Cornwall and Devon

After leaving Wales, We drive to Cornwall to meet up with our old friend Joanie. It was Joanie who volunteered to be my ‘get-away-driver’ last year on my last visit. This time we know where we need to go and what to do to collect another few kilos of Sericite porcelain stone. It’s a trivial matter this time, rather than the week-long epic of last year.

While we have a few days with Joanie, we decide to walk over the causeway to St Michael’s Mount. It’s a really interesting place, we end up spending the entire day there and miss the return tide window of opportunity, so have to catch the small boat back at high tide.

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The tide comes back in while we are still at the summit and we see people wading back  across the causeway in chest high water, until it becomes impossible.

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We enjoy lunch and afternoon tea on the island taking in the full tour of the old house/castle. A really enjoyable and informative day taking in all the history of the ancient site.

After a few very relaxed days with Joanie, we move on to Devon to visit our friend and fellow wood firer, Svend Bayer at this new pottery kiln site in Kigbear. Svend has decided to sell up in Sheepwash and move on to the next phase of his life. We really love the ancient thatched roof, cob cottage in Sheep wash, but times change, as do we, everything changes. We must adapt. It really is an exquisite place. So romantic!

We are lucky enough to get to see assembled, an amazing collection of Svend’s best works, collected over the last few years of firings here at Sheepwash.

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We are totally privileged and very lucky to turn up at just the right time to see all these wonderful, master works, before they are all exhibited and sold.

Svend’s new kiln, as might be expected, is pretty big. There are 5 potters sharing the kiln  firings at Kigbeare with Svend. It’s his way of training the next generation of wood firers, passing on the baton, by mentoring these lucky, and committed, next generation potters. It’s a huge kiln!

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We are lucky to turn up on the day of the un-packing of the kiln. There are pots everywhere. So many nice things to temp us. It’s the end of an era and the beginning of another. We are so lucky to be here to experience this moment.

We spend a few days here. The next day Svend takes us to see the local Museum at Bideford, with a great collection of local earthen ware pots.

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Earthenware pots have been made here for hundreds and hundreds of years. This is the home of the famous Fremington terracotta clay.

We call in at the Post Office after visiting the gallery, as the post office is just across the road. I have 5kg of sericite porcelain stones in a cardboard box all taped up and ready for post. I can’t carry this extra weight home on the plane. Svend is visibly shocked to hear that I just paid Au$250 for postage! he enquires how I can do this? I reply that last year I did the same and when I got home I processed the stones into its unique porcelain body and managed to get 3 very good pieces out of the firing. I sold them for $900, $750 and $500 respectively, through my Show of ‘5 Stones’ at Watters Gallery in Sydney. They were nice pieces and found good homes. The return covered the cost of the postage, but not the 3 months of processing, making and firing.

Still. I don’t do this to make money. If I wanted to make money, I’d have got a job. I want to live an interesting, engaged and well-considered life. As long as we can get by, I’m happy.

Tomorrow we travel on, making our way slowly back towards London.

Coals to Newcastle

Here we are building a kiln in Stoke on Trent! What could be more strange than for us to travel from Australia to Stoke-on-Trent to build a kiln?

The staff and students at the Clay College are all really great and we all get along really well. We are billeted with staff member Richard Healey and his wife Lucy – who is a chef. WOW! Great food all week. A really lovely couple. It must have been a bit stressful for them to have a couple of total strangers in their home for 2 weeks, but we got along very well. We had a great time. I hope that they have recovered.

They live in an amazing old house called the ‘Flax Mill’, that has its own little stream and pond, on a site that goes back well before the English civil war. A decisive battle was fought right here on these grounds. There is a monument in the adjoining paddock. This is some kilometres out of Stoke, and is the site of our kiln building experiment. Lucy is setting up a cooking school on site and Richard has his studio, where he makes blue on White contemporary hand painted and thrown porcelain. Beautiful work. If I lived locally, I’d be enrolling.

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We spend a week in the construction phase, mostly laying bricks, Then I give a master class on kiln building at the college on the Saturday. This is open to the public and is fully subscribed – which is pleasing.

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All the students flat-out, hard at work bricklaying!

Janine and I spend the Sunday at work on the kiln by ourselves, cleaning up, but most importantly doing a lot of the welding on the steel bracing that will be necessary to completely support the kiln structure while it expands during firing. It’s a lot easier to do this welding while there isn’t anyone else around.

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Janine and Grace volunteer to get into the firebox and throat area of the kiln to wash the floor of the kiln with alumina kiln wash. A shitty job. Thank you!

