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!

June Long Weekend Open Studio, 11th to 13th June

Janine and I will be opening our new pottery and gallery space on the long weekend in June.

We will be taking part in the Southern Highlands ‘Pop-Up’ Open Studios long weekend.

We have been working hard, both on and in the building. 

We will have new work ready in time for the Long Weekend 11th, 12th, 13th of June.

If you can find the time to come and visit us, we’d love to see you here.

We’ll have cake and coffee to share and a chance to give you a guided tour of the new workshop. It’s almost finished and everything is coming together.

If you want to make a day of it, or even a full weekend away. There are over a dozen other artists studios, all open here in the Southern Highlands over the weekend.

If you have your own social network, please feel free to send this poster out to your friends as well.

We look forward to seeing you at some time over the long weekend.

Bummer

I thought that everything was going so well.

Well, I thought it was. With 2 pug mills apparently fixed. I decided to make up a few batches of clay in the repaired ‘phoenix’ dough mixer. We had run out of the last quarter tonne batch of clay. All we had in the clay box were several bags of recycled turnings that really needed wedging thoroughly, or pugging. We opted to mix all the re-cycled turnings in with the new batches of clay and pug it all together. All well and good. It should have been so easy.

The dough mixer worked perfectly and I soon had a batch of plastic clay on the clay trolley and out to the rebuilt pug mill. Janine started pugging the clay while I mixed a second batch. Each batch is comprised of 100kgs of dry powdered clay, felspar and silica. These powders are all mixed together dry,  then I add 24.5 kgs of water to the batch and the mixer stirs it all together into a stiff plastic, sticky mass. It then has to be hauled out of the mixing bowl,  bit by bit and stacked onto the clay trolley to be wheeled out to the pug mill.

I could hear the big pug motor ‘whirring’, the gear box grinding, and the vacuum pump making its ‘phut’, ‘phut’, ‘phut’, noise. as I worked in the clay mixer room. Then nothing. When I came out to get the clay trolley to reload it with the 2nd batch. Janine was standing there looking a bit puzzled. The pug mill had stopped. The motor was working when I rebuilt it, but that was without any load on the motor, just ‘free-wheeling’ . As soon as the clay went in, the load on the motor increased and it just stopped. The over load switch clicked in and it wouldn’t restart.

Bummer! We now had 2 loads of clay needing pugging and a machine full of clay, but no action. I couldn’t do anything about it right there and then. The machine will need to be stripped down again at some stage. But right now I need to pug this clay. The only option was to wheel ‘Pugsly’ out. I was hoping to keep it clean and ready to pug the first batch of porcelain clay. That’s now a pipe dream. We start pugging the white stoneware through Pugsly. It starts well enough, but then I realise that the vacuum pump isn’t working. It’s making the right noises, but the clay is coming through with air bubbles in it. I can lift the lid off the vacuum chamber white it is working. This lid should be severely locked down tight by the vacuum pressure. Again, I can’t do anything about it immediately, I’ll have to figure it out later. I need to get the clay made, bagged and into the clay box, before it dries out.

I just spent a month of all my spare time re-building these two machines. One doesn’t work at all and the other doesn’t work a very well. I’m a complete failure as a mechanic. This is a real lesson in humility. When all the clay is finally pugged. Tonights dinner will be humble pie for me.  One small up-lifting part of this whole disappointing exercise is that the paint work was a success. It’s bright, colourful and cheering. That’s a small reward.

We spend two days processing all 400 kgs of clay and putting through the pug mill twice. Each batch is pugged and laid out on the clay table in rows and layers of sausages. Because there is the possibility that I could have made an error while weighing out the dry ingredients, or that there might be slight variations in the materials as delivered in the various bags. We pug all 4 batches of clay, then chop the ends off every sausage and re-pug the clay to make sure that every sausage that come s out of the 2nd process has all the same consistency. This is then bagged and stored in the clay box. It’s a bit of teamwork to get it all done efficiently and as quickly as possible, with as little mess as possible. However, inevitably, There will be some clay that gets dropped on the floor.

