All fired up

This is another thing I’ve been up to lately.

Raku bowls

This is raku.

Raku bowls

Recently, while I had my light tent set up taking the jewelry a couple of posts back, I took these too.

Raku bowls

The shiny-but-dark is tricky to photograph, especially with the cell phone.

Raku bowls

I’m totally in love with this style of pottery. There are lots of styles of pottery and glaze techniques. Raku originates in Japan. Part of the glazes on mine contain a lot of copper, creating a very distinctive look, although there are other completely different glazes as well.

Raku bowls

The main hallmarks are that raku is typically fired at lower temperatures (1800 degrees) usually in a gas kiln (not electric) for a much shorter time. While it is glowing hot, it is pulled from the kiln and dropped into an awaiting metal container filled with combustible material. The heat of the piece immediately bursts it into flames. A lid is slapped on, the flame continues to burn inside, using up the oxygen, creating an oxygen reduction atmosphere. Sometimes after the flames are gone and it’s cooled slightly, but still very hot, it might be plunged into water.

All the temperature changes and thermal shocks, on purpose, produce a crazing in the glaze. The burning material will turn any cracks or unglazed areas black.

Diz and buttons

Sometimes the combination of all the factors can result in brilliant colors.

The oxygen reduction atmosphere and other factors react with the glazes, like with the copper-containing ones, it will create utterly unique and unpredictable results.

Diz and buttons

Raku is typically considered decorative rather than food-safe. One, there may be components in the glazes that wouldn’t be food-safe. Since it’s only fired to 1800 or so, the clay body doesn’t reach a state of vitrification (tiny little glass crystals form throughout), which is what makes clay hard and non-porous. Also, because of the thermal shocks and lack of vitrification, the pieces can be a little more fragile.

Raku process 1

At the beginning of the process, we use paint brushes to apply the glaze, usually several coats. Like most ceramic glazes, the color of the glaze can look nothing like the finished results. The bucket with the black goop is the one that made all the pretty copper colors.

Raku process 1

Here, we’re waiting for the glazes to dry thoroughly. Trying to help it along with a hair-dryer. In the picture, the spiky thing that looks like a denuded tree has high-temperature wire poking out of it and is what I have my buttons hanging on. Glaze can’t be on the bottom of things or when it melts it will glue itself to the kiln shelf. Not good. Things like beads can be suspended on high-temp wire to get around that issue.

Raku process 1

Once the glaze is dry, pieces are placed into the kiln to start firing. While waiting for the glaze to get hot enough and start to change, we prepare the cans the hot pieces will go into. We pick metal cans and tins a little larger than the piece, then line those with shredded newspaper and some sawdust. Anything combustible, but these are common. Pine needles can be used, whatever. That can be an art unto itself. We also prepare a lid, ultimately wrapped in wet newspaper. It has to be wet so that it won’t catch fire because you want it to make a tight seal when the oxygen starts burning away.

Raku process 1

Here, after a peek, the glazes look ready, so it’s time to start pulling the pieces. It’s a three person job. In the picture, on the left, is my instructor Barrie. If you’ll notice, she’s got on long gloves (we all do), and is using long iron tongs to reach into the kiln to pick up a piece and bring it out. It’s very hot, even with all the protection. These pictures are from when I did it last, but after handling the raku firing some people did today (we do once a month or so), she looked like she had a sunburn.

Another person is working the sliding kiln door so that it’s not open too long and loses a minimum of heat. It’s possible with only two people, but it’s easier to work more quickly with someone working the door. The idea is to not lose too much heat from the kiln while the door is open, or let the piece cool too much before it is put in the combustibles. Although some let it cool a bit…that whole thermal shock thing, more crazing in the glaze.

Standing ready, one of the students has the lid wrapped in layers of wet newspaper ready to cover the cannister once the piece is in.

Raku process 1

In this picture you can see the very good reason for gloves.

Raku process 2

Once the lid is on, holding it all tightly together, the cannister is moved away from the work area so it’s not in the way and we don’t inhale the clouds of smoke it creates. A brick is put on top as a weight to keep a good seal. The smoke eventually dies down, but I always smell like I’ve been around a campfire. Not unpleasant unless I accidentally get in a cloud of it.

Raku process 2

We wait for the cannisters to cool and once we can handle the pottery bare-handed, we get to open things up and see what happened. That is totally the best part! It’s so neat, like unwrapping a gift to see what you got.

Here’s some of my little bowls, buttons and the diz laid out. Awesome! Love some of the effects I got. I keep notes on what I did, but by its nature, raku is hard to reproduce. But that is what makes it special.

A little dilemma

My week ended like this:

Display 2

It started with a little dilemma.

The problem with selling jewelry is how to display it. There’s a fine line between being boring and ho-hum, but the jewelry stands out…and being interesting and eye-catching, but not so much it distracts away from the jewelry.

