Janine and I have just enjoyed our first house concert of the year.
As the days get shorter and the evenings cooler, we are lighting the wood fired kitchen stove most nights now. This old stove, that I have lovingly maintained and repaired for the past 40 or so years, cooks our food, heats our hot water, through its bronze firebox boiler, which is connected to our kitchen hot water system. It also heats the kitchen and us while we work, cook and eat.
In the hottest couple of months of summer, we cook on the gas stove and rely on the solar hot water panels to heat the hot water. We have had to cover the solar panels with wire mesh, as we had a pine cone drop onto one of them shattering the tempered glass.
It may seem strange that we have our solar panels on the ground. I have a good reason. We have a full copper hot water system, with a copper hotter tank, a bronze boiler in the stove and copper solar panels, all connected in series, so that either or both heat sources can heat the tank depending on the weather and time of year. I used all silver soldered copper piping to connect the system, so there isn’t a separate heat exchanger needed in the system to eliminate electrolysis. A full copper system has no electrolysis issues. Eliminating the heat exchanger makes the system much more efficient. I designed the system so that the solar panels are on the ground, so that the hot water will rise up into the tank by natural thermo-siphon. No pump is need in the system to circulate the hot water to the tank. (as is necessary when the panels are on the roof.) This is another added efficiency and saving on energy. By designing systems like this and others in our hand-made home, we have managed to reduce our energy usage in our home to 1.7 kW/hrs per day for the house alone. If we add in charging the electric car and firing the electric kiln from the solar system, then our total usage rises up to 5.7 kW/hrs per day.
When we add in our kiln and car, Janine and I still use only half of what a ‘normal’ single occupant household uses. Or just one-third of a ‘normal’ 2 person household. We are quite pleased with this outcome.
We have reached the point where the tomatoes have lost most of their leaves. There are still loads of fruit on the vines. But the vines are looking pretty much dead. We pick all the remaining fruit for the last batch of concentrated tomato passata sauce. We have over twenty jars of the stuff from this years harvest, safely stored away in the pantry cupboard.
We pull out all the vines and compost them and remove the stakes. We pull out all the weeds. The beds are then ready for a load of compost and a new planting.
There are a basket of capsicums and chillies to harvest as well. I decide to roast them and pickle them to preserve them. They are sweated, peeled, de-seeded and then dressed with oil and vinegar. They will keep for a few weeks in the fridge treated like this.
We have only just finished the last batch of capsicums that I preserved in this way a week or so ago.
This is all standard autumn fare.
A month ago we had a hail storm. Not too bad as hail storms go, but bad enough. There wasn’t a lot of rain with it, – a pity.
A few weeks later we had a lot of rain in an hour. Quite a storm all told. We found to our surprise that we had a number of leaks appear in our old school classroom. We had to find buckets for the drips on the carpet, the computer table and other various places around the house. Having drips of water dropping onto the carpet in what is our lounge room, really concentrates your attention.
I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering!
We don’t usually have leaks like this, so I had to investigate. However, I needed to wait for it to stop raining, then to stop blowing, waiting for a day when there was no gusty wind. I once went up on the roof on a windy day and the ladder blew away, leaving me stranded up there until Janine came looking for me, replaced the ladder and let me come down. She must love me!
I finally found a day that wasn’t too windy, glarey or wet and slippery. I got up onto the top roof of the old classroom of the school. I found that the hail storm had pummelled the 130 year old corrugated galvanised iron roofing. Where there was an over-lap of the old sheets the iron had rusted to a very thin state because of the condensation in the over-lap, creating a few quite large holes.
A hundred years ago, corrugated iron roofing could only be manufactured in short lengths, as it was rotary folded across the sheets to make the corrugations. This meant that to cover a long-span, a number of shorter sheets needed to be used and this required overlapping to stop leaks. All old iron roofs suffer from this same problem of rusting out on the overlaps. We are lucky to have a roof that has survived for so long without too much trouble. We live in quite a relatively dry environment with about 500mm of rain each year.
I worked across the roof systematically siliconing every split, crack and thin rusty patch. The overlaps needed special attention. In one place I had to cut a small piece of rustic, but structurally very sound, old roofing iron into a small square. I glued this patch over the worst section, that was too big to close with just silicon alone.
The big issue turned out to be the ridge capping. This is 130 year old lead! I wanted to replace it 35 years ago, when I was much younger, able-bodied and building the extensions on to the Old School Classroom. I didn’t want any lead on my roof. Unfortunately I struck one massive problem that stopped me in my tracks. The old lead was about 600 mm wide and the old wooden roofing battons were well spaced accordingly. Modern galvanised ridge capping is only about 460mm wide. Not wide enough to reach the old battons. This meant removing all the old sheets of iron and screwing on new battons, then replacing the roofing, then screwing down the new narrow ridge capping. A massive job. Not one that I could complete easily in a day.
Being basically lazy, I decided that I had enough to do with building the new extensions onto the Old School classroom to make it into a house, so I left the old flashing up there. It was just easier to ignore it and hope for the best. The old lead capping has developed cracks and splits here and there along its length over the years. I siliconed these splits and cracks 30 years ago, and 20 years ago and then 10 years ago, Now the cracks are just too big and too long for silicon.
