The Birds have eaten all the Mulberries

During the week between the two Open Studio Weekends, I ventured out to check out the mulberries. The crop wasn’t good, but there were quite a few coming on. Possibly ready to pick in a week or so once they ripened up a bit more.

After the last weekend sale, when I found some time to get to the orchard again, I realised that the birds had eaten all the mulberries. ALL THE MULBERRIES!

Recently, we have had quite a good number of wattle birds, Dollar birds, Frier birds and the constant regiment of endemic bower birds

There were just a very few immature pale hard berries left. So no mulberry tarts this year.

Instead, I decided to make a youngberry tart, using last years Youngberries that I preserved and bottled on the 4th of December ‘21.

It’s a lovely tart. It isn’t quite so good as when I use fresh berries, as fresh berries retain a lot more texture and structure to the substance of the tart.

This years berries aren’t ready yet, but the pantry has a few bottles of last years berries that have survived the hungry gap. Principally because we are trying to cut down on our sugar intake.

I don’t add any sugar to the preserved youngberries. They are sweet enough, and every little bit of sugar adds up. But they are wonderful, so rich, so lively with that special mix of acid and sweetness. I love them. They are so special, really unique to this time of year. I really look forward to their season. They follow the mulberries and preempt the cherries.

I couldn’t net the mulberries, the tree is too old and too big, so they are all gone, but I can net the youngberries, as they grow on canes at ground level. 

I blind-bake the pastry first to cook it through and then add the fruit, and bake it again to set the fruit.

As soon as we could find the time, we were out in the garden and netted the youngberries. Safe for this season now.

The chickens come out to see the new Tesla Battery. Perhaps they want to know what it is like to be a battery hen? They don’t appear to be very impressed. Battery hens! What’s all the fuss about?

In the garden, we have picked the last globe artichokes. They are a bit past ‘best’, so need to be cut in half and have the ‘choke’ taken out.

I cut them and trim them down to the essential core of flavour and drop them in lemon juice acidulated water, eventually to make a pasta sauce out of them with our home-made tomato passata sauce from last summer and some little zucchinis and broad beans from the spring garden.

I stuff the zucchini flowers with broad beans, olives, cheese and some chopped gherkins. Not my filling of choice, but I am committed to use what we have in the garden and live with the seasons. We have a lot of broad beans at the moment, and

the last of the winters cauliflowers.

We eat the cauliflower raw with just a little bit of mayonnaise. It makes a lovely entrée.

Recent wood kiln firing

In preparation for the up-coming Open Studio Weekends on the first two weekends in November, we have been hard at work making and firing to get everything ready in time.

We are still working on the pottery shed, as it isn’t quite finished yet. So much to do, but it is almost there. We have to stop the building work to concentrate on making pots now.

There are so many little bit and pieces of the building that need to be cleaned up and properly finished. The team of shed builders who erected the frame for us were working very quick and rough and left a lot to be desired in terms of details. I’m still finding out the places where they didn’t finish off the flashing, or didn’t put enough silicon in the joints here and there. But their biggest crime was not using metal screws with rubber seals, so I had to go around the whole building and squeeze silicon rubber over all the external screws to waterproof them. It probably only saved them $10. Such is the state of modern building trades. Fortunately we didn’t buy a high rise home unit with cracks in it, so we couldn’t live in it, but still had to pay the mortgage. That is so unforgivable. With all this rain over the past year, I’m still discovering places that leak or just little annoying drips that need attention. 

The framing crew did at least get the frame level, square and true. I’ll give them that much. The building inspector from the council who came and inspected our job, told us that this was one of the better frames that he had seen. Some were so bad, he had to call the builders back to straighten it up.

Janine and I have done nearly all of our building work over the years as owner builders here for the past 45 years, but this rebuilding job was just beyond us in our ’senior’ years. Especially the scale of it and particularly after working ourselves into the ground with all the clean-up work that we did after the fire. By the time it came to start re-building, we just didn’t have the energy. After the 6 months of cleaning up, we were ready to hand over to a team who supposedly knew what they were doing when it came to erecting a steel fame shed — sort of. They were certainly well practised at making short cuts.

This last weekend we fired the wood kiln. This was our 2nd firing in this new kiln and we are still learning how it works and getting to know its peculiarities and character.

We had Len Smith, Rob Linegan to help and Jan Kesby called in after her workshop at Sturt Pottery to give us a hand, as she was in the neighbourhood.

Lighting the kindling fire with just bark and twigs.

The kiln at full fire, burning logs on the hobs.

Rob and Len doing their bit.

Jan Kesby showing us how it’s done.

We will unpack later in the week after it has cooled down.

Janine putting stones into the rock crusher. Wearing her dust mask and with the exhaust fan pulling any dusty air from the room.

Janine has been crushing and grinding her beach pumice stones to make her sea-ladon green glaze. Made from just beach pumice and beach cuttle fish carapace ‘shells’.

She has also been making up her ‘Chun’ or ‘Jun’ blue opalescent glaze  that she makes from the ash from the kitchen slow combustion stove.

They both require crushing and then grinding in the ball mills to get the best result. There are so many little steps that go into being a self-reliant artist that most people just couldn’t imagine.

Then there is the splitting and stacking all the wood for firing. Everything takes time. We only have pre-burnt logs to fire with now, as every tree on our block of land was burnt. So we have a few hundred tonnes of standing dead wood to use up for the rest of our lives, but regrettably, since it is already pre-burnt. It has lost a lot of its volatiles, saps, kinos and resins. This means that we have to invent new ways of using it up in the kilns, as it is a bit like firing with charcoal than fresh timber. It still burns, but with a short flame and doesn’t really crackle and roar like it used to pre-fire. One solution I’m trying is to split it finer, where that is possible, but the stringy back that grows around here has a very twisty, gnarly, well integrated grain, that doesn’t easily lend itself to fine free-splitting.

