Self-reliance in dry times

As the drought deepens and the climate crisis escalates unchecked, with our politicians heads firmly buried deep in the sand. Crisis, What crisis? We muddle on in our independent, self-reliant, way. With the dam water very low. Actually, extremely low. We are saving what water we have in it for use in the coming weeks with the imminent arrival of the massive bush fire that is ravaging a lot of Eastern New South Wales.

The fire closest to us has burned over 112,000 hectares, or half a million acres, in the last two weeks. It is now just 17 km for our Village. When the next hot, dry, North Westerly wind blows in it will bring it here. Currently, the wind is in our favour and mostly blowing from the west. Inevitably to will swing around at some point. Then our time will come to deal with it Nothing can put out a fire of this scale – only good heavy prolonged rain. That is unlikely in the next month or two. So we just sit and wait.

We have tested all the roof and wall mounted sprinkler systems on the house, pottery, barn and kiln shed. I have even set up temporary, ground mounted, sprinklers on hoses in front of the wood shed and Railway Station building. We have done everything that we can, so now we wait.

The sun is orange because there is so much smoke and fall out from the sky of charred leaves and fine ash, it slowly blankets every thing. The car is covered in fine dust. All the roofs are dusty. Today I had to wash the solar panels 3 times, with mop and squeegee and 3 changes of water in the bucket, in order to get the water to run almost clear. The output from the system jumped up almost 500 watts straight away as I was washing the panels. Not just because they were cleaner, but the washing would have cooled them and made them more efficient.

We have scaled back our summer vegetable garden to just about half its usual size to reduce our water usage and we are only watering the younger and most dependant fruit tress that are one and two years old. All the older trees with deeper and more established root systems are having to fend for themselves. Several garden plants and a couple of older native trees have just keeled over and snuffed it. The times they are a changing. We will emerge from this very dry period with a different garden. When the rains come, it will probably flood. We have been told to expect more extremes in the weather. We will find out which plants can cope with draught and flood.

We have been doleing out our drinking water from the water tanks to keep the blue berries and young berries alive and producing, as well as the early peaches. That will be the sum total of our fruit for this summer. It’s all we can manage to support. Other trees that are not being watered, like the quince trees, have shed all their small partially formed fruit in an effort to save them selves. Ditto, the apples and pears. All four of our fig trees appear to have died, dropped all their leaves, turned brown and lost any sign of green tips at the dried out buds. I spoke to our neighbour at the shopping centre yesterday, and she told me that her parents are buying two truck loads of water each week to keep their garden alive. That’s hundreds of dollars worth of water being trucked in. We have never had to buy water in the past 43 years of our life here. We are frugal and we have planned well in advance. I guess that we will have to learn to live without figs. A small price to ask. But I can’t help but think, which trees are next?

In the mean time we have peaches, youngberries and blue berries to pick and preserve. This last basket full of the early peaches smell divine, fresh off the tree and so warm and fragrant. They are such a treasure, we eat most of them raw for breakfast and deserts, but we also vacuum seal some of them for later.

Todays job was to pick the berries. Both Young and blue. This will be the last pick of young berries, the canes started producing on the 24th of November. A whole month earlier than when they were first planted in 1977. We remove the netting and let the chooks in to clean up. The birds will get all the other higher odds and ends. We roll up the net and dismantle the hoop frames. Stored away till this time next year.

This last pick is about 700 g, making a rather small harvest this year, but exceptional, given the difficult conditions. We harvested about 5 to 6 kilos altogether. We have youngberry ice-cream in the freezer and 5 jars of vacuum sealed fruit in the pantry. It’s a pleasing reward for our efforts.

Janine whips berry puree into our local, pure, Picton dairy cream to make ice-cream. Nothing could be more natural and flavoursome. This has to be the most delicious way to get plaque build up in your arteries. At least there are no colours, preservatives, chemicals or artificial substances in there. Not too much sugar either.

The blue berries haven’t looked back since we potted them and moved them into the netted vegetable garden as a border. This keeps the birds off and makes sure that they get a bit of water every time we water the veggies. They reward us with their fruit. 3 kgs so far this summer and the season has only just begun. The will continue fruiting for a couple of months, into February, as we have chosen early, medium and late varieties.

