Category Archives: How-to

Being to Being: Collective Conversations in Clay

This is a virtual tour of a show that I am currently in: Being to Being: Collective Conversations in Clay at Park West Ceramics Gallery in Chicago. The concept for the show is very unsual (remember, I like unconventional things…).

Here’s the idea: There are 5 artists, all with different styles of making and decorating. Each artist made 5 pieces. One of the pieces is made start to finish by that original artist. The other 4 pieces are handed off in the leather hard stage to the other 4 artists. Each participant decorates the 4 pieces from the other artists. Carving and cutting, slips and glazes, adding clay pre- and post firing, atmospheric firings and decals were some of the techniques used.

The photos in this post were taken on opening night and aren’t actually the best images. Sometime in the next couple of weeks I’ll add better images, but I was too excited about this show to wait for those images. But for now, you can get an idea of what the show is all about…

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Platter by Emily Murphy. Soda fired with a crackle slip and sprayed glazes.

top left: Slipped wood fired with low fire decals by Gina Hutchings.
top right: Cut, carved, slipped, glazed and wood fired by Jay Strommen.
bottom left: Slipped, glazed, punctured, reduction fired, then sewn by Joanna Kramer.
bottom right: Cut, then applied stoneware “staples” and porcelain coil then soda fired by Shane Grimes.

The next series are porcelain hand built slab “landscape” vases by Joanna Kramer.
Below is her solo piece that is actually two porcelain vases that are sewn together (post firing, of course!).

top left:
Glazed and wood fired with low fire decals applied by Gina Hutchings.
top right: Slipped, glazed, cut and carved then wood fired by Jay Strommen.
bottom left: Slipped, glazed and soda fired by Emily Murphy.
bottom right: Slipped and carved with stoneware staples and porcelain coils attached and then soda fired by Shane Grimes.

Jay Strommen‘s pieces are thrown and altered with slips and lightly glazed then wood fired.

top left: Slipped, glazed, wood fired with decals by Gina Hutchings.
top right: Slipped, punctured, glazed and reduction fired then sewn by Joanna Kramer.
bottom left: Lots of stoneware staples and porcelain coils added, then soda fired by Shane Grimes.
bottom right: Slipped, carved, glazed and then soda fired by Emily Murphy.

The next group is from Shane Grimes. Shane’s pieces are thrown and altered. His solo piece has his trademark stoneware staples and incredibly thin porcelain spines/coils attached, then soda fired.
top left: Cut, carved, slipped, glazed and wood fired by Jay Strommen.
top right: Soda fired then a decal applied by Gina Hutchings (it’s a very cool spider).
bottom left: Slipped, cut, punctured, glazed and reduction fired by Joanna Kramer, then sewn.
bottom right: Slipped, glazed and soda fired by Emily Murphy.

The Geisha series is by Gina Hutchings who is also the organizer of the show.
Her piece below is glaze and wood fired with a decal applied.

top left: Stoneware staples and porcelain coils attached then soda fired by Shane Grimes.
top right: Slipped, punctured, glazed, reduction fired then sewn by Joanna Kramer.
bottom left: Slipped, carved, glazed and wood fired by Jay Strommen.
bottom right: Slipped, glazed and soda fired by Emily Murphy.

The next group of photos are some close up detail images. Because of the lighting in the gallery, it was hard to get really good photos on opening night. I hope these detail images help you fill in the gaps. (click on images to make them bigger) 




How to make a bat gripper

I went through a period of time early in my ceramics career where I was a tool minimalist. It’s something that I think every potter should go through. I had 3 tools that I would use: a wire tool, a wooden knife tool, and a basic wooden rib. I was even flexible with what tool filled those 3 slots. I like the idea that it was really about how I moved the clay, not the tools or gadgets. And I also like the idea that wherever I was in the world, I would be able to throw a pot- regardless of the tools. This idea has also led me to using many different types of clay, and to throw on different types of wheels. It makes me a portable potter. So even though that’s my philosophy on clay tools…
..I LOVE TOOLS! I know how to work with the fewest possible tools, but I really enjoy working with many tools. It can allow you to do something with greater ease, or achieve a new surface, or just make you happy because of its cleverness.
At some point over the last 5 or 6 years a little boom of new tools popped up, many as a side business from a potter who was making cool tools for themselves. I’m happy to be a potter during this period. I love trying out different things, and sometimes (many times) I get hooked on one. I am going to be sharing with you some tools that I really love, and some tools that I make myself in the tool section of this blog.