Another option is to re-build the fire box to adapt it better to this charcoal rich environment, larger and with more provision for burning charcoal and ember? That’s a much bigger job, so I’ll try all of the easier options first. Time will tell.

Reading About Peasant Gardening and Cooking

I’ve been reading a few books on French cooking. Not, cordon bleu, or bistonomy, but old peasant recipes for home-grown, self-reliant peasants cooking of the South West of France in the Perigord and Gascon regions.

I’m interested in how people manage their vegetable gardens to keep a steady flow of food coming all through the year. How they preserve their excess and particularly, just how inventive they were at creating wonderful and delicious recipes from some quite un-promising ingrediants.

I was introduced to organic back-yard vegetable gardening by my grandfather and mother. But didn’t take sufficient interest in the details of it all at the time, as I was quite young, and kicking a ball around the yard was more fun.

When Janine and I moved into our first own rental property in 1975. One of the first things that I did was to dig up the back yard, start to plant veggies and build a compost heap. It seemed so natural to me. It was just what you did if you wanted to live cheaply and frugally. Planting vegetables went hand in hand with building the first little kiln, both equally important.

A year or so later, after we were burnt out in the first of 3 bush fires that we have lost potteries to, we bought the Old School building here in Balmoral Village, we started a vegetable garden as soon as we got the key, even before we had the title deeds. Long before we moved in. We would come down on weekends and plant and then water the seedlings, so that there would be food for us when we arrived permanently.

We were lucky to meet and become very close to a couple of the local residents, John Meredith the writer, musician and folklorist, and Dot and Roger Brown, who were the village’s longest residents. Dot’s mother was still alive then, she lived till she was 103 years old. Both of these older residents had extensive vegetable gardens and small household mixed orchards. They were a great inspiration to us and were so supportive in each passing on either chickens or ducks in breeding trios to get us up and running. We set up a pottery throwing room in the front room of the 2 room school classroom. We also cleared the land, fenced off the area for the stone fruit orchard, all in the first few months and had 30 fruit trees planted that first winter.

A few years later Sally Seymour came to visit us from Wales. She and her husband John Seymour wrote books about their life of living off the land in a small scale, self-sufficient way. She was so knowledgeable about everything that we needed to know. She was also a potter. Sally returned a couple of years later and lived here with Janine for a few months, while I was away in Japan studying.

We had already bought and read both of their earlier books before we met Sally. Sally is still alive and living in Wales with her daughter and son-in-law. You can check out how they still live and work creatively and sustainably at their web site. <https://www.pantryfields.com/sally-seymour>

‘The Fat of the Land’ is still in print and available from their website.

I enjoyed reading about Kate Hill’s life and travels on a barge boat in Gascony. I didn’t learn very much that I hadn’t already read elsewhere, or already learnt to cook myself, but it was a good read. 

I picked up this book for $2 in a 2nd hand book shop, an interesting read by an American food writer about his one year sabbatical spent in Gascony learning to cook.

Peter Graham was a professional writer who lived in France for 40 years. He died recently. He was ‘The Guardian’ newspaper’s food and restaurant critic for 20 years. The book is a list of recipes linked by anecdotes, and has less story line to support it, more in the vein of Patience Gray’s ‘Honey from a weed’. However, I actually preferred the book ‘Extra Virgin’ by Annie Hawes, which is all amusing story and no recipes, but she has humorous descriptions of the local wives preparing food and cooking. All described in a very lighthearted manner.

Jeanne Strang’s book was interesting mix of personal story line and recipe book. I learnt a few things that I have incorporated in to my cooking. On and Off.

None of these books are your typical recipe books. None of them have full page glossy photos of luscious food. You’ll need Jamie Oliver or the English food porn lady for those. These are all black and white, text based books, printed on cheap, pulp, paper by people who love cooking, and living in France. They have all lived and worked in Gascony and collected their anecdotes and recipes over extended periods of time living the life in amongst the locals.

Having digested all that these other books had to offer, I tempered my appetite for goose fat and foie gras, by reading Norman Swan’s latest on how to live a healthy life for longer. 

Basically his recommendation is not to eat all those fatty, rich, calorie loaded foods, instead he recommends to intensionally starve yourself – albeit with moderation. He recommends following the ‘Mediterranean diet’, based on pulses, vegetables, a little lean meat or fish and to avoid preservatives, salt and smoked or saltpetre treated meats. He also says to put in at least one hour of vigorous exercise each day. YES, one hour vigorously, each day! To stimulate metabolism and burn off calories to keep your weight down. 

I think that I might probably be OK, even better off,  to just eat those French cooking books listed above. Paper is fat free, high in ruffage and low in calories, just right. 

Normal would approve.

More Mottainai

There is such a beautiful optimism about spring. The weather is warming up. We even have clear, bright, warm days when we take our jumpers off! My brown work jumper that I wear when I’m welding and/or firing the wood kiln has had a lot of holes burnt into it over the past 15 years. I have been slowly working on it over that time repairing the holes by darning colourful threads over the gaps. It has started to become something more than just an old, repaired, work jumper now, it’s becoming a work of art in itself. I’ve spent this last week of evenings in front of the wood fire fixing it up for another year of hard work. It’s become something more than just a jumper. It’s becoming a treasured item, embodied with effort and work. Not just the work that resulted in all the holes and burn marks, but the extra effort in its recovery and repair. It’s a bit like doing a kintsugi repair on a treasured pot that got broken. I do that too.

