Monday, May 5, 2014

Know what you are buying......

MaryAnn Carroll
With shows in progress or coming up really soon, I thought I would share a little bit about ceramics. I think it is important to know the difference. The more informed you are, the more you are able to ask questions and make educated choices. Before I started creating my own beads six years ago, my only experience was two semesters in high school ceramics class. All that I really remembered was choosing what we wanted from bisque ware and then glazing them. I am sure that we built some things too, but if I did, it was probably ashtrays! Yuk! In 11th grade, I was an extremely intelligent and worldly 16 year old (not unlike some teens we know today) who knew all there was to know about life and school already and was done with what I needed to do. I was more focused on what was going on over the weekend much more than I was on academics. My most vivid memory is making six very huge (probably 2 liters) beer steins for friends! OMG! Can you even believe we could make beer steins in school in 1976? I'm sure that they eventually found themselves broken or in the dump, but they were a big party hit at Christmas!!!! Fortunately, for my mother and me, I grew up! I don't even like beer and gave up smoking in my early 20's.

With that said and with obvious reasons as to why those memories are vague, I then found myself back into creating with clay years later.  Since I am married to a retired art teacher, I was able to get lots of private lessons. I learned tons in a short period of time, but really got a wake up call when I graduated to firing from low fire to mid-fire in my new kiln with a malfunctioning pyrometer. You probably thought I was drinking, right?

You learn real quick when you wake up to see your beautiful creations in your brand new little 8 x 8 kiln and instead you open the door and ..... "Holy #$%@#$@!!"

That bottom that you see is part of the kiln brick that all of this melted on.  Yup, it caught all of it, bead trees, beads, nichrome wire and anything else that was upright. A very sad sight. This, however,  is a perfect example of what can happen when you fire a clay hotter than it is intended to be fired.

Also, for the record, this is not the be all end all in ceramics. It extends as far as my knowledge extends, but I think it is fair to say that these are the most common types of pottery that you will find. The main difference between clay types is firing temperature and how porous the piece is after firing. The firing temperatures for optimum hardness that I am giving you can vary. Many people choose to use firing cones that bend when the kiln reaches temperature. I do. I use a pyrometer also, but don't trust is totally! Go figure.

cones for an upcoming wood-firing (different cones melt at different temperatures)

cones that have melted in response to heat work

My summary is just to offer you some insight about the various types of pottery that you will see at shows and online and, hopefully, you will walk away with a little more knowledge about ceramics.  I will show examples of beads but, anything you see here pertains to large pieces as well.

So, what ARE you buying when you shop for ceramics? 

Low Fire Earthenware:  This is a low fire clay, which is most commonly fired in an electric kiln.  They are fired to about 1860 degrees. These clays are highly plastic (easily worked) and can be sticky.  This is what I was glazing when I was in my ceramics class.... You know... the beer steins!  It is also what I first used when I started to make my own beads.
earthenware beads

I sold these in 2009. It is funny to see how much I have evolved since then. I still see myself in these, but also see how much I've learned since this time.

Raku: This type of kiln is usually handmade. Once the kiln (often made from high fire barrel) reaches a temperature of 1860 degrees, the piece which is red hot is placed into another barrel of straw, sawdust, and paper which ignites instantly. The barrel is quickly covered and the work remains inside for a period of time. The glaze is often known for is copper like luster, but there are also many other glazes that are common with raku such as crackle glazes.

raku beads by Elements Pottery

Pit Fired: This is sometimes confused with wood-firing. I don't really know too much about this method, but I found a great little post that you might like to read. You can get there by clicking the link under the picture.

Pit-fired beads Lil Fish Studios

Mid-fire clays: There are many types. Some prefer to use stoneware and others porcelain.  There are many colors and types of stoneware. These are personal preferences for the artist and many choose what they do for the effect that they wish to achieve. There are stoneware clays that are nearly white and some that are black. The outcome of your piece depends on the type you use. If you use browns or blacks, the outcome after glazing will be extremely different than if you use white.

You can click HERE for a great post that Marsha Neal did on mid-fire clay and glazes for the Beads of Clay blog.

Mid-fire porcelain from the few left in my almost retired Etsy Shop

High-fire clays: Again, like mid-fire, these can be either stoneware or porcelain. These clay bodies can be fired to 2400 degrees. These are often used with methods such as gas, wood, soda, and salt. The process is used to create a certain look. The added materials (soda, ash from wood and salt) mix with the glaze for various outcomes. You will not see these used much with beads for a couple of reasons. Often kilns are large and designed for larger pieces. Also, the salt, soda or wood ash lands freely on the piece. When beads are glazed and put on bead trees, many can get lost due to the free form melting that takes place.

Here is a group that was showered with ash. It was a little bit of a disappointment, but it is the price you pay when wood-firing. The ones behind that grouping that were more protected came out great, but as you can see, there is a big chance of losing many.

I could not find any examples of soda or salt fired beads, but I do have wood-fired. That's because I am married to a wood-fire artist and get to put my little beads in his very big kiln!

We are going to experiment with mid-fire porcelain this time by adding it to the way back of the kiln. Here is a picture of what is going in.  I don't think I will put all of the porcelain in until I see the results.

Obviously, they need to be glazed. The ones on the tray are mid-fire porcelain and the others are high fire stoneware. Hopefully, I will share some results that are beautiful and not like the first picture that I shared in this post!

I'm a risk taker..... so, we'll see what happens.

Here are some of my favorites from past firings. The downside of wood-firing is that it is unpredictable. The kiln gets stoked with wood from every five minutes to every one minute near the end for about 16 - 20 hours.

The upside is that you get unique, one-of-a-kind pieces with every firing like a few of my favorites that I have pictured below.

So, I hope that you have learned a little more when shopping for ceramic pieces. If you are a ceramic artist or if you have any questions, please feel free to chime in.

Thank-you for supporting artists who create handmade with handmade,



Erika said...

So the cones are a temperature indicator? I always wondered what "firing to cone ..." meant.

By the way, your kiln disaster in the first picture looks like a piece of modern art. And so do the melty cones.

Artisan Beads Plus said...

Yes, Erika, that is exactly what it means. The different colors represent different temperatures. Bill Has them in an order of coolest to hottest to keep track of the temperature inside the kiln. As for my sculpture, I have kept it. It is definitely unique looking! lol!

Lesley said...

Great post MaryAnne - before I started working with ceramic clay I really had very little idea of what I was buying and I'm sure I'm not alone...will definitely share this post.

Shirley Moore said...

Such an informative, helpful post! I also did not know what 'firing to cone' meant. I really didn't expect to learn much, since to me, a pretty bead is a pretty bead, you know? But then....oh, the pics of the wood fired beads!!! The richness, the luster....even I, in my ignorance, can see the differences. Thank you for this great post!

Artisan Beads Plus said...

Thanks, everyone. I hope that if even one person learns the difference that's great and..... I have two!! I would not have known the difference either before I started working with clay myself.

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