Tag Archives: ginger steele pottery

A November firing… still extracting meaning from the results…

Border ofBeautifulBeads

First of all, thanks again to all of you who read my blog, and welcome to precious new readers. Making pottery is isolating work, and I am a curmudgeonly old thing these days who likes to toil alone.  But I do like to compare notes with other potters, and writing about my process helps me make sense of things that I do habitually, and set down and preserve the things I learn with each firing.  If you are interested in hands-on forming process, there is lots more at my original pottery blog, http://gingersteele.blogspot.com/.

Just about everything I learned from others or of figured out for myself is on this original blog. I’d like to get it all together and make a small hand building book to publish notebook style one of these days, but that lies ahead.  This blog was supposed to be just for writing practice…  but it does usually meander back to clay work.  If you haven’t been there, there is also a lot of my work and some of the process blog posts at my Insomnia Pottery website, http://insomniapottery.com/.

Anyway…  I took most of this past year off from pottery making to host my daughter’s wedding here at the farm the first weekend in August.  I also skipped the Edmonds Art Festival this year to attend another wedding in LA in June, and didn’t jury for several other shows I regularly do.  So I have only fired twice this year, first in early March and then again Thanksgiving Weekend.  It was the first time that Steve was able to be here when I am firing.  Here’s a favorite pot from this firing, claimed for Christmas by my kid Madeline months before the firing.

Watering Can 1

My boyfriend Steve is a take-charge kind of guy with a lot of practical skills.  When we met, he had a beat-up Shimpo wheel marked #4 in his kitchen; just the kind of thing a potter woman likes to observe when first visiting the home of a man she has met and finds interesting.  We’ve been seeing each for about a year and a half, and it’s been good.  His home is in Washington, 157 miles to the northeast.

I had the load painted when he arrived for Thanksgiving Dinner, but pots were not yet wadded. Friday we started in to get everything ready for an early Saturday start.  The load was hard to evaluate for volume, because it was mostly small pieces…  lots of cups.  Ultimately, there was about 1/3 of a load of painted and unpainted bisque for next time when all was in, but you don’t know that when you start loading.

I was eager to see some trial pieces of a new clay, Appy, that is from Clay Art Center in Tacoma.  I’ve been using their Welches clay, but find it less than delightful to throw, and am bugged by a grit material that works its way to the surface at trimming time and drives me nuts.  Welches is a very open clay body, which makes it serviceable for ovenware.  This also means that it dries very quickly and I have to be careful to get it at the right stage for carving.  If you haven’t done a lot of incising on pots, you may not appreciate how much the state of dryness of the pot changes the quality of the line you incise with your tool.  I like to use a few stamps with the line work sometimes, and can never seem to catch the Welches pots wet enough for effective stamping.

I am always surprised when people think that I stamp the imagery on my thrown work.  Hand built work in process is perfect to stamp; the clay blanks lie obediently flat on my work table and await every mark. It’s very hard to aggressively stamp a thrown piece and still retain a tight form.

I like the Appy clay.  It’s very pleasant to throw and carve; smooth at trim time.  No problem with handles, so I must just see what the color is like.  Here’s a nice pot, thrown from Appy by my potter friend Steve Provence, Steve #2.Milkweed Vase

The warm brown clay surface in the cotton bolls (aw, you recognized them, right?) is the natural surface of the Appy clay in my kiln.  I used to paint all my pieces with flashing slip made from Helmer and EPK, but stopped doing it a couple of years ago.  One less step!  It was essential for B-Mix, another superceded clay, but less essential when clays have more iron in their body.

I like most of the Appy pieces!  Surface color is warm…  nice distributed orange peel.  The edge bleaching – one of the chemical mysteries of salt firing, along with where the heck the iron goes, is all as once might wish….  I am not so pleased with an open bowl from the top shelf.  My usually reliable Oatmeal Skyline glaze is pocked and warted, ugly!  I am not sure what is up with that – the top shelf is usually reserved for higher value vertical pieces which relish the extra vapors up there. I seldom place an open piece there.  I’ll have to think about that…3 rectangle HB Vases

This is Georgie’s Cannon Beach cone 10, which I used for years, and now only use for pieces where there will be no thermal shock.  It’s a great handbuilding clay.  These three pieces are all exactly the same clay and slips, and all were fired within inches of each other. Vaporous cobalt from my black slip flashes the gold slip green, I like it….