Now my lead flashing chickens are coming home to roost. I will need to re-roof the whole school roof eventually. I hope that I can make it last long enough, so that it isn’t my job to do. I couldn’t do it by myself now. I’d need to employ someone to help me these days.
My creative solution was to lift the old lead flashing and slide in new sections of shiny galvanised ridge capping in underneath the old lead. Then I screwed the old lead down over the new galvanised ridge capping, through into the old galvanised roofing. A cunning plan!
From a distance, no-one can tell that I did anything at all. It looks exactly as it did before I fixed it, and that’s the way I like it.
Over summer we don’t go far. We stick around the house, just in case of bush fires. We concentrate on cleaning the gutters, servicing the fire pumps and working around the house and in the garden. It’s a very productive time of year in the vegetable garden with so much produce to harvest, preserve, cook, dry, bottle, vacuum seal. In March the fire danger is mostly over and we can relax and catch up on some music concerts and the Writers Festival.
We returned from Writes Week and WOMAD to find the garden gone mad and a lot of work needed to be done to get it all sorted out, cleaned up, weeded, mown, whipper snipped and mulched. I have it back in good shape now and most of the winter seeds and seedlings are planted for the approaching cold weather. Over summer, we don’t get into the pottery very much. Instead, it’s a time to use the heat for making clay, crushing rocks and ball milling porcelain stone, then drying that porcelain slip.
Now in April, we can start to think about firing the wood fired kiln again. The summer fire bans will soon be over and we can fire the wood kiln without restriction. We have been doing some firings. I have been firing our solar-powered electric kiln and reducing it with a few hundred grams of LP gas to get the reduced colours.
We have been back in the pottery for the past few weeks and started throwing again. I must say that the first couple of full days on the hard wooden seat of the “Leach” style wooden kick wheel leaves me with a couple of sore butt-cheek bones. I don’t think that they are bruised, but they sure get very tender after that first full day. It seems to take a week or so for them to toughen-up. Then I don’t notice it again till this time next year.
I bought some sericite stones back with me from my trips to the UK and Korea last year. These stones are now processed and aged sufficiently to be able to consider throwing them. I always think that this time it will be different. This time I will be able to throw something better out of this wet gravel. I can’t! Every time it’s the same, I start off so optimistic. I’m sure I will be better at it. I’m Not! The stuff is just wet rock dust, I shouldn’t be surprised. But I am!
I struggle with it as it is and refrain from adding any bentonite into the mix. I should just get over it and give in, but I really want to make something authentic. Something that has some meaning in this post-truth, bare-faced lying, compromised, new world order of shallow poseurs, where everything is The Image and The Selfie. I know that what I’m living here has no value to anyone else but me, I persist. It’s the life I’ve chosen. It’s a challenge to make a nice pot from these original porcelain stones. Picked from the ground, in-situ by my very own hands, carted off in my back-pack and then brought home here and processed in my own equipment. Maybe if I aged these bodies for a decade, then it would be easier? I’m certain that it would. I have already done those tests a lot earlier in my career. I know it works. However, I’m not too sure that I still have a decade left in me. I strike a compromise and decide to make some very small beakers and some coffee cups. Now, I can almost manage these OK.
Last year, my friend Len and I imported a tonne of Chinese sericite. I have been going to China each year and renting studio space, making work, getting it fired on site – with mixed results, and carrying the best pots back in my hand luggage, to show at Watters Gallery and elsewhere.
Last year I felt so guilty about my carbon miles, making work in this way that I decided to buy the milled sericite in bulk and ship it here, This way I can stay at home and the clay can log up the carbon miles. I feel that it ought to be less damaging environmentally to ship a tonne of milled sericite stone by sea, than fly my meagre 80 kgs to and from China in a plane. Any way, I buy my $400 worth of carbon credits, just the same each year, to appease my conscience for my carbon crimes.
Buying the material in bulk sounded like a good idea at the time, but like all the best laid plans…. The stuff that arrived was totally different from what we had thought that we had bought, or ordered at least. Back in the beginning, we purchased a sample of the sericite and tested it. It was difficult to work with, but OK. White, semi-plastic, just. It fired white and translucent. We ordered a tonne of that thank you very much!
What arrived was grey, short, very soft and soggy, difficult to throw with and split and cracked in drying. Totally different material. I couldn’t see us shipping it back. We had already paid in advance. I had to make it work somehow. I tried throwing it in the usual way that I have learnt to work, but I lost over 90% of my pieces. I took a while, but I thought it over and came up with what I thought was a cunning plan. I thought about the ancient Chinese and how they coped with the short-comings of their early sericite porcelains. This was just the same, only re-located over 600 years in time and 12,000 kilometres in distance. The old tried and true answers are usually the best.
I tried a small batch in a blend with something that I thought had exactly the right characteristics. Hey presto. I now have a way of making a unique white, translucent, Chinese sericite based, porcelain of my own making. It’s one answer. It works for me.
