Primitive Pottery

Discussion in 'Other Skills' started by OrienM, Sep 29, 2018.

  1. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    A few pics from this morning's project, something I've never tried before: pit-firing primitive pottery. Miraculously, all three test pieces survived the firing!

    pottery1.jpg

    The clay was dug a few weeks ago, processed to remove twigs and gravel, then molded into simple pinch pots and left to dry. Nothing very fancy or well-finished; mostly, I just wanted to see if the clay would stand the fire without exploding.

    For today's firing, a pit was dug and a small fire was built. The pots were preheated next to the fire for a half hour or so; once they got good and hot they were pushed in using a stick, and buried in the hot coals. A good-sized campfire was built on top, and kept burning for about an hour. After the last batch of wood burned down to coals I shoveled dirt on top, and left it all to cool for a couple hours before returning to dig the fired pottery back up.

    pottery2.jpg

    pottery3.jpg

    I'm still finding it pretty amazing that heat transforms plain old mud into something so durable...:eek::)

    I'll likely be doing a few more pottery experiments in coming weeks...I'm hoping to teach simple pottery-making to my high school primitive skills class, sometime later this fall. This clay source is actually in the school driveway, lol...it should be possible to pit-fire their finished work right there at the school as well, which will be fun (and memorable) for the kids.

    Thanks for looking!
    -Orien
     
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2018
  2. JKR

    JKR Scout

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    Man, that is terrific! Keep it up!
     
  3. NattyBo

    NattyBo Guide

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    Awesome work!
    Is the one an oil lamp?
     
  4. Bridgetdaddy

    Bridgetdaddy Guide

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  5. central joe

    central joe Supporter Supporter Bushcraft Friend

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    A fine job young fellar. joe
     
  6. NevadaBlue

    NevadaBlue —- Roughian #7 -— --- Graybeard -— Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    Just outstanding! Good for you.

    I have a few pot shards from long ago. They are decorated with simple scratched in decoration. You might consider letting them do that too.
    I will find a pic or two from the net...

    Example from the net:

    3ABFBBC0-C466-4216-B364-8A013C44B62C.jpeg

    Simple decorations.

    And a real shard of similar design:

    AF80209C-23F8-4751-B859-EE6C8269CBE0.jpeg
     
    Last edited: Sep 30, 2018
  7. DrHuman

    DrHuman Hobbyist Hobbyist

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    That is super cool. I've been hoping to see some pit firings on here. Your pieces turned out great. I've dug up some clay to make my coffee cup. Now that fire season is over here I should finally fire it.
     
  8. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    Thanks y'all! Much appreciated...I'm pretty excited the pots turned out! I was fully expecting a pit full of broken sherds, lol...:D

    Yeah, an old-school lamp that burns cooking oil. I'm a bit concerned the oil will eventually soak through the unglazed pottery, but it hasn't so far.

    Excellent...thanks for the great suggestion! Scratched-in decoration should be fairly quick and easy to do, and it looks great, too. I'm pretty fascinated with some of the ancient Puebloan slipped-and-burnished ware found around here, but I suspect that the process is a bit too elaborate to do in class (I may attempt a few pieces on my own, though...)

    Awesome! I encourage you to go for it...I was shocked how simple the process was, really.
     
  9. Winterhorse

    Winterhorse Supporter Supporter

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    I really like those. I’d like to see your students work too.
     
  10. NattyBo

    NattyBo Guide

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    Another cool decoration with a practical application was done by the eastern woodlands N.A. They would press their cordage onto the pots leaving an imprint. It looks cool and from what I've read also increased surface area to decrease cooking time.
     