I also have a better, but also quite old woollen jumper that I used to keep ‘for best’. ie. for going out in.  I keep it in a plastic bag over the summer months, filled with herbs and lavender, to keep the moths out. But over the years, the little tenacious critters seem to have found their way in every now and then and now this jumper too has a few holes in it. So after I ‘finished’ the brown jumper. I started on the next one. It only has a few small moth holes, so it was a quick ‘two-nighter’ job. Done sitting in front of the wood fire, keeping warm and getting next years woollens up to speed for the next winter, before I put them away for the summer. Back into the fragrant herb lined plastic bag.

This series of repair sessions that began 13 years ago trying to extend the life of a good quality piece of clothing, slowly took on a life of its own. I think that I may have made this old brown jumper a bit too special for welding and firing now. It’s become rather special in its lovingly repaired old age. 

The Japanese have a single word that sums up this concept. Mottainai!

As for the concept of kintsugi that I mentioned above. I have been slowly working my way through a number of special pots that survived the fire. They are all broken, but still rather lovely in their own special broken and shattered way. I have re-built all the broken and missing sections of the bowls using my own home-made epoxy-based filler which I hand-build in small sections,  layer upon layer, grinding back and sanding each layer, then adding on another little section, slowly building the missing section back up to where it once was.

The really beautiful thing about something that you have done yourself, by your own hand, is rather special. These repaired items are more valuable and unique than they were beforehand, not in a financial way, but something more cerebral and emotional. The loving workmanship has transformed them up to another level of complex value. And, in the final analysis, probably also some sort of increase in monetary value, but this is hard to quantify, as such special personal items rarely ever really come onto the commercial market. 

The Last Weeks of Winter

In these last few weeks of late winter, we have been picking loads of citrus for both juice and marmalade.

The avocado season is also in full swing with quite a good crop on this year.

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I have finally finished building the car port shed, Started in March 2020, completed August 2022. It’s only taken me 2 1/2 years. Slow but thorough.

One other reason for the long time interval from start to finish, was that apart from the initial frame, everything else was scrounged, re-cycled and repurposed.

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The last job was to fame up the East wall and clad it with poly carbonate sheeting. We were gifted a couple of very large recycled glass doors, by a lovely friend who had them taken out of her house to do extensions. I designed and built the wall out of left over steel sections that the pottery shed builders thew out on the scrap pile to go to the tip. I couldn’t bear to see such waste, even to see it go to the re-cyclers was a great waste of embedded energy, so I welded all the small section of scrap together to make long 6m. useful beams. I designed and built this last wall around the donated glass door sizes to make a snug fit.

I’m glad that it is finally done, as there was a lot of 5 and 6 metre high ladder work. More than I was comfortable with. Luckily, I had my very good friend Warren to give me a hand for a couple of days to get it completed. These beams are just too long to lift and fit one handed on a ladder by myself.

You can read the story of re-purposing the short steel off-cuts from a previous blog post here;

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I started framing this wall last December. I’ve been working on it on and off since then as time permits.

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Winter is also the time for fruit tree pruning. It’s been an on-going job for a few weeks now, on and off, as time allowed.

I didn’t do a lot of pruning over the last 3 years, as most of my orchard trees got burnt. Those that survived, just got ignored, as I was way too busy doing other more important jobs at the time.

So this year was a big year for catching up, reshaping and thinning out.

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The small chain saw got a bit of a workout as well as the usual range of secateurs and hand saws.

We generated quite a pile of prunings by the end of the work and had a good bon fire to clean it all up last week at the end of the work, but before the fire bans come back into force.

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Recently, it was our sons birthday, so I made him a panforte as a birthday cake.

With all the usual ingredients and a lot of love.

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You can read about the recipe on my blog here; 

Happy gardening and cooking.

Winter Solstice, frosts, patchwork and clay/glaze making

The Winter Solstice has come and gone and the days are going to start getting longer and the nights shorter, but the coldest part of the winter is probably yet to come.

We had a crackerjack frost a few days ago, Everything so shimmering silver/white. This mornings frost was much more mild, with just a light dusting of white in the open spaces, less so under the bare branches of the cherry trees in the Chekov orchard. The winter is really just starting, so there will probably be a few more frosts yet where that came from.

In the evenings, as there is nothing worth any attention on the idiot box. I have started to repair another pair of jeans. 

These jeans are about 4 or 5 years old and the front of the thigh part has worn through. That is the most usual place for wear for me. They were the cheapest brand of jeans. 

I had already replaced the pockets with some excellent, robust, pale yellow, linen cloth that should outlast the original flimsy thin cotton that wore through in just two years. Initially in the pocket where I carry my car keys, but then the other pocket as well, just after that. Then it was the edge of the pocket where the new linen lining meets the blue denim.

I reinforced that edge with some red Japanese silk, It look great when it was fist done, but it isn’t really up to it, and is already starting to wear through, so will also need to be redone in the future.

This time I added a front panel of indigo dyed cotton that I bought in the markets in Kyoto a few years back.

Every time I go to Japan, I keep my eye out for street or temple markets where I can find lengths of indigo dyed, or other interesting old fabrics. These are usually some old piece of clothing that someone has unpicked. The hems and loose threads along the edges where they were stitched together are often still visible. Much of this old cloth was woven on small looms in bolts that were only 13” or 330 mm wide. The clothes were assembled by stitching these long thin strips together, to get a wider fabric.

It is an interesting phenomena that cloth dyed in indigo does not rot easily, nor is it eaten by bugs. It seems to last for ages. It certainly makes good patches for work wear like shirts and jeans.

This pair will be good for another 5 years if I keep up the maintenance. The pair that I’m currently wearing to work in the pottery are over ten years old now and still going OK. They have patches on the thighs and knees, as well as new pockets.