Once all 400 kgs of the clay is pugged, bagged and in the clay box, a very slow process, as the 3” pug is so much slower than the bigger 4” one. We have to clean up the floor to control the dust. A very small successful part of this protracted failure is that I built all the clay tables and trolleys on wheels, plus I mounted both pug mills on castors. We mop the floor all around the pug mills. Then wheel everything out of the way, and clean the floor under where the pugs were. It’s all quick and easy, and every part of the process of cleaning up is a success. It’s soon time to roll everything back into place. Ready to start pulling both machines to bits and finding out the problems involved, then sorting it all out.

Jane’s big pug has a motor problem. It wants to start, but can’t get going. It must be the starter windings or the starter capacitor. I pull the motor off and take it into town to find someone who knows about such things, to get the parts that I need to get it going again – hopefully. I’m told that it is most likely the starter solenoid. There isn’t one to be had in Mittagong at either of the electrical workshops, so I order one. It should be in next week. Watch this space.

Now for Pugsly’s vacuum pump. I think that it is something to do with the valve, hose and filter, vacuum air line. I disconnect the plastic hose, turn on the vacuum pump and put my finger over the end of the hose and it has hardly any suction at all, but there was some, just a tiny bit. I pulled it all to bits and found a few things out. The first was that the filter had been installed back to front at some stage in the past. Someone has had it to bits at some stage in the past and put it back together back to front. I hadn’t thought to check that when I started work on it. I’m totally hopeless as a fitter and mechanic.

When I got it off. I also discovered that it was chocker block full of white clay – on the pump side, not the pug side of the line. This is theoretically impossible, so that was a bit distressing. As I continued to dis-assemble it all, I also found that the sump of the pump had white clay mixed in with the oil! That would have ground out the bearings! I drain the oil out and replaced it with fresh oil. Ran it for a short time to rinse out all the old oil from the crevices, then drained it again and refilled it with new oil again. After reassembly, I test it and it has quite good suction. So not such a bad outcome. 

I decide to have a look at the vacuum pump on the big pugmill. I discover that it has been over filled to the brim with oil. I drain 2/3s of it out until it is back down to the indicated upper level in the sight gauge. Everything else seems to be in order. However, because I’m such a hopeless mechanic, there could still be more issues to deal with the next time that we get to test these machines out.  

It would have been so much easier to buy new machines from the start and I wanted to. I even had the money for them set aside to pay for them. But ‘Venco’, the pug mill manufacture here in Australia closed down a few years ago, when Geoff Hill, the proprietor died. The company has re-started under the new ownership of his grand son, but only in a very small and intermittent way. They have no plans to produce the 4” pug mills for some time yet. So far they have only made 2” pug mills, with the first batch of 3” pugs coming through now.

So I am stuck with my ineptitude to muddle things through.  I will get it all done, but it is frustrating and very, very slow.

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.

Turning 70 and Turning Pots

I turned 70 last week. So, on the spur of the moment, I decided to invite all the local creatives from around the village, plus Len and Warren and their partners, who have been so incredibly helpful and supportive over the past two and bit years since the fire.

I was born on the cusp of Pisces and Aries. Not that I hold any interest in, or find any significance in this sort of thing, but it gave me a handle to organise a menu focussed around fish and goat.

I made an amuse of slow braised onion jam, served on narrow flaky pastry fingers, with a single anchovy laid across the top. That was a pretty nice start. I got this recipe from Simon Hopkinson and have had a couple of goes at it. I like his gentle approach to cooking. He has written two books, ‘How to cook roast chicken’ and ‘The good cook’. I liked them both and have tried recipes from both of them at various times.

I had filleted a whole snapper the night before for our dinner, so had the fish frame to make stock with. I also bought a salmon head at the fish markets while I was buying all the seafood for the bouillabaisse. These two fish heads and frame made a great start for the stock.

I started the stock with a bouquet garni of fresh garden herbs and onions fried in olive oil. Added the fish heads along with carrots picked freshly from the garden, some very young celery stalks, capsicums and parsley.

As we have a lot of capsicums at the moment, I roasted the excess over the open flame on the cook top, sweated then out in a bag for an hour and when cooled, I pickled them in a little oil and vinegar. Preserved for later.

