This week I have been mostly making…Glazes   Leave a comment

At last the pottery is fully functioning. It seems to have taken forever to get to this point but I have now done my first successful glaze firing. The sources of delay have been many and varied. There have been the usual decorating and DIY jobs needed when you move to a new home. The very large garden was a wilderness and is now reasonably tamed and producing bumper harvests. We’ve had a continuous stream of visitors all keen to see what we have let ourselves in for. Several of them stayed for long weekends and some friends from New Zealand stayed for a fortnight. Various major remedial works have been completed such as re-roofing the summer house and moving the gas tank (and as a result also the garden tool shed). Major building work has also commenced and is still ongoing. Getting this started has involved much deliberation on how we wanted the internal layout of one end of the house to be changed followed by the process of getting planning permission, choosing a builder, specifying internal fittings, sanitary ware, kitchen units, floorings, wall decoration etc. etc. All in all it has been difficult to spend any consistent amount of time in the pottery.

pottery waterworks

Outside the clay room. The water comes from the roof and is stored in the green water butt. To the right are shelves for drying pots prior to bisque firing and a table on which glazes are made. In the far left foreground is the kiln lid. Behind this are shelves for kiln props and above these the energy regulator which caused the first glaze firing to go wrong. This is attached to the firing controller (the box with its red instruction manual tucked behind it).

Nevertheless, although intermittent, progress has been made on the potting front. After finishing off the clay room I started to throw pots. It was a bit of a shock to find that although some aspects of throwing, such as centring, hadn’t faded away with lack of practice, other skills such as ‘just knowing’ how close to the wheel head  I had pushed my thumbs down when opening out a ball of clay had deserted me. The other vital skill of ‘just knowing’ how thick the wall of a pot is when you are pulling it up had also faded. The first few throwing sessions produced pots with excessively thick or thin bases and with similarly unsatisfactory wall thicknesses. Initially the walls were too thin and the pots would collapse half an hour after they were removed from the wheel. I then had a phase of leaving the walls too thick. I resolved to make sure that every session in the pottery would begin with an hour of throwing practice. Fortunately, after just a few weeks, these skills returned but all the practice did leave me with many tubs of clay for recycling and very few pots which would be consigned to the kiln. Just as well really because the drying/glazing/kiln room was still under construction.

When in the pottery and  not practicing throwing I lined the remainder of the garage walls with battens and insulated plasterboard, shelves and tables. On the outside wall of the clay room I installed a worktop and second hand sink and on the worktop, against the outside wall I built a stand for a water butt. The water butt  is filled by run-off from the roof and with a capacity of 160 litres provides all the cold water the pottery needs. A hosepipe attached to the water butt tap allows me to direct the flow into the sink or to a glaze bucket sitting on the floor.  If I want hot water I just boil a kettle. Underneath the sink is a big water tank where clay and glaze ingredients can settle out before the water  goes down the drain. Finally I wired up the kiln, put it in its final position and put packing under some of the legs to make it level and stable. I then packed it rather loosely with the unfired pots I hadn’t felt needed throwing in the recycling bin, and did a biscuit (bisque) firing to 1000C. All went well. I had the essentials for pot making.

Before I left Cambridge I allowed all my glazes to dry out completely – for ease of transport – so the next job was to reconstitute these with water, which also includes the time consuming job of sieving them. Many an hour was spent stirring the glaze slop to push it through the sieve a pastime which still continues.


The glazing and decorating area. An old kickwheel I use as a banding wheel, a low table to support the buckets of glaze at a convenient height and shelves holding bisque fired pots awaiting decoration.

As the stream of visitors slowed down and my throwing skills returned I got more time for making and had another kiln-full ready to bisque, However there was one last hiccough to delay full scale production. When I did my last glaze firing in Cambridge it was clear that the kiln elements were worn out. The temperature struggled up to 1240C and took 15 minutes longer than it should have done. One or two of the pots looked a bit  ‘overcooked’. Time for a new set of elements. Replacing the elements themselves is not too bad a job but the kiln’s instruction book said that after changing the elements the kiln should be fired once to 750C while empty and twice to 1000C with pots in before a glaze firing is attempted. Over a period of 3 weeks and with a lot of frantic throwing activity I duly did as instructed and finally was ready to produce a finished, glazed pot.

I glazed enough pots to fill the kiln, carefully selecting those pots which I hadn’t put too much effort into or which, after the biscuit firing were clearly destined to be seconds – bits of lime popping in the clay, warped, non-circular things etc. A first firing with new elements is prone to mishaps!  Caution, pessimism, realism, experience, I don’t know but BINGO! the mishap occurred. The kiln has a single cooker style energy regulator which limits the amount of power going to the kiln. It is also fitted with a programmable firing controller which switches power on and off to achieve the desired firing rate. This makes the energy regulator redundant – it is always left set to full power and consequently I have never needed to consider it since the first day I got the kiln. Unfortunately, at some point in the months since I left Cambridge the setting of the energy regulator got changed and I didn’t notice. Even when the firing controller was trying to give continuous full power the kiln was only getting about 80% power. This didn’t matter below 1000C as the kiln achieves this quite easily, which is why I didn’t notice the problem sooner. However as the temperature got above 1100C the rate of temperature increase fell below what the firing controller was trying to achieve. It was as if I hadn’t changed the elements and despite  frantic efforts to diagnose the problem I didn’t spot the incorrectly set regulator. Eventually the kiln reached the desired temperature but 50% of the pots went straight to the bin and the rest are substandard.