The whole load is rather dark, though good salt deposit is evident; and there was heavy reduction throughout.  After 18 firings, I should know this kiln better, but it can still surprise me.  I believe there are two reasons for the properties of this particular load.  First, there is a control which regulates the quantity of air entering into the back of the burner that is part of the burner.  Using this control, I did not allow as much secondary air into burner itself as I have done at other times.  I was getting a good temperature rise each hour based on records from prior firings, so I just left it a bit tighter than normal on each burner.Tall Cup Muted GreensHave you ever seen a gas kiln at top temperature with flame licking of every tiny gap in the bricks?  I have seen such moments, even on my own kilns.  There are almost always small tongues of flame shooting from gaps during salting, when the damper is closed down to 1” to contain the vapors as long as possible. We see those interstices, those gaps when the damper is closed, but I have often wondered how much air they admit to the kiln when the temperatures are climbing in oxidation, or light reduction.

The use of an Oxyprobe of some sort could answer a lot of questions for me, but I haven’t seen fit to purchase one.  At any rate, during the last firing, my kiln was tighter than it has ever been.  Steve, who is a professional machinist and skilled woodworker,  took on the task of laying up the door, and did a more precise job of it that I have ever done.  I have a 12” wet saw about 6 feet from the kiln, and a big pile of scrap brick.  That door was tight!  There was almost no flame out, even during salting, and possibly much less air in during the firing.

Tiny Sugar Jar


Now, this is dark….  like a small, precious rock.


My farm and nursery have been for sale now for over a year,  and for the first time I have some prospective buyers.  Information has been going back and forth via my realtor, and I am starting to get serious about looking for a place to move.  One of the first things that I consider when I evaluate a piece of property is whether or not I might be able to build a salt kiln on the site.   For months, I have been looking at homes in southwest Portland and Beaverton.  My daughters would like me to move closer to the city; to them and their partners and my hypothetical grandbabies. Those girls are 33 and 35 now, time’s a wastin’.  There would probably be a studio in a basement, and terra cotta clay again for electric process.  Howl!

As for the locations of my life, I’ve never lived anyplace since I was a kid where there have been trick-or-treaters , in other words,  I’ve never lived in town.  My dog barks at night, my boyfriend wants to bang on metal late at night, and I like lots of room to grow things.  I’ve always wanted to build my own house, and have built a 32’x96’ office, a number of barns and outbuildings, and exactly 63 greenhouses as designer and general contractor, sometimes as operator of transit or spirit level.  When I was building the nursery in the late 90’s, I spent so much time at the Washington County building department that I felt like I lived there.  If I decide to build a home, I will hire an engineer make my plans acceptable to the county, and get started.

But today I am buying cuttings and seeds and putting a crop together as if I will be a bedding plant grower for another 40 years.  There will be at least one more beautiful crop here at the nursery on Susbauer Road, and a few more loads of pottery as well most likely.

Dinky Ewer1


Among the lessons from this load, foremost is that the pieces built in play, for fun, are the best work.  This little soy bottle, and the plant waterer pictured above, were both build from scrap on a day when I didn’t feel like throwing.

I don’t think I feel like throwing today.


Wheel Throwing, Zingdezhen Style….

I’ve been wanting to share some images from a trip to China I made a few years ago.  I went with an NCECA group, and we traveled to the  Porcelain Capitol of China, Zingdezhen.  It’s a small city by Chinese standards,  with about 1.5 million people.  We were told that approximately half the workforce there is involved in the ceramics industry.

There were about 70 of us; potters from all over the United States,  For a  week while we were there, master artisans were brought from all over the region to demonstrated for us.  Here are some pictures of a young man who came to show us wheel throwing, Chinese style, and his two helpers.

In Chinese ceramic industry, there can be strict division division of labor.  I never knew the names of the three guys who demonstrated for us; but one was a thrower, another a trimmer, and the third prepped and wedged all the clay for the thrower.  I can tell you this – they all thought it was completely hilarious that anyone would want to watch them at work.  They were in fine spirits throughout the week, and seemed to be continuously astonished that anyone would be interested in what they did.

The thrower started every day in the same way – by sticking his feet and legs into plastic shopping bags, and then securing the bags around his calves with yellow plastic  tape.  The trimmer did the same.  You can see the bags in this picture….1 The Whole Wheel

Heck with the bags, look at the wheel.  It was on a platform about 20″ high, and the motor was under the wheel head.  You can see a control off to the left for the potter to manage wheel speed.  His bagged feet are set on bats, and the thrower is sitting on a small, square stool.  At left in the photo is the wedger, a slim young guy who just made balls of clay for the thower.  They brought in about 2,000 pounds of clay in pugs for he and the other demonstrators to use; you can see the under the striped sheet – no plastic, just the crazy ambient humidity.

