Sunday, October 30, 2005

Trimming Blind

I woke up Thursday morning with a scratched eye.

About a year and a half ago, I hurt my left eye when I was on a trip to Idaho Falls. I just woke up in the morning with a sharp pain. I spent half a day in class, then got to drive down to Salt Lake City to catch my plane back home. I was miserable from the pain, and the eye was watery and barely functional. When I returned home, I saw my eye doctor, and she perscribed drops and ointments to get me through the days until my eye healed.

This time, the eye is scratched in the same place. The old scratch is a week spot, and waking up several mornings in a row with dry eyes will slough off enough cells covering the scratch to reopen it.

Having a scratched eye takes a lot out of me. The whole left side of my head is sore, the muscles, tear ducts, sinus passages, and the eye itself. I try to sleep as much as I can. Its hard to read, watch TV, or drive. I'll be hit by waves of pain, then I get terribly sleepy, and can't keep both eyes open.

Things were marginally better by Saturday afternoon, so I returned to the studio to trim.

The dip warmer/cooler is in two pieces. The bottom part was an easy trim. The upper bowl, having been thrown with stiff clay, had to be trimmed on the outside to fit in the lower bowl, then inside to thin out the walls. This is a piece that needs more preplanning when I am throwing. The finished work is about six inches across, and I plan to glaze it in Floating Blue.

I ended up trimming by feel, mostly. My depth perception is shot, right now, so I kept popping the pieces off of the wheel head to judge the thickness with my fingers, then recentering the piece.

I trimmed the raku vase upright at first, giving the walls the proper taper. I flipped it over once I got the weight down, and finished the foot. I ended up carving into the shoulders of the vase, about three inches of vertical lines, closely spaced. When I set the raku piece up to dry, it looked like there was a wobble in the top and bottom boundaries of where the lines started. I'll need to check it out when my eyes get better to see if it is really there, or if I can fix it.

The covered raku jar was left uncovered, and is bone dry. I'm trying to rewet the piece in order to trim it.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Throwing Again

Got back into the studio tonight.

Started with a rocket. My notebook is full of rockets, especially long, skinny ones. The rockets that I have been throwing are shorter and rounder. I like the rockets that I throw, but I have some neat designs for the longer shape.

I got out a hunk of raku clay, and centered it on the wheel. I ended up throwing a tall cylinder, and worked at making it narrower and taller.

The way that one typically makes a piece taller is by raising the walls; starting at the base of a wall, gently pinching the clay between a finger on the inside of the piece and a finger on the outside of the piece, and slowly pulling up. The wheel is turning at the same time, so a rising wave of clay is 'pulled' upward, making the walls thinner and taller. Making a piece narrower involves 'collaring; pushing in on the piece from four sides simultaneously with the fingers of two hands, and slowly raising your hands along the piece, as the wheel is turning.. Collaring also makes the walls thicker. If I remember right, raising walls and collaring both appear in the Japanese, Chinese, and European schools of throwing.

I took a class once in Georgia, where the instructor showed us some Korean throwing techniques. One was grabbing the pot with the right hand, where the middle finger is on the inside of the pot, and the thumb is on the outside, at the point that the pot is closest to the potter, pinching the walls between these fingers, and rapidly pulling up. You pull towards a point above the center of the wheel, so you create a tapering cylinder. It required a compression step after each pull, where the potter would support the inner and outer wall of the pot with the left hand while bridging the first two fingers of the right hand over the rim and pressing downwards. The second move is for creating tall, narrow cylinders, by first creating a cylinder on the wheel head, getting the palms and edge of your hands below the pinkies very wet, and then chopping your hands into the base of the pot from the sides at a forty five degree angle. The distance between your hands defines the diameter of the resulting cylinder, and you drag your hands upward to raise the clay. Using this technique, I have created clay tubes eighteen inches high, starting about an inch and a half in diameter, and tapering to a little less than an inch. The last inch or so flares out again. The tubes sort of look like tentacles. I have a raku piece (what else?) in our library, with three of these tubes attached to the lid, called "Things are Looking Up".

I used this technique to try to throw a rocket. The problem that I encoutered was that the taper was backwards, the rocket got narrower the higher up I got. Aesthetically, I want the rocket to have a narrow base, slowly flare out the higher you get, and then converge to a point. As I was fussing with the clay, trying to force it to do my bidding, it occured to me that I could throw the rocket body upside down, so that the taper would go in the direction that I wanted. I would just need to plan ahead, making sure to leave enough clay around the base of the piece so that it would support itself while it dried, and to make sure that I leave enough clay down there so I can trim it to a point afterwards.