  11. lowtidejoe

    lowtidejoe Supporter Supporter

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    Awesome work! I haven’t made any pots in quiet some time but here’s a few of mine from the past year or two. Any pots that break in the firing can be ground down and used as temper in future pots.
    05B77869-6FEB-480B-BBF4-2239E5E6C5DD.jpeg
    579151E0-328D-4CA5-874B-205E79EB814C.jpeg
    53F4D035-A6AB-4885-A471-8755F6FEE794.jpeg
    758C1DED-A024-4BD6-961A-C0D0C8290701.jpeg
    5506D258-3516-4F94-9889-0EC13A38E3AF.jpeg
    6DF6D48E-CB81-4092-A661-9D8CD5EFA03C.jpeg
    8C018E4B-AFFF-42EC-8F15-C045CB2FCE61.jpeg
     
  12. Zunga

    Zunga Bushmaster

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    Very nice. I got interested in pottery after seeing. "Primitive technologies" on YouTube. One video that really got me going. Was a clay smelter/forge. They mixed straw into the clay. The idea is it burns away when it's fired first time. Leaves voids that lets it expand and contract under extreme heat.
    Cheers Jim
     
  13. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    Wow! Lots of awesome stuff there, thanks for posting. Really liking those coiled pots...the animal figures are great too.
     
  14. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    Bump for a few pics...I headed up the arroyo by my house this morning to look for native clay.
    IMG_20181006_093533947.jpg

    Many layers get exposed in these eroded cutbanks, including some deposits of what seems to be very fine-grained clay.
    IMG_20181006_095333552.jpg

    It felt slippery and showed good plasticity when wet, so I dug a shopping bag full.
    IMG_20181006_095108554.jpg

    I brought it home and 'wet processed' the raw clay using two buckets and a screen, basically pouring off the suspended clay water while the sand, etc settle to the bottom of the bucket, and organic debris are screened off the top. I learned about the method here: http://www.andywardpottery.com/2015/10/finding-and-processing-native-clay/
    IMG_20181006_104432733_HDR.jpg

    After more settling, I should be able to carefully pour off most of the water, then dump the processed clay into a cloth bag and hang it up to dry a bit more. The result should be workable clay, which will then need to be test fired before I proceed further.

    Fun stuff...:)
     
    Last edited: Oct 6, 2018
  15. woodsmanjohn

    woodsmanjohn Supporter Supporter Bushclass II

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    Nice work! those look great what a great project OM, thanks for posting.
     
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  16. NevadaBlue

    NevadaBlue —- Roughian #7 -— --- Graybeard -— Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    Excellent looking clay, you may find you need some grog or sand though. Can’t wait to see how it turns out.
     
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  17. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    Thanks gents! :)

    A couple more pics from today:

    The clay is now in the bag, drying out:
    IMG_20181006_144634423.jpg

    A tiny pot, maybe 1" across, which will be my first firing test. Just plain clay as processed above, no temper added (yet). I burnished the outside and painted the inside with red slip, and even ended up painting a simple pattern on the outside after this pic was taken. It will be interesting to see how it fires.
    IMG_20181006_155249251.jpg


    Actually seems a bit on the sandy side already...I can see little flecks of mica in there, too. It seems workable, anyhow, and my little pot dried quickly without cracking, which I guess is a good sign. If it seems to need it I'll try adding some ground lava stone or pot sherds to the mix, or perhaps add a little prickly pear juice as a binder.
     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2018
  18. NevadaBlue

    NevadaBlue —- Roughian #7 -— --- Graybeard -— Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    COOL! It does sound like a good mix.
     
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  19. Luchtaine

    Luchtaine MOA #22 Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I Bushclass Instructor

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    Very cool project. It would be fun to play around with this. Alas, I know of no sources for natural clay in my area.
     
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  20. JC1

    JC1 Guide

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    From what I understand the markings are decorative to non-Natives but to the makers they tell a story of some sort. Thick, thin, long and short lines and their positions are some sort of writing or code which tells a story or family history
     
  21. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    Bad luck firing the little pot last night...I made a little kiln out of a food can in my blacksmithing forge, and fired the pot in it for an hour or so. It got red-hot, but failed to harden properly; after cooling it broke in half from casual handling, and I was able to crush a chunk of it into dust with just finger pressure. Too bad! I'll try again with a longer firing, maybe right in the coals this time.

