Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Whole World is Pottery Tools!

Like every other field, ceramics has a whole collection of specialized tools and materials. But nearly every potter I know makes or finds more tools, and we find them everywhere.

Some of this is just an extension of the usual use of tools. I use a wood or metal file to shape fired clay, and an exacto-knife to cut leather hard clay precisely and neatly. 

But most of it is more imaginative than that. Of course old wet t-shirts wrap well around pieces of over-dry clay, and leave no fabric fibers.

But, polling people in a class I am taking, I learned of an elaborate  and effective process that involves a plastic bag, with water and the clay in it, closed by a cut-off plastic bottle top and cap, the whole submerged in water to press the water into the dry clay.

Ah, plastic bags. We have a whole technology of plastic bags for drying pots at a chosen rate: grocery bags to slow drying a little, vegetable bags to slow it more, and cleaners' bags to keep a pot wet indefinitely.

I've made trimming tools of various shapes from the metal straps that used to hold together pallet-loads of lumber at Home Depot. Now they use plastic straps. I have a lifetime supply of metal strapping, but what will you do?

We can buy throwing sticks, professionally made, to raise and shape pots with too narrow a neck to fit hands inside. In this class, people use wooden spoons, and I hunted out a perfectly shaped stick in the woods. 

The widest and wildest repurposing is in tools to add texture to clay. People who like texture develop an eye for possibilities, from the kitchen, the yard, and, oh, the 99 cent store. Doilies,

screen, graters, buttons, leaves,

 seed pods, textured rolling pins, lace and burlap, wrench sockets,

pens, silverware (use the back of forks, not the tine points, for a smooth line),


Everything small enough to be a hand tool serves as a pottery tool. And, of course, a cat toy.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pottery Really Lasts!

I make pottery for the making, but it's worth noticing the frighteningly long history my pots have after that point. The stuff really lasts.

Once fired, clay pieces can break, but  are impervious to almost everything else. Highfired, glazed pieces, especially, are tough.

Because it is so variable, traditional, and lasting, archeologists use pottery for location and dating information, to identify peoples and eras, trade and migration. You can dig up pieces of pots in an archeological site, recognize the materials and style of the pots, and know that people at your site were in touch with the makers of those pots in some way.

There's an article in a recent Ceramics Monthly about a 9th century shipwreck, full, among other things, of marvelous Chinese ceramics on their way to the Middle East or Europe. Hard on the people involved; great for us, a nasty commonplace in archeology. Finds from the shipwreck shed new light on a lot of the East-West trade, and on Chinese ceramic production of the time.

Many of those pots are still whole, but their current value doesn't require that at all. For the information we can glean from them, broken pots are just as useful. For Edmund de Waal (The White Road),the ground outside Jingdezhen, China, full of broken porcelain bits, is almost sacred ground, a marvel. Jindezhen is where porcelain was perhaps invented for the first time, certainly where it was made in mind-numbing quantity 1000 years ago.

There's an extra responsibility in making something that lasts so long after it leaves my hand. As long as the pot is whole, it continues usable, for function, hand and eye. After that, it still continues, and maybe of some use.

So, what is my responsibility to this depth of time?

First, don't make junk.
Second, don't keep weak, flawed, badly designed pieces.
 I tend to keep, and offer for sale, "seconds", and some people prefer them as stronger evidence of hand work than more symmetrical or neater pieces. But should they be let out into the world to last forever?

Until pots are fired, the clay can be  recycled, and the pot is truly gone. After that, it's here. It seems important, now, the choice to put a piece into that first firing.