Making a Start, Starting to Make

Making a Start, Starting to Make

The first thing that I did after I arrived here was to go to the clay room and get some recycled clay, so that I could throw some chucks. This is the first thing that I do everywhere I go. It’s a pity that they are so heavy and bulky, otherwise it would save a lot of time to just pack them in my bag and carry them with me.


I make a range of sizes that will suit the pots that I pain to make. I get these out in the sun as soon as they are made. I will need them dried and stiffened, so that they can take and hold the pots on top of them during turning.  The chucks are thrown very thick and heavy, so they are quite slow to dry and stiffen up,. They need to get drying as soon as possible.

The next thing that I do is to throw my bowls. These are made from the best white sericite porcelain. I throw them quite thinly, because I can. Most porcelain looks best when it is very thin, so that the light can shine through and show off its translucency. However, this local and very ancient sericite porcelain stone body Is very highly fluxed and distorts really easily, so it best to make these pots a little bit thicker for structural reasons. This mica throws really well and is a joy to work with. They will dry out on the rims quite quickly unless they are covered with light plastic sheeting over night. The next day I get them all out in the sun again. The first of the smaller bowls are ready before the chucks are really quite dry enough. I wrap the bowls and leave the chucks out in the sun while I go to lunch with the staff.  When I come back they are ready. Its early summer here now, so the days are long and quite warm at 27oC. I’m staggered to find that Miss Kang and her boyfriend have returned yet again. They have been invited to come to lunch with us all again. I ask how the stars were last night? She tells me that they didn’t see too many, as it was a cloudy night, but it was a lovely experience up on the mountain. I gather that this is where they camped?

After lunch we all go back to work and Miss Kang and friend leave to set off on their mountain climb. I start my turning and get all the first batch roughed out quite quickly. Then I return to the wheel to throw some more. I need to have a continuous supply of work coming, depending on the drying time, so that I can be continuously busy and not waste any of my time here.

My next task is to try something larger. I make some 200 mm bowls and then, last thing, before the workshop closes at 6.00 pm, I make some 300 mm bowls. That will keep me busy for a day or two of turning. My days are filled with a mix of throwing and turning, wrapping and unwrapping. I stroll to and from the workshop along the little farm roads that wander like I do around the fields and streams, eventually always ending up down by the river.

Each trip I try and take a different route. I have tried crossing the river using the stepping stones that are provided to save the kids who live at this end of the village from walking all the way up to the bridge and back to get to school. I can tell that it isn’t used very much these days as the grass has grown high and almost covered the path. I suppose that it is because it is school summer holiday? I have plenty of time, so I take the long way around and walk past different farms and get a different view of the valley. Although it is different in detail, it’s more or less the same in general. Every farm is growing more or less the same things, at the same times, in the same way. A mixture of poly tunnels and rice fields. Very little is grown  out in the open. Potatoes, garlic, spring onions and sweet corn are all out doors. Whereas chillis, melons and tomatoes are under the protection of the poly tunnels. I can’t but notice that the melons are grown in such a way that the fruit will develop on a mat to keep it off the ground. I one greenhouse, I saw that they had little plastic dishes set out to rest the melons on, to keep them up off the matt, so as to get perfect shape as well as no dirt or discolouration and unripe white skin colouring from developing underneath.