Blue berries ripen over time, with only just a few ripe blue ones every so often spread out over all the little bunches. They are quite time consuming to pick. But which fruit isn’t? We have to pluck each individual berry from its neighbour in the tight little clusters. Today we manage 700g in half an hour with both of us at it. I have no idea how they produce these things commercially for just a few dollars per punnet. Slave labour?

Its a beautiful and rewarding thing to share this wholesome activity together. We are managing to eat them all fresh for breakfast and desserts so far, but there comes a time when the novelty wears off and we start to freeze some for later. Janine has experimented and learnt to make a beautiful blueberry sauce with a little brandy and cream. We force our selves to eat it 🙂

Banana fritters with berry ice-cream as a second course for breakfast after the berry fruit salad. Someones got to do it!

Transhumance of water

The transhumance is usually applied to the seasonal movement of livestock in Europe following good the pasture from lowland to highland in the spring for example. Janine and I have been in Europe on two occasions and witnessed a small part of this seasonal, ancient, ritual passage of people and animals. It was a beautiful experience, to witness this event, watching the farmer, his family and their dogs walking the herd of cows down the mountain pass, back to the safety of the lowland farm and its barn with its stocks of hay and silage to sustain the animals through the cold winter.

For Janine and I here on our few acres, we ‘husband’ the passage of water back up hill from the lower dams, up to the higher ‘house’ dam for safe storage over the coming hot dry summer. Back when the weather was more reliable, the winter rains would flow into the upper dam and it would overflow down into the next dam, and then from there, when the 2nd dam filled, it would over flow down into the next dam, etc. etc. We have created what is known as a ‘keyline’ system of dames, so that nothing is wasted. That was of course when it used to rain.

These days it doesn’t rain enough to fill all the dams, but they do have a small amount in each of the 2 lower dams. The big top dam, ‘Max Like’, is totally dry. but it is worth harvesting the water from the two lower dams and collecting it all in one place to minimise evaporation. The surface area is essentially the same, but the water storage is 3 times deeper.

So today I started the water-transhumance for this year. The water is supposed to flow down in the winter and be pumped back in the summer. I don’t have much to work with, but in this way I can get the best out of what I have.

I pumped the bottom dam down to a level that gave me most of the water, but left a little bit for the locals.

My next job is to move the pump up to the 2nd dam and start shifting it up to the top dam. By the end of the day we should have moved most of the water. There is a big rock in the top dam, when we can see the rock, it means that we are almost out of water. By the time I’ve pumped all this water up to the top dam, the rock will disappear.

Mission accomplished. The home dam is filled sufficiently to cover the rock. That means that we now have over 600mm. deep storage, all in one spot, which minimises the evaporation in there coming hotter weather.

While the water was pumping up by itself. I only need to check it every 15 mins to make sure that all is going well. In the mean time I finish filling in the syphon guttering trench and I make new guttering for the western side of the barn. I was quoted $110 per meter for a professional guttering job. I manage to do it in 3 hours for $147! I just saved myself over $1,000! This is how we can manage to live here on such a small income. Independence through frugal self reliance.

I have spent this long week doing repair and maintenance jobs, from replacing the tin roof on the pottery, renewing the syphon gutter and digging trenches through hard packed dirt, making gutters and down spouts, now shifting water.

Every step I’ve taken this week was involved in water in some way. You never miss your water till your well runs dry!

I’m hoping that I won’t miss any water and that my tanks won’t run dry.

Rainwater catchment

As the weather has slowly dried out over the four and a bit decades that we have lived here, the dams that we dug when we arrived here in 1976, and worked so well for 20 years, are now all dried out. We haven’t had significant rain fall to saturate the ground and flow down the gutters and channels into those dams. So we find ourselves towards the end of spring now with virtually no water in the dams. This is the 3rd year with no significant flows into the dams and the 2nd decade where the dams don’t fill to overflowing. i can’t remember a time when they were all full.

It is quite shocking to me to have to start the year with just 500mm. of water in our main dam. That will only last a couple of hours in a fire situation – if it came today! But there won’t be this much water left in there in a month or twos time, at the height of summer – if any! Evaporation will see an end to that little bit of water that is left.

