Solar PV Fired Pottery Kiln

We have been creating a life here for over 40 years, living as much possible as off our few acres of forrest, orchards and gardens. We have spent a lot of personal energy in converting all our energy needs, to wood fired everything. We have chosen to leave half of our land as forest, and there are always trees that are maturing, dying and falling over in that forest.

We haven’t harvested all the trees that have fallen on our land, as there are too many, so we have left the ones in the most remote locations to rot, as it was just too much effort to make a track into the bush to get to them out. If a tree falls in the forrest – does anybody hear? No! That is line from a song. If a tree falls and we let it rot, then it ends up the same as if we cut it up and burnt it in the house oven or kiln. The carbon that was taken from the air and soil, returns to the air and soil, only just a bit slower with composting than burning it in the kiln. Composting is a slow form of combustion.

Having spent a lot of thought and energy converting our life over to non-fossil fuel energy, we now find that with global warming, the fire bans start a month earlier and go on for a whole month or more longer in the autumn. This has caused us some trouble lately, as we have had to cancel the last few, late winter/early spring wood firing workshops here in the past couple of years.

So, if this new warmer future is to be our new reality, we had better make plans to adapt. Well we have. Starting 13 years ago we decided to go fully solar on our house and workshop and haven’t paid an electricity bill since. Those early Australian made solar PV panels have now paid for themselves, and from now-on we will have free electricity for the rest of our lives.

We live so frugally in our home these days, that we have found that we can now live on a quarter of the electricity that we used to. We have done this very simply by introducing efficiencies. As old appliances wore out, we replaced them with very low energy newer models. It’s not hard to do, but it takes time and a lot of research. It has taken time because we didn’t just throw out working appliances. We waited until they died of old age. There is so much embedded energy in electrical goods, that it is a crime to replace them before they are worn out. We have reduced our daily energy consumption in the house from 11 kW/hrs per day down to 2.5 kW/hrs. This means that there is now a lot of excess, clean, solar electricity that we can use to fire our kilns cleanly and efficiently.

As we now have a problem with firing the wood kilns all year. I have decided to convert all our Electric firing over to solar PV.  I have built a new light weight, portable electric kiln from very low thermal mass materials. I have included a couple of small LP gas pilot burners into the design, to allow me to create reduction atmospheres after 1000oC with tiny amounts of LP gas while the solar panels and the battery fire the kiln load of pots up to Stoneware.

There is nothing earth shattering about this. Korean, Japanese, and Chinese potters that I have met and worked with have been using a combination of LP gas or wood fired electric kilns for years.

This is my version of the idea. Light, flexible, portable, low energy and suitable for solar PV and battery firing.

It didn’t hurt that I was able to build it totally from spare parts and waste material that was left over from my many years as a kiln builder. I only had to buy a thermocouple for this kiln, as the old-fashioned temperature controller unit that I had sitting in a box for the past 20 years, needed a specific thermocouple to make it work.

I find it amazing and very rewarding to be able to convert a few boxes of  old ‘rubbish’ that other people had thrown out, plus some left over material, and turn it into an amazing, functional, energy-efficient, working kiln.

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I had a couple of sheets of stainless steel left over from other jobs.

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I have been storring a few sheets of ceramic fiber for over fifteen years. They are left over from a glass kiln job that I did many, many years ago. They are pre-fired, pre-shrunk, hardened and ready to use for a job just like this

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I even find that I have a shrink-wrappped coil of Kanthal A1, element wire sitting in my store.  It’s been there for years. It was left over from a job that I tended for, but which never materialised. I spend sever days working on these new heat flow and emisivity calculations to get the best answer for what I have in stock, compared to what I really want to achieve. After 5 goes at the problem, I have generated many pages of mathsand enough energy to warm the kitchen when I’m working and re-working out all the perameters. I eventually get a good answer that I can live with. I have to make a new mandrel for my lathe to suit this job.  I find that I can use some of the left-over stainless steel fire-bar material that I still have from the little portable wood fired kilns jobs of the last few years. It turns out to be just about the exact size that I need. I alter my calculations and go ahead and use it.

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When I go looking, I even find that I have a few control pyrometers and a couple of infinity switches to do the basic job of controlling the kiln. It’s not an electronic, solid state, ramp controller, but it will do nicely. I will have to do the first few firings in conjunction with pyrometric cones viewed from the small circular spy hole.