    PS: yes, it had already dried all the way to bone-dry in like 3 hours, lol. Good ol' desert climate, plus the tiny size of the piece helped too.
     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2018
  22. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    I've heard an awful lot of Pueblo artists refer to pottery painting as 'telling a story'....I suspect there's a lot of info embedded in there. I know the general idea behind a couple of the motifs, but that's about it.
     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2018
  23. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    Opened up my bag o' clay to take a look...still too wet. I added in some prickly pear gel, kneaded the clay ball a bit, and wrapped it back up to dry some more. The texture of the ball was interesting; sand particles had moved to the outside as water drained out, and left a core of finer-grained clay in the middle.

    I kept another little sample to play with, which is currently drying to a more workable consistency out on my porch. Sure hope I can figure out how to fire this stuff!

    IMG_20181007_103918849-1.jpg
     
  24. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    Grinding some chunks of broken pottery for temper...the clay seems a lot sticker after being thoroughly mixed.

    IMG_20181007_112625764.jpg

    By the way, the pottery I'm grinding is a piece of the oil lamp shown in the OP :(...the oil did eventually soak through the unglazed clay. The handle was the only part that wasn't totally saturated! At least it can still serve a purpose, by being recycled into grog for a new pot.
     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2018
  25. lowtidejoe

    lowtidejoe Supporter Supporter

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    I know Andy personally, he came to my archaeology field school in 2015 and demonstrated primitive pottery production. He’s a great guy and I have learned a ton from him.

    As for the pottery grinding, I know the feeling, most likely then fire wasn’t hot enough. Which usually means not enough air to get the pots glowing cherry red. Try elevating the pots so the fire engulfs them from all angles and increase the air flow. I usually stack mine up on top each other in a pile. Very curious to see how the prickly pear gel works out!
     
    Last edited: Oct 8, 2018
  26. bgf

    bgf Scout

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    Great stuff. We have red, blue and even yellow clay here, between a little topsoil and a deep layer of limestone. Maybe I'm crazy, but I am completely enthusiastic about digging post holes just to see what is in them (and because we need fences). We found a neat stalactite (or -mite? hard to say) in one hole, and several in a row in a different location were filled with gravel, possibly an old streambed. And nautilus fossils, etc., but that's off on a tangent. Can any color clay be used and will it still be visible after firing?

    The only thing I've done with my (red) clay practically was line a small forge, but it worked so well for that, considering I was makintg it up as I went along, that I would like to make bricks and pots sometime.
     
  27. lowtidejoe

    lowtidejoe Supporter Supporter

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    In my experience not really, red or iron rich clays often fire red/tan/brown/orange or yellow in an oxidation firing. Blue/Gray clays I have fired in a reduction firing turn light gray or white. It’s all about the chemical make up and amount of oxygen they receive in the firing.

    You should make identical disks or pinch pots from the colors you have and test fire them. Compare before and after.
     
  28. NevadaBlue

    NevadaBlue —- Roughian #7 -— --- Graybeard -— Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    Have you done a test on the clay? Put a piece in a jar and fill the jar with water. Shake it up until it is all dissolved and let it settle. The sand/silt/clay will separate in layers.

    Like so:

    09B2A36D-A538-47D4-8AFA-887C3DCC6605.jpeg

    Google ‘water clay test’ if you aren’t familiar with it.
    [​IMG]
     
  29. lowtidejoe

    lowtidejoe Supporter Supporter

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    OrienM, sounds like it’s the paste (clay) itself to me. Try gathering it from a spot with less water flow or dig further/deeper into the arroyo for the next batch. I usually find the best clay under a cap rock.

    5FD5122E-E253-44A9-99BF-8F4A34623D5D.jpeg
     
  30. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    I suspect you're right, but (having made a few odds and ends with it already), I'll probably try firing them to make sure. I collected more of the clay from school, which I know fires up OK, and I'll be keeping my eye out for other deposits. I am definitely enjoying the search...I never paid quite this much attention to soil composition before, lol.

    Boy, he sure makes some stunning stuff! Excellent web site, too. That Salado polychrome ware he replicates is some of my very favorite prehistoric pottery. I'd love to attend one of Andy's workshops; he actually taught one here in my hometown a few years back.
     