Our biggest dam, built specially to irrigate the vineyard, we called Max Lake! It is now bone dry since last week, the final little puddles evaporated away in the heat and the wind. No water flowed into it for at least 3 years. It was once a glorious swimming hole in years past. Particularly when our son was young, we had a lot of fun swimming in there over summer. 2 metres deep of serious fun filled water. Now home to just a few dried out reeds.

We used to rely on the dams for our irrigation water and fire fighting reserves. But no more. We have to think differently now. This is now the new normal. We have managed to get through the past few summers using our tank water storage. We have put a lot of effort into installing water tanks on every roof on our land. This has worked very well up until now, But this year we are not quite through spring and we have almost emptied one of our two large water tanks, mostly through watering the garden and orchards. With the global crisis deepening, I can see a time when we will run out of water before the end of summer in coming years.

The most pressing question on my mind right now is what will we use to fight bush fires in late summer and autumn. I guess that we will have to buy water and have it trucked in. Not a happy thought. In particular because when disaster strikes, every one will be wanting water delivered and only the regular customers will be getting service. I know how it works. We have never bought water for 40 years. We don’t even know who sells it these days. So we shouldn’t be relying on that to save us. In a funny quirk of fate, those of us in this village who are poorly prepared and always buy water, will get it, as they must, because they are the most needy. We, on the other hand, have spent our lives trying to be prepared as best that we can be, and are almost totally self-reliant, We will be the the ones to be left to fend for ourselves – as we always have.

Water storage is very finite and with every roof already having a water tank connected to it. Our options are limited. We have purchased a new, smaller sized, water tank every year now for the past 4 years. Installing those tanks on all the smaller tin roofs on the little sheds, and even the little railway station building has two. Just so that there isn’t any water allowed to be wasted. Once caught and held, then we can use it later at our discretion.

Having thought through the possibilities. We decided to up-grade to a much larger water tank on the barn. The barn has a huge roof, but only a relatively small 1,000 gallon/4,500 litre water tank that we put on there almost 20 years ago when we built the barn, to satisfy the local council building inspectors. We don’t use it for the garden at all. It is there with it’s own independent pump to supply the roof and wall sprinklers that I fitted to the building specifically for fire fighting. As it’s only been used twice in its life. It remains constantly full. However, when it rains and the tank overflows, I have the overflow connected into the plumbing system that delivers the water from all 3 big sheds into the 120,000 litre concrete water tank at the bottom of our block. This is the tank that is now almost empty. I can connect the new proposed tank in parallel with the old one. That way, I only need to do a bit of plumbing.

I realise that I can add a 7,500 gallon/35,000 litre water tank on the other side of the building. This is a significant exercise, cutting a 4.5 metre diameter level base through the top soil and placing 2 cubic metres of fine basalt dust, then spreading it and compacting it to make a solid base for the tank to sit on. I’ve been at this job since Friday last week. The base is done now, so I have turned my attention to the roof plumbing. I need to put in a syphon gutter system to take the water to the other side of the shed.

I wonder why it is that I seem to end up doing these jobs in such hot weather. Answer. every day is hot these days. Summer starts 3 months earlier and goes on for another 3 months longer. We are having 9 months of summer these past few years.

The old saying goes, When is the best time to plant a tree? The answer is, 20 years ago! That is also the answer to when I should have put in this larger tank, but I was already fully committed 20 years ago to installing the water tanks that we already do have now. So now is the best time for this new tank! When it rains again, as it most certainly will. We will fill this tank with rain water and be better off in the future. This is just forward planning!

So, today I’m digging this trench into rock hard dirt that is as tough as concrete. I end up having to use a crow bar and a pick to penetrate the soil. I give up pretty quickly and go and get the tractor to try ripping a groove into the hard packed, baked soil. I end up bending parts of the the tractor and need to go to the toy shop, formally known as the kiln factory, to put the bent and broken parts under the hydraulic press and bend them back into shape. If nothing else, I get to spend a few minutes out of the full sun, in the shade, in the shed, making good the repairs. I love the toy shop! I can fix almost anything in there – one way or another.