A tool that I really dug was the Bat Grabber.

I loved it for teaching when I was working on a wheel that had worn holes for bat pins to stop the wobble. I also loved it under the little square bats that tend to lift a little when making a tall piece in my studio. But it had a problem where it would start to erode over time (you can see that from the pictures). And then they stopped being made (the material was no longer manufactured). So I had to do something to fill my need of a new Bat Grabber and here is what I did…

I got a roll of rubbery shelf liner. The cheapest one I could find; but I think that any would work. You can probably use a rug pad too.
 

With a Sharpie, I used a bat to trace out the circle and to draw in the placement of the bat pin holes. I made both a 14″ circle and a 12″ circle. Just because.

Then you cut it out, including the holes.
To use it: dip it in some water and squeeze out the excess. Then stick it on your wheel head, and use a bat on top. Circular, square, plastic, wood or foam covered. They will all stay a little bit more secure with this do-it-yourself bat gripper.

(Don’t forget to make pots when you’re not making tools…)

Surface Decoration Techniques: wax resist and underglaze/ slip inlay

I have been creating, soda firing and documenting simple straight sided cylinders with a variety of surface treatments for examples for my classes and this blog. The original idea was to create demos to show students that aren’t specifically “my pieces.” The fun result of this project has been that it’s given me an excuse to return to things long forgotten, or try something new.
Watch out for upcoming tutorials with lots of pictures and slip and glaze recipes.

Wax resist and underglaze/ slip inlay
A great way to make a clean line without too much mess, step by step.

 

Step 1: Paint slip on leather hard piece.
I used several porcelain slips (grolleg mixed with Mason stains) on Lillstreet Soda Clay 

Step 2: After the slip dries (no longer tacky), paint wax over entire surface.

Step 3: Using a small loop tool, carve in your lines.
Step 4: Paint underglaze into the carved lines.Step 5: Wipe away any excess underglaze.
This is a great way to get make a nice clean, sharp line in the leather hard stage.

 

The inside of the piece is glazed with a simple matte black glaze, and soda fired to cone 10 in reduction.
Because the line is inlaid, it’s protected from the soda and doesn’t “bleed” when hit directly.

 

Some close up images 

How to: Mix two different clays

This is a problem that comes up all the time- two different clays that need to become one. Maybe you have some clay that’s too hard and some clay that’s too squishy. Or you have some stoneware and some porcelain (a great mix in the soda kiln!). It’s really hard to just wedge them together, and it’s a lot of trouble to put it through the pugger- especially if it’s just a small batch.
This will save your wrists from some stress and get out any aggravation that you might have at the same time.

Slam down onto your table (or wedging board) one type of clay on top of the other. 
Then slice it in half through the middle. 
And stack on top. (slam it down!) 
And slice and stack (slam!). 
Watch the clay mix together! It’s very satisfying to see the two different color clays mix like this.
Keep mixing until the slices of clay are really small (even smaller than this). 
Once it’s mixed through the slice and slam process, then wedge.
It’s much easier to slam the clay down then wedge the big hunk that well. This method is really great for clay that’s too hard and too soft. It’s nearly impossible to wedge those two consistencies together. And as I mentioned above, a porcelain-stoneware mix is great for the soda kiln (or any other atmospheric firing). 50-50 is my favorite mix. Through a little extra sand in for extra orange peel.
Maybe this how-to will make your wrists a little happier.