The packing and firing goes pretty much to my expectations, although Janine did overhear some chat about people expecting to have to fire for 40 hours. When I was asked what to expect in terms of firing time I said that I expected to fire for around 12 to 14 hours. If everything goes well. However I don’t know anything about this wood that we have to use for this firing. So it might take a little longer. As it turned out the firing lasted for 13.5 hours and the results were good for a first firing. I left them with the recommendation that they should plan to fire the kiln again a second time, as soon as possible, without me being there to advise, while it is all still fresh in their minds.

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The firing can be very clean when using a down-draught style firebox like the Bourry box that I have developed to a such a sophisticated standard. When it comes to side stoking the main chamber, there is inevitably going to be some smoke and this needs to be managed carefully. However, when the time comes to drop the last remaining butt ends of the sticks into the firebox. There is a brief moment of quite intense smoke as the amount of fuel outweighs the available oxygen for about 1 or 2 minutes.

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While we are in Stoke, we make time to go to the local Museums. First we take the tour of the Gladstone pottery Museum, which was good, an excellent experience. The working conditions of their employees must have been horrific back in it’s hey-

day. A time long before any thoughts of OH&S in the minds of the factory owners and government.

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For me, brought up in Australia, it’s really interesting to see actual bottle kilns. There weren’t that many of therm here in Australia. I am of an age where i was able to see the old ‘Fowlers’ Pottery in Marrickville in Sydney, before it was torn down. I ended up with a truck load of dense fire bricks from their old bottle kiln and they are now incorporated into my wood fired kilns here.

We also spent a long time in the city museum where we saw a really extensive ceramics collection. Amazingly, it is here that we finally find a collection of pots made in the Plymouth Pottery Works by William Cookworthy from the Tregonning Hill, Sericitic, weathered granite.

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This is the best collection of Cookworthy work that I have seen. The V&A has nothing and the British Museum, only has one piece.

After the unpacking of the kiln, I get a nice little wood fired cup out of the firebox area.

A sweet little thing to remind us of our working holiday trip.

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Another Little Portable Wood Fired Kiln Leaves the Workshop

We have been keeping busy rolling out the latest batch of little portable wood fired kilns. Another little wood fire Gem leaves for a new life of fun and fulfilment for another potter. All the remaining kilns are set up with gas burners for dual fuel firing.

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I spent most of last week making the burners and fitting them to the kiln on removable mountings that slide into place when needed.

These are the last of the first batch and while I wait for collection of these first orders, I start on the 2nd batch. There isn’t enough room in my small kiln building workshop for more than seven kilns at a time and still be able to move around safely and engage in productive work.

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I go to the garden after work and pick a load of vegetables for dinner, do a quick bit of weeding and do a little watering, as it is still incredibly dry with no rain storms to speak of for 14 months. The dams remain dry.

I cook a fresh snapper for dinner, steamed on the stove top in a big frypan with a little garlic, lemon juice and white wine.

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Wood Cutting Working Bee

We have recently had 3 big dead eucalypt trees removed by our local arborist. One was struck by lightning, and the other two were killed by mistletoe. We paid the minimum, to just have them dropped to the ground. We took it on our selves to cut them up and remove all the blocks to storage and seasoning.

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We spent several days cutting up al the logs into small sizes, such that we could manage to move them. Janine and I spent a week whittling away at the big number one log and   finished the first tree by ourselves, but then had the wonderful assistance of some friends and pottery students for a day.

We have been so lucky to have these people volunteer their help for a day and come along to give us a hand in shifting all the logs that Janine and I had spent the week cutting up. It’s a huge task to lift and load several tonnes of wood and then shift it and stack it for seasoning.

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This is all very vigorous work and we sweat copiously in the heat. The larger, straight pieces were all cut to kiln size ‘hob’ length, while all the scrappy, small or bent pieces were all cut to 200mm. length for splitting for the house kitchen stove. The main central log was over 600mm dia. So it was too big to manage at ‘hob’ length of 700 mm. So I cut it to 200mm. just so that we would be able to manage the lifting and stacking. I rigged up a couple of planks , so that we could roll the bigger lumps up onto the truck to be carted to the wood shed and splitter.

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This should keep us going for a few years in the kitchen stove.

All the smaller dia. logs were cut to ‘kiln hob length’ of 650 to 700mm to suit the fire-box of the kiln, and then stacked for seasoning. A year or two should do it.IMG_0752

There is about 7 or 8 tonnes in this load of 19 stacks about 1200mm high.

 

The First of This Years Little Wood Fired Kilns Goes Out the door

I have been busy working away at the first batch of little portable wood fired kiln for this year. I had too many to fit in the workshop in one go, so divided them into 2 batches. The first batch of 6 is almost finished. I had to finish one in a hurry to catch the boat to Tasmania last week.