I threw my first long, tapered rocket. I got to fuss with highest point on the piece, which would be the bottom of the rocket, and made a little aerospike exhaust nozzle. I cut the rocket off the wheel, and started throwing a second.

The second rocket had problems. Half way through raising the walls, I discovered a lump in the raku clay, a lump of harder clay about the size of a pea. It was embedded in the wall of the rocket, and I discovered it while raising the walls of the piece. The harder lump caused the wall to stretch out of shape. I finally had to cut the lump free, but it was half way up the rocket, so I had to cut everything away above the new hole. I turned the rocket into a chuck for the first rocket.

I started a third, and had problems. I wasn't focused very well, since I have a meeting coming up at work tomorrow that has me worried, and the boom box that I was playing music on starting behaving strangely (skipping parts of my 'Yes' album, then playing other parts too fast or too slow). While the piece did not make it as a rocket, I did sucessfully create a nice lidded jar. I planned to ask Julie to put some dragons on it for me.

As I was moving the lidded jar onto the drying shelf, I accidently bumped the rocket, and knocked it over. It kinked where it fell across our extruder, which was on the same shelf. I tossed both the rocket and its chuck into my scrap raku clay bag for recycling.

Went and watched some football for a while. Julie had made some more of her turkey chili (based on a recipe by the wife of Kit Carson), and we had a few cups of it as we sat on the couch.

I eventually got back into the studio, and threw with the 266, chocolate brown clay. The clay was getting a bit stiff, so I had a heck of a time with it, but I threw a little strait sided bowl and a second bowl with a wide lip that rests on the first. Its going to be a 'dip warmer' or 'dip cooler', depending on whether you put hot water or ice into the lower bowl, and then dip into the top bowl. There is a program on the 'Do It Yourself Network' called 'Throwing Clay', and I saw a demo of how to throw one Saturday on the program.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

New Rocket Photos

I've uploaded a new set of pictures of the greenware rockets to my picture site:

There is also a photo of the trout up there.

Beachcomber's Chili

Winner of the 2005 Sturbridge Lake Chili Cookoff for "Most Unusual Chili"

Here, to the best of my recollection, is how I made the chili this year. My cooking is a lot more chaotic than this recipe sounds.

1 pound frozen cod
1/2 pound frozen scallops
3 T olive oil
3 stalks celery
2 shallots
3 T freshly grated ginger
2 large tomatillos
3 poblano chiles
2 cubano chiles
2 long hot peppers (the green ones)
2 seranno chiles (the green ones)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
two 15 oz cans of beans. I used cannellini and black beans. Kidney, chick peas, or navy beans are fine too.
Two 48 oz cans of chicken broth.

Set the fish and scallops out to defrost.

Roast and peel the chile peppers. The easiest way to do this is on the burner of a gas stove, but you can also use a cookie sheet on the top rack of an oven broiler. The skins of the peppers will blister and char. Rotate the peppers frequenty to try to get the entire surface to blister. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Cut open each pepper, removing the seeds and inner structures. The seeds hold most of the spiciness in the chiles, and I discard them, but some cooks like to use them for additional heat in the chili. Flatten the pepper out, skin side up, and then scrape off as much of the skin as possible. Discard the skin as it is a little bitter. Dice the chile peppers, and set aside.

I also roast and peel the tomatillos, but only to remove the skins. Try to keep as much of the flesh and seeds intact as possible.

Dice the celery, tomatillos, and shallots. Pan fry in a large frying pan with the ginger and garlic in a little olive oil over medium heat. Add the diced peppers, and heat for another minute. Add the first can of chicken broth, and the beans. Keep the chili at medium heat, but reduce the heat if it starts boiling too quickly. Stir occasionally, to make sure that nothing is burning to the bottom of the skillet. The chicken broth needs to be reduced to thicken the chili. Let simmer for a few hours. For the cookoff, I did one can the night before, transfered the chili to a sealed container in the refridgerator to allow the flavors to blend, then added the second can of broth about two hours before I planned to leave for the cookoff.

When defrosted, dice or fork shread the cod. Slice the scallops in half 'the long way' to thin them out, then cut each piece into quarters. Pan fry the fish for a few minutes in the olive oil, until cooked. You can either pan fry or broil the scallops. I added the fish and scallops to the chili right before transfering it to the serving pot, since I didn't want to overcook the fish by stewing it for several hours.

