Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Intuit GoPayment

I've been using Intuit as my merchant services processor since December, and I've been very happy with them. Their rates are not quite as low as my previous processor, however Intuit is very easy to deal with, and their web site is awesome. Plus their rates will go down once they put out a card reader that works with Mac. For now I have to key everything in, which means higher rates. It comes out to only $20-$30 a month more, but it's worth it for the ease of use.

Today I added Intuit's GoPayment service to my account. It allows me to process credit cards through my Motorola Droid smart phone, and includes a free card reader that attaches to my phone. The best part is that there is no monthly charge, no additional service fee, and no cancellation fee. No extra fees at all! I should receive the card reader in the next couple of days, but I'll be able to key in to the account this afternoon. Once I have a chance to try it all out, I'll let you know how well it works.

Rejection, Rejection

As the title says, I received two rejection notices this weekend! First from Art Fair on the Square in Madison, WI, and second from Morning Glory Craft Fair in  Milwaukee, WI. So not a great weekend. I'm most bummed about the Madison show, because it is a HUGE show, where people sell TONS of work. But I've applied to a few others, so hopefully they will come through for me. Keep your fingers crossed!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Overworked Elements

Today I replaced the elements on an L&L Jupiter kiln. The old elements were well beyond their usable lifespan; they should have been replaced months or years ago. A good rule of thumb is to have a kiln checkup every 1-2 years if you're glaze firing to cone 6 or hotter, or every 2-3 years if you're glaze firing to cone 04. The most important part of the checkup is to check for element wear. If you can't do the checkup yourself, then call your local kiln tech. It will cost about $50- $75 for a checkup.

The simplest, although least accurate, method of testing your elements for wear is simply to take a good look at them. If the coils are starting to bunch up or lay flat, then there's a good chance that they are worn out. The most accurate method is to check them with an Ohm meter, which measures the resistance of the elements. Once the resistance is 10% off from the original, your elements are no longer firing efficiently and should be replaced.

Whatever you do, don't fire your kiln until the elements burn out. It will cost you more in the long run, for two reasons. First, you'll be spending more on electricity due to the inefficiency of worn elements. Second, replacing really old elements is more difficult and damages the kiln. Why? Because as elements wear, they expand. In an older L&L kiln, like the one I worked on this morning, they expand and become wedged into the hard ceramic element holders. To get them out, you have to use a pair of needle nose pliers to pull them out in little pieces. So instead of taking 5 minutes to remove all the elements this morning, it took about 80 minutes. That's an extra $100 at my normal hourly repair rate. In addition to the wedged elements, a couple of the element holders also cracked and had to be replaced, which took another 10 minutes. Add in the wasted electricity from the worn elements, and you've got a couple hundred dollars or more.

In non-L&L kilns, the expanded elements cause major damage to the bricks when you take them out. Because the grooves in the brick are so fragile, they easily break when trying to wedge a now-too-large element out of their grooves. At $10- $12 per brick, plus labor, the extra charges can add up fast. Replacing a brick involves unstacking the rings of the kiln, removing all the hardware from the case, loosening the body bands and sliding out the old brick. Once the new brick is slid into place, it usually needs to be filed down to sit flush with the old bricks, and then the kiln can be put back together. It's not a fast process!

So keep up on your kiln maintenance, just like you do with your car. Your kiln will last longer and save you hundreds or thousands of dollars over its lifespan.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Spring Green

I'v been accepted into the Spring Green Arts and Crafts Fair ! It's supposed to be a really good one, so I'm very excited. Spring Green is home to Frank Llyod Wright's TaliesinCave of the Mounds, and The House on the Rock, so it's a pretty busy tourist area. There should be lots of people at the show!

The House on the Rock

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

CLC ARTcetera NEWS: Teapots: An Invitational - Neil Estrick Grayslake,...

CLC ARTcetera NEWS: Teapots: An Invitational - Neil Estrick Grayslake,...: " Neil Estrick Teapot $120 porcelain, Cone 8 oxidation (8.5' x 10' x 7')  Statement: There is a cupboard full of handmade mugs in my ki..."

Mugs, Mugs, Mugs

I finally finished a batch of mugs, and I'm thrilled with the results. I tried out some new glaze combinations and new forms, with great success!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Illinois Internet Sales Tax

This week the governor of Illinois signed a bill that would require all internet retailers with affiliates in Illinois to collect a 6.25% sales tax on all sales to residents of Illinois. This law has some god points and bad points, but what disturbs me the most is that several companies like Amazon have decided to dump all of their Illinois affiliates rather than collect the sales tax. Amazon did the same thing in Colorado recently, and I think it's just plain wrong. 