The fish head stock was cooked out the night before and when cooled, passed through a sieve to make the clear stock for the bouillabaisse style fish soup. This was to be the first course. A bouillabaisse for the Pisces component of the meal. Just before the party. I added the diced octopus, and boiled it for half an hour to make sure that it was tender, then completed the soup with the fish fillets, prawns and mussels in that order, just before serving. 

No one complained and some even returned for a second helping. 

The main course was the baked, boned and butterflied leg of chevon to represent Aries. I had put it on earlier in the day for a slow roast and had it ready for the main course.

I made two versions of this course. One baked with home grown and preserved quinces in a light sugar syrup with sweet aromatic spices like star anise, cloves, and cinnamon.

The other baked with wine to stop it drying out with a rub of aromatic savoury herbs, fried onions and garlic.

The big glazing room in the pottery was converted into our dining room for the night and comfortably seated the 12 of us. 

We didn’t finish till 1 am. so it must have been a good night.

The rest of the week was spent turning porcelain bowls in the pottery and continuing the work of paving along the back of the pottery.

I dug up a line of pavers that we had already laid behind the kiln chimney. I waited until all the pavers were laid, so that I would have all the levels correct and the fall just right.

I removed one single line of tiles, dug down into the gravel substrate and positioned a cheap plastic drainage gutter in the space and then cemented it in. When we have another rain event of biblical intensity, I want the water to flow away from the kiln and be easily removed instead of soaking in.

Now that I almost have a wood fired kiln built, it’s time for me to re-start the stalled research I was doing just before the Black Summer Fires interrupted my work. I have started to make the early tests for my commitment to the PowerHouse Willoughby Bequest. I have been processing some new porcelain bodies from Australian Halloysite, I ball milled them a couple of months ago to allow a bit of time for them to ‘age’. Two months is next to nothing in the broad scheme of things when it comes to single stone porcelains, but every little bit helps. I have also been working with sericite.

Both started off badly!

The halloysite cracked almost instantly as it stiffened up. It is as plastic as wet goats cheese ricotta. Actually, the cheese is much better!

It has so little plasticity that the act of cutting it through with a wire tears it apart underneath. I’ve been working with my local Mittagong halloysite/mica porcelain for almost 20 years now, and its been a difficult relationship. When I do get the pieces off the wheel successfully,  I find that they have a desire to warp in the early stage of the firing. Nothing worthwhile ever comes easily. At least not to me anyway. However, I persist, because when I do get a lovely pot out of the kiln successfully, it is really uplifting and rewarding.

I have also started off badly with the sericite pieces. Any single stone porcelain with such a wide, flat base is going to be problematic, but 100% loss was a bit much as a starter!

I put it down to being out of practice and being distracted, with so much else on my plate. I pugged up this first batch of pots, re-worked the clay and threw it again the next day. The second batch, I cut off with a very fine wire and dried very slowly in the damp cupboard for two weeks. Cutting them off the batt again every 2 or 3 days, to allow them to separate from the base and shrink evenly without too much stress. This has worked. I am amazed how easily this strange stuff sticks itself back together again so easily. I have found that if I use a thicker twisted wire, they stay separated, but almost all of them crack against the line of the cut.

I have tried cutting straight across while the wheel is stationary, and alternatively, cutting off while the wheel is still turning. It has made no difference. They both cracked equally.

I had virtually no trouble with the smaller, narrow footed pieces. and the larger narrow footed bowls.

Now to get them fired successfully…

Waterproofing the leaking pottery windows

We are in our own very small and insignificant flood recovery mode

Now that the rain has eased. I can get out and start to repair the leaks that have become apparent in the pottery.

The tin shed builders were pretty basic, almost sub-prime. We have had so many leaks in this building.

The builders chose to use metal sheeting screws without any rubber seals. This must have saved them $10 bucks! So all the walls leaked in the first rain months ago.

I had to go around the whole building and seal all the screws. I had a few options. Firstly I could go around and take out every screw and replace it with the correct type 17 climaseal screws.

Or, I could go around and take out every one of the 3,000 screws, add a small rubber ‘O’ ring washer, then replace the screw. In the end I took the quicker and cheaper option of going around and siliconing the head of every screw. This turned out to be quicker and cheaper. But it still took me days to go around and seal every one to water proof it.

