Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Crammed Down My Gullet

Big Al crammed full of Christmas...and I quote, "It's delicious -- thank you!" NOM NOM NOM!

It's hard to believe that Christmas 2010 has past and we're cork-screwing into New Year's Eve and 2011. One part of me is eager to start the new year, and another is hesitant to acknowledge another year has gone. My head generates so many ideas for projects and every year my calendar becomes more crammed -- and frantic -- as I try to materialize them. And 365 days never is enough time! 

However, one of these wild ideas did find fruition this year -- the new annual porcelain Christmas ornament, which was a huge success that exceeded my expectations! And as promised, this post delves into a behind-the-scene look at the total pandemonium processes behind the creation of this piece.

I had planned to use the high fire porcelain (Cone 10), but a very knowledgeable, helpful gal at my local potter's supply recommended a low fire (Cone 5) porcelain clay (one that many doll makers use) because it takes to press-molding better. So I went with her suggestion, and boy am I glad I did! Thank you Potter's Center! But before we start, there are a few things you may need to know about porcelain to understand the intimidation-factor of this project...
  • Porcelain is unlike other clays in both composition and behavior. I've never used it before, so it was like getting to know someone who's really really touchy, really well and really fast!
  • It becomes vitreous when fired to maturity, which means that water cannot penetrate it. (And neither can glaze, which is why porcelain needs to be glazed after its Cone 04 low-fire stage. But since I decided to leave the ornament bisque, I skipped that stage and went right to Cone 5.)
  • Porcelain has "memory" -- like an elephant. It means that how ever the clay is twisted, smooshed, tweaked or torked while its being de-molded or worked, it will remember that in the fire...even if you fix it before you fire it (though I have an additional theory, which I'll share later). It's definitely the antithesis to WYSIWYG! This is the primary reason why porcelain pieces are expensive -- warping and other flaws caused by this memory result in a 30%-50% loss rate. This means I had to press twice as many ornaments as I wanted to get for the edition.
  • Porcelain is "sticky" -- like soft butter, unlike earthenware or stoneware, which are more dough-like. While this feel is delightful, it does present new challenges for getting it out of a press mold! I'd pondered and cogitated and pondered some more on how I was going to lift these puppies out of the mold without distorting them...until my good friend Barb gave me a great tip -- which I'll share in a bit...
So as you can see...porcelain was a new frontier for me. But wait -- there's more! On top of this, I'd never designed a bas-relief for press molding, I've never made a press mold and I've only once pressed clay into a mold (at my buddy Lynn's studio during a fun tile pressing hands-on demo). This means I was a total newb to both porcelain and press-molding. But like most things I do in my life, I jump right in head first with literally no idea of what I'm doing. I figured I'd learn on the fly, and the good news is -- I did.

But that's not all! On top of all that, all clay has to be totally dry before it can be fired. During summer here in Idaho, that usually translates to seven days of drying time. But because it was winter and the ornament was thick, they would need at least 10 days to dry before they could go into the kiln. And ideally that would be 14 days -- two weeks! And here's the kicker: Christmas was just over three weeks away! Plus, I had to get these puppies in my Etsy store at least five days before Christmas to account for shipping! There was no time to make mistakes or dawdle -- it was full speed ahead and be-darned those torpedoes.

So either this project was going to be a happy success or an epic failure. But I think it's important to take risks every so often because sometimes contemplating a project too much can create a kind of inertia. More often than not, just flinging yourself into the fray gets the gears going out of sheer panic  -- and that's more potent than caffeine, lemme tell ya.

So now that you have a bit of background on the utter lunacy of this project, let's see the highs and lows of that learning curve...

This was my world in December.
 (1) Sir Squish, my tile press, (2) one of the eight plaster press molds I made from my oil clay original, (3) a pug of porcelain clay, (4) talc (or baby powder) to use as a mold release agent, and because the porcelain vitrifies, it doesn't absorb the talc so it dusts right off after the Cone 5 fire (if we ever meet and I smell like a baby, you know I've been pressing clay!), (5) the 2 x 4 inch clay cutter, which works like a fancy cookie cutter, (6) clay slicer, to cut slices of clay off the pug in uniform thicknesses, (7) my slab roller, Smasher, and the slab sheet (the piece cut from the pug is placed between the sheets and rolled through the slab roller, which does three important things: It squishes the clay particles into new orientations, thereby creating a kind of "blank slate," it makes that slice of equal density and it makes that slice the thickness I need), (8) the brass tubing I use to quickly punch in the hanging hole at the top, (9) the cotton batting placed over the pressed ornaments before the next dry board is placed on top of them, and (10) the plaster drying boards, or "flats," used to apply gentle pressure to the pressed clay to keep it from "potato chipping," and to suck moisture from the clay to expedite drying.