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I turn all day the next few days, I slowly it dawns on me that I’m not turning like usual. I start to realise that I have finally taken the edge off my favourite yellow handled carbide  turning tool. Its taken a couple of years, but it has now lost its razor edge. It’s still sharp, but the ultra fine edge has gone. I check it against a couple of tools that I don’t use much and, yes, it’s gone. Luckily, I have brought a small diamond file along with me in my kit. I have carried it since I bought my first few carbide tipped porcelain tools. I have to break it out of its plastic bubble wrap packaging. It works a charm. I’m surprised, but not shocked. This tool is my favourite and has lasted a couple of years without sharpening. On the other hand. I have to sharpen my hand made carbon steel custom tools every hour. They are great tools, easy to make, but easy to  make blunt too, with a bit of porcelain stone work. Fortunately they are very easy to sharpen. I always carry a small mill bastard file in my kit as well and step outside often to give the edge a little touch-up as required. I always go out side to sharpen my tools, as I don’t want any iron filings to turn up in my clay. It strikes me that I’m a bit like a butcher in this way, constantly adding a little bit of a fine edge to my knives as required.  At the end of a day of using these little round handle-less gems, I have to sit for a while, out on the sunny bench and re-shape them, because they soon develop a flat spot on the curve after a day of constant use and sharpening in the same place. The sweet spot, where I use it the most, in the centre of the curve. It’s a pity that I have never seen any large flat carbide shapes like this for sale anywhere. I guess that there are not so many people using these ‘inner’ tools to justify a production run?

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The walk home is lovely, it’s balmy and there is a lot of bird call. The sun is setting and it makes the rice crop glow. It’s a peaceful, beautiful time.


Alone, Like a Shag on a Rock

I’m here in the very pleasant little village of Bangsan, just outside of JungGu. Porcelain stone has been mined here since the 1300’s. It isn’t known exactly when. But a ‘stash’ or ‘horde’ of porcelain and silver ware was unearthed up on top of a local mountain when some workers were building a fire break. The box contained a few porcelain pots, two of which have inscriptions carved into them. One indicates quite clearly that it was made in the Koryo dynasty. 918 to 1392. I know this because the Yang gu Porcelain Museum on-site here has the pieces in its current exhibition. I’m lucky to be here at just the right time.

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There is still some of the porcelain stone still around. At one stock pile site that I walked up to. It was stacked up in rows of stock piles that dated back centuries. Apparently, This was all the reject stuff that wasn’t good enough for the pots of Royal Patronage, possibly because it had a few iron spots? This material has sharp edges and looks hard, but shatters easily. It is mentioned in historical documents as being transported out of here to other places for manufacture of porcelain under Royal decree at the rate of 70 to 80 tonnes per year, since the Koryo dynasty. Usually transported down the river twice a year at times of high water in spring and autumn, although some porcelain was made here onsite too. Large amounts of the stone were won and stock piled, then suddenly the trade seems to have stopped and the stock piles remained untouched until recent times.

Although the original mine site  of this particular stock pile is completely unknown. That is, until very recently. It was known to have been mined somewhere around here. There is an ancient kiln site across the river from where I sit and write just now. The site has been excavated and preserved. Covered with an impressive shed to keep the weather and shard hunters out. Then, just behind it. Higher up the hill, there is a museum of the sherds that were unearthed during the dig. Porcelain has most certainly been made on site here for a very long time.

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Now this following part must be taken with a grain of salt, as it is third-hand via interpretation. So maybe I’m completely of the mark, but as I understand it. A few years ago the current source of the Yang Gu sericite was discovered. There was a bad flood that changed the banks of the river that flows through the village here. It exposed some material that looked promising. A few years later, there was a severe drought and the river level dropped dramatically. This allowed Mr Jung, the Director of the Porcelain museum here, to get in and excavate some samples. It turned out to be sericite, so a large machine was brought in and the lens of sericite was removed to higher ground and stock piled.

It seems that the old kiln was built on the banks of the river here for a reason. I notice that there is a leat let into the banks of the river just below the kiln. Possibly to run a water driven clay crushing hammer in the past? I’ve seen exactly this in other countries like China and Japan, where porcelain is made! It all comes together?  There are a few examples of replica water hammers around the village. Non of them working, just for show these days.