By the end of the day, I’m pretty rats, but the hole is dug and the pipes are laid and blue-glued together. The new lengths of guttering should be delivered tomorrow?! I should have it all back together by the day after. It can rain by the end of the week and I’ll be OK with that.

As for the new water tank, well, I haven’t even ordered that as yet. First things first. Watch this space !

At the end of this days tough work, I go to the garden and find that I can pick the first of this years crop of tomatoes. 3 red tomatoes, It’s the 26th of November. I can’t remember an earlier date for the first red tomato of the season. We can usually get a few before Xmas, but this is a whole month earlier than Xmas. If global warming is a communist plot to disrupt Western economies, as Donald Trump claimed, then, thank you to the Chinese Communist Party for these unseasonably early red tomatoes here in Australia. I wonder how they do it?

Maybe every dark cloud has a silver lining? I’d be happy just to see some clouds! Dark or otherwise.

The Pottery Roof Leaks

I spent a very long hot day up on the pottery roof last week. The old pottery roofing material is now over 100 years old. I’m not exactly sure how old it is, as I got it 2nd hand off the roof of the old hardware store in Bowral in 1983. The old roof had started to leak after something like 80 years of use. The old corrugated galvanised iron roofing was very well made and lasted well, but the problem with all these old roofs is that the old corrugated galvanised iron sheets could only be manufactured in short lengths back in the old days. I think that the maximum length that could be rolled was something like 8 feet or 2.4 Metres.
The up-shot of this was that all the old roofs had lots of overlapping joints to get the full length of the roof covered. Although the galvanising was good, it did suffer from condensation in the overlap. The outcome of this 80 years of condensation was for the roofing sheets to rust through in the overlapped joints. 
When I was building our new pottery back in 1983. We had just lost the earlier pottery building on the site to fire. Bummer, but onwards and upwards, no rest for the wicked, etc. We needed a new pottery building, the previous one was made entirely from timber that we had put a lot of effort into with planing and polishing, waxing  and so on, so that we could see the lovely woodgrain. Actually, we had been burnt out 7 years earlier when we were renting a place in Dural, 120 km. to the North. We lost that pottery on an intense fire day that took 7 other houses. We were lucky to get out largely unscathed. We managed to save the rented house, but our pottery went up in the inferno. It was all timber too.
So we learnt from our mistakes, recycled timber is cheap and easy to build with, but very flammable. This time we decided to re-build with mud bricks, which we did. But that is another story! It took us 12 months to save the money, make all the bricks and then construct the building. We had no money, and a very small income from one day a week teaching job at the Art School. We had no income from selling pottery, so we had to improvise and ended up building the pottery out of what we could scrounge from the side of the road ‘clean-up’ piles and recycle yards. We managed to scrounge a big truck load of de-commissioned telegraph poles and these made the uprights. We also came across a very large pile of wafer-thin timber scantling off cuts of softwood for free. This became our ceiling. We picked up most of the doors and windows from the side of the road, and I made the rest of the doors.
We were most of the way through the construction and we still hadn’t found any roofing. I was starting to think that I might have to buy some — heaven forbid. I went down to the big hardware store in Bowral to enquire about the costs. I needed just a bit less than 200 Sq. Metres of roofing iron. The cost was outrageous. It really set me back with the shock. It was going to cost more than the total amount we had spent so far to make the entire building. I walked out of there quite disheartened. As I walked out to the parking area, around some temporary protective fencing, CRASH! There was a very loud and quite shocking noise right next to me on the other side of the barrier. Someone had thrown a sheet of roofing iron off the roof of the hardware shop. After gathering my senses, I looked up to see that some workmen were taking the old rusty roof off the hardware shop, ready to replace it. 
I walked straight back into the shop and asked if I could have the old iron off the roof? I was told with certainty that every piece was already spoken for. A dozen local builders had previously put in bids, as soon as they heard that the job was about to happen. I accepted that, but said that I would still like to be considered if there were any bits left over. I left it for the weekend and returned on the Monday and asked what was left for me? I was told that these builders were a busy lot and you can’t expect that they would drop everything to rush in to get their bits of 2nd hand rusty roofing straight away. I reminded them that I was very keen and not to forget that I was putting in my bid for what was left over. I returned every 2nd day for the next week to check on developments. On my first visit on the third week the owner told me to take the f…king lot and I never want to see your face again. Great! I had my roofing for nothing. As all the sheets had rusted through on the overlaps, I simply cut off the rusted 300mm. bits off each end and used the roofing as shorter sheets. That has worked really well for the past 36 years. Now that the roofing is well and truely over 100 years old, the new overlaps are starting to rust through again.