Here's the clay after it's been run through Smasher, and I'm cutting it with the clay cutter. Had I been thinking, I would have designed some stamps or molds to use up the small pieces left over (a mental note for the future), so all these scraps went into the dump bucket for later use (how I long for a pug mill -- someday!). PAM® made a handy release agent for the cutters because, remember, if the clay stuck to the cutter, it would tork when coming out and cause that "memory" to kick in. What was nice about the PAM, too, was that it smelled like I was baking cookies in the garage! Anyway, on a good sheet, I could get eight 2 x 4 rectangles, and with those numbers, I used up all five of the porcelain pugs I bought.

Then the mold is dusted with talc with a soft brush and a rectangle is placed into it carefully (so as not to bend or curve it). Unlike stamping, in which a mold is pressed into the clay, press-molding presses clay into a mold. This means that I can create sculpted 3D surfaces with press-molding, like a real sculpture with "infinite layers," whereas the stamps are just a flat surface with a second layer stamped into it, or more 2D.

 Then a piece of cotton cloth is placed on top and a "pressing board" is placed on top of that. The cloth prevents the board from sticking to the clay, and the board ensures that the clay is truly squished into the mold. The board needs to be just inside the rims of the mold, which makes sizing it a bit tricky. Luckily I was able to buy some wood molding at Home Depot® that was the right width, so all I had to do was cut it to the proper length.

DOH! I pressed too hard -- I broke my first mold, on my first pull! It's easy to forget that all the gears inside the press exert exponentially more pressure than what's used to pull the lever down. At first I took this as a really bad omen, and almost abandoned the project before it ever got started -- but then I realized that the mold "gods" required their sacrifice, and what better than my "first born"?

So I grabbed another mold (thank goodness I made so many) and started again with a lighter touch this time...and voila -- it worked! The very first pressed porcelain ornament!

However, I didn't like how the cloth imprinted its texture on the back of the ornament because it interfered with the clarity of the stamp I used to imprint my information onto the back. So how to create a smooth texture? I certainly couldn't smooth out all the backs of the pressed ornaments because not only would that take too long, but it risked soaking the clay too much and torking it. What to do? Bingo! A piece of stiff plastic in place of the fabric!

If you look closely at the tiles on the right, you'll see the fabric texture. On the two tiles on the left, you can see the desired result created by that plastic piece.

 Now I was presented with the puzzle of how to get the piece out of the mold -- you can see what a tight fit that is! And remember, I cannot bend or twist it to get it out -- it has to pop out in one perfect ejection. I'd thought about using my air compressor and airbrush to blow air into the mold to pop it out, but if the ornament caught anywhere in the mold, I'd end up with one big torked mess destined for the dump bucket. I needed more control. Lucky for me, my friend Barb visited earlier that week and we talked about my problem. Now she'd taken a porcelain tile making class and revealed The Great Solution the teacher taught her...use "buttons" from the pug to lift the piece out of the mold! Also luckily for me, I quickly realized that I designed my bas-relief perfectly so there were no undercuts or areas that would "catch" the piece as it was being lifted out...phew!

 I used two buttons created from the scraps left over from each cutting. I dampened their bonding surface slightly with water and gently pressed them into the surface...just hard enough to create the necessary bond. Clay loves to stick to itself when wet, so that dampness created just the right amount of suction to hold onto the ornament without being permanent. I quickly found that the fresher the buttons, the more effective they held, so I just kept using those scraps created by the fresh cuttings of each slab. The old buttons simply went into the good ol' dump bucket. It took a bit of time to learn how to squish them properly, so some of the early ornaments had stronger button imprints than later ones. Working with clay really is learning the seemingly infinite "sweet spots" it demands. Interestingly, I learned that each pug was slightly different, too, presenting a new set of sweet spots. Working with mud is about being responsive and flexible to the needs of the clay -- you really can't strong-arm it. It dictates to you, not the other way around! But this actually is refreshing, since I have full and complete control in all my other creative endeavors. It's good to be humbled and submit to the will of mystery.