My woollen jumper was new in 2004, or 2006. I can’t quite remember. It has quite a few patches of repair, where I have darned the holes where moths have eaten through it, or sparks from welding spatter, or possibly damage incurred during stoking the wood kiln have made holes in it. They all get mended in what I think is a complimentary colour to make a colour spill pattern. It’s a work in progress, It’s 16 or more years old and still very warm and wearable. I like to make things last. i never want to throw anything out until it is really worn out. Repair and reuse, before finally recycling.

I just took a selfie of my Sunday morning jeans. I never take selfies. This must be the first time I’ve put one up on this blog. I’m dressed up to receive some very good friends for Sunday lunch, so I’ve got my best pair on. I’ve been working on these jeans for many years now. I still work in them, but this morning they are straight from the wash and are lovely and clean and suitable to welcome our close friends in. I wouldn’t wear them to try and pass through customs in. But my friends know and understand me. They won’t be affronted.

Actually, I think that work like this is verging on Art. If not a work of art, then its certainly involves some aspect of creativity. I don’t just slap on ‘iron-on’ patches from a sewing shop. I mix and match the patterns and colours to suit my mood and proclivity. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Even the arse end has some good work on it. This wear can be attributed to sitting on the wooden saddle-like seat of the ‘Leach’ treadle potters wheel. The slight swivelling/rocking motion of kicking the treadle with one lag seems to cause the butt end to wear out?

This last week we have made new batches of clay bodies to re-stock the clay boxes. I made a batch of the Mittagong halloysite porcelain from the mafia site. 

This weathered stone is pretty well kaolinised, or in this case ‘Halloyositised’. This makes the stone somewhat crumbly and easily crushed, because the mica and felspars are broken down and weathered from igneous stone to clay-like substance, this causes the loss of some of the alkali fluxes. The stone can then becomes slightly clay-like and less stone-like. However, this creates a minor problem, because as the stone becomes more friable and easily crushed. It can’t be put through the jaw crusher, as the increased clay content causes the crusher to clag up and jam. 

There are two options. The first is to calcine the stone in the bisque kiln and then it will become dry and brittle and easily passed through the crushers and ball mill, but this will completely eliminate the plasticity. So I only do this if I intend to make it into a glaze. If I want to make a porcelain body, I need to retain the plasticity, so the way to extract the clay fragment is to soak the sample in water and then stir it up into a liquid slip. This is called ‘blunging’. However, to make it smooth I need to pass it through a fine screen to eliminate all the unweathered stone fragments that are mostly mica, felspar and silica. In this case, I want all these minerals in the finished porcelain body to create the flux to make it melt and become translucent. This problem is solved by then ball milling the grit residue on the screen and then remixing to two together. This is a rather long and tedious job and I used to do this before I got a roller mill.

The best machine for this kind of material is a roller crusher. I actually have one of these, but it was burnt in the fire and I haven’t managed to find the time to rebuild it. It is still sitting on the crusher room floor in pieces waiting for a quiet period when I get bored 🙂  so that I can find the time to repair/rebuild it. Watch this space. Everything gets done eventually.

In the meantime, in the absence of any mechanical assistance. I decided to crush all the material by hand in the large mortar and pestle, before ball milling it all into a fine porcelain clay body. I used to do this when I was at Art School, as a mortar and pestle was the only piece of crushing equipment that I owned at that time. I still hand-crush small samples up to a few hundred grams for initial testing of field samples. It is quicker than cleaning out one of the bigger machines after use. It’s just like all those kitchen gadgets that are supposed to save so much time, but end up taking longer when you factor in the cleaning and drying, and then reassembly time before returning the gadget to the ‘stuff-that-is rarely-used’ cupboard.

Once reduced to a suitable size, it goes into one of the the mills.

After ball milling, I pass the slip through a 100# screen to remove any coarse particles that may have escaped milling. This halloysite porcelain sample has some iron contamination, so appears a little yellowish in the slip form. This slight iron staining helps create a lovely mahogany ‘flashing’ on the surface during wood firing. The Mafia halloysite is quite variable and is prone to severe warping during the early stages of firing when the halloysite tube-like clay crystals break down and re-form as fractured platelet shards. In this unstable state, the pots can warp and/or crack, so I have found it wise to blend it with some of my other porcelain clay or plastic kaolin to help stabilise the body.

In this most recently collected Mittagong halloysite sample, the site had been eroded badly in the recent rains and all the best and whitest, material had been washed away. Simply because it was the most friable and easier to dissolve in water. Because the remaining material was less weathered and darker than I wanted, I blended it with some more reliable local kaolin based porcelain. 

I have been finding the loading and unloading of the porcelain balls into the larger porcelain ball mill jar quite hard on my back as I age. I have had to load the balls in and out in small handfuls. It takes time and requires and lot of bending and effort. So recently, I built myself a couple of new PVC ball mill jars. These a significantly lighter, although the porcelain balls still weigh quite a bit. For these lighter PVC jars, I made a stainless steel mesh inset for the spare lid. I can easily change the lids and simply up-end the jar over a bucket and let the charge all drain out. I partially refill them with fresh water, roll them along the floor to rinse the balls clean then re drain into the bucket.

The jars are then ready for a refill and to be used again. The balls never leave the jar. So much quicker and easier.

These new PVC jars are made from cheap, standard, over-the-counter, plumbing parts. They are larger, but lighter, than the old one, and I made them so that I can fit two of them on the roller at once. So now I’m able to get more done in the same amount of time..

