Monday, January 31, 2011

St. Charles Art Show

Today I received notice that I have been accepted into the 2011 St. Charles Fine Art Show! I just started applying this month to summer art fairs, for the first time ever, and this is the first that has accepted me. I'm very excited! This is a good sized fair, and should have good sales if the weather is nice. Wish me luck!

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Coffe Shop Order Done!

Today I unloaded the kiln with the entire order for the coffee shop in Lake Geneva. I was very nervous! The test bowls I had done with porcelain had warped, so I made the order with white stoneware instead, in hopes that I wouldn't have a problem. Luckily everything turned out perfect! The order was for 2 dozen each of mugs, bowls with handles, and plates; plus 30 small 1/2 plates for a display window. I made 4 extra of everything to be safe, and managed to crank out the order complete in 2 weeks, just in time for the grand opening.

This is everything laid out to dry after sanding the bottoms at the sink. I sand the bottom of every pot I make with 220 grit wet/dry sandpaper. As you can see, I used a variety of glazes. The coffe shop has many earth tones on the walls, and a lot of rich woods in the furniture and floors, so I picked colors that would match, plus a little raspberry red for fun. I think the customers are going to enjoy all the different colors.

Bowl with handle. This is the logo sprig that I was working on in last week's post. When glazing, I dip the pot in both glazes, then carefully wipe the glaze off the high part of the sprig, leaving the glaze in the recessed area. A dense, flat sponge works best for this. I prefer Sugarloaf sponges, but makeup sponges work well, too, although they are a bit softer.

I'll deliver everything tomorrow. I hope he likes them!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Vent-Sure Installation 1-21-11

Today I installed an L&L Vent-Sure vent system on a Skutt kiln. Because the Vent-Sure system is made to attach directly to the L&L kiln stand, you cannot hook up this vent to the bottom of other brands of kilns. However this is not a problem. The collection box can be mounted to the side of a kiln without any loss of functionality. Most other brands of vents have a collection box that pushes up against the floor of the kiln from underneath, rubbing on the brick. This is not good for the brick, and if the ductwork gets kicked, it can move the collection box out of alignment with the holes in the kiln. I prefer the L&L method of mounting, because the venting never touches the bricks, and is held in place with screws.

It's a simple installation- just drill the proper size and number of venting holes through the side of the kiln, making sure to avoid the elements, and attached the collection box to the kiln case with sheet metal screws. Then attach the 3" flexible duct to the box.

The motor for the vent can be mounted several different ways. If the ductwork is going out through the wall, the cleanest looking method is to mount it directly to the wall, with the attached duct going through the wall to the outside. In a basement where the duct exits up high, or if the ductwork is going through the ceiling/roof, you have to use a mounting bracket to hold the fan motor. I use the mounting bracket on most of my installations because it allows for mounting in just about any position. I usually mount it to the floor, but in basements I like to mount it to the wall, a couple of feet up from the floor, in case the basement ever floods. For today's job, there just wasn't much room on the floor or on the wall, which is often the case is small home studios. So I mounted the fan to the floor joist above the kiln, which gave me a direct line to the wall where the duct exits the building.

Everything is against the wall and up high, out of the way. Plus, the customer already has an electrical box in the ceiling right by the kiln where they can install a power outlet for the vent. Piece of cake!

Even when the kiln is at 2300 degrees, the air in the duct is below 160 degrees. This is accomplished by pulling a large volume of air from the room, and just enough from the kiln to remove the fumes. The collection box on the vent has a damper that allows the draw from the kiln to be adjusted. By closing the damper, the vent will pull more air from the kiln, and less from the room. By opening it, the vent will draw less from the kiln, more from the room. It's a pretty slick system. Plus you can add more kilns to the system, up to 20 cubic feet of kiln space total. I hooked up 3 kilns to one of these vents last week, by having dampers on the ducts that control which kiln is being vented. The customer never fires more than 2 kilns at a time, so it's a perfect system for her.