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After a few weeks of part-time work, fiddling away in my spare time. I have what I think might be a functional kiln. I have sifted through several piles of ancient junk, destined for the re-cyclers. I have discovered a lot of functional bits and parts that I wasn’t very interested in using 20 years ago, but which I can see potential in now. So many potters wanted to have their kilns converted to electronic ramp controllers in the past. I did the conversions for them, but couldn’t bring myself to throw out a perfectly good, working order, analogue kiln control unit. I’m now glad that I persevered, and storred all this junk for so many years.

I’ve found that I have enough parts to build two kilns, so I probably will. This first kiln is designed to be very low thermal mass, firing to stoneware on solar PV + with some back-up later in the day, as the sun goes down, from our Tesla Battery. I have a couple of very old, but un-used, brand new, pilot burners, these are so old that the company that built them has now ceased to exist. My plan is to use these two tiny pilot burners to create just enough CO atmosphere to give me adequate reduction, while the elements powered by the solar PV fire the kiln.

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I’m hoping that it will work as I planned. Only time will tell. Watch this space.

It’s been quite good slowly fading into semi-retirement. Cleaning out years of old boxes that I had forgotten about on that dusty top shelf. There were two whole kilns stored away in the form of spare parts.

 

Note to self, don’t buy plastic crap – again!

I wanted a simple dust pan and hand broom to clean up in the workshop. The only choice in the shop was between 2 similar styled plastic ones. What happened to wooden handled hand brooms with stiff bristles? And metal dust pans!

Long gone in the race to the bottom of quality and price. Couldn’t someone at least produce something of quality that would last? I hate having no choice but to have to buy plastic junk. this is just land fill in waiting. Well, as there was no choice I had to choose a plastic one and lo-n-behold, what happened, but the handle broke in two in the first few weeks. I refuse to be so insulted with such blatant built-in obsolescence, so I determined to fix things.

I made a pair of reinforcing brackets out of some scrap pieces of aluminium and bent them to fit snugly into and onto both sides of the broken handle, then pop riveted them into place. This is still a piece of plastic crap, but at least I have fore-stalled its trip to land fill for a while.

 

I still want to buy a wooden handled, natural bristled, long-lasting broom. I’ll have to look harder. This impromptu repair won’t stop the rest of the plastic from collapsing in time.. Maybe I can dismantle it and reuse the bristles?

Watch this space.

The old dust pan too is on its last legs. At least this one has seen a bit of use to justify its existence.

I decided to make a dust pan that will last couple of hundred years out of a piece of Stainless steel scrap. The off-cut is a bit smaller than I would have liked, but I use what I have.

It all sort-of goes to plan. It’s a bit narrow. The next one will be better. This is my first attempt after all. When I get a bigger piece of off-cut, I’ll make a wider one.

Seasonal Vegetable Pasta

We are now harvesting the late yellow peaches and although the early youngberries are long gone now and just a memory for another year, the thornless blackberries are in full swing and they integrate very pleasingly with the constant supply of blueberries. All the early season blueberries have finished, but the crop seamlessly flows into the mid season varieties and we still have un-ripe late-season berries slowly colouring up in the bushes. Either it’s a very good season for the blueberries, or after 10 years, the bushes are hitting their stride.

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Breakfast is just the freshest and most delicious meal of the day. Mouthwateringly vitamin C tangy, crunchy, succulent and sweet. Each mouthful bursting with sunlight and vitamins. All the ingredients picked fresh every day, straight from the garden. They couldn’t be fresher or more vibrant. Such a refreshingly interesting way to wake up the taste buds and kick-start the day. We are now vegetarian this month, as the fish truck that comes up from the South Coast 2 days a week, is now on summer break for the whole month. We won’t be seeing him again until February. But as there is so much coming in from the garden each day, we haven’t noticed any lack in our diet.

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Last night we picked tomatoes, capsicums, chillis, Zucchinis and fully formed scarlet runner beans. These are too coarse to eat whole now, so I peeled them and we added the fresh beans to the vegetable marsala mix. Starting off with my Xmas present of lemon myrtle infused olive oil, onion and garlic, then sweating down the vegetables in the juice of the tomatoes, aided by a little dash of white wine. To keep the lemony theme going I add a little sprig of lemon thyme, some basil leaves and two quarters of diced, preserved lemon rind. This is simmered down to a delicate crunchy softness.