 This technique allowed me to lift the ornament out of the mold with ease, quickly and without torking! But I had to concentrate in order to keep my two hands at equal orientations, so as not to bend or stretch the ornament while pulling it from the mold, and to transfer it flat onto the batting. After a few dozen times of doing this, it gets harder and harder...especially as those clock arms tick ever closer to the wee hours of the morning!

Here you can see an ornament about to be lifted out, along with those waiting to have their backsides cleaned with water. It takes just my finger and some water to smooth out where the buttons were. Inadvertently, I learned that if I let the ornament sit in the mold for about two minutes, it lifts easier, often just popping out. So while ornaments waited to be untombed, I cleaned up those previously de-molded.
 So right when I was all puffed up over my brilliant design savvy, I realized my ornament had a big design flaw -- it had beveled edges. I was accustomed to designing bas-relief for slip-casting, and a design with beveled edges pulled better from a slip-casting mold than one with straight edges. However the reverse is true for press-molding! Getting that clay to squish evenly to those wide-spread edges became a real headache, and I decided that the press board just wasn't enough by itself -- it needed help. So I began all sorts of configurations with bits of cardboard, as you can see above. I finally ended up with #4. What was particularly troublesome was that not only did each pug behave differently during the press, but also each mold behaved differently! I can't explain why, but each definitely had a way it wanted to work best. To complicate matters, each mold can only be used for about 15 pressings at a time, otherwise it gets too wet and begins to tear the clay, so I'd have to switch to another mold to keep the pace going. All this meant my brain's memory chip was working over time between the seven molds to remember which mold wanted things which way! I suspect if anyone had been watching, they'd have seen steam flow out out of my ears. Now had I been smart, I would have labeled the molds and written down notes -- but when it's 2am and it's your third night of sleep deprivation, you just careen forward...flailing.

 The reward: A flat full of beautiful pressings! I figured I needed at least 200 to achieve my goal of 100 sellable ornaments. I ended up with about 280, or about 10 flats. I expected to lose about 50% during the fire, but I also had to figure in another 20% loss during the drying and cleaning process. The thing is you don't know what you can and can't rescue until you've actually cleaned a few -- so during the pressing process, you save whatever you can. And sure enough, I lost a whole lot as I cleaned them -- good thing I pressed so many! But yes -- all 280 of those ornaments had to be cleaned by hand...removing all the little imperfections in the mold, smoothing the edges and tidying up the holes. That took a couple more days and nights of sleep deprivation -- blorg! One day, I'll have a series of wheeled racks to hold all my flats in stacks, but until then I have to stack them on the garage floor. Now the problem was that during this week, we had freezing temperatures and this porcelain clay cannot freeze since that would hose up the water particles in the clay. The solution? Stack all the flats in the house! So for nearly two weeks, the house was inundated by both Christmas and ten cumbersome flats stacked randomly around the house -- wherever I could find room! Poor Hubby's man cave was overtaken by six of them! But at this point, he's used to personal sacrifice in the name of art.

 Brass tubing, which you can find in many male-oriented hobby stores, make excellent punches for hanging holes. They come in many shapes, and I like to use the circle, rectangle and teardrop shapes the most. Be sure to get the next size down, or some suitable instrument to push through it to pop out the clay, otherwise you'll never it out of there. And part of the fun is hearing the "pop" as the little clay pellet shoots out! I also recommend cutting them to about 2" and use a diamond bit with a Dremel® to create a cutting edge on one end.

Happily, the ornaments dried a lot faster than I expected, probably because they were kept in a heated house. Now another thing about porcelain is that it shrinks as it fires -- a lot. It shrinks so much, in fact, that unless it has some sort of "slippery" surface on the kiln shelf, it can catch on something as it shrinks and destroy the piece. The solution is "doll sand," or fine sand spread on the kiln shelf that acts as little ball-bearings for the piece's surface to roll on as it shrinks (above). The sand doesn't melt, or get stuck in the ornament, either. So while I had Big Al packed tight with all 280 ornaments, with only 1/16th inch of space between them, when the fire was done the spaces between them looked like yawning corridors! It's like grown-up Shrinkydinks!