As I have been throwing and turning the porcelain. I have been collecting the turnings, they pile up like so much fettuccini pasta strands in the hopelessly small Shimpo wheel tray that need to be emptied every few minutes. In the old pottery, I took the plastic trays off and had the wheels in enclosures, so that all the turnings just spilt out onto the floor, but it was a big job to clean it all out and wasn’t suited to the sort of work that I now do, that involves using a large number of different, experimental, small batch, sericite and halloysite porcelain bodies.

So I persist with the tiny tray so that I can recycle each different sericite porcelain body separately to maintain its integrity.

I have been collecting and drying the turnings, then calcining them in the bisque kiln and finally ball milling them to a fine powder to make a porcelain glaze from the porcelain body.

The raw, dried turnings

The same turnings after being fired in the bisque kiln. The low temperature oxidised firing turns the calcined porcelain slightly pink.

The powdered glaze material in the ball mill after milling, ready to make porcelain glaze. 80% porcelain body and 20% lime.

A simple glaze recipe, Self reliance all the way along the line. DIY.

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

Open Studio Sale

Janine and I had a very good Open Studio Weekend Sale. 

We are part of an artist collective organised by a local lady called Erin Adams, she came up with the idea of the ‘Pop-Up’ Open Studios artists collective and herded all of us cats into a cohesive group. A tremendous job of work on her part, and we are very grateful to her for her organising ability.

Over this long weekend, we had over 30 visitors each day, for the 3 days, and almost everyone bought a pot, so we were chuffed.

The weather leading up to the weekend was awful. Freezing temperatures and blowing a gale. We had power outages, with trees blown down over power lines, for 2 days beforehand.

I was starting to think that no one will turn up. Nobody would want to brave all this weather to come out here.

As it turned out. Lots of people came out to Balmoral Village to see us. Most of the ‘Open Studios’ are located in and around the towns of Mittagong and Bowral here in the Southern Highlands. It is a well recognised tourist destination for people from Sydney, and it is easy to flit around and visit all of those local studios about town, without having to spend much time driving between them. You are also in close proximity to cafes, restaurants and coffee shops. 

As we are 25 km out of town, it’s a half hour drive to get out here and the same to get back again. So we appreciate the effort that the locals put in to get out here. However, what was amazing was the number of people who drove down from Sydney to come and visit us. About 2/3 of our visitors were from the greater Sydney area. So Thank You very much to all of you who made the long drive of 2+ hours or so each way.

Luckily, we had our friends Susan and Dave here for a few days to help us clean up, set up, and then help us with selling and wrapping for the first couple of days. It made the job go so much easier. Thank you Susan and Dave! 

I had made a batch of Tea Pots for the sale and sold most of them. I like making tea pots, they are an interesting challenge. You need to make all the different parts in the correct proportions to fit together in a unified design, but they also need to perform their function properly once fired.

The shelves are greatly depleted now. I love making pots, so its great to have space to make more things.

In the past couple of weeks, I developed a new high calcium porcelain glaze that has a lovely ‘streaking’ quality. I works well with a thin, soft pigment wash.

The pigment highlights the texture of the glaze. It also feels very soft and buttery to the touch.

In the days leading up to the Open Studio, I baked a loaf of bread in the pottery wood fired oven and although it took longer than it would have in the house oven, it turned out very well. This new oven has its own personality and will take a few goes to get used to.

I prepared the dough in the house as usual, and then put it in a cast iron pot in the pottery oven.

I also made a couple of panforte cakes for the open weekend, to share with visitors. Panforte translates from the Italian as ‘strong bread’. It is a small, solid, flat loaf of sweet bread, filled with dried fruits and held together with some honey and flavoured with a few spices like cinnamon and cloves. The recipe was listed here in an earlier blog. Search ‘panforte’ on the home page search box.

The dried fruits are measured out and mixed with the flour, before adding the honey water and spooned into my homemade stainless panforte rings on a buttered baking tray.

Spoon the mixture into the rings and press it down to fill them well, then bake at 180oC for 40/45 mins.

When the cakes come out of the oven, I sprinkle on a mixture of castor sugar, cinnamon and flour as a decoration. Served in thin slices, they go very well with tea or coffee.

Now that the Sale is over, it’s back to work. Our first job is to chain saw logs to refill the wood shed with fuel. 

We have been so busy potting to get everything ready, we burnt a lot of wood in the house and studio stoves, to keep us warm during this very cold start to winter. We burnt so much wood, that we started to run low in the wood shed.

So today was wood chopping day. Out with the chain saws, the wheel barrow and the mini tractor.

We have no shortage of dead trees after the fire, but they need to be chain-sawn into short lengths and then carted to the wood shed where they are split and stacked, ready for use.

A good days work and ready for the next job. This is self reliance. Nothing lasts, nothing is perfect and nothing is ever finished.

Our on-going pug mill saga

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been making pots, working towards the June Long Weekend ‘Pop-Up’ Open Studio Weekend.

I have finished building work for a while. I need to be making pots, no more work on the house until later in the year. I still need to fireproof the facia and eves of the roof against ember attack. The roof is now completely watertight. That’s the first step complete. Andy came back to help me fit the last sheet of roofing iron and then screw down the ridge capping, while I followed behind peening the ridge capping into the corrugations of the roofing iron. A very solid, proper, solid job of roofing. I’m glad that roof work is now over for some time. 

In the pottery we have been throwing and turning domestic items like cups, bowl and plates to fill out the shelves for our Open Studio Sale. 

I made 100 cups.

