Monday, 11 June 2012

Thanks, nature!

No images this time, I don't have anything at an interesting stage to show. There is a lot in the works, though, and in time I will share it with you.  This is just a bit of a Monday morning ramble.

I think we all know clay comes from nature, but at my house, nature doesn't stop casting its vote until quite late in the process. 

We've had a lot of rain this year. I'm not talking about warm and lovely raindrops falling on hot pavement, I'm talking about cold, muddy, windy weather that is always wet. My shoes are always wet. My dog is always wet. This changes the way I would have been working about now. In a normal year, I would have had the door to my tiny studio open to the back garden. Cats, a dog, and a boy child would have been wandering in and out, blissfully saying hello and checking on my progress before wandering away to do their own things again. But no. The door stays shut. I am acutely aware of the rain and wind doing their thing a few feet away because my studio door has big gaps above and below it, and even between some of the boards that make it up.  We are still on winter process here. Nothing ever dries without artificially provided heat. I have to have the heat on in the studio, not for my own comfort (although I do quite like comfort), but for the functional purpose of getting work to leatherhard so it can be trimmed and altered.

Dave the Husband Creature hates that. He does not like to pay for heating. He has installed a program on his computer that monitors our electric usage. He knows when I have the heat on. He knows when I fire the kiln.

I got a new kiln from Northern Kilns last year. It's smart and peppy. It has a programmable controller. I set one of the programs to "candle kiln," which heats at the rate of 10c an hour up to 110c, which slowly drives the moisture out of the nearly dry pots. I think of this as my 95 litre summer.  This is a vast improvement over my previous kilns which had minimal controls and considered any settings to be vague suggestions from a dottering old aunt.

My first kiln is at least as old as I am and has a simple 1-2-3 function. It takes a long time, but does a nice bisque firing. The lid weighs a ton, give or take, so I have to plant both feet firmly and open/close it with Olympic weightlifter moves. It will chug along happily at 1 or 2 or 3 until I tell it to do something different by turning the dial. It has no pyrometer and no thermocouple. I fire by eye. I can see when the air inside is orange. Not just the pots, the air has to be orange. Then I turn it off at the wall. I got it from an advert in Ad Trader when I first moved here.

My second kiln is rated to 1200c, which isn't really enough. I fire to 1300c in glaze firings. I do a little low fire work sometimes, so it could be good for that, but I really wasn't doing enough of it to justify having a whole kiln for it. Again, it's a 1-2-3 dial controlled thing, but at least has a thermocouple and temperature gauge, and allegedly shuts off when it reaches the temperature it's set to. Dave the Husband Creature is good with electricity, so he reverse wired it for me. He made it so that rather than have the controller stop the kiln when it gets to a certain mark, it will continue to fire while it is above the certain mark. I wholeheartedly recommend that you do NOT do this. Not only do fire bricks become conductive of electricity at a temperature higher than they are rated for, but it cracks the bricks. That kiln, my only front-loader, is another Ad Trader acquisition. We bought it from a woman whose husband had run off to Australia with some hussy, and she wanted her garage space back.

My third kiln (RIP) was a round top loader. It had a controller. I could control how fast it got hot by percentages. I could tell it when to turn off, and it would. It was like magic. Alas, it was not really meant for what I wanted it for, and over the course of 10 years I managed to kill it dead. It stopped being consistent with its percentages. It stopped turning off when it was supposed to. Its lid rusted to bits -- bits that had to be swept up, an unsavoury mix of rust chunks and crumbled ceramic fibre. It already had a lot of rust when I got it, and it was not shy about continuing to rust. Dave (tHC) made me a new lid from fire bricks. Heavy to lift, but not as bad as the first kiln's lid. Its banded together sides got loose and rickety. The floor fell out, so I put the whole thing up on a bed of fire bricks. I had to stay up all night or wake up at intervals to do a firing because the kiln no longer did what I said. And of course electricity costs less in the wee hours.  You get the picture. That kiln came from a local artist when he moved away from sculpture to focus exclusively on painting. I did get an awful lot of use out of it, though. I think it's decidedly beyond salvage now, except perhaps the bricks.

So the new kiln was quite a luxury.  So worth it.  It does what I say. I program in what I would like it to do, and it just does it. After so many years of seat of the pants firings, this almost feels like cheating. Close the lid, turn on the power, select the program, press the button -- BOOP! --, come back the next day. No more seat of the pants. I got it when a relative died and left me a tiny amount of money, just enough for a new kiln. I exchanged emails with Northern a few times, and then had my kiln a few days later. It was magic. I scavenged so many old and broken down kilns, I never thought I would buy a new one. Dragging home other people's obsolete dreams is a great way to save thousands of pounds, and I have a live-in sparky to beat life back into them for me. But you know, the struggle just got to be too much, and I suddenly had that little bit of money to either fritter away or do something meaningful with, so I went for the new one. And now I have a reliable 95 litre summer available to me.

As I type, the kiln is cooling from a bisque firing, and the studio shelves are full of mug bodies. I need to trim, alter, and put handles on them later today. I left the heat off so they might still be quite wet, but they're porcelain, which dries out quickly anyway. I have a lot to do, but you don't need to see more images of work in progress. I will save the camera for finished work in a few days.

I am resisting going out to the studio because it is cold and raining, but weather made clay and weather still gets a vote on how things go for it. The Met office says our rain today is at a warning level, but it's been raining for so long that I don't know it will make a lot of difference. We've been living in intermittent floodings with a side of drought warning for months now.

But yesterday was great. I had forgotten how helpful nature can be if it wants to. I had some work which was resisting drying despite my space heater. I considered putting in the house oven, but since it was emphatically NOT raining and the sky was conspicuously blue, I put the pots outside. They were actually ready for final processing inside two hours. Thanks, Nature!

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