Between the bad pressings and those thrown out between drying and cleaning, my porcelain dump bucket was almost full! There's easily 100 rejected ornaments that met a soggy end in that ol' bucket.

 The first initial slabs were too thick, so I just stored them in a baggie separated by plastic to use later for my stamps. What I love about mud is that so much of the materials can be recycled or repurposed. To use up even more from the onset, I'm going to create new stamp designs that can be applied to the little scraps from the cutting process. They can be turned into neat magnets, zipper pulls or even jewelry.

 Suffice to say, the wait to open Big Al was torturous -- was this going to work, or was it a big waste of time?! Perhaps it was beginners luck, but WOOT -- I opened up Big Al to a kiln-full of beautiful ornaments! I cannot describe the sense of elation at seeing that big gaping maw full of all my hard work, glistening and lovely! Now I had to sort through them to pick out the best ones, and throw the rejects away. But to my astonishment, I lost only about 30% to warping! This allowed me to be really picky choosing the edition's denizens, and left some seconds for me to paint later, which was an unexpected bonus. It also told me that my methods worked and porcelain wasn't to be feared!

 Now came the fun part -- packaging! It was a treat to pick out just-the-right ribbon, and whip together something that looked nice. It took one long day to tie on the ribbons and get everyone packaged in their bags -- then the next day I uploaded them to my Etsy shop!

Now regarding that additional theory about porcelain's memory -- I wish I'd taken photos as proof, but I'm not convinced that all warping is due to handling, at least in my case. In order to get Big Al stuffed with all the ornaments in one fire, I resorted to using  many of my broken shelves and half shelves, jigsawing them together to maximize space. To my surprise, I found that along the seams, where the heat's convection rose and churned like volcano vents, was where most of the warped edges happened! In fact, I'd say about 80% of all the warping I had was along those convention vents. In contrast, all of the ornaments in the middle of the full shelves -- without exception -- were perfect. This leads me to believe that a new strategy may be instructive next year, implementing these changes:
  • Using only full kiln shelves
  • Keeping the ornaments centered and away from the edges
  • Running two firings instead of one big one
So we'll see. All in all, this project wasn't only challenging and fun, it was instructional on many levels...some of them personal. And while it often was hair-raising, and sometimes maddening, it was a true labor of love.  Though I was exhausted and zombified from a lack of sleep, I relished every minute. It also started a passionate love-affair with porcelain -- I am in love with the stuff! I cannot wait for next year's ornament! And I'm eager to apply what I've learned and see where I can refine and innovate.

As for the series, I decided to stick to the 2 x 4" shape not just to create a coherent collection, but the design challenge of using that fixed space in new ways is just too irresistible. Again -- why make things easy? The fun stuff happens in the daunting, unlikely chaos! Though I have to admit, looking back, I can't believe I got it all done...what was I thinking?!

Next time, I'll show you my new stamps and how I made them! So until then...from all of us here at Minkiewicz Studios...HAPPY NEW YEAR! MAY IT ROCK!

Now...for some sleep.

"You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star." ~ Friedrich Neitzsche


Friday, December 17, 2010

Jumpin' for JOY!

My radio silence the last couple of weeks was due largely to this yuletide tidbit (above). So ta-da! -- I'd like to introduce my first annual Minkiewicz Studios Christmas ornament, "Joy"! It depicts an exuberant Arabian mare cavorting about to the ring of jingle bells. They're a limited edition of only 100, and  are available now in my Etsy store.

This piece represents many "firsts" for me: First use of porcelain, first pressed clay piece, first finished edition from the studio, first use of my 2 x 4 inch tile cutter and first in a new annual series. Every year I hope to issue a new addition, featuring different breeds and themes. Like this one, they'll all be cast in beautiful porcelain and this same shape, and left bisque because I think that really showcases the bas-relief and the clay so beautifully. That makes the collection coherent, too, and more fun for me since it presents design challenges for that 2 x 4 inch space.

I'll be documenting the creation of this edition later in the week...but until then, I have to get tangled in wrapping paper!

"Don't shirk away from challenges...keep reaching for that star, that sky." ~ Rick Moore 

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