During this prolonged rain event we’ve had a lot of rain compared to our normal. At one point we had over 300mm in 2 days. I know that this is nothing compared to what other places have had to deal with, but it is more than our annual rain fall during the drought years. It became apparent that a couple of the windows were not installed correctly, so that water was leaking in around them. The builders must have been very sloppy with the flashing.

Rather than take the shed to bits to find and seal the problem. I decided to put an awning over the problem windows to keep the rain from getting in behind them.

I had to custom cut and fold some fancy flashing to fit the corrugations and keep the water out.

I cut them by hand using old fashioned ‘curved’ tin snips. Once screwed to the wall above the window and sealed with silicon, they look pretty neat. I’m hoping that this will solve the issue?

Paving Tiles and Wood Heater Repairs

We were busy last weekend with a bunch of friends paving the court yard area around the new, almost finished, wood fired kiln.

I still need to finish laying the last of the floor bricks in the chamber, I would have finished this small job a couple of weeks ago, but when the court yard flooded with 70mm of water sloshing around in there. It wasn’t very appealing to be kneeling done and doing the bricklaying. Then all that water was sucked up into the floor bricks like a wick and they became saturated so that any new mortar wouldn’t stick in place. Finally, they have now turned green with algae. I’m sure that they will dry out – eventually!

This severe weather event, although not life or property threatening for us, like it has been for our friends and relatives up on the North Coast. It has been a good warning and trial run for what we can expect in the future as Global Heating increases unchecked. No one in government seems to be taking this seriously, so what can we expect for the future? Well my guess is more of the same, only much worse. We’ve been warned.

So this extreme weather event has been a great warning to us as to what we can expect in the future. I have learned from it and and I’m taking actions now to limit the sort of damage that very heavy rain fall can cause. To start with we have paved the kiln area with a significant fall away from the kiln and out into the open. I have also ordered some more steel batons and some more poly carbonate roofing sheets to wall in half of the courtyard directly behind the kiln. With contour drainage to take the water to the edge of the retaining wall. Although the pottery didn’t flood, it has become obvious that we need to create a dish drain around the front of the building to carry all the excess ground water away from the front of the building, because another event will eventually be worse. 

This is a start

Back at the kiln, I also need to fabricate a stainless steel firebox lid and a stainless steel chimney flame tube incorporating a spark arrester. I planned to have started this job already, and 3 weeks ago, I ordered the Stainless steel sheets and some Stainless steel wire mesh for the spark arrester. The sheeting is here, but the couriers have lost the SS mesh. The supplier won’t replace it until he knows what has happened to the first order. The courier company won’t pay out to replace it until they know what has happened to it. So I’m stuck in a catch 22 situation. I can choose to wait it out until the original order is found and delivered, or buy a second sheet of stainless steel mesh and get on with it, but it’s not cheap stuff, so I’m waiting and continuing to write emails of enquiry.

We had a great weekend with our friends laying the paving tiles. We also met two new people who volunteered and turned up all the way from Newcastle, who will surely become friends now. They were a great addition to the group. The stayed over night with us and we got to know each other over a home grown meal from the garden. I had previously made a big pot of tomato passata from the last of our tomatoes, so we had an easy meal of pasta. Dan and James are environmental campaigners and organisers, so we shared a lot in common. James took this image of Dan, Janine and me standing on the new paving.

Dan, Steve and Janine. image by James Whelan

  

This is all great progress and I’m really happy to see so much getting done.

Janine and I started the levelling and paving earlier in the week. As a trial run, to make sure that everything would work out the way that I planned. As we haven’t done any paving since we built the last pottery shed in 1983, I’d completely forgotten what to do and had to re-educate myself and get my skills back up to date. It’s not rocket science, but does need concentration and quite a bit of back bending work. I decided that at my delicate age, I should not do so much bending and instead get the knee pads on and work down on my knees to keep my back straighter. This worked out much better. But then getting up became a bit of an issue.