How to: Make a Foam Bat

A foam bat is endlessly helpful for trimming large pieces, and having a soft surface to work with altered pieces on.

You will need:
*A new clean bat. I used a 22″ Hydra Bat from Continental Clay.
*High density foam (it won’t flatten out when you put a heavy piece on it).
*A can of spray adhesive.
*An electric knife.
*A Sharpie or any permanent marker.

Take the bat outside and spray the bottom of it with spray adhesive.

 

Spray one side of the foam with spray adhesive. Put the adhesive sides together and press evenly.

 

Put the bat, bat side up on a banding wheel and cut off excessive foam with the electric knife. This will give you a nice clean edge.

 

Place the bat on your wheel using bat pins to ensure it’s perfectly centered. Use your marker and ruler to make concentric circles. 
Until you get to the outside edge. 
Then trim away!

What is soda firing?

This post is part of a handout that I give to my soda firing students at Lillstreet Art Center. It is an attempt to explain a little bit about the history of soda firing, and tries to help answer the question, “what is soda firing?”. It is not the full story, but I hope that you find it helpful.

Soda firing is an atmospheric firing technique where “soda” is introduced into the kiln near top temperature (2350°, ∆10). The soda that we use is: sodium bi-carbonate, also know as baking soda (the Arm and Hammer™ kind), and sodium carbonate, which is also known as soda ash.

“Soda ash is the trade name for sodium carbonate, a chemical refined from the mineral trona or sodium-carbonate-bearing brines (both referred to as “natural soda ash”) or manufactured from one of several chemical processes (referred to as “synthetic soda ash”). It is an essential raw material in glass, chemicals, detergents, and other important industrial products.”
USGS

The soda vaporizes and is carried on the flame throughout the kiln. The soda vapors create a glaze when it lands on a piece (or a kiln post, or the wall of the kiln). Wherever the flame travels- so does the soda. When placing the pieces in the kiln during loading, you have to think carefully about when and where you want a piece to get lots of soda, or when and where you want a piece to be more protected. The kiln must be evenly loaded because the flame will travel on the path of least resistance (and therefore the soda will also be traveling on the path of least resistance). You also have to think about whether or not the piece is glazed. The soda is basically a glaze, and when two glazes mix, they can react chemically with one another and run down the side of the piece. It’s beautiful when you can control the run- but can be disastrous when it gets away from you!

What is the history of soda? Where did it come from?

The predecessor of the modern day soda firing, is salt firing. It is believed that salt firing began in Germany in the 13th century. As many things go, it was most likely come upon by accident. Perhaps some salt soaked wood (from pickling barrels?) was tossed into the kiln for the wood fuel. The salt vaporized and glazed the pieces inside the kiln. It was a great time saving measure. No need to glaze the pieces before they went into the kiln. Old German jugs were salt glazed, along with tankards and sewer pipes. The pieces that we think of as early American traditional ceramics from the southwest corner of the US were also salt glazed. Can you picture a big whiskey jug with cobalt blue decoration on it? Those were salt fired. The process that I’m talking about is wood firing with salt thrown in. The salt easily glosses up a piece and helps the wood ash flux out. Salt vaporizes at a fairly low temperature and can work its way into all sorts of nooks and crannies. In a salt firing, the salt vaporizes and the sodium chloride splits into sodium and chlorine gas. When the chlorine is exposed to moisture, it forms hydrochloric acid. The acid goes into the kiln atmosphere and is released from the chimney. The remaining sodium combines with alumina and silica in the clay to forming a glaze on the surface of the piece.

Although the previous paragraph doesn’t help sort out what soda firing is, it does give some important background information. Salt firing continued to be a technique used by potters up through the 1970’s (and is still is used as a firing method today). In the 70’s as people became more aware of the environment, they realized that the black smoke and hydrochloric acid wasn’t such a great idea. A couple of graduate students from Alfred University, NY studied sodium alternatives to salt firings, hoping to find something that was more environmentally friendly, and maybe even something that could happen in an urban environment.