Possible substitutions:
You could use a little onion instead of the shallots.
Replace the tomatillos with small tomatoes.
Substitute a vegetable broth for the chicken broth.
Use different combinations of chili peppers

Chili isn't an exact science; don't be afraid to add or remove ingredients. I think what makes the base of this recipe work is that a lot of broth is reduced to be the base of the chili, and that it uses a couple of kinds of chile peppers. Poblanos are a warm heat, but provide a smoky flavor to the chili. The ancho is the dried version of the poblano. I think that the cubanos are medium heat, but the flavor they provide is in a different direction than the poblanos. The serranos are hot, and provide heat to the chili. Jalapenos are a medium heat pepper, and could be used instead of the seranos. The smoked form of the jalapeno is called a chipotle, and can be found in barbecue sauce (adobo sauce) in the mexican food section of supermarkets.

2005 Chili Cookoff

Julie and I entered the Sturbridge Lakes Chili Cookoff again this year.

We like making chili, and have our own recipes that we have been honing for the last couple of years. We'll also keep our eyes open for any new chili recipes that look interesting in the months leading up to the contest. This year, I had found an intersting seafood chili recipe, and then promptly misplaced it.

We start making our chilis a day before the contest. We noticed in the first year that we participlated that the chili tasted better the next day, so now we partially make them a day early, and let them sit in the fridge

Julie entered a turkey and green chile recipe, with chick peas. She used a mix of poblanos, cubanelles, long hots, serannos, and a bit of roasted habenero. She used diced bits of red chiles for color. It was very tasty. She had diced avocado and montery jack cheese to go with it.

I took my 'Road Kill Chili' recipe from last year, winner for 'most unusual chili' (it was a green chili, with pork in it), and made it with fish this year. I used the same chiles as Julie (excluding the habenero), but in a different combination, and stayed green. The base of the chili is two forty-eight ounce cans of chicken broth, reduced, with celery, garlic, shallots, and tomatillos. I threw in a can each of black and white beans, and three tablespoons of shredded ginger. It cooked down for about six hours, and I added a pound of shreaded cod (pan fried) and a half pound of diced scallops (broiled). I called it "Beachcomber's Chili", since a good name is half the battle in a chili cookoff.

There were twenty entries this year, and well over a hundred people judging. Everyone tastes the chilis, then picks their favorites in four categories, hottest, best non-beef, most kid friendly, and most unusual.

This year, there were a lot of non-beef chilis. A habenaro and rosemary chile won for hottest, but it wasn't mouth-peel hot; simply warmer than anything else. Last year, we had some real scortchers, and the tasters developed a strategy to save the hotter ones for the end. A deer chili won for best non-beef, and a young boy won for most kid friendly, which was a nice surprise to us all.

For the second year in a row, my chili won for most unusual. I got a blue ribbon to add to our awards wall going into the basement, and a kitchen knife set.

I think it is time to retire the family line of my current green chili recipe. With the absense of beef in the chilis this year, I was thinking of going with something more traditional, with using dried chiles and fresh reds, with tomatoes and what not.

I also came up with an idea for a kinda crazy chili. My mom had an appetizer recipe for cocktail parties, using those little hot dogs that Oscar Meyer used to make. The hotdogs were served hot in a sauce that contained catsup, brown sugar, and bourbon. I was thinking of taking this as a base recipe, and adding navy beans, diced vidalia onions, roasted poblanos (or rehydrated anchos), and chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Maybe some roasted green pepper for color. It would sort of be a twisted version of beans and franks, but have a hot and smokey flavor.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Raku Kiln

I've been thinking a lot about the raku kiln. It will be a while before we absolutely need one, since we still need to fill the electric kiln with greenware and bisque.

Behind the house, between our porch and a storage shed, is a small patch of gravel. The branches of one of the larger pines, a bit up our sled hill, overhangs the area. This is where I want to place and fire the raku kiln.

I'll use a pad of cinder blocks to keep the kiln off the ground. The air gap in the blocks reduces heat loss into the earth while the kiln is firing. On top of the cinder blocks, will be a square of loose kiln brick; this forms the floor of the kiln. The kiln brick needs to be loose, so I can put them into a box, and shelter them from the elements when the kiln is not in use. Around the outer edge of the kiln floor will be placed a double layer of brick, to form a wall. There will be a gap, half a brick wide, in the wall, to allow flame from the venturi burner to enter. A half piece of brick will be in the center of the kiln, turned so that one corner faces the opening for the burner. This will cause the flames to spread as they enter the kiln. The corners of the kiln wall will be truncated; stepping in to help support a kiln shelf that the wares will sit on while being fired. The there is a gap between the inside edge of the kiln wall and the kiln shelf, to allow heat and flames to rise.

