I traveled to the port at Nagasaki this morning to pick up my new studio helper, a Peter Pugger VPM-20. Once I got it home, it was a breeze to assemble and mount on the stand, and it was up and running in no time.
Excited to get it working, I grabbed a bucket of dry scraps and some softer clay, and started mixing. It took some time to figure out how to get what I wanted out of the machine, but I think I’ve figured things out for the most part. It really seems to need to be full to do its best work. Once I added enough material to the hopper, things really started moving along. The first pugged clay was too soft, so it got put in again with a lot of dry crushed sandstone and mixed. I just kept adding more dry sandstone until I got what I wanted.
I turned out still to be quite a light batch. After turning on the vacuum, pugging out the contents, then digging out the remainders from the hopper, I had a batch of almost 12kg. The beautiful thing was that because the whole batch had been de-aired, even the unpugged remainders were very easy to wedge by hand. In the past when I have mixed as much sandstone in as I did today, the clay has been largely unwedgeable by hand, being just too short and falling apart.
I think this machine and I are going to be great friends. It allows me to mix and process clays and other materials that were previously impossible to process just by hand. Oh, and it is very quiet, both the main motor and the vacuum pump are much quieter than I had been expecting.
This just made me sad when I saw it this morning. We had a LOT of rain over ten last 36 hours, and I think the footers sank a bit, tilting the stack forward, then dumping it. This will take some time to clean up.
** Just one quick amendment to this post: on re-reading the post and comments, I realized that I may have mislead people to believe that the stack (chimney) went over. Not so, thankfully. Just the stack of wood. No damage to the kiln other than a few scratches to the insulating top coat, and about 5 unlucky shelves that had been sitting right where the wood struck.
Who got the twisted James Taylor reference in the last post? Sorry about that, physical anthropology humor from a previous life.
Anyway, a friend came over yesterday and gave me a crash course in plaster casting. In one of his previous lives, he was a dental prosthetic technician and did casting in various materials for a living. My knowledge of plaster handling and casting jumped about tenfold in 4 hours.
We poured the mold similarly to before, with a couple of differences: he applied whipped cream consistency plaster to the backs of the originals, let it set, then turned them over and planted them in a freshly poured base, so the working side was face up. We cleaned up that surface in running water before it set completely, then applied separating agent and poured a different colored super hard type of plaster over the working surface of the originals. Then we leveled everything off with regular plaster. Mold finished.
Once completely set, I took the mold and soaked it in hot water for an hour to let it absorb as much water as possible, which helps the separating agent to work, and also keeps the plaster from absorbing liquid from the resin mix, which keeps the resin more fluid. Once the separating agent was applied to all surfaces, I put the mold together and tied it with old bicycle tire rubber, stood it up and poured in the resin. Then after letting the full mold sit for about 15 minutes, put it in a 50C bath for 30 minutes to cure the resin. This time I literally used the bath, and set the hot water temp for 55C. Much easier than a pot on the stove.
Once the curing was done, I let the mold cool, popped it open (which was easy with the proper separating agent) and out came two very nice gyubera. After trimming off the excess, and sanding them with a flap wheel and some 180 grit wet paper, they were finished. Victory! There were some small air bubbles but nothing like before, and the mold is in great condition for next time.
Well, usually at least. This last couple of days was an exception. I started dabbling in some nifty new technology (to me). This involved casting some new tools, so when the old ones wear out I’ll have some ready to go. This tool is called a Gyubera, or cow’s tongue rib, that is sort of indispensable when making a lot of Karatsu forms.
The problem with them is that it is awfully hard to find them in the right shape for what you need. There are a lot of cheap ones on the market which are, well, cheap. The one thing they have going for them is that they have a lot of extra wood on them so you can do a lot of fine tuning with a rasp and sandpaper. The good ones are good, but cost a small fortune. I paid about $80 for my large one that I use for teabowls. Smaller one was about $50. Am I the only one that thinks that is ridiculous? Well, they were handmade one by one, by a barber. As strange as that sounds, there was this one barber that made really nice gyubera. He is now retired, and though someone took over his business, the new guy needs practice.
However, the big problem with all the aforementioned gyubera is that they are made of wood and prone to cracking and rot. It’s kind of a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ situation. If you keep them damp, they rot. If you let them dry out, get wet, dry, wet, repeatedly, they crack. I found a partial solution to this by soaking them in Minwax wood hardener, and applying a layer of epoxy. But the epoxy bubbles up with time and they wood hardener wasn’t enough to prevent cracking over the long run, although it did extend the life of the tool considerably.
Not wanting to have to buy more, because of the cost and the fact that the new guy still needs practice. I thought I’d just make some myself, but it didn’t solve the wood material problems. So, these last couple of days I spent making plaster molds of the original gyubera, and using dental grade acrylic resin to cast new ones. I got the resin from a friend who used to be in the business. It is a funny pink color because it is supposed to look like gums. Aesthetically speaking, not my favorite for clay tools, but on the bright side it is unlikely I’ll ever get my tools confused with someone else’s tools.
After a couple of tries, I got a pretty good working two piece mold of two gyubera side by side. Got it ready for the resin pour and got the resin poured without too much fuss. Once it was poured and set for about 20 minutes, it was ready to heat cure in a 50C hot water bath for 25 minutes. Strangely, all of this went fairly smoothly. The problem came with trying to get that mold apart later. I tried and tried but it was not happening, and I ended up breaking the mold. Still, the casts were covered in plaster, because the liquid of the resin had penetrated through the release agent into the plaster. Oops, guess I should have used the special acrylic resin release agent instead of the casting slip release agent. Live and learn.
The cleaned up casts will make usable tools, but they are pocked with bubbles and other spaces where the resin didn’t flow properly. I’ll have to try again, improve the craftsmanship.
Here are some of the first pots to get cleaned up after the firing last week. I’ll post more over the next few days as I get things cleaned up.
Overall the firing went well, much better than the first two certainly. I’m finally starting to get a grip on how the kiln climbs, and learning not to worry about it too much. We fired both chambers this time and it took roughly 30 hours. Cone 10 flat in front, cone 9 touching in the rear, and cone 13 almost touching in the second chamber. The second chamber is a pleasure to fire, very relaxing after stoking the front. I think I can still get more aggressive with the front, taking the temp up even more, probably somewhere around cone 12 would be good for the rice straw ash glazes.
The intention was to drop cone 6 in the rear and call it quits, but it ended up getting hotter than expected, and the ware in front ended up a little too shiny. However, the middle and rear of the setting came out just about perfectly. Temp from top to bottom was quite even. We stopped stoking the second chamber when cone 11 dropped and clammed everything up after letting some of the excess heat out. Still, when I peeked in the next morning, that second chamber was still glowing, and cone 13 was mostly down. Guess that 1250kg of insulating castable does its job well.
Most of the failures this time around were caused by bad glazing, not the firing. Rice straw ash glazes were universally too thick, and an ash glaze I whipped up hoping to be a nice runny green ended up being a crusty reddish brown. Oops.