’t really ‘throwing’ as most potters know it, but rather a soft, gentle, patient, kind of coaxing the ceramic paste into the  bowl form.

I also brought out some ‘archival’ batches of iron stained porcelain stone body. This time I have used a batch of body that is made from all the iron stained fragments of bai tunze that I hand sorted from the larger batches and threw aside. After a while I realised that I had separated enough yellowish, iron stained material to make a 5 kg batch of irony body. This clay is still translucent, but only just so. It has a lovely warm, mellow reddish/brown blush to it that is so warm and inviting.


I have made some experiments this year with adding some salt to my feldspathic glazes. Instead of turning out the usual, yellow, orange, pink, brown colours, these recent firings have resulted in a few pieces that are defined by their total carbon sequestration, turning the glaze almost totally black. Except for a small area of grey/white down low near the exposed clay foot. This carbon glazed tenmoku form has turned out better than I could have imagined.