Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Third Rocket

Finished the third rocket tonight. It needed very little trimming on the base. I beveled the bottom of the rocket to make adding the engine bells easier; rather than hand beveling each engine bell.

I carved multiple rectangular windows for the cockpit, and spent extra time putting seams in the body and around where the fins would go.

The last bit of carving was two vents between the fins on the top side, that butted up against the base of the rocket.

Three engine bells were trimmed, and joined to the base on the bevel. They point outward from the centerline of the rocket. The three tail fins are tight against the side of the rocket, and are placed so that the engine bells swell past the inside of the fins.

As a final touch, I added two short wings, half ovals, just below the cockpit. They remind me of the fins on the Dr. Zarkov's spaceship in the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serial.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Trimming Through the Night

I'm tired.

I trimmed three of the four vases for Julie, and finished two of the rockets. Most of the evening was spent carving the surface of the rockets. I used my favorite carving tool, a Kempler widgie, the one with the wooden handle, arrowhead shaped blade, and curved scraper on the other end.

The first rocket was the first one that I had thrown of the set. I kind of lost inspiration half way through, failed when I tried carving something new onto the surface (a set of grooves going perpendicular to the direction of flight on the belly), but pulled it out in the end. It turned out chubby, and wimsical. It has three engine bells.

I spent more time with the second rocket. I integrated the trim around the cockpit window with the top fin, and added and interesting louvred vent on either side. The belly is classic blue whale, which is asthetically pleasing. The second rocket has a single engine bell.

The biggest issue that I have with the rockets is that the chucks I threw are a little small, so the rockets aren't as stable as I would like them to be.

I wet the last rocket body down, wrapped it in plastic, and placed it in the damp box. The vases are in the damp box as well, upside down so the foot of the pot can dry without being damaged, and wrapped in plastic to allow Julie the chance to turn them into dragons.

Julie took some pictures of her dragon pots, and I posted one here, and some of the rest to my flickr site. I've also posted a few more pictures of rockets, and one of Julie's woven clay baskets:


My trip out of town has been cancelled, so I'll be in the studio again tomorrow.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Trout Trout

We have trout.

Its a keeper.

I rolled a slab of raku clay, about three quarters of an inch thick. I used the canvas of the slab roller to pick up the slab, and transferred it to a plywood plank.

I put my trout template onto the slab, and carefully cut down to the board with a needle tool. I tried to keep the cut perpendicular to the board that the trout was on. I scavenged the scrap pieces, and rolled them out thinner to be used for rocket fins and for Julie to practice her scales on. I carried the trout into the house, on its plank, and put it on a tray in front of the couch while I watched the tail end of the Steelers game.

A slab of clay with square edges can chip and break easily, so I used one of my tools to bevel the edges of the trout. The tool has a wooden shaft, like a thick pencil, with an arrowhead shaped blade at one end, and a curved scraper that is bent in a crescent shape. I used the curved end on the trout. Since I'm right handed, I scraped the left edge of the trout towards me, and rotated the plank to make it all left edge until I have beveled the whole fish.

I carved some deep lines into the trout, using the same tool, to delineate the fins, add definition to the tail, and added a mouth and gill slit. It was all very trouty; very authentic. The mouth was made to curve up a bit, so the trout was a happy one. I then carved an 'X' in the place of an eye. Happy ex-trout. To emphasize the formerness, I took a piece of clay, and crafted a lolling tongue to stick out of the side of the mouth. Yup, a happy dead trout, no doubt about it. Expired, really, but in a happy way.

The happy dead trout is in the damp box, with a layer of plastic over it to slow the drying process. After a bisque firing, I'll raku fire it in the kiln that I haven't built yet. I may get an oak plank, stain and router it a bit to make something suitable for mounting the fish.

A Busy Day in the Studio

Julie had turned the two vases that I had thrown for her into dragons, and I gave her my two raku pieces as well. I am going to be out of town for a couple of days next week, so we decided that I had to throw her some more vases to work on while I was gone.

Last night, Julie reminded me that I needed to get back into the studio, and that I needed to throw some work for myself, and not just pieces for her. I need to make sure that I do things to keep me motivated, and not turn the studio into more chores.

Made finally made it it into the studio at about nine o'clock this morning. I broke out a new bag of raku clay, cut it into quarters (about 7 1/2 pounds each), cranked my music up (Talking Heads) and started to throw.