As you can see, the wheel head is down between the throwers’ feet.  I’ve fiddled around a bit in my own studio with this kind of body-to-wheelhead arrangement, and it gives you terrific advantage for large pots.  Without ever having done it before, I could recognize that it was a great  way to make big pots.6 Pulling up the Pot

He’s got almost all the clay here, and is pulling hard off center as he brings it up. His shoulder is right over the top of the pot as he works…  a very  strong position.7 Carrying the ClayNo tools, and no sponge.  He brought this clay up high, and then bellied out a large jar with a tight neck. He had about 12-16 pounds of clay.  Now, for some throwing off the hump…2 Off the HumpStill no tools for this thrower, and he is using the wheel at constant speed.  He didn’t even have a cut-off wire; he just pinched the pots off.  You can see a tidy little foot ring right above the base block.  I didn’t see these cups trimmed, but I assume the trimmer would have put them on a green chuck and trimmed the block off. 4 Trimming 2

The trimmer had his own wheel, likewise down between his feet. The most interesting thing about the trimming process was that the trimmer had a large number of steel blanks about 12″ long, and he made a specific trim tool for each pot form by hand as worked.  He filed each blank until it was razor sharp, and then bent it into the correct form for the vessel.   You can see from the flying scrap that the pot is fairly dry up on the rim, no problem!  The trimmer didn’t want any clay in his shoes, either.5 Tall Trim

Here’s a combined form that the trimmer joined together and trimmed up.3 Born to WedgeThe wedger was the hardest working guy of all, wedging clay and moving the wet pots.  Note the Kareem Abdul Jabbar teeshirt…..

After all that work…  dinner.8 Dinner

Christmas in November- burning the beast….

Today I get to open my kiln.  I fired it Monday – an anxious firing – and now the pyrometer reads about 450 F on the top and 650  F on the bottom.  I opened the damper and the top port so it will have a little more air in, but will still cool slowly.  About 3:00 I will knock loose the restraining bars that hold the door in place and crack open the top of the kiln so heat will flow upwards out of the top.  AT 8:00 PM  I will open the door and see what I’ve got.  For potters, opening a kiln like this is better than Christmas.  It doesn’t matter that I don’t want to keep the stuff  – it’s an exoneration of the whole irrational process and the completion of two months of work.

I don’t make a lot of work compared to some functional potters, and fire my 24 cubic foot kiln only 6 times a year.  There’s a huge amount of work invested in each load – many small pieces – and there are firing variables that  make each load distinctive.  There are pots that have color or flash that I simply can never duplicate.  If I fired the kiln once a week I might be better able to produce specific effect.   I do keep careful records, and try to use them to make adjustments and conserve fuel.

I said it was an anxious firing – that’s because I forgot to order propane and wasn’t sure that I would have enough.  No space here to go into the physics of propane firing, but when vapor is being drawn into the burners too rapidly it can supercool the whole liquid puddle of propane in the tank and cause “freeze up.”  I’ve experienced this once, and it’s terrible.  Your kiln is almost at temperature and it stalls, nothing works….  that time, the tank was covered with more than an inch of dense, hoary frost.  I had to get a delivery the next day, and start over- gas and time squandered……

The first shelf goes in carefully.  The hardbricks beneath must be cleaned and fresh wadding applied so the shelves can be leveled.  Space between the pots lets the flame and vapor bless every pot equally, nothing nastier than a dry side on a good pot.

Even the kiln posts must be wadded to make precise leveling possible. After many recipes for kiln wadding, I have settled on 1 part alumina hydrate and 1 part Helmar kaolin by volume.  I make a batch during each firing so I will have nice, plastic wads to use a few months later.  It gets better to handle each week that it ages.  I have added wheat flour – nice for workability but it must be frozen if there is excess because it spoils.  I have also added sawdust, which has good properties of you are using larger wads.  Because I make really small wads, I prefer to just use the Helmar-Alum.Hydrate wadding.  It takes 2 hours to shape all the wadding for a firing….  many friends have helped with this over the years.  FYI, Helmar kaolin is a high-alumina kaolin mined in Idaho.  Great stuff for salt-firers, I also use it in my flashing slip, Helmar and EPK, equal parts by volume, skim milk thin.  My wads pop off clean with almost no sanding  – one less thing to do before pricing and packing the pots.

Tallest pieces go into the top of the kiln. I have some solid silicon carbide soaps that make a stable base for high shelves. Every load is different – I was a little concerned about having a shelf up this high but this firing would prove to have good top-bottom heat distribution in spite of it.

