Sunday, December 13, 2009

I'm a Slabbin' FOOL

The custom-made stamps I had made from my design.

I'm a Mudhen Gone Wild! BA-GAAAK! Feathers are flying akimbo and my little pupils are dilating in and out, like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. I could not be more thrilled with how my new slab roller has worked. Rolling perfect slabs of clay could not be any easier!

And my stamp is working terrific! I drew my design out, scanned it and then finished it in PhotoShop. Still haven't mastered the vector pen tool, but this approach worked just fine (phew!). I got the stamps made at ABC Stamp Sign & Awards here in Boise. They were terrific to work with and had a 24 hr turnaround with my stamps -- wow! Thanks Lynn for the lead! I actually had two made, a positive and negative of the same design. I didn't know how the design would translate into a stamp, and how that would translate into the stamped clay. I'm glad I spent the extra to experiment because what I thought would be the better option, wasn't! However, I can use the reject anyway because it creates a "draft horse" version of the design (fun!) and a flatter background surface that I think would be cool for some art glaze experiments, like crystal glazes. And, of course, I can use it for ink stampin', too. But now that I know how things translate, I know how to design for my stamps and tile press pieces. However, I also know to ask them to leave off that knobby handle in the future. It would be much easier on my hands if there was just the flat back -- note to self. That way I might be able to stamp the puppy in Sir Squish, my tile press!

I do admit that I had a mixture of excitement and anxiety rolling my first slab! I must've watched the little video provided by Bailey Pottery four times. You can see it, too, on their slab roller page right under the first depicted slab roller for sale, the 16" Mini-Might Tabletop Slab Roller, which is the one I bought from them. It has worked perfectly! Bailey Pottery is a terrific company, with awesome customer service -- thanks Joan for the recommendation! So while jammin' to The B-52's, I dove in...

Here's me cutting the pug of Cone 5 stoneware clay with my nifty new adjustable clay cutter I got from Bailey Pottery. I'm just too impatient and far too clumsy to rig something up, so if I can buy something already made to do the job, that's what I'm gonna do. Like a hot knife through butter, and a perfect thickness every time.

Here are the first slices lightly pounded together and about ready to go through the roller.

Rolling my first slab! Easy peasy! The trick is to keep a smooth, steady turn of the crank. Any stops or inconsistencies of the turn leads to an uneven slab, which is definitely undesirable. To begin with, it'll cause an uneven drying of the greenware, which can lead to warping. And at the high temps of Cone 5 (about 2167˚F or 1186˚C), any inconsistencies may experience different rates of heating and cooling, which can lead to cracking or breakage.

Now it took me some screw-ups to get it right. The first two slabs I rolled were to thin, so I had to use different shims for the roller and increase the width of the cut clay slice on my clay slicer. I needed that sweet spot. But after I rolled my first usable slab, it was smooth sailin'...and I was able to cut n' stamp!

Here's the tile clay cutter I bought from Bailey Pottery -- it works just like a cookie cutter. It measures about 3.5 x 3.5 inch square because it's designed for stoneware clay, which has a considerable amount of shrinkage when brought up to Cone 5, after which I should have a 3 x 3 inch ornament. That button is very handy -- it pops out the cut tile so I don't have to dig it out.

I get about 6-8 squares from a single slab. That's a slab of drywall I'm cutting on.

Diane, my rat vet, works in clay, too. She creates these wonderful hand built animals and ware out of slabs (and some wonderful fused glass pieces!). So she's a slab-rollin' maven, with a mighty monolith of a slab roller in her studio. I went to her annual Open Studio Christmas sale and mentioned I also got a slab roller, albeit a "baby" version. To my delight, she gave me some great pointers! First, she recommended that I keep the freshly rolled slab as flat as possible. To do that, she told me to transfer the rolled slab evenly onto a slab of drywall, place another drywall slab on top of it, then flip it over. Only then peel off the paper (or canvas) backing. Otherwise, pulling the slab up from that backing will bend it, and at that point, even stoneware has a kind of "memory" and will express that bend when fired. Second, she recommended drying my tiles sandwiched between two drywall boards to keep them flat (they're the perfect weight to avoid that dreaded potato chip effect of the corners) and the gypsum in the drywall forms the perfect drying surface. Thanks Diane!

So now that I had the rolling and cutting thing down, I was able to start stamping! Now here's where my learning curve began to careen like a nectar-drunk bumblebee. At first I thought that wetting the stamp lightly would help the process. Nope. The exact opposite -- yuck. A big sloppy mess and a lousy imprint. I started to get alarmed -- maybe this won't work! ACK. But let's I lightly scrubbed the stamp with a soft toothbrush and let it dry. Try again with a dry stamp -- perfect! Nice imprint, and it released cleanly. I found that I had to wash and dry the stamp about every ten imprints, otherwise it started to get a bit too "sticky" with clay. This drying time also provided my hands with a needed break, too! Phew. Anyhoo....