My centering skills have returned, and I can almost do it without thinking. Throwing the same size piece of clay four times in a row helps too.

The first vase threw with no problems. Julie asked me to make the bases a little wider on the pieces to improve stability, so I opened the center a little wider than I had been doing. The first piece measures eight and a half inches tall, and has a rounded bead for a lip.

The second vase threw as easily as the first. Its ten inches tall, and has an unadorned lip.

Feeling cocky, I started the third vase. It centered fine, but the diameter of the clay was too wide, more like what I would do to make a bowl instead of a vase (I figured this out later). After opening the piece, I had problems in my second or third pull to raise the walls. The piece was sort of shaped like a margarita glass, and I couldn't get the flared bit to collar back in. I ended up grabbing my needle tool, and trimming a good three inches off of the piece. I spent more time pulling extra clay out of the walls near the base; clay that I would have trimmed away. I pushed the piece as far as I could without it collapsing. When finished, it was eleven inches tall, had a pleasant shape, and included the rounded lip bead.

I used some of the wall raising technique that I had been forced into for the third piece when I started to raise that walls of the forth. The piece is wider and taller than the other three, and has nice proportions. It measures twelve inches tall, with a rounded lip bead.

Had a late breakfast, and returned to the studio. Shifted music in the studio; I'd gone through the Talking Heads CD twice, so I shifted to Styx: Caught in the Act, and started throwing.

The first piece was the body for a new rocket. I throw them from a piece of clay the size of a tennis ball. I had a heck of a time centering the piece. Once centered, I botched the opening, where I had to repeatedly run my thumb from the lip to the floor of the piece to try to even out the center opening (this causes the walls to be even all around, and makes raising even walls easier). The walls came up uneven (trimmed the lip back), and then the lip formed ripples when I tried to collar it shut. I finally sealed the opening, but the piece was a mishapen lump.

Throwing sealed rocket bodies is different than throwing an open form. You can't touch the inside once the piece is closed. In throwing, the shape is typically controlled by managing the walls of the piece from the inside and outside simultaneously; one hand or tool pressing inwards is balanced by a hand or tool pressing outwards.

What I play off of in throwing a closed form is that there is a pocket of air trapped inside of the piece. As I push on the outside with my hands or a tool, the walls are pushed inwards, but since the shape is closed, the pressure inside increases as well. With a delicate touch, the pressure can balance the external forces of shaping.

With the wheel slowly turning, I typically start at the base of a closed rocket form, and use a strait rib to have the piece flare outward from the base on the wheel head. I shift to a concave rib to control the transition from flaring outwards to curving inwards, then shift to a simple kidney rib to bring the clay to a point at the top of the piece.

It all works fine if the right amount of air had been trapped in the piece; otherwise, as you push on one part, the walls can bulge out at another. That is what was happening with the rocket that I was throwing, and the tip of the rocket body was uneven and wobbling a bit. I finally used a needle tool to cut the uneven tip off the rocket, then bored a hole to the central cavity. As the piece turned on the wheel, I wet my hands, then gently cupped the piece to give it a more symetrical shape. Air bubbled out of the opening in the piece as the shape shifted. Once it evened out a bit, I resealed the inner chamber, and reformed the tip. I then finished shaping it as described in the previous paragraph.

The second rocket threw without any problems. As I finished it on the wheel, I used the edge of a rib to make a notch about an inch down from the point that I had formed on top of the piece. I'll work the notch into the design on the rocket body.

The third rocket also threw easily. I had to fiddle a bit to duplicate the nosecone notch that I had placed on the second rocket. This one has a slightly longer body, and the nosecone is longer before the notch.

Finally, I threw ten new engine bells out of small wads of clay. I also re-wet the five remaining bells from my last rocket, so I will have a good selection to draw from. When I finished throwing, I realized that I should learn to throw the bells 'off the hump', which is a production pottery technique where piece of clay large enough to throw several pieces is centered on the wheel, and then the pieces are thrown individually using clay from the top of the centered lump. Each piece is cut off the hump before recentering the top and throwing the next piece.

Need to roll out a few slabs now, for fins, a trout, and so Julie will have some test clay to practice texturing before she puts scales on the dragons.

I need to trim everything tomorrow afternoon, or wrap it up tight to last until late Thursday.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Here Be Dragons

I got home from work yesterday, and Julie had finished the first of her dragon vases. She worked with the taller of the two vases that I had thrown her.