The Vent-Sure kiln venting system retails for $440, but you can find them on sale online for as low as $350, like from me.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sprigs 101

A sprig is a thin slab or small stamped piece that is attached to the surface of a pot. I am using this method to attached a company logo to some mugs I am making for a coffee shop. It's an easy way to add surface decoration to a piece.

The first thing I had to do was order a stamp. The shop owner emailed a jpeg image of his logo to me, and I resized it and ordered a rubber stamp online. There a about a million online vendors that make custom rubber stamps, and most can do it in less than 2 days, plus shipping time. I ordered this one with 2 day express shipping since I'm on a time crunch. I placed the order on Tuesday and got the stamp on Thursday. Total cost was about $26 with shipping. The stamp itself was under $10. Not a bad investment considering I could end up making a couple thousand dollars worth of pots with it over the next couple of years.

The only issue I have with this stamp is that they trimmed the rubber too close to the logo. I would have preferred that they leave the rubber untrimmed, all the way out to the edge of the wood block. Next time I'll have to specify that when I place the order. The problem with it being trimmed to close is that if you stamp too deeply into the clay, the trimmed edge will leave an impression, and it's a lot more difficult to wipe it out when it's that close to the logo.

To make the sprig, I first roll out a very thin slab of clay, using 2 small metal rods to maintain thickness. 

To use this method of rolling even slabs, just let the rolling pin roll on top of the rods until the clay is down to that thickness. I typically use wood strips for thicker slabs, but metal rods work best for super thin slabs like this. These rods are 3/32" thick, which is the thinnest I can consistently make a successful sprig. I've tried 1/16" thick, but the slabs tear too easily. These rods are actually stainless steel mandrels for making lampworked beads, but you can pick up thin steel, aluminum or brass rods at any hardware store.

After rolling the slab I dust it with corn starch to keep the stamp from sticking to the clay, and then stamp as many times as possible, covering the entire slab. The corn starch will burn away in the bisque firing.

I then cut out the sprigs and set them on a cardboard tube to firm up. To prevent cracking and warping on the pot, the sprigs should be on the soft side of leather hard when applied, and applied to a pot of the same moisture level. By drying on the cardboard tube, they can firm up with a curve to match the curve of the mugs they will be applied to.

I then apply the sprigs with deflocculated slip. I do not score the pot or the sprig, because the slip will do the job just fine. For those of you not familiar with deflocculated slip, I'll do a post in the next few days explaining how to make it. Then I clean up the edges of the sprig and cover the pot with plastic overnight to let the moisture levels of the pot and sprig equalize.

When I glaze these mugs, I'll wipe down the sprig with a flat sponge after dipping the glaze, leaving the glaze in the recessed areas. I'll post photos when I get some finished.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Throwing 1-18-11

Another day, another 28 plates. I received a commission last week to make mugs, plates and bowls for a new coffee shop/ internet cafe opening in Lake Geneva, WI. The up side is that I've sold some pots that will be used by lots of people every day. The down side is that I have to get them done and delivered in 2 weeks. It's 72 pieces total, so it's doable, just a lot of work. The mugs and bowls will have the company logo on them, so I had a rubber stamp made that I will use to make a sprig to apply the logo. Honestly, I'm having a lot of fun with it. Deadlines can be exciting!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Kiln Maintenance Costs

I spent a few hours yesterday replacing elements on 2 kilns for a customer up in Wisconsin. This customer needs her elements replaced every 18  months or so because she fires a lot, and fires to cone 6. This got me thinking about kiln maintenance costs.

Before I get into this, I should mention that I do repair work on every brand of electric kiln, and have a business relationship with most kiln manufacturers. I only sell L&L kilns, but I buy parts from all the kiln makers.  In order to maintain a good relationship with these companies should they read this blog, I'm going to try not to say anything bad about any specific brand. If you would like a recommendation on a new kiln, feel free to contact me and I will be happy to assist you in choosing one. Or if you're thinking about buying a used kiln, I can help you decide if it's going to be worth the money. So here we go:

The purchase price of a new kiln doesn't vary much from brand to brand, for the same size kiln. A 23 inch wide, 27 inch tall kiln is approximately the same price whether it's a Skutt, Paragon, L&L, Evenheat, Amaco Excel or Blue Diamond. There is some variation in pricing, but only a couple hundred dollars. The main differences are in the features you get for that price, and the quality. But what most people don't realize is that there can be a huge difference in maintenance costs after you buy the kiln in regards to both parts and labor.