I have great Buzzer burners and Buzzer nozzles at this point in my salt-firing career.  No safety equipment for us purists – I just live in the kiln shed for 16 hours.  I love the quiet early part of the firing, calm blue flame…..  I am usually cleaning my tools, my studio, having a rare cup of coffee.  Later, when the kiln roars, its’ power can be frightening.  Once, during a terrible storm, I had 24″ flames shooting out of the burner ports during wind gusts.  I blew up the first kiln I ever built – the memory of that explosion lives in every cell of my body.

But how else can make my pots?

Still thinking about stamp-making….

Popular Science magazine, which used to be an airport-only treat for me, now comes to my house every month by post. I love to read about new materials, engineering innovations, and all the other stuff that they cover. For me,  it’s a workable antidote to the The Great Ennui, the creeping doomview that seems to be my brain default all too often these days.

I’ve been especially interested in 3-dimensional printing, even had a little fun with the idea a few years ago when I made the so-called “Little Men” – the 6 tiny sculptures  that I called The Ratmasters.  I took them down to Ceramic Showcase and put a fairly preposterous price on them because I really didn’t want to sell them until I could think about them a bit.  My forays into non-functional work are so infrequent that when I make something that isn’t strictly practical it sort of astonishes me.  Here are the first two that I made, they still live in my studio….

Here’s a teeny story I wrote to propose origins for them – you hardcore sci-fi fans out there may like this….

What is known about the six small objects, SUO 315 01-06, now known as the Ratmaster Commemoratives?   Although much uncertainty remains about their origin, it can be confirmed that they were created from data recorded within an object found in an agglomeration of orbital debris near the center of Space Unit 315/396W.  Sent for routine recycling, the object now known as the Unit 315 Cone did not correspond to the spectroscopic profile of any terraginous material, and was sent to the International Laboratory for analysis.

The Cone is a deep blue conic form 10.73 centimeters wide at the base, tapering to a point.  It is 22.58 centimeters long, and weighs 188 kilograms.  It has several unique properties.  Not only is it uniquely heavy, it is geotropic and will rebalance itself in a vertical position on its base when not restrained in a horizontal position. 

Sector 315 Cone was registered as a Special Security Property, and was extensively studied.  Attempts to remove samples from the object by cutting or drilling were eventually abandoned, and all available scanning modalities failed to reveal any internal structure.  A translucent box was built for the Cone, and it was placed on display in the foyer of the International Laboratory Visitor Center.

Four years after the Cone was placed on display, an unknown event triggered the release of a data stream from the object.  A security guard on routine night patrol observed a luminous beam emanating from the Cone.  The beam described a circular pattern around the Cone; moving in a slow, sweeping motion.  Scientific staff was summoned, and the Cone was returned to a secure area so that the beam could be studied. 

The beam emission was found to consist of pulses of light, which were converted to a binary graphic stream.  Data release from the Cone continued for fourteen months, at which time it stopped.  At that point, a pronounced change in color of the Cone’s surface was noted.

The data was sent to a secured location, and an extensive server farm was constructed and dedicated to deciphering the data stream.

 An international team of decryption experts monitored reports from the computers.

Once the downloading of the Cone data was complete, linguistic analysis and decryption of the contents began.  It became apparent that two semantic systems were present in textual portions of the information.   Much of the data was in the form of numeric tables, which were in due course recognized to be climatological and hydrologic reports.  There were also records of equipment acquisition and maintenance, purchase orders, salary payments, and other transactions.   In each instance, there were paired reports, in each of the unfolding languages, describing the same occurrence.

It began to be clear that the information contained in the Cone was a periodic dispatch from the colony of a still-unknown nation or planetary state, identified only as Origin, and was concerned with the most details of elemental every-day governance.  The colony was referred to as Srad 3/50 in the correspondence.  

On e of the languages began to emerge as that of a diplomatic class, and was called Cone SS-A.  The other was determined to be a language different from Cone SS-A, and was recognized to be unlike any ever studied.   It was called Cone SS-B.  Cone SS-A was found to have properties common to many extant world languages, but was closest in structure to an archaic form of Arabic.

Data from which the Ratmaster commemoratives were derived was one of the last information units to be deciphered.  The code was acknowledged to be unique machine language, and was ultimately determined to be of two types – textual and algorithymic. 

Many tests were run on the algorithmic data, and at last a pattern appeared. A researcher with avocational CGI experience recognized the code as instructions for three dimensional printing, a modeling modality developed in the first decade of the century.  Further decryption confirmed this analysis, although the process for printing and the material specifications from the Cone itself are still under study.

Developers of the original three dimensional printing process were brought into the research project, and work began at once to learn if the code could be used to create image-objects with existing three dimensional printers. Other scientists continued the study of textual materials.