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  31. lowtidejoe

    lowtidejoe Supporter Supporter

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    39E7F43C-6150-4135-9F6E-B598BBB48777.jpeg I know, once you get an eye for clay it’s addictive. Best part of the long drives for work is seeing/collecting all the clays I can. It’s an awesome feeling turning something truly raw into a work of value and art. Keep it going and keep your experiments up. Here’s a slab I picked up for rolling coils and building on. I ground it down flat in the lake below.
     
  32. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    Yup, the roadcuts become a lot more interesting; I've taken to keeping plastic bags and a little shovel in the car :p

    I recently collected some terracotta-looking clay (heavy on the sand, as most of it seems to be around here) and diatomaceous earth for temper. Some cactus pads for gel, too.
    pottery5.jpg

    A pot from processed schoolyard clay...this has now been red-slipped and burnished on the inside.
    pottery4.jpg
     
  33. kcardwel

    kcardwel Hardwoodsman Hobbyist Supporter Hardwoodsman Bushclass III

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    great thread and work!
     
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  34. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    Keeping at it...the latest batch of clay turned out to be particularly workable. :dblthumb:

    I've started on a set of "Mogollon-style" corrugated coffee mugs; they're turning out to be nice items to practice hand-building with, small but fairly detailed. If they survive the fire, I'll give them away for Christmas gifts.
    IMG_20181019_132318291.jpg
     
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  35. happywanderer

    happywanderer Scout

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    How cool!!!
     
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  36. Medicine maker

    Medicine maker Guide

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    Seriously, why is this not under primitive skills. Its a primitive skill not some "other" no category skill.
     
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  37. lowtidejoe

    lowtidejoe Supporter Supporter

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    Outstanding work OrienM! You have made a major technilogical leap with the corrugated pottery. Handle looks near perfect. You make stoneware pots too?
     
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  38. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    Thanks for the nice words y'all! More pics to come...I'm intending to do another pit-firing soon, hopefully this next weekend if weather cooperates.

    A good point...I've become accustomed to posting fiber-arts stuff in here, but both fiber and clay work are definitely primitive skills. In the future I'll post over in the primitive section.

    Thanks! I've been driving myself nuts trying to make consistent pinch marks in my corrugations, lol. Sorry to report, the cup handle spontaneously cracked while drying, but I'll be making some more on that same pattern. The biggest tech leap so far was learning to wait for the bases to harden a bit before trying to add more coils...I collapsed a couple things by being too hasty.

    I've never done any "serious" pottery, but I messed with clay a little in school art classes, and once had a babysitter who showed me some stuff about wheel throwing (I was a funny kid, even at 8-9 years old I'd happily sit for four hours straight trying to learn a craft skill :D). I'm generally good with 3-D design, which is helpful. Pottery is a fairly popular craft around here; my wife is currently taking a ceramics class, which is what got the idea in my head to try it with low-tech means.
     
    Last edited: Oct 24, 2018
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  39. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    A pic of my cup fatality, plus some more corrugated pots. Controlling the shapes is still a bit tricky :p...the little pot on the far right actually started as a cup, but "wanted" to become a pot as it developed.
    IMG_20181021_100845978.jpg
     
  40. Medicine maker

    Medicine maker Guide

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    Dam ur gonna make me buy some clay just to fire harden it!
     
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  41. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    Try it! It's lots of fun (the firing part especially ;)). From what I've been reading, "low-fired" varieties of clay work the best for pit firing. You might have native clays in your area to experiment with, too.
     
  42. Medicine maker

    Medicine maker Guide

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    Very very nice.
     
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  43. arleigh

    arleigh Guide

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    I use to play with clay ,got a wheel but no time .
    My dirt here is clay, almost no stone ,go figure.
    Did you know that Indians, if escaping, would destroy pottery rather than carry it .
    I picked up some painted potsherds that were less than 1/4" thick , these guys were no dummies .
    Supposedly, his work dated back during or before the Spanish invaded Mexico.
    Ideally if you make an oven ,the clay can be baked and glassed safe to use for food/drink .
     
