We often reminisce about the good old days but I would think of my life as a pioneer as one of extremely hard work and many difficulties. I love watching programs like Gold Rush or Alaskan recluses because that is how my life was as a youngster starting a family and building my own pottery.
We had a stint on the family farm for a couple of years, I think it was about three years. I decided to settle on the family farm because there was a vacant house and I had free studio space. But I did not have an electric potters wheel so I decided to build my first kick-wheel. I found a large heavy flywheel and filled it with extra concrete to give me the necessary weight to ensure continuous motion. The principal works like this. You kick the wheel with your foot and the weight ensures that the wheel keeps on spinning. You just need good bearings on the wheel. I engineered the wheel and it did work to a certain degree but it was not heavy enough and quickly ran out of speed. Well, it only meant more kicking, and boy did I kick! In the evenings I had a throbbing right leg. I wished I took a photo of this monstrosity.
But having a wheel is only one part of making pots. I needed clay and glazes and a kiln. I had a couple of books on kiln building and decided to build my first kiln. I then set off to Johannesburg to Vereeniging refractories. A round trip of 700 km to buy a set of bricks for my first kiln. I wish you could see this kiln. The inside was lined by firebrick that can withstand the extreme temperatures. Building the firebrick walls was not the problem. The issue was the roof. I used iron rods to make a frame that would keep the roof from collapsing. Now the kiln needed an insulating skin that would keep the heat inside so that the temperature could climb. I got unto making my own insulating bricks. And the only thing I could think of was to make my own insulating bricks. I mixed soil with straw because the more air you can trap in a brick the better your insulation would be. This was a lot of work. I made a wooden frame and I had to collect mud and straw and place these in my wooden frame. I then had to leave these bricks outside to become airdry. I then built the kiln with raw bricks and mud. It looked quite good.
But now I had to fire this kiln and I had no fuel for the kiln so I looked around and collected a pile of wood. At this time I had an inspection from my father who frowned upon the pile of wood. I just had to go ahead. I had my first pots I have made and they needed to be fired.
The next issue I faced was that I was 350 km from any glazes and so I decided to use a process called salt glazing to glaze my pots. But here is the next challenge. As the salt glaze your pots it also glazes your kiln furniture. So you need to dust all your furniture with aluminium powder to make sure that everything doesn’t stick together. So I have limited kiln furniture in a large space. To solve this you stack one pot on top of another but this takes some planning. The mouth of different pots needed to be the same size and the feet also need to be the same. So you can stack three pots on top of another. Pots are separated with small beads of wet clay coated in aluminium powder.
The big day arrived, I stacked the kiln and I was super proud of it. I then bricked up the mouth and sealed it with wet clay. We started firing the kiln and the temperature slowly started rising. After 24 hours I could not get the temperature to rise anymore, my wood was depleted and the roof caved in. I lost the first lot and had to redesign the roof. This time I used railroad tracks to hold up the roof. It was heavy but it worked.
My Dad said that firing the kiln with wood was not sustainable and I had to find another heat source. My older brother, Sas had some contacts and he sourced two large blowers for me at one of the mines. I then engineered two burners made from normal pipe fittings. They were very simple but they worked. I then decided to fire the kiln with waste oil that I had to collect from mechanics and other workshops. This was a very dirty job, but it was cheap and it just had to work.
The first time I fired up the kiln with my dirty oil was momentous, And it somehow worked. I started with diesel oil and then progressed to the dirty oil. After 36 hours I was bone tired but miraculously my kiln reached temperature. I then threw in bags of course salt to glaze the pots. The salt vaporizes and reacts with the silica in the pots to form a glassy beaded layer on the surface of the pots that makes it watertight. It was very experimental. Only one section of the kiln reached temperature and I had to go back to the drawing board.
My problems were many.
- The kiln was poorly insulated,
- The salt-glazed pots were boring and made them difficult to sell.
- The colors were limited and the kiln furniture would not last.
I then had to break down this kiln and build a new one. I decided to build a small one that will allow me to sort out the problems first. But this kiln was a total disaster. It only got hot in one section of the kiln. I was very stressed by this time. This was also the time my Dad asked me if I should not rather bake bread because I had nothing to show for all my hard work.
I then went back to the drawing board and decided to invest in a new and better kiln. More on this in the next blog.
So changing careers at 56 years old is a breeze. No kilns that needs to be built…………