Starting the paving, getting our levels sorted out and learning how to space the pavers to allow for all the different sizes to fit together evenly.
the courtyard paving complete

As we are in Autumn now and the weather is getting cooler and the days shorter, we have thought that we may need to light the fires in the kitchen and lounge room soon. The slow combustion heater in the lounge has started to wear through and rust out in the top fire box steel sheet. A crack started to appear at the end of last season, so I made a mental note to repair it once it cooled down, during the off-season, well that time is running out now, so it has to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. I decided to attack the problem by fabricating and new roof for the firebox out of a scrap piece of 2mm thick stainless steel sheet.

The new Stainless steel fire box roof sheet ready to install
The new firebox top bolted in place

Rather than try and weld it in place, which wouldn’t really work very well , as stainless and mild steel have different rates of expansion and contraction. I decided to bolt it in place with stainless steel bolts through over size holes and oversize washers. This should allow for the differences in expansion. The 2mm thick stainless roof should last as long as the 4 mm mild steel walls and whats left of the old top sheet. Time will tell. The stove is about 30 years old, so it has proved it’s worth. I’ll continue to work on it and preserve its life for as long as I can. We bought our slow combustion kitchen cooker over 40 years ago now and it was 2nd hand then. I’ve managed to keep it going all this time with home made adaptations and ingenious improvised repairs. I’m proud of that achievement and I’m hoping to extend it to 50 years if I can.

While I was at it, working on the lounge room heater. I also made a new front door frame seal. Afterwards, we went out into the paddock and spent an hour together with chainsaws cutting bushfire devastated and blackened logs. We cut them to stove lengths and stacked them in the wood shed ready for splitting. This will be about 1/4 to 1/3rd of the fire wood that we will get through the coming winter months.

Our Big Wet

Like everyone else on the East coast of Australia at the moment we are experiencing a lot of rain. 

We are very lucky here to be situated up on top of a line of hills, on a ridge where the water table falls away on both sides. We at very unlikely to get flooded here. So our thoughts go out to all those who have been flooded and lost there homes and property. We’ve been there ourselves, but in a totally different way.

My partner Janine, who is from the North Coast area were the flooding is worst just now, has experienced this kind of flooding in her youth. She points out that at least after a fire everything is left sterilised. After a flood, everything is left putrid and stinking. Although the clean up takes just as long in both cases.

The rain came in horizontally and blew straight into our new kiln shed area through the open Eastern wall. i had to dig a drain to help ease the flow of water back out again.

If this is an insight into the future, then I will probably have to enclose some of this wall with polycarbonate sheeting. To let the light in, but keep the rain out.

Before

I’m somewhat amazed that water managed to build up like this here in the kiln courtyard, as it is elevated up on 1200mm. of crushed blue metal gravel behind the big stone retaining wall. At least it does drain well over night once it actually stops raining.

Our normally dry and sometimes barren back yard is now a small stream, with a creek running through it.

Here the small top dam overflow channel is not able to cope with the deluge and the dam is over flowing across the whole dam wall. 

We have only ever seen this happen a couple of times before in our 46 years here.

We had over 185 mm of rain. We’ve had this much rain before. In fact the recent bush fires were put out finally when we had this same amount of rain 2 years ago.

But last time the rain fell onto, and soaked into, a dry parched landscape. This time it has fallen onto a saturated and sodden catchment and so instantly started flowing off.

We are fine and have plenty of home grown and preserved food in the pantry, and because we have solar power and a battery, we don’t know whether the power went off or not.

These extreme events are exactly what we have been warned will eventuate with the increase global temperatures due to carbon in the atmosphere. But our politicians refuse to do anything about it and those on the right are still denying that it is even happening. A pox on both their houses!

With 1 in 50, and 1 in 100 year weather events happening every other year now, I fear for the future of our kids and grandchildren.

Flashing, Fowlers and Food preserving

This week I finished the chimney and flashed it into the tin roof.  Then took it up 5 more courses clear of the roof. That gives me 3.5 metres of chimney. Just the right amount of chimney volume to create a good draught for the firebox of this small kiln.

I still need to build a flame tube, smoke combustor and spark arrestor, for the top of the chimney.

That will need to be fabricated out of stainless steel and lined in refractory blanket.