It’s done a sterling job for us for the past 36 years, but it is leaking consistently now whenever it rains, The worst bits leak over Janine’s decorating bench. Fortunately, it hasn’t rained very much, or very often, for the last decade as the global crisis and drought tightens and deepens. The roof still works with or without rusted overlaps on the steepest parts of the roof, but on the most horizontal areas, it has stopped being effective. It has to come off and be replaced. I think it through and decide that I had better prepare well for this job and all it’s likely contingencies, so I buy a big box full of new roofing ’TEK’ screws and a big roll of new, shiny, silver, aluminium sisalation.

Once the roofing sheets are taken off, there is no going back, everything has to go back together. i can’t afford to leave the roof off for any length of time exposed to the elements and weather.
As I start to remove the old roofing screws, I quickly learn two things. Firstly that the roofing screws are just as rusty and worn out as the iron sheeting that they are holding down. Secondly, as I spend an hour or two looking down at my feet, drilling out all the old screws, I realise that my shoes are just as worn out as the roof! I must think about getting some new shoes, but this roof desperately needs attention first. 

Some of the screws are so rusted, that they have no thread left on them, others just snap off, leaving half of the thread embedded in the roofing battens. I start to realise that I’m lucky that the roof has stayed on all these years. I don’t have the resources to replace the whole roof at this stage, it will cost $10,000 to do it all, just for the materials. As it is I’m spending about $1,000 to buy the parts to do this very bad bit now.

I started in the morning and went at it full-tilt for the rest of the day. I didn’t stop for lunch, just drank water and kept going. Janine dragged away all the old sheets as I got them loose and stacked them on the ground, while I worked at removing all the old screws. Some of these were so badly rusted that I had to use a crow bar to lift them up a bit while working at them with the screwdriver in reverse. We worked at it until very late in the afternoon. Janine stacking the new sheets of iron vertically against the guttering at the edge of the shed, so that I could drag them up and into position and screw them down.
Initially, I just put a few screws in each sheet to secure them into position safely. Why is it that just as soon as you roll out 15 metres of sisalation sheeting on a roof, that the wind suddenly blows up from nowhere and blows all the fabric away over the roof? I gather it all up again, roll it up, then roll it out again in place and staple it down as I roll it out. I find that the wind can lift the silver paper up and tear it loose from its staples, so I end up placing bricks on the edges at short, regular intervals, removing them as I get up to them and replace the bricks with sheets of new corrugated iron.  I can see that this is going to be a very long, ongoing job, replacing all of the roof over the next few years.
I end the day working alone as Janine has so many other jobs that she wants and needs to do around the farm. I still have to place all the remaining roofing screws in all the intermediate positions along the roofing battens to hold the sheeting down securely for another 35 years against all that nature can throw at it. I end up using most of all of the box of several hundred screws.

By the end of the day, I climb up and down the ladder several times in relay with all my tools and bits and pieces. I remove the ladder and wind up the electrical cords. I’m too tired to eat, I just lay down on the bed for a rest. I’m glad that I won’t have to do that again for a while. I have leather hard pots wrapped in plastic waiting in the pottery underneath me, but that’s tomorrows job.

This is self-reliance.