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I served this super-fresh garden passata-like sauce over soba noodles. I love watching soba noodles cook. They take one minute to soften, then as they loosen up, they start to roll in the boiling water, for about 2 minutes, and then as they swell and expand, they slowly stop rolling and tumbling, about one minute, and they are ready. To keep the fresh lemony zangy flavour profile going, I served the meal topped with a very tiny sprinkling of Japanese Sansho pepper. 

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This stuff is exceptional. It has a delicate lemony fragrance and initial taste. The taste is so good and so complex that I want to taste more, zingy, zesty, bright, savoury citrus-like flavour. It is so more-ish, but when you have that little bit more, it starts to make your tongue go numb. So I restrain my self adding just the very smallest amount. We buy this pepper in the markets in Japan each visit, freshly ground each day and then vacuum sealed in a foil sachet. We buy it on our last day before flying out and take it straight to the freezer compartment of out fridge. Here it keeps its freshness and full flavour for a year, or until we run out. last trip I bought several packets, some as gifts, but mostly because I’m greedy.

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Now it just so happens that I have the perfect pot to serve the right amount of sansho pepper in. This tiny little dish was once an ancient, broken Chinese Bowl. The only part left in tact was the foot rim. The remnants of the bowl body was ground away down to just the undamaged foot itself. Measuring about 30mm across and 25 mm inside and just 6 mm deep. It is ideal for presenting just the smallest amount of sansho pepper. A perfect re-imagining, reworking and re-use of a remnant of a gorgeous ancient Chinese bowl. Perfect!

 

Summer Solstice Activity

The young berries never make it to Xmas theses days, the summer season is arriving earlier each year with the heat hanging on longer, so we have taken the nets off the berry canes, rolled them up and put them away for another year. Another job in our seasonal timetable ticked off.

We bought a 100 metre x 9 metres roll of netting 25 years ago. It had a 10 year warranty against ultraviolet sunlight damage. We have got two and a half times its life expectancy out of it, principally because we only expose it to sunlight for a 1/4 of the year. So maybe we will get 40 years out of it? It’s still holding up well and isn’t going brittle yet.

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As we eat with the seasons, These days our breakfast fruit salad has turned from Yellow to red. We are picking red berries, red plums, red strawberries and blue berries, with pink peaches from the fridge. The only pale ingredient is a pale banana (that we shamelessly bought from a shop) to soften out the flavour by countering the acidity of the other fruits.

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Such is our summer breakfast variety. All these seasonal changes in our diet must play havoc with our alimentary canal biotic floc. Constantly on the change. The only constant in our diet is the lack of red meat and preserved meats. Almost the only time that we seem to eat red meat is when we are invited out to dinner.

We are not vegetarians, we just choose to eat very little meat. Doing so just might be good for us? I don’t know. Certainly, raising so many cattle and sheep isn’t good for the soil or the planet as a whole system. There are too many affluent people consuming too much. We are trying to tread a little bit lighter on our land. At this time of year, in our society  that worships conspicuous consumption, it all gets pretty gross. Consuming less is our gift to everybody for Xmas.

Life is one big experiment. This is ours.

Chair bodger

One of my hand-made steamed and bent Windsor chairs has suffered a broken arm recently. I made this chair from the one piece of wood, cut from a Japanese cedar tree that died in the drought in our garden. It was probably about 80 years old. It was a fine tree and the wood was too good to waste. So I decided to make a chair out of it.

As this tree was only small. It was hard to find a good piece of straight grained timber. for the lang arm. There was a fault in the way that I made it. I couldn’t find a piece of straight-grained timber that was of the correct dimensions for the job, so I used what I had. There is only so much straight grained timber in one tree. My tree had quite wavy grain. I compensated a little by sawing it out along the grain on the band saw, instead of just in a straight line on the table saw, but there just wasn’t a long enough section for me to use without the grain running off along the grain.

I used this piece where the grain ran off on the bend. It worked really well for almost a decade, but finally split when someone put a bit too much pressure on it, possibly leaning back on the back two legs and stressing the bent back. (I wasn’t home at the time)

I glued the broken arm back together, but it started to part company on the bend and split again within a year, even with careful use. I re-glued it, clamped it securely for 24 hrs. until the glue was well and truly set, then decided to reinforce it with a brass strip behind, where the split had re-started.