My displays at the renfair have seen 20+ years of use with me, and they were used velvet commercial displays to begin with. Plus, being outside, we have additional issues with weather and dirt. Looking a little tatty, to be kind. I’ve been working on replacing them the last couple of years.

Ideally, I’d like to make them instead of buying, because of the expense (commercial display costs are outrageous). Also be somewhat easily replaceable (my current ones aren’t made anymore and my display will look like a hodge-podge flea-market with too much of a mix. Replacements have to be able to be complete or blend in very well. I don’t want to have this mismatch issue again). And critically, they need to work well outdoors at the renfair atmosphere and weather.

My wishlist for new displays:
-weather resistant (moisture, dirt)
-inexpensive to make
-heavy (cheap necklace displays sail like kites)
-won’t shop-wear easily
-easy packing/unpacking (daily for us)
-easily replaced/reproduced (my dilemma now)
-not overtly modern-appearing (renfair, remember?)
-not an enormous time-investment to make
-unique if possible, particularly appropriate to me
-distinctive if possible (eye-catching but not distracting)

Not a lot to ask, right? Ok, just weather-resistant and cheap, but not cheap-looking, would be lovely.

I’m expanding a little on some ideas I started last year, and finally have come up with what I think will be a solution for nicer individual earring displays, and pendant/necklace displays that a gust of wind won’t send sailing off the counter to get bent hitting the floor. I’m sick of taping and nailing stuff down.

This last couple of weeks, along with stock and other renfair prep (it starts in a month–ack!), I’ve been making more of my normal displays and also some prototypes for the new display ideas.

Speaking of prototypes…

…this followed me home from the hardware store the other day. The clerk by the giant rolls of wiring in the electrical department looked at me a little strange when I asked for a couple feet each of solid-core copper in heavier gauges (10-16awg). He especially looked at me a little strange when I was test-swirling the ends in pretty little loops.

I’ve had an idea for a free-standing earring display. In the past, I hadn’t worked out the balance problem (base either needs weight or size so it isn’t tippy, plus it needs to be in my skills and tool availability to make). Plus, whatever goes in the base needs to be sturdy, easy to make, and fit with the look I want.

Now that I’m taking clay this past year, bingo! Clay: has weight, any shape, reproduceable, low cost, weather-resistant, reasonably sturdy, doesn’t take too much time investment to make, and unique.

Yippee! And using clay as a medium opens doors on several other solutions to display design challenges. Now, to figure out the top, since that affects the design of the base. And the bases have to be done this weekend so they’ll have time to be fired and finished in time.

I get the test-wire home, get my tools out, and ooooh boy, this isn’t the kind of wire that’s meant to strip easy. Had to do 1-2″ at a time. Took 30 minutes to do enough to bend for the test-run idea. And has a gouge at every cut spot. Will need to source bare wire if this works, since I estimate needing 30-50 feet. For the time involved, I’d rather make jewelry than strip wire.

It works! The 12-gauge turned out to be the right combination of strength, so it won’t get bent easily, and bendability, so that I can shape it like I had in mind. I like the shape a lot. Functional, but pretty. Free-handed, so each one will be a little unique. Basically, the design is a magnified version of the swirly-viney jewelry I do, and made out of wire, too, so it’s particularly appropriate. For extra strength (well, and it’s pretty) I hammered it a bit on my bench block with one of my chasing hammers.

With a successful design and clarity on the amount and gauge of wire, I located an Internet supplier that had what I needed for the tops, plus some copper sheet to experiment on for the other display I’m wanting to make. A few clicks and a couple of days later, we have the picture at the top of the post. Thanks, Internet!

Display 2

At clay class, now to design the prototypes for the freestanding earring bases, and also for bases to hold the backs for pendant and neckpieces (think glorified recipe card holder, but heavier).

For the earring bases, the urgency on making the wire prototype earlier was because it affected the clay design: how big of a hole for the wire size, how deep to be secure, how much clay for the base and the shape it needs so it won’t be tippy or too fragile.

For the look, I wanted something organic, like a little mini-mountain, versus clean and structured. The swirly top echoes my wire jewelry, and a bottom shaped like rough-hewn rock echoes that earthy part of my jewelry. My counters have vines on them and my current display colors are earthy and natural (browns, blacks and greens). With each base uniquely shaped but easy to match, later additions are easier. I’m planning on raku-firing these with a matte copper glaze that will show off the underlying texture and shape. I think the unique results and serendipity of the raku technique will also be very fitting with the overall theme.

In the picture above, the copper swirl is standing in the test-base. The bright yellow rib is in the other base (the final insert will be about the width of the yellow rib, but taller and made of copper too…a coming post, that one.)

Display 2

With successful prototypes, I made a bunch of earring bases. I only made a few of the other style for pendants since I’m still working out the insert prototype, but it’s close. Need something to test. More if it works. If not, back to the drawing board. It’s only mud after all.