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The rest of the little ‘Daleks’ are calling out “incinerate, incinerate!” But they are toothless, as I haven’t welded the stainless steel fire-box grates or made the burners as yet, so we are all still safe. They still need another weeks work on them to fit out all the additional features, but he main body of each of them is complete.

IMG_0721If you are one of the dozen people who contacted me and asked to be on my build list for this year. This is where I am up to. I will be contacting the first 6 customers who have paid their deposits in the next week or so.

Boiling and boiler-making

The first batch of new little wood fired dual/fuel kilns takes shape in my workshop. I could say ‘rolls off the assembly line’, but I’d be telling a lie. My kiln shed is only just big enough for 8 of these little gems at one time and there is definitely no assembly line, just a kind of organised chaos as all the parts get made individually and then assembled. I have 9 kilns ordered this time round. I can’t fit them all in comfortably, or even uncomfortably, so I decide to split the work into two parts. The 6 large and then 3 small units.

I spend an extraordinary amount of time making all the fiddly parts that go into handles and locating lugs etc. I spend 3 days on these parts, even with a bit of help from my lovely Swiss intern Catherine assisting. There are 100 lugs to be manufactured for just one small part of the first 6 kilns. Each part needs to be filed on all 4 sides and also have the corners filed down and rounded for safety, then a safely edge folded over to make it extra safe. In all there are about 1,000 individual actions that need to be performed on these tiny bits, just make one small part that no-one even realises is there.
That is until it is not there!
After three days of this monotony, I need a day in the garden!
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While all this industry is going on, there is still gardening to be done to continue the flow of food from the garden in 3 months time. The equinox is the time to plant garlic, as well as leeks, brocoli, cabbage and Kale. Cauliflowers and Brussel sprouts were already planted in January. Today I am planting radish seeds to make sure of a continuous supply of salad next month. The lettuce seeds are already up and thriving.
The 2nd planting of corn is all over and we are onto the 3rd crop now. The few small 2nd cobs on the old corn plants are rather small, but I pick them and dry them in the sunny kitchen window to dry them out. when they are fully dried, I’ll mill them up into polenta for winter comfort food.
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Today, I also harvested half of the coriander crop, as it is at peak leaf just now. This is the seed from the summer planting, which was the seed from the spring planting etc. I decided to make a coriander based green chilli paste.
Recipe;
A bucket of fresh picked coriander leaves
A hand full of green onions
4 long green chillis (hot)
The juice of one each, lemon and lime
Some salt to taste, I keep this to the minimum, but without it the full flavour profile insn’t realised.
Salt is evil stuff, it hardens your arteries and causes hypertension. It is added in far too greater quantities than is really needed to every processed convenience food. We all get way too much of it without even realising it! It’s up there with sugar as a harmfull ingrediant, simply because we eat too much of it.
We don’t buy any junk food, and hardly ever buy much processed foods, but it is still very wise to limit the intake of salt. As a result we don’t have high blood pressure. I think that the two are related.
Still, a tiny pinch of salt goes really well with just a few particular foods like; tomatoes, eggs, curries, pickles and this coriander paste.
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I manage to fill 2 plastic tubs with the concoction. It’s tangy, spicy, hot and very aromatic. 3/4 of it goes into the freezer in this way, so that it will keep for the rest of the year, as needed. The rest goes into the fridge for immediate use.
Items like pesto and coriander paste are not cooked, so can’t be sterilised with heat to preserve them. We don’t own a freezer, so we have to limit what we choose to freeze. This raw paste, pesto, bone marrow stock concentrate and a couple of meals, cooked in excess at the time to be frozen for emergency meals.
The last of the summer beetroot crop needs to be dealt with before it bolts, so I give them a fast roiling simmer for a few minutes to boil them and soften them a little and then drained and straight into hot bottles from the oven with preserving vinegar. i.e. cider vinegar with a spoon full of sugar plus a 1/2 of salt and brought to the boil with a few spices like, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, pepper corns, bay leaves, chillis and mustard seeds. Such a mix is variable and is different with every batch, as it takes my fancy. Pour the mix over the sliced beets and cap straight away while almost too hot to touch. They vacuum seal as they cool.
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Best wishes from Steve the industrious, well-preserved, boiler and boiler-maker.

Firing on Sunshine

We have had our new Tesla battery for a couple of weeks now and we have just done our first electric kiln firing on sunshine.

We have had 3 kW of solar PV panels on our kiln shed roof for over a decade now, but we have only recently managed to get our hands on a new PowerWall 2 lithium battery, after being on the Tesla waiting list for over a year. The battery is working perfectly, just as we imagined, and now allows us to run our house and pottery almost totally independent off the grid. We had decided to stay connected to the grid however, as we generate far more solar electricity than we use ourselves most of the time, and up until recently we got a very handsome rebate payment for the power that we sold.