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It’s a broken chair, no doubt about it, but its a well-loved and valued chair that I spent a lot of time building, all the way from cutting down the tree, seasoning, sawing, cutting out, carving the seat base and spindles then fabrecating and assembling the whole thing. This chair has an added history. It means something to me so I used brass to give the repair some added value. A bit like the way that I use gold to repair one of my beautiful, but damaged bowls. What I’ve done here is like kinsugi, but it isn’t kinsugi, because kinsugi means gold repair.

Maybe this is some kind of brass chair bodging variation on kinsugi. Perhaps I should call it brassugi?

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Another One Smites the Dust

If we are going to be saddled with extended drought into the future, we are ethically bound to respond in a creative and positive way. We try to avoid being a drain on anybody, any thing or any institution, including government. This is all part of our commitment to a philosophy of living an independent life. Possibly something akin to true philosophical anarchism. It’s not a matter of bringing down any government, but rather a case of being so independent that government atrophying due to lack of need.

So the drought continues and we have ordered 2 new water tanks. The first has already arrived and been installed on the smaller front section of the Old Railway Station roof a few weeks ago. The new, and slightly larger tank arrived today and we installed it on the back and slightly larger section of roof. With 4,500 and now 7,500 litres of added storage, the Old Railway Station building is now adding to our overall commitment to self-reliance in drinking water. Another one smites the dust.

The Old Station is not a very big building. In fact its tiny, but every bit of roof space is now important in the endeavour to catch drinking water when it rains, which isn’t very often these days. Funnily, it starts to shower as the delivery truck arrives, so Janine and I install in the rain. Tragically, it clears up just as we finish, but we are ever hopeful that it will continue over night and for the next few days.

The previous new tank is now half full from the occasional showers that we have managed to now capture. Every bit counts if we are to continue watering our garden plants with drinking water, while we wait for that big storm that must come someday and fill the dams again.

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The new, larger grey tank is down the back on the right, under the bottle brush tree.

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We bake vegetables fresh from the garden for dinner, finished with a bechamel sauce. It’s delicious and uses so little water to prepare.

The Weather Warms Up

As the weather warms up, we continue to harvest the garlic as it starts to mature and dry off. each different variety comes on at slightly different times, but  most of it has been lifted now, with just a few blocks of plants still remaining in the ground.

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The citrus are flowering, one of the lemons is flowering so profusely that the ground under the tree is white with fallen petals. The fragrance is beautiful.

I have spent the last few weeks kiln building, and kiln number 300 is now complete and ready for delivery. This is my penult kiln, kiln number 301 will be my last before I retire from building these larger, heavier kilns. I will continue on in semi-retirement for  a few more years building the smaller, lighter, relocatable, mini wood fired kilns, as these are easier on my worn-out body.

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The birds have started to destroy the fruit crop – as usual!. After 40 years of organic farming here, all the older stone fruit trees are too big for us to net individually these days. It has crossed my mind, that we could net the whole orchard, but this would be prohibitively expensive. We did net the entire vegetable garden area about 15 years ago and that was there best thing that we ever did. Now we get all of our produce and the birds, rabbits, wallabies, possums and eastern grey kangaroos are no longer a problem.

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We spend a day with our good friend Warren, helping us to net all the smaller trees. The parrots have started to hollow out the almonds, looking  for the sweet young developing nuts. There is nothing that we can do about it. The tress in the stone fruit orchard are just too big to net. The birds can have them. I planted a dozen new almond trees, in a row down one side of the netted vegetable garden. These are reaching maturity now and depending on the vagaries of the weather, can produce good crops.

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We drape nets over the smaller trees, supported with tomato stakes and use irrigation pipe hoops to support the nets over the larger trees. We have been doing this for years, it’s a days job every spring. The nets are getting a bit old now and are getting a little brittle, so holes are starting to appear. I made a huge needle out of TIG wire to use as a repair needle to stich the nets back together using baleing twine, repairing holes and joining seams. It works rather well.

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We end the day in the nut grove, by pruning all the suckers from underneath the dozen hazel nut trees on our hands and knees. These trees want to grow as a small wide thicket, so they need constant attention, removing the suckers, to encourage them to grow as upright trees with a single trunk, or two or three trunks. This makes them very much easier to maintain, manage and mow around. It’s a constant job, but the nuts are worth it.

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Nothing is perfect, nothing is ever finished, nothing lasts.