I saw a Rookwood exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum of Art, and they had had two vases that had
Chinese dragons added to the pieces after they had been thrown. I guess that I had expected her to do something like making one of her polymer dragons out of regular clay, and have it interacting with the vase.

Wow, was I wrong. The piece looks like the vase is starting to morph into a dragon, with the head and face pressing out, and bits of wing and tail showing on other parts of the vase. Its a very beautiful piece. I don't think that I have the words to describe how incredibly cool this piece is, and I feel that it would sell in a gallery for more than my carved vases or rockets have in the past. I need to get a picture of it up.

Last night, before we went to bed, I asked Julie if she would like to do the same thing with the vase that I had thrown out of raku clay. She agreed to try, and this afternoon she called to say that she had finished that piece as well.

When I trimmed the vases, I caved my initials into the base of the foot, and then the symbol for our little pottery (which is the letters 'K' and 'P', with a swirl representing flame around them). After Julie transformed them, she added her initials as well, to distinguish it from any pieces that we have worked on separately.
Looks like I'll be throwing more vases soon, for both of us to work on.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Trimming Vases

Woke up this morning with a pain in my right hand. The joint at the base of my middle finger was sore, and I had a hard time closing my hand. By the end of my day at work, I hurt from the joint of the middle finger, through the base of the palm, and then traveling down the inside of my wrist to mid-forearm.

I don't know if its from pottery, or from my overweight laptop from work that I had to lug around this weekend.

This evening, after work, I checked the pots in the damp box. I dragged my finger along the side of each piece, at the base of the foot. A smear of clay came off each piece, but it formed a stiff little cylinder when I rolled the smear between my fingers and thumb (which hurt, of course, since the finger of choice for such an operation is my middle finger).

Our damp box is a heavy set of plasic shelves. We have three sets of the shelves in the studio. One set, the damp box, has a vinyl cover for it, with a set of zippers on the front. The idea is that pieces will dry slowly in the damp box, so that a piece can be put in the box for a day or two unwrapped, and then be ready for trimming.

I started with Julie's vases, and first placed them upright on the wheel head and centered them. I had had to throw them a little heavy; there was a lot of extra clay in the walls of the piece going down to the foot to support the curves in the walls. The extra clay has to be trimmed off. Usually, you flip the piece over and place it top down on the wheel head to trim the foot. The upper walls, shoulder, and rim were delicate enough that I was afraid that the piece wouldn't bear the weight of all the clay, so I centered them upright to thin out the walls near the foot before trimming the foot itself. Once centered, I rotated the wheel head, and ran my finger along the seam where the foot of the piece met metal; the clay smeared sufficiently to make it airtight all the way around, which seals it to the wheel head. Its not a stable as placing clay lugs (three butresses of clay, 120 degrees apart) around the piece, but it conserves clay (no butress) as long as you don't push too hard against the side of the piece, or catch too much clay in a trimming tool. I broke out my trimming tools, and got to work.

Everything trimmed fine. I alternated between having my glasses on an off, depending whether I was working on the foot or the sides of the vase. Since the pieces were thrown heavy, I had had to trim the sides about halfway up the pieces to give the curve that I wanted. Julie is planning to carve her pieces, and then put little dragon sculptures on them. Once I had the pot mostly in the shape that I wanted, I'd stop the wheel, flip the pot, recenter, then hold it in place with lugs while I put a foot on it. Once done, each piece was moved removed from the wheel, but left inverted the allow the soft foot to dry out a bit.

I trimmed my raku pieces as well. Once finished, everything made it back into the damp box, but this time I wrapped all the pieces in some plastic that my shirts come back from the dry-cleaners in (note: we need to either dry clean more shirts, or find a different source of plastic. )

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Warm Beer and Bread, They Say, Can Raise the Dead

Julie asked me to throw her a vase this afternoon, a tall one. "Sort of like that, but taller." She pointed to a nine inch piece that I had thrown and carved ten years ago, back in Phoenix, then rakued here in New Jersey. Its a metallic blue in color, with a matte black rim.

"Raku clay?" I was hoping that she would want raku clay; with where my throwing skills are, I need the tooth to get the height and shape.

"No......what else do we have?"

I rattled off the cone 6 clays to her. She chose Standard Clay 112, which goes a toasty tan with speckles when it is vitrified.

Julie can throw, but excels at hand building. My favorite pieces are her woven baskets, with thin strips of clay, and little cloven feet. She taught hand building at a day camp for three summers. Her recent passion has been making dragons out of polymer clay. She made one to give to Vicki, when we were in Atlanta.