The cost of replacement parts should be a factor in choosing a new kiln. You will have to replace the elements, relays and thermocouples several times in the life of a kiln. New elements for the 23 inch kiln mentioned above can vary in price from $42 to $90 depending on the brand. That's a $288 difference for a full set of 6 elements! A production potter who needs new elements every year will spend an extra $2880 over ten years. That's the price of a new kiln! Prices on replacement bricks, thermocouples and relays can also vary widely.

Another big difference is in the amount of labor needed to replace those parts. Some examples:
  • Some kilns require putting a pin in every corner of the bricks to hold the elements in place. That doubles the amount of time it takes to put in elements compared to those that don't use pins.
  • Some kilns use crimp-on connectors to connect the elements to the feeder wires. These must be cut every time you change the elements, and the wires must be stripped and re-crimped. This takes longer than screw on connectors, and really causes a problem if you make a mistake in connecting all the wires, because they cannot be easily removed. 
  • Some brands are very difficult to change out parts in the control box, such as the relays. It all depends on how everything is laid out in the box, and how they are mounted.
  • Kilns that don't have a hinged control box are much more difficult to repair and require more time because it is harder to get access to the parts.
  • It takes much longer to replace bricks in kilns that have sections that are more than 2 bricks tall, because you have to remove more bricks to get to the broken ones.
Labor is a factor whether you're paying someone to do the work, or doing it yourself. You don't want to spend a fortune paying a repair guy like me to do the work, nor do you want to waste your own time.

All new kilns come with a warranty, but the length of the warranties vary. And most only cover parts, not labor. If you're buying your kiln from a local shop, ask if they offer a labor warranty. I offer a labor warranty to all my local customers where I will cover the labor to install all parts claimed on the warranty.

Finally, there is the durability factor. Some kilns are more durable than others, and therefore will require fewer replacement parts in the long run. This is mostly an issue with the bricks. Some brands have deep grooves for the elements that don't require pins, but the deep grooves tend to break out easier. Some brands just seem to have more durable bricks for some reason. Others use hard element holders that are nearly indestructible and make the bricks last nearly forever.

So there's a lot to think about beyond the purchase price of the kiln. Feel free to email me if you have any questions, or contact your local kiln repair guy for his opinion.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cones 101

Today I gave a little lesson via email to one of my customers on how pyrometric cones work, so I thought I would share with all of you, too.

Pyrometric cones are how we measure the heat work in a kiln. Different types of clays and glazes fire to different cone ratings, anywhere from 1500 to 2500 degrees. Here at my studio we fire to cone 8. Many people fire stoneware and porcelain to cone 6 or cone 10. Terra cotta is fired to cone 04.

Cones are small pieces of clay, shaped into a 3 sided cone, that are formulated to melt and bend over at a specific amount of heat work. You put them in the kiln and take a look at them through the peep hole in the kiln wall to see if they are bending as the kiln heats up. Typically we use several cones of different numbers in a firing, to have visual indicators during the entire firing process. We do this visual check mostly with gas and wood fired kilns. Older electric kilns have a mechanical shutoff device called a Kiln Sitter that holds a small cone and automatically shuts off the kiln when the cone bends. No checking on the kiln required until the end, to make sure it did indeed shut off. Modern electric kilns have computers that do all the fancy logarithmic calculations to achieve the same results as actual cones.

So what is heat work? Heat work is a function of temperature over time. What that means is that it takes time for the heat in the kiln to have an affect on the clay and glazes. It doesn't only matter how hot you fire the kiln, it matters how fast you fire and how long you hold temperature (if at all).