The kiln is designed to be a very clean, low smoke emission kiln, but the addition of the flame tube will make it even more so.

We have a glut of tomatoes this last week. The picking got ahead of our ability to consume them, so it was time to make up another big batch of ripe tomato passata.

Starting with onions and garlic, fried in good Australian EV olive oil.

9  litres of tomatoes with the addition of a few capsicums, chillies and basil from the garden then a few whole pepper corns.

Boiled together and then all passed through the mouli sieve and subsequently reduced down to just 5 litres of concentrated garden goodness. I filled 7 x 3/4 litre bottles.

That’ll come in handy over the coming winter months.

I also made a big batch of preserved quinces. Quince has to be my favourite fruit. Coming later in the summer season as they do, after all the thrills of the first peach and first strawberry, the first youngberry etc. They really stand out as the most fragrant and delicious fruit if you give them a bit of time and effort. By them selves, they are not really very edible in the natural raw state, but once cooked with a little sugar and a few spices, they can really shine. I love it when they turn that red/orange colour. The fragrance pervades the whole kitchen and into the rest of the house. Any left over juice is bottled and kept in the fridge as a cordial to be added to water as a summer thirst quencher.

I have made 3 batches so far. I vacuum seal them in Fowlers “Vacola” jars. Every country had their own proprietary company that made food preserving systems in the past.

Our very own version was founded in 1915 and is still going.

Janine and bought all our ‘kit’ of glass jars, metal lids and rubber rings along with the metal boiler from a garage sale near Dural in 1975, where we lived at the time. We have since been given extra jars and another boiler from friends who no longer use them. We now have more bits and pieces than we can ever use. Every few years, we have to buy another packet of rubber rings. They are washable and re-useable, but eventually wear out and don’t seal properly.

This smaller size boiler takes 7 x No3 jars (3” or 75mm. dia) in one go and has served us well for the past 47 years and still has plenty of life left in it. It’ll see us out. 

I assume from the label that it was made in 1969? I don’t know how to read the code. S69/8093. 1969 would probably fit the time line, and they were still numbering them individually.

A time when we still made things here in Australia and those things were made to last!

I recently found this very old Fowlers sterilizer at the local markets for $20. Regrettably it doesn’t have a lid, but it is made from pure copper, so it is worth fixing up. This one is from the first series production. Possibly from 1920’s? This is ever so slightly smaller than the current models, so the current lids don’t fit. I will just have to make one. I have a small sheet of copper off-cut, so I’ll see what I can do when I get some spare time?.

I have never seen another copper boiler like this one. all the old models that I have seen were all galvanised versions. I’m assuming that this one is a very early model. DeLuxe 3080

We were recently given a larger size model from some lovely friends that have stopped preserving. It is a more recent model and has a plastic lid – modern cost cutting in manufacturing?

Model D2 78. There is no serial number issued any more. Possibly from 1978? So by 1978, they had stopped numbering them individually?

I’m really glad that Fowlers are still in business, as although we don’t preserve a lot of food, we still use their system a few times every year in the late summer to can our excess.

It’s so nostalgically old fashioned, but ever so practical. The most important part for me is not the preservation of our excess food from the garden. That is of course important, but there are other methods that we also use. What is so important is that once the energy is applied to the food to sterilize it and vacuum seal it during cooling. It is preserved for many years with absolutely no more energy required to ‘keep’ it. So different from freezing food, where there is a constant need to apply energy to preserve it. 

We only have an ordinary sized, low energy, fridge with a very small freezer compartment on top, so we can’t use it for very much. I keep the freezer space for things like our ‘pesto’-like basil pulp in olive oil, that are not cooked, so are best frozen.

We have been very careful in our selection of appliances over our lifetime to only buy the lowest energy consuming appliances. This fridge uses less than 1kW/hr per day. It’s our biggest energy use in the house. In this way, choosing very low energy hungry appliances, and not too many of them, we can run our house off one and half kW/hrs of solar generated electricity per day. I think that this is an achievement. As the average 2 person household in Australia uses around 17 kW/hrs per day. We are more efficient by a factor of 10!

I should also mention that this figure of 1.6kW/hr per day average, also includes the solar charging of our electric car as well.