On top of the kiln wall will sit a metal frame supporting a cylindrical ceramic fiber kiln. The kiln will be constucted of galvanized hardware cloth; a wire mesh where the wires have been spot welded together at the crossing points. The ceramic fiber will be held on the inside of the hardware cloth with ceramic buttons on the inside of the kiln, with high temperature wire attached to the buttons, passing through the ceramic fiber, and then passing through and twisting around the hardware cloth. There will be handles wired to the hardware cloth to allow the kiln to be lifted. There will be a thermocouple port, made of high fired clay, attached to the side as well. The top of the kiln will be a disk of fiber with a vent hole cut in, supported either by hardware cloth, or a galvanized metal trash can lid. The top of the kiln can either be affixed to the rest of the kiln, or detachable so that the top can be lifted as a lid.

The burners for the kiln will be a propane fuelled MR750 raku system, from It has the venturi burner, hoses, regulators, valves, and gauges to hook up to a propane tank, and control the firing of the raku kiln. I've read articles about people using weed burners to fire their kilns, but I want to have more control than a standard weed burner setup will provide.

Pieces will be placed on the kiln shelf, after they have been bisqued and glazed. The thremocople from my gas kiln will be threaded through its port. The fiber upper kiln will be lowered in place, and the burner will be ignited. It will take about forty five minutes to bring the kiln to cone O7, about 1790 degrees F. Through the peeps and vents in the kiln, the work will be orange hot, and some glazes will be shiny.

While the kiln is firing, the reduction chambers are prepared. These are metal containers that have been filled with combustible materials, like shredded newspaper, cardboard, straw, leaves, or pine needles. The chamber itself can be an unused paint can, galvanized bucket or tub, or a gift canister.

When the pieces are ready to be removed, the gas is shut off to the kiln, and the pyrometer is carefully removed and placed on a non-combustible surface. If I am firing with helpers, the entire fiber kiln will be removed, and placed on waiting cinderblocks topped with dry kiln bricks, and the pieces will be removed in a choreographed pounce. If I am working alone, only the top of the kiln is removed, so that the kiln doesn't lose all of its heat as pieces are removed.

If a piece has a metallic raku glaze, like a copper green, the piece is immediately moved into a reduction chamber, using long handled tongs, and the chamber is sealed once the flames start. The combustion inside the reduction chamber uses up the available oxygen, then starts to pull oxygen out of the glazes on the piece. A copper glaze can turn from green to a metallic copper surface, like a new penny. The piece is left in the chamber until it is cool enough to touch.

A glaze like Seth's Luster can turn multiple colors, including copper penny, dark blue, light blue, and magenta. All of the colors have a metallic sheen. The glaze isn't very shiny, due to the tin in it, which causes the surface to be more pebbley. The different colors on the piece are caused by different thicknesses of oxides forming in response to changes in temperature. This temperature difference can be encouraged by 'flashing' the piece in the reduction chamber. This is done by lifting the lid off the chamber to release a billow of greasy green smoke, which bursts into flames. The flames licking against the piece encourage temperature gradients, which induce the colors. The lid is placed back on the piece after the flash occurs, and then the piece is allowed to cool.

A piece with a crackle glaze is allowed to cool a bit before it is placed in a chamber. You can hear the glaze pinging an crazing from thermal shock. After it has been removed from the kiln with tongs, some potters spritz the piece with water, or blow on it to encourage the glaze to crack. The piece is placed in the chamber, flames ensue, and the lid is closed. Carbon is driven into the cracks in the glaze, emphasizing them. Too much reduction can cause the whitening agents in the glaze to go transparent, so it is helpful to either not seal the chamber very tight, or to allow the piece to cool a bit before placing in the chamber.

There are some conventional, low fire glazes that I have used sucessfully in raku firing. I have used a fire engine red glaze on the fins of some of my rockets, and it has matured successfully in the short firing time.

Once the pieces have cooled, the reduction chambers can be opened. If the glaze of a piece has touched the combustable materials, an imprint can be left in the glaze. Anything unglazed on the piece will turn matte black, from where carbon is driven into the piece. This is typically the foot of the piece, but the artist can artistically leave portions unglazed and get the matte black. The pieces need to be scrubbed a bit to remove ash, tars, and soot.