Amazon should step up and collect the tax. I feel that their action is no different than a corporation moving its manufacturing to another country. The company grows with the help of the little guys, then dumps the little guys to keep their profits up. The almighty dollar wins again. Many of Amazon's affiliates are small businesses who rely on their association with Amazon to keep their business going. Amazon knows that their bottom line won't suffer because they have affiliates in other states that will pick up the business, and they don't seem to care that the Illinois affiliates helped them make a lot of money up till now. I have to believe that Amazon can afford the costs associated with processing the sales tax.

What I really like about the new tax law is that it does something to help level the playing field between internet retailers and brick-and-mortar businesses like mine. For the last several years I have lost many sales to the internet because I have to charge my walk-in customers sales tax. On a $1000 pottery wheel that's $70 in tax, more than the cost of shipping from an online retailer. I've even had my own students go online rather than buy from me because they could get a wheel cheaper. Online-only retailers also have lower overhead and fewer costs than physical stores, so they can usually offer lower prices. Add to that not having to charge sales tax and they've got a very big advantage over the local shops. Making them charge sales tax would decrease that advantage a bit, and give back to the states all the sales tax revenue that has been missing for the last 15 years. Remember, most of the things that people by online used to be bought locally, with sales tax.

That said, I don't agree that the new tax law is a good idea. Yes, Illinois, like every state, loses $200 million a year or more in sales tax revenue due to online sales. And yes, Illinois is in a budget crisis. But as we've already seen with Amazon, there's a good chance that more revenue will be lost by businesses avoiding Illinois altogether than will be collected in internet sales tax, and ultimately the little guys will suffer. The problem cannot be remedied state by state. There must be a national internet sales tax so that there is no advantage to any one state. And it must be paid to the state where the seller is registered, not where the buyer lives. Small businesses cannot handle the amount of paperwork that would be required to pay sales tax to all 50 states. The taxes could be paid at the same time as the local sales tax, and it would be very simple to handle. It's a simple solution that would bring needed revenue to the states, and give local shops a chance to compete in the market.

So we'll have to wait and see what happens here in Illinois. Hopefully the small online retailers won't suffer from their loss of affiliation with Amazon. The last thing we need is for more small businesses to fail.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Gerstley Borate

Last week I said that Gerstlet Borate is crap, and I stand by that. No glaze materials has caused as much grief and stress over the last 30 years as Gerstley. Why? It is very inconsistent and relied upon much too heavily.

Without getting too technical, Gerstley Borate is the cheapest, easiest way to get boron into a glaze. Boron is a popular glaze flux in mid-range and raku glazes. Most other sources of boron that are available are water soluble, which we don't want in our glazes. The only other good non-soluble options available are frits, a powdered glass that is made to a specific formula. These have always been much more expensive, which causes a lot of potters to avoid them. We potters are notoriously cheap, you know. Gerstley also has the benefit of being thixotropic, keeping glazes suspended in the bucket very well without the addition of clay. Many popular Gerstley-based glazes have little or no clay in them, so reformulating a glaze with a boron source other than Gerstley results in a glaze that settles badly in the bucket. 80/20 White Crackle Raku is a good example.

The actual mineral content in it can vary widely, causing radically different results in glazes. While it can be somewhat exciting to be surprised by the results coming out of the kiln, you don't want to have to reformulate your glazes every time you open a new bag of Gerstley. We rely on the consistency of our raw materials to make it easy to reproduce glazes over and over. In some cases our livelihood depends on it.

I spoke with a representative of one of the big industry clay suppliers a few years back, and he was appalled that potters ever used Gerstley Borate in glazes, for exactly the reasons I just said. He told me that it had primarily been used to make roofing tiles, which didn't need much consistency at all. Remember, almost all of the materials that we use as potters are mined for industry, not for us. There are not enough potters in the world to keep a clay or glaze material mine open.

Every few years (or less) for the last 30 years, Gerstley's mineral content would change as they worked through the mine, and people would freak out because their glazes didn't look the same, or were very runny, or not runny enough, etc. So they would do what they could to reformulate the glazes until it changed again.

I was working as a tech for A.R.T. Clay in Sturtevant, WI when they closed the Gerstley mine about 10 years ago. Mass panic ensued and I got calls from worried customers every day about what to do. Everyone wanted a direct substitute, but at the time there wasn't one. I did what I could to reformulate my customer's recipes using a boron frit like Ferro 3134, but that didn't always work. Many recipes had 50-70% Gerstley, and 3134 just doesn't fit into recipes like that.

Laguna clay bought up what was left of the warehoused Gerstley when the mine closed, and has been selling it for the last several years. As far as I know they still have some, as it is still in their catalog. Fortunately, some of the materials suppliers realized what was going on and developed great direct substitutes for Gerstley. These substitutes are frits, so they are more expensive, but they are 100% consistent. I use Gillespie Borate from Hamill and Gillespie whenever I run into a recipe that calls for Gerstley. It seems to have a little more melting power than Gerstley, so I always reduce it by 3-5%. It works great, and since it as a man-made product, it should never run out.