Think of the ceramic glazes as a block of ice. There are 3 different ways to melt that block of ice (glaze) in an oven (kiln):
  1. If you put that block of ice in an oven and bring the temperature up at a rate of 50 degrees per minute, the block of ice will be completely melted at say, 250 degrees. 
  2. Now do it again and bring the oven temperature up at 50 degrees per minute again, but hold at 150 degrees. After a certain amount of time the block will melt, even though the oven didn't reach the 250 degrees it did before. Less temperature, same result (heat work). 
  3. Now do it again but bring the temperature up at 100 degrees per minute until the ice block is completely melted. The oven will reach a higher temperature before the block completely melts because the temperature is climbing at a faster rate. Same result (heat work), but different temperature and time. 
As I said before, I fire to cone 8. But I don't program my kiln's computer controller to fire to cone 8. I program it to fire to cone 6 and hold temperature for 40 minutes, thus achieving the heat work of cone 8. I'm doing this for a couple of reasons. First, my glazes look better with that long soak time at the end. Second, I'm hoping my elements last longer because I'm not firing as hot as I could be.

This confuses a lot of potters, but it's important stuff to know because firing to the wrong cone can have catastrophic results. For instance, firing to cone 5 instead of 05. Cones below cone 1 have a '0' as their first number- think of the '0' as a negative sign. So cone 01 (-1) is more heat work than cone 05 (-5). Cone 5 is a lot more heat work than cone 05, and clays that are formulated to fire at cone 05 will melt into a puddle at cone 5. That's right, the clay will melt. And it will ruin the kiln shelves and possibly even flow into the bricks and elements of the kiln wall. Big mess.

So that's how cones work. Cool, eh? Feel free to post questions in the comments.
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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mobile Blog Post Test

Now that I've got a fancy smart phone I figured I should try to post a photo and some text to my blog with it. Yet another way to justify the cost of the data plan! In theory this will actually save me some time since it's faster to take a photo with my phone and post it directly to the blog than to take a picture with my camera, download it to my computer and then make the post. So if you are reading this, the test has worked and you will likely be seeing more posts from my phone. Ain't technology amazing?
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Welcome/ Summer Art Fairs

Another day, another blog. After a year or two of pretty pathetic blogging due to the hassles of logging into and editing my old blog, I have switched blog providers. Already this site is faster and easier to deal with than the old one. So get ready for some exciting blogging action! First up: the summer art fair circuit.

That's right, I'm going to start doing art fairs. Why put myself through the hell of working art fairs? Because enrollment in summer pottery classes here at the shop is very inconsistent. Some years are crazy busy, others are crazy not. Those crazy not busy summers make for a tough 3 months as far as the ol' pocketbook is concerned. So art fairs are another option for bringing in some revenue during the slow months. As for the hell of it all, I'm actually pretty excited about it. Like my father, I am a salesman at heart. I can easily spend all day talking to people about my pots. It's kind of a dream come true, really.

I spent the last couple of weeks building the shelving for my booth so that I could get a photo of the setup. Most art fair applications require a photo of your booth to make sure you're not just some hack with a couple of mugs and a card table. I opted for a shelf system that a couple of my friends use in their booths that was easy to build, and folds up flat for easy transport. The whole shelving setup only cost around $200. I borrowed a friend's booth for the photo since I have yet to purchase my own, and set everything up in the studio:

I'll be spray-painting the vertical supports brown, and staining the shelves a mid-tone color to match the small table in the corner. That table will be my desk where I can bag up pots and handle the massive amounts of money that will be coming in.

So far I have applied to the Marion Arts Festival in Marion, IA. It will be a nice little starter show for me if I get in. Keep your fingers crossed! In all I will be applying to about a dozen fairs. If I get into most of them I will be very busy this summer, but that's not very likely to happen. I'm hoping for about a half dozen, though.

So that's my big plan for the summer. I'll keep you posted as I enter more shows and finish up the booth.
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