On the on-going pug mill front. I stripped down the big blue pug mill and took the motor off and sent it away to be re-wound and repaired – if that is at all possible? I should know in a weeks time. In the mean time, I took the worn-out vacuum pump off the purple pug and swapped it for the good one that was on the blue pug. So now I have a good working 3” purple pug that we are using for our white stoneware clay and the buggered vacuum pump is now on the blue pug mill that has no motor. A matching pair of non-goers. Well for the time being at least. I will get back onto that problem after our Open Studio Sale. 

The blue pug is hoisted up onto a tressle to keep all the new, clean gear box oil down in the gear box while I take off the motor. There is no easy, clean way to drain the oil without some mess, so I’m leaving it here for the time being. Hopefully the motor can be rebuilt and back on the machine within a week or so?

I rang my friend John Edye recently and enquired about the 4” Venco Pug mill that he had for sale a while ago. I bought a lot of his equipment last year when he retired. I didn’t make an offer on the pug mill, as I thought that I was going to get a couple of pug mills from other friends. As these have proved to be a little bit problematic. A rang John and asked if the big pug was still for sale and amazingly it was. I’m so lucky! I bought it over the phone and made the trip up to John’s place to pick it up. Luckily, it isn’t as far away as Melbourne and I could do the return trip all in one day. John assured me that it worked, but that it had a lot of corrosion inside the barrel. I’ve dealt with that before over the years by fill ing the worst holes with a home made epoxy based filler, or ‘wick-in’ thread sealant, that seeps into crevices and sets in the absence of air.

When I got the pug mill home, I was able to lift it off the truck and straight onto a wheeled, steel pug trolley that I had welded up in advance. I even had a vacuum pump cradle welded on underneath for the pump. These machines are way too heavy for me to lift, so having them on a mobile trolley is the way to think about them.

It’s interesting that this machine is the first model of Venco 4” vacuum pug mill and presumably dates from the late 1970’s. It has an inline plunger handle and all the castings are different from the later models.

I had a bit of trouble getting all the bolts loose to strip the pug down to clean it out. A few bolts needed the impact-driver to get loose and one snapped off, requiring the hole to be drilled out and the thread re-tapped. Slow and a little bit tedious, but all do-able.

The pitting is deep, but hasn’t gone through the wall and with a little bit of maintenance, will see me out I’m sure. I cleaned everything back to the metal. There was a lot of flakey white aluminium oxide to clean off.

Some etch primer, followed by a couple of coats of paint and it is all back together now and ready for work. I’m not too sure how John will take the new colour scheme I’ve chosen to cheer up the clay making area of the workshop? Pink, purple and mauve, with a little bit of black detailing. I like it!

When all of this clay making machinery trouble is all sorted out, it will make our life so much easier. I am committed to making almost everything myself. To be as self-reliant as possible, in food, in water, in electricity, in wood fuel, and this extends to clay and glaze making in the pottery. The principal difficulty that I am dealing with here is that I’m trying to replace in a couple of years, what it took me to build up over the past 40 years of life experience. I don’t remember it being so difficult in the past, but I guess that I was only dealing with one or two problems per year over that extended time. Now I’m trying to do everything at once. It is a bit easier this time around as I have more life experience and more skills, but I’m so much older now and I don’t have the same energy that I used to. I certainly find it harder to go back down to the workshop at night, after dinner and continue working. Although I still do sometimes!

Running Repairs and Fixing Old Stuff

This last few weeks has seen us making pots, but also getting into some serious repairs and maintenance.

I was outside digging over the ‘cottage garden’ preparing the soil for sowing seeds of a spring/summer flower garden show of colour. I know that now is the time to plant out seeds for spring in this flower garden, as in the veggie garden, where we go almost everyday to harvest food for dinner, do a little bit of weeding and plant out successive sowings of vegetable seeds. I see that the red ‘Flanders’ poppies are germinating in the freshly dug soil where I have recently planted garlic cloves. Poppies decide when the time is right to germinate, but they will only germinate in freshly turned soil. So now is the time to dig over the cottage garden site.

I whipper snipped all the old foliage into mulch, raked it all up and onto the compost, or used it as mulch in other places in the yard. 

I took what I thought was the easy alternative of using the cultivator. Not so! I only got 1/4 of the way round and the fuel line blocked up. This machine is a little beauty. I bought it 45 years ago, second hand for $50. It has just gone and gone and gone on working. I only use it a few times a year, but it is so much quicker and easier than hand digging with a garden fork if there is a lot to do. I tweaked the old rubber fuel line and it just snapped clean off in my hand, trailing petrol straight down onto the soil until the small petrol tank was emptied. I walked to the shed and got a pair of pliers to remove the stub end of the fuel line. It was very brittle as its quite old. I have replaced the fuel line a couple of times over the 45 years that I have owned it. The remaining length of line is too short to re-join for a temporary fix, so its another long walk to get some more fresh fuel line from the maintenance shed. With repairs completed, another walk to the fuel shed to get some more petrol and I’m back in business, just a half hour later.

I love this old cultivator. It’s just like me. Out of date and long past its use-by date, but it just seems to be able to keep on going, and going. So solid, reliable and old fashioned. Not very complicated. A good worker. I’m happy to spend time maintaining it to keep it working. It’s a pleasure to be able to own and use such a lovely old Australian made, solid machine that works so simply and so well.

I completed what I set out to do with no more interruptions. Luckily, I had all the parts that I needed on hand, so the job was started and finished on the same day. It’s not always so.

We borrowed Sandy Lockwood’s small pug mill over Xmas and January, as she wasn’t using it over the break and was happy to lend it to us. My wrists weren’t up to wedging another quarter tonne of clay again, so It worked out very well for us both, because after we had finished pugging the new batch of clay and also working through all our stored up re-cycled and bagged turnings and throwing slip. I pulled the pug mill to bits and cleaned it right out. I even saw that the chassis was getting a bit rusted in places, so I cleaned it back, rust converted it and painted it black again. Good as new when we returned it. This pug mill has never been in such good condition since it was built.