So if you're still using Gerstley Borate, realize that it is crap and that it will thankfully run out eventually. Start testing your glazes with substitutes NOW so you are ready to go when it does run out. It can take several firings to thoroughly test a glaze, which can mean at least a couple of weeks without your favorite glaze. Or sell off the Gerstley you have and get into a 100% consistent substitute now and save yourself some headaches.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Glazing Mugs

Today I am finally one step closer to restocking the inventory in the gallery. Over the last month or two I have delivered a ton of pots to other galleries, thereby depleting my inventory, and I haven't had much time to build it back up. Today I am glazing 26 mugs, which should fill half of the mug rack. It's a start.

Some will have spots and stripes, some will have just stripes. When done, they'll look something like these:
It takes about 2 1/2 hours to glaze this many, which isn't too bad if you consider 26 mugs will retail for $780. Total time for each mug including throwing, trimming, attaching a handle and glazing will be about 12 minutes. Add another 2 minutes for loading and unloading them from the kiln and sanding the bottom, and that gives me about 4 mugs per hour. Of course, making them is the easy part. Selling them is another story......

Friday, March 4, 2011

Cone 6

In an effort to extend the life of my elements and save on electricity costs, I have decided to adjust my glazes from cone 8 down to cone 6. Last night I fired each of the 14 studio glazes at cone 6 to see just how much alteration they will need. Several of them are nearly indistinguishable from the cone 8 versions, although not quite as fluid. Some are radically different in color, although not so different in surface quality. And a couple look way under-fired, which does not surprise me at all. Those glazes have always had a very narrow firing range.

This weekend I'll take a look at the recipes and start adding fluxes to bring the melt down to cone 6. Most people say to just add some Gerstley Borate or equivalent frit, but I'm not a big fan of that. Yes, some glazes work that way, but many will not look the same with the addition of Gerstley. Boron, the primary fluxing agent in Gerstley, gives glossy and semi-glossy glazes a certain look. It's almost a little plastic looking in my opinion. I prefer, if possible, to simply increase one of the fluxes already in the glazes. If that happens to be boron, great. Then Gerstley it is. But if there isn't any boron in the glaze, I'll first try something else.

Another note on Gerstley Borate: Don't use it. It's crap, and always has been. I know, that's pretty harsh. But it's true. It's the most inconsistent glaze material available, and for that reason should not be used. But I'll write more on that later. For now I've got to start mixing some glaze tests.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Element Life Test

According to the experts, there are 2 factors that play a major role in how quickly elements wear out: how hot the kiln is fired, and how many times the elements cycle on and off (assuming the same number of firings).

Kilns with computer controllers increase the heat in the kiln by cycling the elements on and off. They are either all the way on, or all the way off. To heat the kiln slowly, they turn on for a few seconds or minutes, then turn off for a few seconds, then turn back on. There are no low, medium and high settings like on a manual kiln. The hotter the kiln gets, the longer the elements must stay on to increase the temperature. At the high end of a cone 6 firing, they are on almost continuously. This cycling puts wear and tear on the elements. The same is true for light bulbs and other electrical systems. The big question is whether this cycling is more detrimental than firing temperature. I decided to do my own un-scientific test in my small kiln to find out.

To test which is worse, the current set of elements in my kiln have been used with a different firing schedule than the previous sets. Rather than fire all the way up to cone 8 as I used to, I have only been firing to cone 6 then adding a 40 minute hold to get to cone 8 (see HERE for an explanation of how cones work).

When firing all the way up to 8, the elements were having to go hotter, but they weren't cycling on and off as much. As I said before, at the high end of the firing they don't cycle much at all. With the current firing schedule they don't go as hot, but in order to hold temperature for 40 minutes they have to cycle more than before.

So which is better? The previous 2 sets of elements each lasted about 10 months. Right now my current elements are at the 9 month mark, and they are still going strong. They are showing some signs of wear when tested with an Ohm meter, but they are still well within the normal range. Visually, the elements look a lot better at this point than the last set did. I know that's not very scientific, but you can tell a lot about an element by looking at it.

I should also mention that in addition to the changes discussed above, I have also been adding a slow-cooling step to the end of the firing. Rather than just shutting down after the 40 minute hold, the kiln cools at a rate of 175 degrees per hour down to 1600 degrees. This adds about 4 hours to the total firing time, and adds a lot of cycles to the elements. I think it's also safe to say that I fire more often than before, since the studio is busier than last year.

At this point it appears that the higher firing temperature shortens element life more than cycling on and off. I'll post a note when the current elements have to be replaced, and we'll see if it's a significant difference.

One last note: even if it didn't extend the life of my elements, my glazes look better. That long soak really has a nice effect on them. It's worth doing it for that reason alone!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Early Spring Session Art Classes

Early Spring session art classes start Tuesday, March 8th. That's next week! The Kids' Clay class is filling up fast, and I still have room in the Adult Wheel Throwing classes. Sign up today!