But golly -- what a shallow imprint. Hmmmm. OK...the problem may be the plastic table I was stamping on -- it just didn't have enough resistance. So I try squishing the stamp into the clay square when on the drywall and on the concrete garage floor. Hey -- that worked much better!

But gosh -- it's still not exactly what I'm looking for -- what I know the stamp is capable of doing. So I grab one of my 4 x 4 porcelain bisque tiles (I have a few of them lying around for all sorts of sundry stuff in the ceramic studio), and gently place the clay square on that. Then I place that on the drywall, which is on the concrete floor, and squish -- yes! A nice, clean deep imprint. Being able to use my body weight on that bisque tile, which provided the proper resistance, was the trick. And the stamped clay lifted off the tile beautifully, much better than off the drywall. Bingo.

I know it doesn't seem like much, but I'm glad to know my brain can still deduce things on the fly. Sometimes I worry that I'm so comfortable with what I know, that my brain isn't able to actually think anymore! In the end, I was able to stamp out thirty pieces yesterday! Granted, eight of them were trashers created from my learning curve, but I'm going to use them for tests for the high fire glazes or oxides I'm considering for the piece.

But this is a expedited use of my time since it would have taken me significantly longer to create slip-cast versions and I just didn't have that kinda time. But even at this point, I may have to invoke the 12 Days of Christmas loophole! It'll take about 8-10 days alone for them to dry before I can fire them, so....Christmas is coming late from Minkdom. It had to happen sometime. The irony is that I had to stop only because I ran out of clay -- I could have stamped out all the pieces I needed in one day!

After the flurry of activity, I had about half the pug left over from the cut-outs. I cogitated about re-wedging them and reusing that through the roller, but you know -- my wedging abilities aren't that great. Besides, clay is cheap and it's perfectly wedged when you buy it from Potter's Center. So I decided to buy more pugs tomorrow, plus
it gave me a great excuse to see and get advice from great people who work there.

Things hummed along just fine, once I got the gist of it. Here's the back of my tile after signing and logo-stamping.

Here's all the stamping tools: (A) The 4 x 4 porcelain "pressing tile," (B) my steel microstamp of my studio logo, (C) the sculpting tool I use to inscribe my signature and date on the back and, (D) the stamped tile. The big white board is, again, a 2 x 2 ft slab of drywall. Lowe's has this handy size already pre-cut for only $4 a sheet.

Now...the last step. I needed to figure out how to put holes in the top corners of the piece for hanging. No -- as you may have already deduced, I don't think these things all the way through. But I knew I had to cut them into the fresh greenware to avoid cracking or breaking, and I didn't want to drill them because that was too fiddly (read: too time-consuming) and my ceramic drill tool was way too small in diameter (remember about the clay shrinkage). There had to be something in my studio, heck there had to be something in the house, that could cut a perfect circle of the right size for art wire. Yoicks! I remembered the brass tubing I bought at a hobby store that I had intended to use to make my own sculpting tools (as featured in The Boat). Perfecto!

Here's that brass tube. Poke it straight down into the freshly pressed piece and voila -- a perfect circle of the perfect size! Granted, there is an indention on the non-show side, but at least it's uniform. These tubes come in different sizes, so you can pick which size would work for you. Luckily I had the right size on hand. I can blow the clay from inside the tube out with a big blast from my airbrush. FOOM! Greenware projectiles! I don't think I'll find those puppies ever.

Here's the result. Easy as pie and, better yet, fast!

But like with all things and clay -- it's not over 'till the fat Mudhen sings. The ease at which things have gone so far makes me suspect that an unimaginable cornucopia of unforeseen catastrophe is waiting for me around the corner. These suckers still have to be fired and glazed, remember, allowing Fate to introduce a whole sordid menu of disaster. So my fingers are crossed -- tight! Regardless, I think Big Al (my big kiln) is eagerly awaiting his first high fire! He reminds me of Calcifer from Howl's Moving Castle, as he gobbles up the egg shells from breakfast (Calcifer was my favorite character from the movie -- so cute).

Now while I'm waiting for these thingers to dry, back to work on Ms. Haffie and more paint jobs. I have Christmas to contend with, too, and other old commissions that I finally feel able to tackle, plus more sale works comin' down the pike. 2009 was sort of a "lost year" for me, with all the trips and being sick and several other distractions. And Ms. Haffie was definitely taking much longer than I ever anticipated! So I lost a lot of time and a lot of production. I also got off to a really bad start for 2009 -- the year just started poorly, and that theme continued throughout the year for the studio. But knock on wood, I have a good feeling about 2010.

"Mix in a little foolishness with your serious plans: it's lovely to be silly at the right moment." ~ Horace

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