That batch of clay is now all used up, so we need to be getting on with getting another pug mill working. 

In the old pottery, before the fire, we had two 4” or 100mm dia. Venco vacuum pug mills. One for white clay and one for dark clay. I also had a 3” or a 75mm dia. stainless steel pug mill just for porcelain clay and finally we had a very small 2” or 50mm dia. stainless steel pug for small batches of test bodies and recycling of turnings. That was such a good position to be in. Luxury really. It took me over 40 years to get to that position.

At the beginning of the year, we were given a pug mill from our friend Toni Warburton. It hadn’t been used for a long time. Perhaps 20 or more years? It had been stored in her back shed for time out of mind and was full of dried out clay. That’s not such a problem. What was a problem, was that it had never been taken apart. so all the bolts holding the 2 halves of the pug mill barrel together were rusted and swollen up in their sockets. They couldn’t be removed or even rotated. I could have snapped off the heads trying to get them loose, but then the shattered off ends would have made them very difficult to drill out accurately. So I decided to just drill them all out straight from scratch. A very long and difficult job.

Drilling out all 8 of the bolts took some time. They were all 90mm long, so I started off with a 3mm pilot hole, then increasing from 5 to 7, and then 9mm drill bits, until the bolt was completely hollowed out and could be removed.

I was wondering if I would get away with it, but I didn’t snap off any drill bits, especially the first 3mm drill bit. That would have certainly put an end to it.

Once I got the barrel apart, I could clean out the dry clay and start to clean it up. The pug mill had previously been used to prepare dark iron bearing terracotta clay. However, I want to use it for white stoneware, so It had to be cleaned out very well. scrupulously well. I made a thorough job of it, starting out with a paint scraper and generally progressing from hand held wire brush, through to a circular wire brush in an electric drill and finishing off with an angle grinder for the most stubborn bits. 

I set about removing every trace of terracotta from both the barrel castings and the stainless steel blades and shaft. They cleaned up pretty well. I ground the barrel back to bare metal and gave it a good coat of etch primer to seal it. This wont last in the places of heaviest wear, like in front of the shredding screens and in the reduction cone of the barrel, but elsewhere it will help minimise the ‘salt’ corrosion caused by the alkalis in the clay reacting with the bare aluminium metal under very wet and humid conditions. The barrel is cast out of marine aluminium, but eventually it still corrodes. In the last pottery, I replaced the oldest barrel that I had on my oldest ’70’s ‘Venco’ pug mill in 1984. It was starting to get corrosion patches breaking through the barrel after 35 years! I kept sealing them with ‘LockTite’ ‘wick-in’ each time I took it to bits and serviced it. The Locktite seeps into the crevices and then ‘gels’ to seal off the void.  Very cleaver. If this barrel lasts that long, it wont be my problem! Someone else will have to deal with it.

Toni had christened this pub mill ‘Pugsly’, so that is its name now and forever. However, I gave Pugsly a bit of a spruce-up and a new coat of paint. 

Bright and cheerful and ready for work. I mounted the vac pump underneath to keep them both close coupled and easy to move around on the one solid castor unit.

This will be our old, but new, porcelain pug mill.

Last year our good friend Jane Sawyer offered us her old Venco pug. She had bought it 2nd hand in the 90’s. She offered it to us as she wasn’t using it anymore. She has another one at ’SlowClay’. This pugmill had stopped working at some stage and was surplus to her needs. We had tried to get it trucked up to Sydney, but no taxi truck company wanted to take on the job of delivering it to the trucking depot for transfer to Sydney. The only quotes I could get were approaching upwards of $1,000. Way too much! So at the start of April. Janine and I made a lightning trip down to Melbourne to collect it. We drove down in the ute, as it has a crane on the back, built for lifting such heavy gear as this. We had 3 days with Jane and took a day of rest to walk into and around Melbourne. The 10 hour drive each way was a bit boring. We changed drivers every 2 hours. It has been a very long time since I drove to Melbourne. The road is all dual carriage way now and a very comfortable drive. The truck is not particularly fuel efficient, so the 20 hour drive cost us $300 in petrol. 1/3 the cost of getting it trucked. But at least we now have it! The best part was that we got to spend a few days with Jane. And, It arrived home safely without being damaged in transit!

This image by Jane Sawyer.

Once home I started to get the pug mill to bits to clean it out. It had also been used for terracotta, so a lot of cleaning was needed. The motor still made a noise when switched on, but instantly went into overload, shut down and stopped humming. It appeared that either the gear box was broken, jammed or a bearing was seized. The only way to find out was to strip it all down to basics. This was easier said than done.

The bottom half of the barrel had seized bolts. I snapped off one of them trying to get it loose, so decided to drill out the other. Once the barrel was off, I tried to remove the collar connecting the gearbox to the barrel. This is where the problem lay. Once I got the bolts out the collar and shaft could only rotate together when I switched on the motor. I eventually got the shaft away from the gearbox, but the collar was very firmly jammed onto the shaft.

I spent a week heating, quenching, oiling, and tapping, several times a day. Whenever I went past. I eventually put the collar in the vice and hit the shaft with a sledge hammer. Gently at first, using a hardwood block to cushion the blow. Nothing happened, so I hit it harder, still nothing. Then I hit it really hard and split the wooden block! But there was possibly a little bit of movement – but only possibly. Was I imagining it? Another hard wood block, and another blow from the sledge hammer saw it definitely move 1 mm.! I dosed it quite liberally with RP7 and left it over night. Several days and 3 hard wood blocks later, the shaft was free.