Now that the generous rebate program has ended, it is much better for us to store our daytime solar electricity excess and use it ourselves at night, instead of paying the premium cost of buying back ‘green’ power from the grid at night.

Of course we don’t have to buy ‘green’ power. We just choose to, because we made a decision 13 years ago to remove ourselves from the coal economy. Which we have done. We are of the belief that global warming is real and that it is man-made. Burning coal to make electricity is a very big part of the problem, and green power is going to be part of the solution. It’s affordable, it’s here now and it’s the future. In addition to going solar, we have also declined to use concrete slabs in our building construction and we choose to drive the smallest fuel-efficient car that we could afford.

When we put the first Australian made solar panels on our roof 11 years ago, we didn’t do it to make money. We did it for ethical reasons. However, as it turns out, we paid off the panels and made a slight profit over the decade, because we were paid one or two thousand dollars a year for the power we sold to the grid, but we also didn’t have an electricity bill for that decade. A saving of many more thousands of dollars. These original PV panels still have another 15 years of full productive life in them, before their output starts to decline. I’ll be long dead before they stop working. We recently added another 3kW of PV at the same time as the battery. As I intend to buy a fully electric car as soon as they become available at an affordable/reasonable price.

So now with everything in place, we have just completed our first electric kiln firing using our own solar power, firing through the day on sunshine up until just after lunchtime and then into the afternoon on a mix of solar and battery, then ending in the evening mostly on the battery power. Yes, it works. You can fire on sunlight. The future has arrived!

Below you can see a graphic of our power usage though the day.

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The high blue spikes are the electric kiln switching on and off. The golden-yellow hump in the middle, above the line is the solar panel output from the roof. The green areas below the line is the battery being charged up from the solar PV panels in the morning and corresponds perfectly with the yellow solar area above the line, up until noon. The solar panels are both firing the kiln and charging the battery up to noon.

After 12 noon, there was some cloud that came over and the solar output dropped down. By about 3 pm. the PV panels no longer generated sufficient power to both fire the kiln and charge the battery. After 3pm the clouds cleared and solar output increased again and fired the kiln with the assistance of the battery. From 4 pm onwards, the battery fired the kiln with assistance from the solar. Solar production ceased at about 6.30 and the firing finished at about this time also, more or less solely on battery power.

The small zigzag ripple on the base line is the household usage, mostly this comprises the fridge compressor switching on and off. I should also point out that I was also working in the kiln factory throughout the day and using some very heavy 3 phase sheet metal machinery, welders and plasma cutter. This is included in the blue spikes. The lower line of blue spike peaks is the kiln alone, and the higher level of blue spikes is the kiln and the heavy electrically powered machinery working at the same time.

The following day, the PV panels charged the battery back up to full power again by about 1.30pm. Solar output is shown in yellow. The battery shown in green is being charged below the line. Once the battery is fully charged, the solar output is then switched to sell back into the grid for the rest of the day. Shown in white below the line. Household usage is shown in Blue above the line. You can see that we run a very energy-efficient household. The blue spikes represent the toaster and jug in the morning, then the washing machine and then me using the heavy 3 phase welders, and sheet metal machines intermittently in the kiln factory through the day.

By way of explanation, I downloaded this screen shot at 3.30 pm, so that is why the graph suddenly stops.

 

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From this brief explanation I hope that I have illustrated that it is possible to live a ‘normal’ life, carry on working and fire an electric kiln, all from a solar array and a lithium battery.

Food for thought?

Some technical details;

The battery is a Tesla Powerwall 2 lithium-ion battery with a 15 kWh rating.

The solar array is 6 kW. Made up of 3kW of 11-year-old BP solar panels made in Sydney, and 3kW of new ‘Tindo’ solar panels made in Adelaide. In both cases, we paid a premium to purchase Australian made panels to support Australian industries and Australian jobs. If there had been a comparable Australian battery. I would have bought that instead.

The Tesla Powerwall 2 lithium-ion battery is 15 kW/h rating. Made in the USA. The closest Australian contender was ‘ZPower’  also from Adelaide, but at almost 3 time the cost, it was out of our price range. All these things will change quickly and dramatically over the next few years. Watch this space. You can be sure that whatever will replace our battery at the end of its life in 15 to 20 years time, hasn’t even been thought of yet, never mind being built!

The kiln is one that I made myself. It is a half metre cube 500mm. x 500mm. x 500mm.  constructed out of light weight RI bricks.