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The original Yang Gu sericite material from the stock pile site is a hard, glassy, stone like many other porcelain stones that I’ve seen. However, the new material is somewhat softer and more friable. I can crush it with my fingers. I imagined, when I first saw and felt the raw material in the stock pile. That it might be some sort of kaolin based clay. It reminded me of my ‘Mafia’ deposit of halloysite/illite/quartz/felspar, near Mittagong at home. However, this proved to be completely wrong. I’ve had my samples from my last trip analysed and the material here is almost totally composed of sericite and some quartz. I must say that it is amazingly plastic, for a body that is almost completely free of clay. I say almost, because the material is so glassy and fusible at high temperatures, that Mr Jung has brought in some sericite with a kaolin component to firm it up a bit at stoneware temperatures. This material comes from JinJu farther south. I really had no idea of just how plastic mica could be. This place is pretty special. I consider myself very lucky to be able to be here and enjoy these amazing experiences.

I am being housed during my stay here, in a student residency building about two kms away from the workshop. I am currently the only person in the place, as it is the first days of summer and all the other residents are away on summer holidays. I do the 2 km walk each day to the workshop and back along the river.

The river is very lovely. It’s low water at the moment, but still running consistently and clear. I can see from the detritus that is hooked up on the iron work along the top of the old bridge, that high water can be at least 7 metres high and possibly more. There is a water bird working the shallow shingle rapids along the river bed. He’s very fast and efficient. He seems to be catching something every minute of so. I see him sunning himself on one occasion sitting alone, up on a rock. I know how he feels.

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This morning the weather was foggy and overcast. There was a beautiful mist hovering around the mountains. Their silhouette is reflected in the water of the rice fields. The rice has doubled in size  since I arrived. Lots of water and some warm weather is all it needs.

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So Much Water, So Far From Home.