Willoughby Bequest at the Powerhouse Museum

Janine and I were invited to the Powerhouse Museum last week for a special announcement event. There was free wine and a meal, so of course we went along.  🙂
The Powerhouse Museum recently received a substantial bequest, It was announced that 3 glass artists and 3 ceramic artists have been awarded the inaugural Willoughby bequest award.These artists were chosen by the Powerhouse Museum curators to be included in the museums collection because they are or have been making a contribution to Australian artistic culture through their research and creative work. I am very lucky to be one of the 3 ceramic artists chosen. Among all the Australian potters,  I can’t yet reconcile that I am one of the 3 lucky ones chosen.  It was quite a shock to me I must say. I can only guess that it is because of my 20 years of consistent research and exhibitions enquiring into the nature of native sericite porcelain around the world?  I have known about the award for a couple of weeks, but was unable to say anything about it until now, as there was a media embargo until the presentation awards ceremony last night. I’m humbled, surprised and elated to be chosen. The other 2 ceramic artists chosen are; Renee So, a ceramic artist born in Hong Kong, raised in Australia, and now working in London. Nicolette Johnson is a ceramic artist born in London and raised in Texas, but living in Australia now for 5 years.The 3rd ceramic artIst is me. Wow!
How could this happen to me? I don’t know! I don’t have a social media presence on facebook, twitter of watsap. I don’t go to openings  and don’t do any networking. So I still don’t know how they found out about me and my research. It’s a mystery to me.The other two ceramic artists are young, talented, hip and sassy women, making terrific cutting edge work, who are winning awards and being represented internationally. On the other hand, I probably represent the old fashioned approach to making pots. Fossicking, digging, processing, then ageing the mica based stones that make my work from. It’s not really done that much – if at all, anymore. I grow most of my green food in my garden and orchards. I also grow most of the wood fuel that I use to fire my wood fired kiln and the kitchen stove and home wood heater. I try and do every step in every part of these processes myself, and do it sustainably.

The selection of such varied and different artists certainly illustrates a depth of research and breadth of scope in the curator, Eva Czernis-Ryl’s decision making process. I’m very grateful and pleased to be honoured. I really hope that I can make something that lives up to this onerous responsibility of receiving my small part in this amazing bequest award. It’s such an honour!I did notice that there are 3 men and 3 women, 3 glass and 3 ceramic artists, with Adelaide, Brisbane, Wollongong, Mittagong, Canberra and London represented, spreading the selection around. Because this is called the Barry Willoughby ‘Inaugural’ Bequest Award, it hints at the possibility that there may be other awards at some time in the future…However, I got the impression that it will not be a regular event.
Best wishes
Steve

New Sericite Clay Samples

I was recently in China doing some research. I have written a little bit about that, intermittently, in the last month or so. While I was there, I arranged to get my hands on some new and different sericite samples. These have now just arrived here last week and I have done my first tests with them.

I now have 4 different Chinese sericites to compare.

Although it isn’t immediately obvious from the image above. If you look closely, there are 4 different colours of rock samples from top to bottom, white, cream, grey and pale buff. They all look more or less white, but they each have various tints or shades of colour to their whiteness. They all do have one big thing in common. They all throw badly, the palest ones being the least plastic and most difficult. They feel a lot like my local Mittagong porcelain stone, only better behaved.

I felt like I’d gone all the way around the world and come home again when I threw these tests. They felt so familiar.

I’m really looking forward to seeing the results fired. I had a bit of trouble with the usual shrinkage and drying cracking problems, but I did get some of them through successfully. But I lost quite a few. Still, nothing that I’m not used to, and I’m getting good at recycling the turnings and failures.

I almost filled the tray on my old wooden kick wheel with turnings after trimming just 12 small bowls. I must be removing at least half of the weight of the original material to get them thin enough to look and feel like porcelain. I aim for 2mm at the rim and 3 mm lower down, graduating 5mm at the foot. This tapered wall thickness allows the best translucency at the rim and higher up the pot, while retaining sufficient strength to hold the pot up against gravity while it sits at 1300oC in the kin to develop enough glass in the body to be come translucent.

If I’ve done it right, the whole finished, fired, ceramic mass, has the correct quantity of primary and secondary mullite crystals to glue it all together, while becoming glassy enough to allow plenty of light to pass through.

Too glassy and/or too thin and it slumps. Too thick or not fired high enough and it stands up straight, but isn’t very translucent. It’s a bit of a fine line to tread.

not too bad.

