Monday, March 21, 2016

A Cautionary Tale!

Our table at the East Otago Saturday Market at Waikouaiti.
A bag of clay is wonderful stuff, it is packed full of potential. Some potters would see a bag of clay as, 60 mugs, 12 plates, and a casserole, and others would see it as a bag full of dreams! The friend who started me potting always took great pleasure in opening a new bag of clay. The snipping of tape and the peeling open of the plastic wrapping was done with much the same sense of occasion as a waiter uncorking a bottle of wine at a restaurant. My friend would pause for a moment near the naked, freshly exposed clay, and inhale with obvious pleasure... "Ahhh..." he would say, "you can smell the forest floor!" This was quite true, especially of a good earthenware clay, I have tried it myself!

 Bodleian Library, UK: "The Original Wind in the Willows" online exhibition.
This is from the Bodleian Library online exhibition, "The Original Wind in the Willows"
I am sure that there is a line somewhere in Kenneth Grahame's "Wind in the Willows" where the aroma of the muddy river bank is described as smelling "like plum pudding". It is a very evocative description that I love.

Clay that has been stored in a bag for a long time can be wetter in the middle and drier towards the outside and it really helps to knead the clay prior to use and even out the moisture content. Clay may also have air pockets trapped in it, and we have to get rid of those. There are different techniques for preparing clay, some more effective than others.

I suspect that many people who went to pottery classes were shown "ox head" or "ram's head" wedging. At first glance the method looks a little bit like kneading bread, but it is not the same. The words "kneading" and "wedging" are often used interchangeably by potters and this may cause confusion, especially as some are adamant that there is a difference! One tidy "house rule" is to say that a bread maker kneads to get air into the dough, a potter wedges to get the air out!

Ki Cho of Echo Ceramics gives an excellent demonstration of ram's head wedging in this youtube video.

Some professional potters prepare clay like this all their working lives, it is simple and quite effective for small amounts, but a ball of clay more than 2 or 3 kilograms (4.5 -6.5 pounds) can put a serious strain on the wrists and hands, especially if the clay is rather stiff.

"Stack and Slam" is another way to do the job. A block of clay is repeatedly cut in half, turned and slammed together. After 20 or 30 repeats it is usually well mixed. 5 - 10 kilograms (11 - 22 pounds) or more can be processed at a time by this method.

Ceramics Arts Daily. 16 September 2013. 
There is an excellent "how to" of Stack and Slam with photos here on Ceramic Arts Daily.

And then there is spiral wedging, this is something that I think was first done by potters in Eastern countries, and later came to the West. When done correctly, this is a very efficient and beautiful way of preparing larger amounts of clay. It can be rather tricky to learn, however, and there is a definite "knack" to it. There is a very helpful demonstration of this method here on youtube by a wonderful potter called Hsin-Chuen Lin.

Hsin-Chuen Lin has other excellent videos about making pots on the wheel that are a real treasure. His web site is here

I have always had trouble following instructions on how to tie knots, all that "left over right" and "twist and through the loop" stuff has me blowing mental fuses, so I had some difficulty getting spiral wedging to happen for me, but I persisted trying it over the years, and finally got it to work quite well about a year or so ago. Where as it was difficult to do more than about 2 or 3 kg (4.5 -6.5 pounds) at a time with "ram's head" wedging, spiral wedging allowed me to tackle more than twice that amount quite comfortably and without trapping pesky air bubbles!

I think it is true to say that spiral wedging should involve your whole upper body. Wedging should not be hurried, but there is a natural rhythm that the body can get into, a bit like the swinging of a pendulum of a grandfather clock. It is good to relax, start slowly and warm up. If this is hurried, then the technique becomes faulty and arms and shoulders get overloaded.

Unfortunately, I have learned the hard way what happens when technique in spiral wedging is forced or hurried. The 16 December last year was one of those days when I felt the pressure of deadlines and overburdened with things I had to do. I was spiral wedging some clay that was a rough mixture of some stiff recycled stuff, and some newer clay of a better consistency. I powered into the task, instead of establishing an easy rhythm, and I felt a sharp pain in my left shoulder and had to stop. By evening my shoulder was telling me I was in all sorts of trouble.

I nursed the shoulder for about 5 weeks or so before I could get my hands into much clay again. Fortunately I had quite a lot of work that needed glazing, and we also were into the season of the year where we get a lot of interruptions and it is hard to do new work anyway, so I found ways to adapt my schedule to some degree, and waited it out until the shoulder felt better.

I began to do more from mid January, and thought that I had had a lucky escape, and might have done, but.... it all went badly wrong last week, which was a busy one. I consulted a doctor who confirms that it is a rotator cuff injury and I will be having a scan on Wednesday 23rd to see what has happened.