I’m back in Korea again. This time I’m up in the north of the south. I came to Korea last year to do some preliminary research and to suss out what might be possible, but mainly to visit as many single stone porcelain sights as possible. It was an amazing trip and I learnt more than I had hoped for. I discovered sites that I hadn’t previously known of and got to make some nice pots along the way.
From my reading and research, it seems that Korea might have been the place where porcelain was invented, some time around the year 900. That places it about 100 years earlier than the development of porcelain in China.
Before commencing this research, I had believed that China was the source of porcelain development and the technology had spread overland to Korea by osmosis. Some doubt has now been cast on this theory and it just might have been the other way around?
I certainly don’t know. I’ll wait for the evidence to be further developed to see what happens. It makes no difference to me. I don’t see it as a race. But an excellent example of human ingenuity. 
In my own Walter Mitty world. They both came across the idea at more or less the same time, quite independently. Just as I did, more or less by accident, or good fortune. Although I do concede the truism that the harder you work, the luckier you get. McMeekin  just seems to have stumbled on his porcelain deposit from word of mouth, possibly over a beer at the Mittagong pub? Who knows. I don’t believe that this sort of information is recorded. Luckily, whatever the circumstances of the insight, he was the right person, in the right place, at the right time.
I do know that when I arrived in my small hamlet of Balmoral, I asked around of the locals, if there was any clay deposits in the area. The best people turned out to be the local bull dozer driver and the back hoe operator. They spent their days digging the dirt in other peoples places and seeing just what is under the surface. They had lots of insights. Unfortunately, non of them lead to usable material at that time.
So now I’m back here specifically to work the YangGu sericite porcelain clay. There has been porcelain made here around these hills for centuries. I’m just not sure how long as yet. That is one of the things that I’m here to find out. However, what I really want to do is to get my fingers into the stuff and make some pots. The Yang Gu porcelain stone has been mined out of these hills for eons, possibly since the 1400’s? However, no one knows just where the stone was mined. It’s a mystery still. Most likely under ground, as there is no sign of any material like it on the surface and enigmatically, no shafts have been found. However, as we are so close to the border here. the material just might be located just over the hill in the North?
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The walk to and from the studio to my dormitory is very pleasant. I get to walk past lots of little farms. There is a lot of poly tunnel agriculture here. I guess because the summer is short and the winter is very long and very cold. So a bit of extra warmth from the poly tunnels gets things started early when the ground outside would be just still too cold. I’m told that the frost penetrates down to 1 metre here.
There are several crops of beautiful garlic coming along. The outer leaves are just starting to turn colour, so they will be ready for harvest very soon. It must have been dry here lately, as I can see that this farmer has the sprinkler on the crop, irrigating it, to keep it growing a bit longer to fill out the bulbs.  
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As I walk to the village I can hear cookcoos calling from the forrest all around. All of the valley floor here has been levelled and terraced everywhere that you look. It must have taken hundreds of years of man and women hours to get the landscape so well prepared for rice culture. The terraced paddy fields go all the way up to the steep sides of the hill.   Intermixed with poly-tunnels. Then some enterprising farmer has even ploughed the slope up the hill side, where it was possible. I’m not too sure that this is a very good idea, as when the big rain events come. He will loose most of his top soil. The forrest on the hills is all heavily planted with timber species. I’m told that all of this forrest was totally cleared all around here during the Korean war of the fifties. The hills from here to the border were denuded of all vegetation so that any enemy attack could easily be seen coming. 
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We are only a kilometre or two from the front line here. Now called the DMZ. At various times throughout the day I can hear loud speakers booming out the insane propaganda from over the border in the North.  I can’t understand it and the locals tell me that they don’t even hear it any more. It’s just so much background noise, like heavy traffic passing. What is really tragic, is that a poverty stricken country like the North would waste so much energy in such a totally futile exercise.
There is a lot of water still issuing from the hills here in the form of spring water. It has all been harvested and channelled into culverts. It makes it’s way down across the valley floor and is diverted here and there in to smaller channels, ducts and eventually into local ditches that work their way around the paddies.  
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The rice seedlings have just been planted out and are starting to shoot upwards. The fields are kept flooded while the rice establishes itself. Once the top field is filled and is completely flooded. the excess water then flows down from ditch to ditch and field to field into the next, and so on. Once all the farmers fields are flooded. The excess water is returned to the fast flowing channels so that it can be used by the next farmer down the valley.
The water eventually makes its way down to the river in the valley floor, where some enterprising farmers who don’t have access to a spring fed flow. Pump the water out of the river and it starts its irrigating journey all over again.  
In the evening the setting sun shines on the flooded rice and there is a peaceful harmony about it all. This enterprise of growing wholesome food, the tinkle of fast flowing water, the quiet of the evening, the last feeble rays off the sun and me walking home in the fading light after a productive day in the workshop, its a beautiful time. As I turn into the little valley where I am staying I notice that there is a very prolific bird sound. I am staying right up at the head of this little valley, so It’s a long walk. A couple of kilometres. The forest here is alive with some sort of birdlife that I don’t know. There must be thousands of these birds, all calling and responding with a kind of hooting sound. Maybe it’s mating season?
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I can sense that there is no other wild life up here in this valley or the woods that surround it on all sides, because all the farmers fields are wide open. There are no fences to be seen most of the time. I guess that this also means the there is no issue of pilfering either. All the farm equipment is left out in full view, even power tools. It’s a lovely feeling to be in a place where there is so much neighbourly trust and respect. On the road I suddenly see a very small frog. I would have missed it except for its luminous green and black colouring. I decide not to touch it. Anything this colourful, hiding in plain sight without a care, must be very confident that no bird will eat it. I suspect that it is vey toxic. I only take its photo and not its pulse. As I walk further, I can see that there a whole lot of them that have been squashed on the road. Not only does their (possibly) poisonous skin make them totally unafraid of predators. They have no road sense either. Tragically for them, poisonous skin doesn’t deter cars.
As I walk up past all the poly tunnels, rice paddies and vegetable plots I nod and say “Anyohaseyo” to each of the people that I meet. I got a few double takes on my first trip, but now they recognise me and word has spread that I’m here and only sleeping in the dormitory building at the head of the valley. At first they responded in fast, staccato Korean. But I can only shrug my shoulders and look helpless. I can’t speak any Korean past the first few words of airpot language that we all learn to be able to get around. They smile back at me and we each go on about our own tasks. 
I’m still quite amazed that even though it is summer and it hasn’t rained since I’ve been here, and there a people watering their plants, it’s obviously a dry time, but as I walk, I can hear the river rushing, then up the valley I can hear the irrigation ditches channelling the gurgling spring water. I’m suddenly struck by the fact that here is so much water, so far from home.
Best wishes from Steve in Korea