Once I throw and trim the vase, I will turn it over to her when it is leather hard. She will then decorate it with clay dragons.

I broke open a new box of clay, pulled out a bag, and cut off a couple of blocks of clay. Each piece weighed about six pounds, which is a quarter of a bag. Taking one, I bounced the corners on the wheel head to round it off a bit, then started to center.

Or tried to. Again, I had difficulty in centering. These were the biggest chunks of clay that I had thrown in two years, and I was having trouble remembering how. As I tried to center, I would either get a side wobble, meaning that the clay wasn't centered, or an uneven top.

To center a piece of clay, you brace your left elbow against your hip or ribs, with your forearm leaning on the edge of the splash pan. I throw counter clockwise, so the palm of my left hand is against the side of the clay, trying to make the clay round and centered on the wheel head. The base of the palm, right above the wrist, is doing the shaping of the side, while the right edge of the palm and pinkie slide on the wheel head, and work to create a perpendicular base for the clay (rather than a tapering 'continental shelf', as Jean Taylor would say). The right elbow is locked against the ribcage, and the right hand rides on the top of the clay. The right hand is supposed to even out the top so it is not wavy. You use the base of the palm on your right hand. It helps to lock the hands together for stability, and some lock their thumbs. My right foot controls the throttle pedal of the wheel, and my left is supposed to be flat on the ground, but typically is wrapped around a chair leg or on tiptoes, bouncing.

The idea is to get your hands in just the right position so that the clay is forced through a more-or-less rectangular template, and becomes perfectly centered with an even top. When I threw in Georgia, and my classmates had trouble centering, I could lay my hands on their clay, judge the wobble, and center it in a second or two.

It was like magic; I didn't really think about it, it just happened.

I fussed and fought, playing with my hand positions and wheel speed, until I finally had the clay close to center. There was a bit of wobble in the top, but I could fix the bad affects as I threw the piece.

I opened, and started raising the walls. The uneven top turns into uneven heights in the walls. I pulled out my needle tool, and trimmed the walls even. I didn't seem to have much difficulty in raising the walls at all today.

The shape of the piece is basically a tall cylindar. It flares out from the base, and then curves back in to create a shoulder with a raised rim on it. I had problems collaring the clay back in to create the shoulders, and had to cut about an inch of height to remove a buckle I put in one side of the rim. I used my ribs to give the piece a nice curve on the inside and outside, then used a notch in one rib to create the raised rim.

The piece was okay, but not what I had envisioned. The mouth of the vase was wider than I liked; there wasn't enough shoulder, and the piece was a little to short for how wide it was. I cut it off the wheel, moved it to the damp box, and started with the next chunk of clay.

Centering went easier, the walls also came up taller. The amazing thing was my hands remembered how to collar the clay correctly, so the shoulder came out nice. When I first learned to throw, I had been taught to collar by placing two fingers from each hand equidistant near the top of the piece, and gently push in while moving up the piece with your fingers. This starts to reduce the diameter of the pot, and the walls start to thicken where you collar. The thickness of the walls can either be raised into taller walls, or raised until it can be trimmed off.

The way my hands collared the piece were that placed my hands on either side of the pot near the rim, and cupped my hands up and inward over the walls. The shoulder formed nicely, and I then finished shaping the piece, and adding the rim. I cut the piece off of the wheel head, and moved it to the damp box next to the first.

I fetched Julie to show her my work, and she was pleased with both pieces. I agreed to try to trim them tomorrow, then wrap them in plastic until she gets a chance to decorate them.

I took a dinner break, made a sandwich, and returned to the studio. Since I was having luck throwing the tall vase, I got out my raku clay to throw the same shape. The tooth of the raku clay, and the fact that this was the third vase that evening, allowed me to throw a taller piece. My intent is to carve this one.

I decided to push my luck, and go for a covered jar. The raku clay, again, threw wonderfully, and was very forgiving. I still trimmed the rim as I raised the walls too many times, but that was the biggest problem that I had in shaping the piece. Back in the day, I could throw a twenty-five pound bag of clay into a single bowl, and trim just a fraction of an inch at most.