It became apparent that there were six blocks of information of each type, as well as one that was thematically related to the six smaller blocks, yet more extensive.   The text blocks were language Cone SS-B.

The large textual block was deciphered first.  It consists of prologue, argument, and conclusion.  The prologue is an address to a yet-undetermined governing body, with a recapitulation of a temporal period of events.  It is formal, yet obsequious.   The argument states that the Council of Citizens is making a request on the behalf of six Agency Administrators, asking that they be allowed to remain on Srad 3/50, rather than returning to Origin for decommissioning. 

The text notes that retirement documents for six Administrators had been received, and that commemorative portraiture busts were commissioned, but that the Srad 3/50 Citizens Committee had granted these individuals special service recognition by designating them as Citizens on their commemoratives.  According to the text, upon learning of this honor, the six Administrators – the term Ratmasters first appears here – requested that the Srad 3/50 citizens committee advocate for their retirement on the planet.  Data for creating the image-objects was embedded in the text this point, and was adapted by a team of analysts and these commemoratives were created.

Anyway….    it’s possible to have objects formed by 3-printing without purchasing a 3-printer.  Joe, my technology mentor, suggests that I learn to use the software, and send my designs off for fabrication for a while.  He gave me the name of an online company to contact.  Makes the head spin a bit to think about 3-drawings to send it to them.  I think much finer stamps might be possible this way than by whittling on green clay.  I am keen to get some of the actual “plastiscus” and see how it stands up to groggy clay.

In high school, a llfetime ago, I learned to make working sheet metal drawings – INK! – in mechanical drawing 2.  Gotta get the head back there. If you are interested in this stuff, here’s a link to a recent Popular Science article about 3-d printing.


White pottery….

It’s Sunday…   last evening was my birthday dinner.  What a nice little party, great Indian food,  waiters to fetch and then tidy up after,  Many thanks to all my friends who came, and even to those who wouldn’t come because they couldn’t see the dang Ducks-Cal game.  You know who you are! There were lovely and thoughtful presents…  what a great bunch of friends I have, not to mention my sweet daughters.

Today I have to carve the last pots for my next firing, which hopefully will be Sunday the 18th of November.  I need pots!  While I work, I’m thinking of my show I’ll be having at Valley Art in the spring, ‘White on White.”  I will be making pure white porcelain work in the salt kiln, glazed within but without colorants on the outside.  I have a few pieces of this stuff around from other loads, and I like it a lot. It has occurred to me that part of the reason I want to make it is just because people say, “I love your work but it doesn’t match anything I have.”  Aw, so sorry….  how long did your Mother dress you?  I cannot accommodate those people! Most of them can’t bear to have anything in their home that isn’t part of a “Set”, one of my four-letter words, along with “Wedding”.

I really like white ceramic objects.  About the only white ceramic object I own is a teapot that is the last surviving piece of a dinnerware service I received as a child bride back in 1967, when I still knew everything.  It probably survived because it was seldom used – it was called “American Ironstone” and my first pottery mentor, Renee Goldin, was horrified by it.  She was a Cranbrook ceramic grad student that I  met while working at Crate and Barrel in Chicago, when there was still just one store over on Wells Street.  She taught me about mingei,  and I watched her throw pots in the basement of her parents’ suburban home.  She didn’t have a kiln, just a wheel, but it didn’t matter to her.  Her parents owned a pair of big dobermans who occupied the basement, and it would be just the four of us down there.

I never looked at pottery in the same way after getting to know Renee, and there would be no pots for me now without her and those afternoons in the basement.  I have just one her pots, a small brown salt-fired ricebowl.

I wrote a little squib for the show at Valley Art, kind of a “why I am doing this” kinda piece, which is more pertinent.  I mentioned that many potters love their pieces best when they are green – just before they go into the kiln.  There is a beauty about them that is somehow altered when they are fired. My own crazy slip decorating and salt firing sends unfinished pottery into one of the outer circles of hell,  where it goes through insane heat and caustic vapor assault.  Not all of it comes back in a state that allows it to perform domestic duty, but most of it does.  And once in a while there is a piece that is so exceptionally beautiful that it melts my heart and makes the whole grimy, arduous process worthwhile.

Those pieces are hoarded and put out for adoption carefully.  I don’t have to keep them, but I do save them up for preferred customers, family, dear friends.  I am hoping to get some great stuff from the white show process.  Here’s the image I sent them for the show notice.  It’s a silly pot, the kind a potter has to use for jury slides….  and this one won’t end up white, it will be coloured like my regular inventory and given an auspicious spot in the coming firing. It probably will never be quite as appealing to me as it is in this photo.