I discovered that the grease cap on the collar was blocked, so the collar was badly corroded and had swollen up and jammed onto the shaft. The lubricating tube was so badly blocked I couldn’t clear it out. I decided that it was easier to drill out a new greasing tube through the collar to be able to lubricate the shaft into the future.

I welded up a new steel pug mill table/trolley on castors, so that I can move the very heavy pug mill around in the future. I made an under carriage to carry the vacuum pump together with the pug, so that I don’t have to move the vacuum pump separately. This will be our new/old white stoneware pug mill. I’m still waiting to get my hands on another 4” Venco vacuum pug mill for the buff/brown stoneware wood fire clay body. It’ll happen. I just need to be patient.

Bit by bit, slowly, slowly. We are getting everything back to where we were before the fire.

There is a huge sense of satisfaction in being able to take other peoples unused and non-functional pieces of equipment and bring them back into productive use for very little money, by more or less only using my own labour, ingenuity and time. I’ve never done this kind of thing before, so it’s all new to me. I’m just making it up as I go along. There isn’t anything in life that teaches you how to disassemble a pugmill with a seized shaft. I’m lucky. It all worked out well.

It’s an honour and a privilege to own and use these personal links and connections to my friends. There is so much embedded energy in these machines, it’s important to keep them going and avoid waste. it is a delight to see them working properly and being productive again.

We are so lucky to have such Generous, helpful and supportive friends.

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

The Strange Pleasure of Self-imposed over-work

This last week I finally got around to replacing our very old roof on the Old School classroom. 129 years old in fact.

I have had it on my ‘to-do’ list for some years now, but I have always been too busy.

However, as I have been getting older and less virile, I realised that I needed to get on with it without too much delay.

We were getting a few drips in during heavy weather, but not too bad. Just enough to warn me that this needed to be treated as a priority.

Then the fire came and I suddenly realised that the roof was the weakest part of my bush fire protection. 

The old iron sheeting was coming loose from its screws and gaps were appearing in-between the over laps of the joints. This was also adding to the rusting and leaking.

Since the fire, I have been so completely focussed on re-building and getting back to my proper work of making beautiful things, that I had to ignore the pressing need to replace the roof.

Then the floods. We had more and larger leaks in the lounge room during the recent torrential rain events, so the roof had to be dealt with.

I had asked my friend Andy, who is a very skilful builder, to give me hand to replace the roof, as I wasn’t at all confident to be up on the 6 metre scaffold and then onto the 30 degree pitch of the roof.

Just a few months before the fire I had single handedly replaced the north face of the old pottery roof over 2 days, replacing the roofing batons and the insulation as well.

But that was then. I have lost a bit of confidence up on roofs and ladders since then with all that I have been through. It’s shaken my self confidence. I think that the experience of the fire has aged me.

Particularly the episode of climbing into the big pine tree up 7 or 8 metres to chain saw off the burning branches over hanging the house during the fire.

I haven’t been the same man since. It took something out of me that day and I haven’t been able to recover it.

Anyway, Andy said that he would help me out, but not during the summer, when it would be too hot for roof work, so last week was the time. He had a few days free. 

I had ordered all the materials a few weeks beforehand, and I also asked my neighbour Larry to give us a hand, as it is good to have someone on the ground to pass things up when the ladder is 6 metres up and down. Over the years I have had Larry over here occasionally. I taught him to Mig weld and on several occasions he has brought sheet metal jobs over here for me to cut up in the guillotine and bend in the pan break etc. We have developed a barter system of swapping labour on jobs that we can’t do alone.

Over 3 days from Monday to Wednesday, we built the scaffolding, stripped the old roof in sections, insulated the ceiling with more insuwool batts, Checked the old roofing timbers and structural joints. Which turned out to be amazingly sound and better quality than any modern-day, fresh hardwood available for sale locally. I was really thrilled. It was such a solid build.

I had expected to have to replace the batons at least. We improved the structure by bolting the timber roof batons onto the rafters as a safety precaution, as those 129 year old nails were starting to look a little rusty.

We ceiled the roof cavity with ‘anticon’ sheeting and fibreglass insulation, to bring the structure up to the current ‘BAL40’ Australian Standard bushfire fire-proofing. 

Then fixed new single length gal iron roof sheeting back onto the roof. By doing it in sections, the whole roof was never exposed all in one go. This was a precaution against any possible sudden change in the weather.

We were lucky. It didn’t really rain very much and the days were not too hot or too windy, so we finished most of the job in 3 days. 

There is still a lot more to do, but this was the most pressing and difficult part.

After climbing the 6m ladder 20 to 30 times a day carrying up all the materials and tools etc. My thigh muscles were screaming from over use, and it didn’t get any easier by day 3, but then we had Thursday off, as Andy had another appointment, so on the Friday as we did the flashing, the front ladder was so much lower to get onto the front verandah. That meant less ladder climbing, so my legs and knees were coping much better.

I fell into bed each night with a sense of relief, but also a hovering feeling of extreme tiredness bordering on exhaustion. All self inflicted and well earned. 

The trade-off for this minor pain is that I now have a roof that doesn’t leak in heavy rain, but most importantly, a roof that is better designed to survive the next catastrophic bush fire.

That’s a relief! I’m really too old for all this kind of ladder and roof work, but it just needs to be done.

The new roof has cost me about $5,000 in materials. I’m pretty sure that it would have cost me 4 times that much if I had got a roofing company to do it. Self-reliance has its strange pleasures.

The next job is to fire proof the timber end gables and under the eves to stop ember attack. 

But first I need a good rest. I have some big porcelain bowls in the damp cupboard that need turning. A change is as good as a holiday I’m told.