Currently I cannot work, and many basic tasks, including driving, are problematic. I think that my recovery is likely to take rather a long time from this point, so I am in the process of contacting people who have commissioned things, especially larger things, to let them know I may not be able to make them.

Anyway, let this be a cautionary tale.


cookingwithgas said...

This pottery stuff can be hard on the body. It's very physically taxing. I hope all goes well.

gz said...

never too late to learn! I spiral wedge my clay and my bread dough!

I remember Michael Cardew sitting hand wedging a bag of clay as he talked...just a handful at a time, pull, halve, slap he said, why make life hard for yourself!

smartcat said...

Toes crossed for a full recovery.

I learned your lesson the hard way by doing a huge clean up job in one afternoon when I should have broken it down into a least three steps.

The worst part of all the hurry and get it done is that we generally don't save any time, because we have to take time to recover.

Take care and do what the doc says......and please keep us up to date. I hate it whenvirtual friends disappear into the ether!

Michèle Hastings said...

I can sympathize with the rotator cuff injury. Went through it a few years ago. I hope your pain can be minimized and that you can recover without surgery.

My view on wedging is to just skip it! I never wedge clay fresh from a bag. Porcelain, I will slam a few times on the work table to soften it a little. I am fortunate enough to have a pug mill for recycling.

Peter said...

Dear All,
Thank you so much for your kind thoughts, I appreciate your comments, and it has been particularly encouraging hearing from some of you who have had a similar injury and have eventually recovered enough to return to potting. I will be having an ultrasound scan tomorrow, Wednesday, and hope to be able to find out something more then if the person doing the scan is able to talk to me about it.

I'm not as sore now as I was a few days ago, but am still not really able to use the arm for anything much, and I still haven't mastered the art of sleeping and aching at the same time!

I'll try to do a little update after I have got tomorrow out of the way!

Eleanor (yes it's really me!) said...

oooh that sucks! I hope it isn't as bad as it sounds. (and that you find something fun to do while you can't pot)
Hope you guys have a good Easter. I'll have to get around to emailing you sometime :)

Peter said...

Hi Eleanor,
How lovely to hear from you, thank you so much for getting in touch, I have been thinking of you and Ben quite a bit, especially over the last few days. Happy Easter to you both. Yes we will do something about Emailing!

Peter's Dad said...

Thanks so much for the video links which provide excellent insights into what you've been up to and why your arm and shoulder have put their feet down!
Just anticipating, we're So thankful that it's only severe bursitis...
... well, at least it takes less time to recover.

srgb said...

Hi Peter
Toyota said it, and so do I, and all this fish oil nonsense is no help, I think the lovely comments above are about as good as it gets Peter, as for the sleep I find there is some freedom in wandering about at all times of the night when others are wasting time in bed I just wish I could bring myself to get out the hammer and nail gun and do something other than drink tea but then the body does need a rest, and I have not yet worked out how best to do it so there is no advise, yours is most welcome.
I do wish you a speedy recovery if that is what you want, till then do enjoy the journey.
Best wishes Bob

Melissa Rohrer said...

These pesky joints! Good luck with your shoulder. I had a problem with an elbow for a few months (bursitis). Fortunately, I was able to continue with pottery without too much trouble. Picking up a mug of coffee, oddly, was impossible.

Peter said...

Hello Dad,
Glad you enjoyed the video links, it is much easier to show these things than to describe the processes in words.

Hi Bob,
Good to hear from you. You had me struggling for a moment with the Toyota reference, but ... ha, ha,... that was a great advert and the sentiments most apt!
Sleep, yes... I actually managed a bit more last night which was good, but 3 - 4 hours of broken stuff was about all I could manage for the last couple of weeks most nights. I would often "give up" about 3 in the morning and read a large chunk of a novel, but I did get up at 3.30pm a couple of mornings ago (Easter Friday) and ended up watching the whole 3 dvd set of "The Bridge" series one a Danish and Swedish crime drama!

Hi Melissa,
Good to hear from you. It turns out mine is bursitis of the shoulder. The good news is that I can pick up my coffee, but the bad news is that potting isn't possible as yet. It is "funny" how bursitis of the elbow, vs bursitis of the shoulder can affect different things. Glad that you managed to get over it, and I am looking forward to doing the same!

w Hutchinson said...

Oh no! I'm feeling even more badly now for not checking your blog more there a way to subscribe for notifications?! I was just visiting here today to tell you about a successful glaze test, so I'll jump to the high fire page for that. Meanwhile, best wishes and good luck for a well-measured recovery!

Peter said...

Hi Wendy,
Good to hear from you. I think there is a way of subscribing for notifications with blogs, but I think I probably need to set up something on the blog for people to do so. I will read up about it! Thanks for your comment on the high fire page.