  44. crewhead05

    crewhead05 caffeine, nicotine, knives and nature. Lifetime Supporter Supporter

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    cool thread
     
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  45. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    The director of my school has given me the go-ahead to do a barrel firing...we don't quite have space at school for a pit fire. So, I decided to give it a shot in my home burn barrel.

    fire1.jpg

    I set up pots on a grill as shown, then added a bunch more wood and cane on top. The fire went up hot and fast, and destroyed every piece :eek::D (Pieces from the first batch of clay survived the fire, but didn't harden...bad paste, as mentioned above).

    fire2.jpg

    Before anyone feels bad, I see this sort of thing as just part of the process of "applied backyard science", lol. You've got to exceed parameters sometimes, in order to know where they are...oops. :p

    Not to be discouraged, I immediately started on another big pot:

    big'n.jpg
     
  46. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    I could use some advice over here, from @lowtidejoe or anyone else who knows...the big pot developed some drying cracks in the bottom :mad:. They don't go all the way through...I tried to fill them in with thin clay, but it didn't work at all. Can this sort of thing be repaired, or should I scrap it and start over?

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    I did some painting on it that turned out pretty decent...it'd be great to save it if possible.

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    Last edited: Nov 9, 2018
  47. lowtidejoe

    lowtidejoe Supporter Supporter

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    Nice work OrienM,

    I fire in a shallow pit, I make a primary fire which builds the coals up. You want the fire to be as hot as physically possible. As the first fire burns I line the outside of the pit and I warm all the pots to start acclimating for the radical change in temperature and atmosphere.
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    (Warming my pots around primary fire)

    Then once I have a nice pile of coals I assemble the pots stacked up with room for air circulation throughout. Next I assemble the wood for the fire. This is the most important and often least thought about part of the firing. You want this fire to be screaming hot. I use everything from pencil sized to arm/leg sized. I shoot for small bonfire sized.

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    (Ron Carlos firing his pots)


    You want to shoot for glowing cherry red pots peaking out from the fire.

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    (Test pot glowing red from the field. Made earlier that day and fired that evening. Should have broken from moisture content but it’s really great clay and didn’t)

    As for the cracks. A good rule of thumb is if it cracks before the firing, toss it. Ron Carlos famous potter and a good friend of mine never lets me keep a pot that cracks before it’s fired. After all it is clay and can be made better a second time around. I can tell though that you’re pot most likely cracked from drying too quickly. Once you finish your pot either inside or out try to get it somewhere that isn’t drafty. Then cover it with a damp cloth that covers the entire piece, lift up a small corner with an inch gap. This will retain moisture long enough to dry the pot evenly. Good luck and keep up the great work. I dig the design on that pot, it looks Salado-esq. I would fire it anyways and keep the broken look.

    Here’s a small repair I did on a bowl that broke when it fell on the floor. Not everything has to be lost.

    C5C4E61A-4E48-4EB5-9EE4-9DBC33E42716.jpeg
     
  48. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    Hi @lowtidejoe, thanks for the advice and encouragement (and awesome pics! :dblthumb:). My wife told me the same about the drying cracks...I need to dry things slower than I have been. I had hoped I could just kind of spackle them over, lol. I'll probably try to fire this pot as an experiment, anyhow....might make a nice plant pot or decorative piece.
     
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2018
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  49. lowtidejoe

    lowtidejoe Supporter Supporter

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    Many people use large broken pot and pot shreds as a shield for their painted pots. Andy ward fires that way just about every time to keep the nice pots from getting smudged or fire clouds. At the very least you have a very an important tool for future firings. Keep it up! I can’t wait to get out of the field and get back home to make some.
     
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  50. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    Finally got to do a firing at school! Last week my students mined and processed some clay and made little pinch pots; this morning we fired them in a juniper-wood bonfire built on a big steel tray. Pretty successful :)...only a couple losses from drying cracks, and a tiny bit of fire spalling (the one pot at far right). The kids also cooked steak kabobs over the coals. All in all, it was a good end to the semester...I look forward to trying this project again with future classes, with a little more knowledge next time.

    firing1.jpg
     

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