Wintum, A time for a clean out and change over

Here we are on the last day of autumn, on the threshold of winter. All the garlic that I planted on the evening before setting off for China is up and thriving. Garlic loves to get an early start. Late Feb and early March seems to suit it best around here. I know this because this is when all the old, last-years cloves that  missed harvesting, all start to shoot up, looking for the last of the warmth as the days get shorter. If these little fellows know that it is time to shoot up, then this must be the time. So in they go, or went in this case. I didn’t get time before leaving in the hectic weeks before setting off. So it was a case of do it now in the evening dusk or miss out. I’m glad that I made the effort now.

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Its a very much smaller crop than I have managed in previous years. This time about 100 plants. It’ll have to do. At least it is something. I realise that I can’t do everything. I’m very happy with what I have achieved.

When I returned from our little break away in Canberra, but before we left for Cambodia. Apart from building a kiln and making some more porcelain stone bodies from my recycled turnings. Janine and I managed 2 half days in the garden. Cleaning out all the old dead and finished summer plants. It was all cleaned out and taken to the big compost heap behind the pottery. This is one of the chooks favourite places. They can spend hours in there. They really want to get into the vegetable garden to ‘help’ us! But alas, they are kept locked out. We don’t need their kind of help in there just now.

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The chooks like to see what is going to the compost and ambush Janine on her way demanding to see what is nice and possibly edible in the wheel barrow. They decide that un-ripe, green  and sour golden berries are just what they love. and as long as we peel of the paper coating, they gobble them down.

We prune off all the dead asparagus fronds and top dress the 2 beds with compost. It all starts to take on a look of care and attention again, instead of the wild riot of form and colour that was there at the end of the rampant summer growth. Janine mows the orchard while I wheel-barrow compost and spread over the garden beds and all around the citrus trees.

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I will be time to start pruning the orchards and grape vines soon. But before I can do that, I have some Korean sericite porcelain to make. Everything in its own time.

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

However, for now, the garden and orchards look loved again.

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Damn those Omega 3’s

I have just finished my latest kiln. It’s a thing of beauty and will be someones joy, if not forever, then for probably somewhere around 30 years. All of my earlier kilns. The ones that I continue to know the whereabouts of, are still performing well after this length of time and a bit more.


We have been working on the winter fire wood supply. I help Janine to move a few loads of big round blocks of wood from the wood pile yard into the wood shed for splitting to keep up the winter wood supply.

Just when you least expect it, the worst thing happens. I just manage to trap my little finger in-between a big block of hard wood and the steel frame of the lifter. Bang! my little finger on my left hand is crushed. I flick off the leather glove and blood is flowing freely from the end. I think that I’ve lost the nail. It’s one of those events that is so painful that I can’t speak. I just head for the house. I’m nauseous and a bit dizzy. It really hurts now. I wash it under the sink in flowing cold water to make sure that it is clean of any debris or foreign matter. I had a glove on, so it ought to be pretty free of grit. I wash it in disinfectant and put a bandage on it, but it won’t stop bleeding. It keeps on seeping through.

I’m feeling a bit weird. I need to lay down.


Luckily, I had just finished turning the last of my recent batch of sericite porcelain stone pots. The shelves are full and I can pack a bisque tomorrow with the driest pieces. Luckily they are not very heavy, so I can do it one-handed.