The final step of one of my lidded jars is to create a step in the rim that the lid rests on. I used to split the rim with a needle tool, then I thought that I forced the split into a step using a rib with a right angle in it. I tried for about ten minutes to get it right, but fussed with it too much, so the step collapsed into the bowl. I have to ponder finger positions, because I almost remembered how to do it, but seemed to need two more hands at one point to smooth out too many edges simultaneously. I'll dig thought my tool box, and see whether I can use one of my oddly pointed sticks instead of a rib to make the step.

I smoothed out the damaged step in the rim, so it is now a wide vase. I'll see about carving it for raku. I'll try for a covered jar another day.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

A Rocket is Born

This morning, I checked on the pieces of the rocket. The engines bells were getting a little dry, and I wet them down and covered them with plastic, but the body seemed okay. Since I had thrown the chuck last (to make sure that it would fit the rocket body), it was the least dry, so I pulled it out of the damp box, and left it on a shelf for most of the day.

This evening, after we got Stephanie to bed, I went into the studio to do some carving. The rocket body is first trimmed in the chuck, and it required very little trimming before I was satisfied. Removing the piece from the chuck, I then lay out the pattern that I will carve. I start with the windshield, which is typically left unglazed in the raku firing, so it will be a matte black. I trace out the shape, then cut with a blade into the clay. I go over the cuts at an angle, then use a pick to pull out the loose clay. After that is complete, I had to determine the number and placement of the tail fins. I have one dorsal fin, and two others equidistant from the first. I trace out long rectangles where they will be joined to the body. I then worked at carving the belly. My first rocket (and about every third rocket that I seem to make) was called "Odd Bodkins". Its belly had carved, longitudinal lines, like those found on a blue whale. I took a break, and went up to the master bedroom, to inspect how I had carved it. The longitudinal lines did not go the length of the rocket, but ended up merging into long triangles and polygons. Returning to the studio, I carved a similar pattern into the new rocket.

I had planned to stop for the night by the time I had finished the carving, but I checked the slab that I had rolled for the fins, and decided that it was perfect for shapping and joining. If I waited another day, it would probably be too dry.

I put the body back in the chuck, off of the wheel head, and then played with engine placement. I ended up choosing three slightly mismatched bells, and trimmed them on wheel. I then used a blade to bevel the base of the engines, so that when they were joined to the rocket, they would all point slightly outward. Getting some vinegar from the kitchen pantry, I made up some slip, scored the engine bells and base of the rocket, and joined them together. The vinegar in the slip causes a chemical reaction in the clay, so that the pieces join tighter.

I next got paper, pencil, and scissors, and played with different fin shapes. Every rocket that I made after the first "Odd Bodkins" could stand on its fins or an engine bell. Its just a matter of planning ahead, and making sure that the fins are even, and that they are long enough to support the rocket once fired. I found a curve that I liked, and cut out a template, then tried the template against the rocket. I then used the template to cut fins from my leather hard slab. I beveled the edges of the fins once I had them cut out, then joined them to the body.

The rocket is standing, inverted, in the chuck. It is wrapped in a light plastic bag (from my laundered shirts) to dry evenly.

I haven't settled on a name yet. I am leaning towards the name "Flying Horse"


Saturday, September 10, 2005

Back in the Studio

Got back into the studio today.

I threw a small rocket, and a half dozen walnut-half sized cups for engine bells. I also threw a chuck, a tall cylinder with concave walls, without a bottom. I put the rocket in the chuck nose first in order to trim the foot of the rocket body. Once I finish carving on the rocket, the body goes, nose first, back into the chuck, and I attach the fins and engines. The piece is also fired in the chuck. Once it is bisqued, the clay is strong enough for the rocket to stand on its fins.

Julie helped me clear off the slab roller set up out in the garage, and stitched some canvas scraps together to roll out a slab for the fins. I built the slab roller a couple of years ago, when Julie was the ceramics instructor at a day camp. Its made of square steel tubing, plywood, some iron pipe, and a couple of cables.

I threw with Standard Clay's raku clay. It has more grog, heavy particles of fired clay, in it than the other clays that I throw with, which enables it to survive the thermal shock of being pulled orange hot out of a kiln and dropped into a bucket of shredded newspaper. The grog gives the clay 'tooth', which is sort of like stiffness, so that the walls of a piece can be pushed further out before they collapse. A clay like porcelain has almost no tooth, and is like throwing with cream cheese. Raku clay is more coarse and gritty. As the wheel turns, you can feel the grog on the wheel head scratching at the base of your hand which is resting there.

Tomorrow, I trim, carve, and assemble the rocket.