What I still find perplexing and inexplicable, is that Len has no trouble in making perfectly fine pots out of his batch of this stuff with no problems, while I struggle. Obviously this sericite stuff responds to the hands of a true master craftsman but dumbfounds and perplexes a blowhard wannabe like me.
We are harvesting the last of the grape harvest. It’s been a long vintage this year, stretching over 8 weeks. We have been making dark grape juice out of most of the vintage. However, with these last few baskets full of rich dark red sugary deliciousness, we decide to make ‘Summer Wine’. We first came across this wonderful stuff in France, then Germany, followed by Switzerland and finally in northern Italy. As the season developed and the grapes ripened. We had to have the experience introduced to us by our hosts in Germany at that time. We stopped the car on the side of the road to buy vegetables and fruit from a farmers road-side stall. Our friend asked if we had tried ‘Niue Wine’ or ‘summer wine’? We hadn’t, so we did and it was a bit of a revelation.
We have been making our version of concentrated red grape juice for a few decades and always look forward to it. We manage to bottle 20 or so litres each year for us throughout the year. We pasteurise it so that it will keep and not ferment. Then sealed in sterilised glass bottles. It works well. But this was an eye opener.
We don’t make wine from our red grapes, because it is too much work for the reward. Good quality wine is cheap in Australia, why bother, but good organic red grape juice is extremely expensive. So thesis where we put our effort. What we experienced in Europe that autumn was just like our red grape juice, but very slightly fermented, possibly for just a few days. The outcome was a sweet grape juice with all the fruit flavour, but also enhanced with a little sourness and tingley, cabin dioxide induced spritzig. I might hazard a guess that it was fermented to about 2% or so of alcohol. It was a light, really refreshing and satisfying draft.
We have since started to make a small batch of summer wine each year. It has to be drunk within a few days of the fermentation starting, while it still has plenty of sugars left in solution. We asked about the roadside wines that we saw and were told that it will only be available for a few days from each stall. Once the barrel is emptied, then that’s it. find the next farmer’s stall.
They might possibly use the wild natural yeast bloom on the grape skins, but this can be very variable. Because we don’t know what we art doing, and don’t have parents and grandparents on hand with generations of local knowledge about such home based, home-grown, organic production. We decide to pastures the juice as usual and then add a known wine makers yeast to get a more-or-less predictable and reliable outcome.
We wash and de-stem the grapes to make the juicing process easier. Either way it is a lot of work. This is just the way that we have got used to doing it over the years. After sterilizing by briefly simmering the juice, we let it cool over night and then add the yeast. , somewhere between 16 and 24 degrees C. We let it sit for a day to allow the ferment to get going and then bottle it. We start to drink it from the 2nd day. After the third day, or when we feel it has reached a good point in the sugar/acid balance, we bottle it and keep it in the fridge to stall any further fermentation. it keeps for a week like this. and then it all gone. If you try this at home, don’t screw the caps on. LEAVE THEM LOOSE.
I’ve only just finished repairing the slow combustion heater in the Old School classroom in preparation for the coming winter, when Janine points out that the fire brick in the wall of the wood fired kitchen slow combustion stove is all cracked and spalled away. The metal casing of the cabinet is showing through. We can’t light it again like this. Being over 40 years old, there are no spare parts available. I will have to improvise – as usual.
I have no real options here. I don’t want to take the stove apart completely to re fit a new home-made fire brick into the wall, so I do a patch job. I use some of my homemade ceramic fibre glue and fill up all the cracks and spalls with ceramic fibre high temperature insulation.
This will have no chance of surviving the intense battering of logs thrown into the fire box. But I have a cunning plan. I find an old piece of kiln shelf down in the pottery that is just about the correct size. So I cut it and shape it with the angle grinder until it fits the bill.
I wedge it into place with a few off-cuts of similar ceramic kiln shelf material and it all locks into place. Only time will tell how long it will last? However, I am confident that it will protect the fibre insulation stuffed in behind until it cracks or breaks.
On close examination, I see that he curved fire brick just inside the stoke-hole door is cracked in half. This is a home-made, hand-built, custom-shaped fire brick which we made from a hand-made mould that we cast back in the 70’s. I made 3 spares at the time. I can see that I will have to make a few more now, as we have used them all up over the 40 years of constant use. It needs to be special shape, with recessed corners that interlock with the other fire bricks, so that it can just slide into place and be held securely, but not too tight, to allow for expansion.
Janine finds the mould after almost 25 years, stored away in the third chamber of the climbing kiln that we don’t use anymore. I knock one out with a rubber mallet to get good compression. One down two more to go. The first three that I made lasted 25 years or so. So this lot should last me until 2045! I’ll be well into my 90’s and won’t be cutting too much fire wood by then.
Last year I repaired the other side of the fire-box, the heat shield that protects the oven from getting too hot. That cast iron plate had completely disintegrated. I replaced it with a home-made kiln shelf that we made in 1976. We still have a lot of them left. I didn’t think that it would last very long, but gave it a go. It has one crack in it after 18 months of use and still going strong. Very pleased, but.
Nothing is ever finished, nothing lasts and nothing is perfect.