I have a night of fitful sleep, as I keep waking up when ever I touch anything with that hand. In the morning I change the dressing and it is still bleeding. It hasn’t clotted yet. Damn all that oily fish!. Fortunately, it stops by the afternoon, that’s 24 hrs! It’s not aching now either. It only hurts now when I touch it. So I’m starting to feel a lot more confident about it.

Janine makes a super-nice omelette with our eggs to cheer me up. They are so amazingly rich and yellow.

Welcome home

We arrive back home at the end of Autumn. The pistachio tree has turned red in our absence and the liquid ambers are loosing their leaves. We head straight to the chook house to see how the girls have been faring without us. Perfectly well it appears. They have changed their allegiance to Annabelle Slugette, because she has been living here, working in the pottery and feeding them treats for the past few weeks. Hens live for food! I know that it is only cupboard love, but I do feel a little bit abandoned. I’ll need to find them a few snails or other special treats to win their hearts ( and stomachs) back.


We head to the garden to see what there is for dinner. We find our selves in that special period of the year when there are just a few summer vegetables hanging on, while the winter crops are just starting, so we pick the last zucchini and the first cauliflower. There are only a couple of weeks when you can eat this combination of garden produce. The chillis have ripened a lot more while we have been away, so we pick some and dry them.


The next day I’m back at work in the pottery. I have  to slake down all my turnings that have dried out while I’ve been away. Clay slakes down so much faster when it is bone dry. I have lots of small batches to deal with. I have been working on my collected samples of porcelain stones from all around the world and I have to keep all the turnings from each batch of pots made from each special rock completely separate and well-marked, so that I don’t get mixed up or confused about which is which. I have 10 buckets marked with masking tape and felt fen, so as to keep it all under control.

I start with the first 5 batches. I slake, blunge and sieve them all through a 100# mesh screen, then flocculate them and decant the excess water, it takes a while to get its all done. Eventually, they make it out onto the plaster drying tubs that I use for small batches of re-cycling like this..


I’m not just dealing only with turnings here. Many of my pots don’t even get to the turning stage. These ultra-fine, ground stone bodies, with virtually no real ‘clay’ content, based solely on mica and quartz, with just a little illitic material. Consequently, they have no dry strength. They sometimes just split as soon as they are placed on the chuck, some don’t even get to the chuck, as they split during drying. Other decide to part company with themselves after the first turning at the ‘roughing out’ stage.


Some others tear themselves apart after the second trimming. Only a few make it to the final turning and bisque kiln. The only good thing about pots cracking during drying, is that at least I can re-work the material and have another go at making something that might survive to the kiln. What happens in the glaze kiln is another matter. I’ll find that out for these samples soon enough!


The dull thud of distant artillery and the sharp crack of small arms fire

We are here in Cambodia and on our first night we are awoken several time with the realisation that something strange and possibly quite bad is going on.

We keep hearing the dull thud of distant artillery. Not constant, but quite intermittent, just so much so that we drift off to sleep again and then are re-awoken by the sharp crack of small arms fire, not all that far away.

Having read up a bit on Cambodia before arriving here, our minds are full of Pol Pot and the civil war. Then, just a week before we set off. There was a documentary on the idiot-box about the assassination of a local journalist who had been campaigning for civil rights, and against nepotism and corruption in the government. He was shot by the secret police who staged it as some sort of ‘hit’ over an unpaid debt.

So, our minds were fertile ground for a disturbance. We didn’t sleep well. However, in the morning we awoke, eventually, to find that the house is under the shadow of a huge mango tree and the fruit is in full season just now. When the ripe fruit drops and hits the ground, it makes a dull thud, but when it falls onto the flimsy tin roof of the pottery shed, it makes a sharp metallic report, not unlike distant small arms fire.

It was a great relief and we were able to sleep well after that, even with the noise.


We soon get accustomed to eating half a dozen fresh mangoes for breakfast each morning. We even make tropical mango and banana pizza for the family before we leave.