As I sit and grind away at this damp, ground-up rock dust with my tungsten carbide tools, I realise that I’m truely happy doing just this. There is a gusty wind outside, but I’m in here sitting in the sun and I don’t want for anything more at this moment. This is fun. I can’t wait to get them into the kiln.

It has all the promise of something special about to happen.

I love that.

High hopes are not enough

After I had such a terrible firing a couple of weeks ago. I got stuck in and remade all the work. I’ve filled the shelves and had 2 solar fired biscuit firings and I am almost ready for the third. Then I can pack the wood fired kiln again. Hopefully this time with more success.

I had slaked down all the turnings from the last work session and made half of this work from the recycled sericite bodies. I have made test batches of 5 different sericite this time round. I have 2 Chinese minerals, 1 Korean, one English and one Australian in this batch. Although strictly speaking, the local one is a complex mixture of Illite, kaolinite, quartz and felspar.

I’m always looking for something that I don’t know, so the search is a bit difficult as I’m working semi-blind. I know more or less what I want and how to achieve it. After all, I have been doing this research for the past 40 years and more. But getting what I consider excellent results is always elusive and difficult. It doesn’t help when the kiln shelves break and collapse… Still, I’m over that and all the new work is made and drying. I’m just turning the last of the throwing today.

Sericite is funny stuff. It isn’t plastic like other clays, it’s quite short in most cases and has to be coaxed along to get any height in the form. I learnt to throw the inside of the form as I want it, leaving a thick wall to retain the form without it squatting. I then have to turn quite a bit of material off the outside to realise the finished form from the thick lump at the base.

Although sericite isn’t plastic, it still shrinks quite a lot and has a terrible tendency to crack in drying where it is thick. I have developed a few techniques to cope with theses peculiarities. I’ve learn’t to throw everything on batts, as lifting the pot with my fingers causes a memory distortion in the body that shows up later in drying. I’ve learn to ‘polish’ the out side of the clay after I have finished throwing, to seal any possible defects or weak spots that might start a crack during the early stages of drying and stiffening. I have also learnt to turn the bases in stages. Thinning out the clay as soon as it is stiff enough. This stuff can’t be turned like ‘normal’ clay based bodies. It has to be very firm, almost dry to get a smooth finish. If turned too early, it chips and tears, making an awful mess of the fine surface. It’s a bit like cutting soft goats cheese, it just tears.

Trimming the base of this pot almost bone dry

I’m getting better success rate these days with each variation and improvement of these techniques. It’s a little frustrating to loose so many pots, but they slake down quickly and can be stiffened in plaster tubs out side, then re-thrown within a week.

It would be better to leave the body to ‘age’ in a cool dark place for a month or two, but with so many variations of sericite porcelain bodies in constant testing and development. I’d loose track. As it is I really have to concentrate and keep very good records, marking every bag with a permanent marker, identifying every bucket of turnings in the same way and carrying this over to the slaked recycled material in the buckets and in the plaster tubs. It’s quite a paper trail of provenance, keeping track of it all. I also keep a daily diary in the workshop of what I’m throwing and what I’m throwing it out of. Every pot gets inscribed with the batch of body and later identified with oxide as to which glaze I used. I also keep log books for the glaze and the body ball mills, so that I know what I made, the date it was done, and what it was made from. I always seem to have a dozen different batches on the go at any one time and they all need their own bucket and bag storage space. It’s organised chaos.

I’m nothing if not thorough. I have to be. With over 3,000 glaze tests and hundreds of clay body tests. I need to keep track. I really want to make simple, elegant, beautiful things. But things with a particular character that I admire. Just a little bit ‘damaged’ or altered by the process of their making. Perhaps I should say ‘enhanced’ by its process and journey, plus the unique quality of its material. I like my pots to have a story embedded in their form and surface. I can pick them up years later and ‘read’ that story. I like that.

I’ve just made a few more white tenmoku bowls. They are slightly bigger, fuller and rounder, more generous in feeling, less austere. I haven’t finished turning them yet. They still need more work over the next few days, but I have high hopes for them.

Unfortunately high hopes are not enough. It’s long term, steady, pains taking, thorough and often boring, consistent research that makes progress for me.

That’s really rewarding!