The results were soda ash and baking soda. They produce carbon dioxide instead of hydrochloric acid. The soda doesn’t get into all the nooks and crannies like the salt does, but it does produce brighter and more vivid colors. Pots are usually glazed with an interior or “liner glaze” because the soda vapors won’t work their way into those hard to reach places. You can achieve a rich glossy surface that is heavy with soda, or a pebbled surface that is also referred to as an “orange peel” texture. This is often juxtaposed with a “drier” area of the clay that wasn’t hit directly with the soda. It’s all of these varied surfaces together that make up the rich look and feel of a soda fired pot. 30 years ago, when soda firing first began, most ceramicists were just trying to mimic the effects of salt firing. In the last 5 years that has changed. The true characteristics of soda firing are unique and are something to explore and achieve.

The soda vapors aren’t actually colored, but they are reacting with the alumina, silica and iron in the clay (and slips) to create the various colors of flashing, and associated textures. The resulting colors can be a range of oranges with yellow and red tones, to rich browns, golds and tans. If there is some copper in the kiln, there can be pink blushing. Or a cobalt glaze on a piece can cause a blue twinge to the soda. Sometimes the carbon from the firing can add a gray hue that can look like shark skin on porcelain.

So perhaps now you know a little bit more about soda firing.


I’ve included the recipe that I use for my soda firings below.

My soda recipe: (a variation on Gail Nichol’s process)
2 lbs. soda ash
3.5 lbs. sodium bi-carb
5.5 lbs. whiting (calcium carbonate)
Mixed with ½ of a 5 gal. bucket of wood chips, and water

*mix the dry stuff with the wood chips, and then add COLD water. Just enough so it sticks together. It should have a consistancy similar to oatmeal cookie dough or tunafish salad.

-Add soda into kiln when ∆9 is soft. Add 1 ½ angle irons full of soda mixture through each port. Wait 15 minutes between additions. Usually takes 3 turns to add in all of the soda.

Stacks of obsolete slides.

I have a love for functional objects…you might even say a soft spot. That’s why I make pots. Pots are interactive pieces of art. Then you can get even extra “wow” out of a piece if it functions well on top of being aesthetically pleasing. A teapot that pours without dripping, or a mug that becomes one with the hand of the user, gives me deep satisfaction.

I like to see the potential function in all objects – even after they have ceased their original function. The other day I was walking down an alley (here in Chicago). I found this huge 5 foot octagonal window leaning against a dumpster. It was really lovely and was in perfect condition.

I stared at it for a while. “What could I use this for?” “How could I get this home in my hatchback?” “Where could I store it until I can use it?” “Is there someone I know that would just have to have it?” The answers to these questions were not very positive. So I made a little deal with myself and left it up to fate. I went into a store (for about 20min.), and decided that if it was there when I came back, then I would figure out a way to take it. But if it was gone… then perhaps it was just not meant to be. It was gone.

This brings me to my stacks of obsolete slides. I think every working artist must have one. A potter’s stack might be a bit bigger since we probably make more pots than a painter makes paintings. (Not that I actually document all my pieces.)

Anyway.. my stacks consist of: compositions that didn’t work out; extra brackets; old dupes that will never be sent into any sort of show; incorrect exposures; the accidental roll of outdoor film that was used instead of the indoor film; first and very poor attempts to take my own slides on wrinkled sheets; booth shots from an old set-up. All images that have no more use. But the time, effort and money that went into all these makes it impossible for me to ever dispose of them. It’s nice that they’re small because I can store them guilt-free. But now I don’t think that I need to store them anymore. There is a perfect use for them thanks to one of my favorite magazines, Ready Made.

I think this lamp idea is great. Can you imagine how nicely the thick plastic mounts will hang?

So for now, I will hang on to my stack of obsolete slides. Someday I will get around to this project and give my slides a chance at a second function.