I eventually spotted the regulator problem a couple of days later while cleaning plaster dust off it and was actually relieved to know that the cause of the problem was nothing more serious. The next glaze firing was fine.

I now need to find outlets for my pottery and make a start with preparations for housing, building and fuelling the wood kiln.

Posted October 27, 2013 by damiankeefe in Uncategorized

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This week I have been mostly making …. Great strides towards “The dream”


Inside the clay room during construction. Stud work with insulated plasterboard fixed to the outside and metal boxes for electrical sockets.

Actually its been a whole month of progress. When we first looked at our new house one of the ground floor rooms was used as a bedroom. The walls were entirely lined with bookshelves and books  (our previous owner was a professor of medieval literature)  and the floor was covered with bed, furniture or rugs. It looked snug and cosy. When we moved in, and the room was bare, it looked like a cowshed – which is in fact what it used to be. The walls were bare, crumbling stone masonry, the floor sloped from front to back by several inches (probably something to do with bovine sanitation!) and there were electrical cables, not connected to anything, poking out of the walls. When we got the quotes for updating this room to modern habitable standards it appeared to consume the budget we had set aside for my pottery studio in the garden. This is when we hatched plan B. We decided to go ahead with plan B about 4 weeks ago.

Plan B was to convert the double garage into a pottery workshop.  I spent several evenings thinking about how best to use the space. I decided on dividing the area into two spaces. There would be the warm(ish – at the very least frost free) ‘clay room’ and the not so warm drying,  glazing and kiln room. The clay room is for storing, recycling and making with clay. The wheel will be there, lots of under bench storage space for clay, a kneading and wedging area, a bench for making slab pots etc., and lots of shelving for newly thrown or assembled pots which need further work before being consigned to the kiln. I decided to make an insulated box of a room in the back corner of the garage. All the walls and the roof would be made from thermally insulating materials.


The clay room from outside showing the door and the corrugated, original roof of the garage. The clay room has its own ceiling/roof within the garage and is an almost airtight box.

I duly ordered timber for stud work walls, insulated plaster board, and plywood. I already had cable and electrical fittings in my “useful box” and I dashed to the nearest DIY store for lots of screws etc. Several weeks earlier one of our local DIY stores had a closing down sale and I picked up a load of  formica covered, chipboard shelving.  I persuaded our builder, who is going to turn the cowshed into something habitable, to come straight away and fit the external insulation for the cowshed to the party wall between the cowshed and the garage ie to turn the crumbling stonework of the garage wall into a nice dry-lined, plumb vertical, plasterboard wall. I then cracked on with the  clay room. The stud work was done in 3 days. There was a two day delay waiting for the plasterboard and insulation  to be delivered and that took another 3 days to install. In the mean time I arranged for my neighbour’s nephew, an electrician, to run a beefy cable from the fuse box at the other end of the house to the garage to power my electric kiln.

After a day or two’s thought about the layout and ergonomics of the room I ‘set to’ putting in internal wall coverings, first fix electrical circuits – for sockets and lighting – and  work tops. Electrics always takes longer than I estimate, but its something you can’t be too careful with and in this case I was also actually remedying some dodgy wiring (chocolate block wrapped in gaffer tape)  that was already there. I was then interrupted by our carpenter for a few days as he removed the garage door and replaced it with western red cedar cladding, a pedestrian access door and a window. Another 2 days saw the electrics completed and another three days saw the majority of the shelving go up.

Its so good to know that within the next few days I will make some pots.

Is throwing like riding a bike? ie you never forget how. Its nine months since I threw a pot. Could be interesting.

Posted March 5, 2013 by damiankeefe in Uncategorized

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This week I have been mostly making….like an odd job man.

The Inglenook fireplace in our new house with its massive oak lintel and wood stove not to mention a pan of chicken stock to go in my dinner tonight.

Its just over 2 months since we moved house and the time has disappeared in a blur of DIY. When you move into a new house, unless it is newly built, there are usually a number of things you want to change. We knew we wanted to make some pretty major alterations and updates when we bought it and also knew there would be some maintenance jobs which needed doing, however when you take possession of an empty house you get a better chance to evaluate what might need to be done than you had when you were house hunting. I think our house hunting glasses must have been very, very strongly tinted with rose. A lot of things went unnoticed.  Everything I look at now needs some sort of attention. From the external paintwork which I estimate hasn’t been done for 15 years – think ‘rotten windowsills’ , ‘peeling weatherboard’ and ‘self destructing wattle and daub’ – to the kitchen which has practically no lighting – just two 40 watt, candle bulb, wall lights on the opposite side of the kitchen to the work surfaces – or the upstairs bedroom window in which the glass was put in without putty or mastic and lets a gale blow through the cracks.

Not only are there ‘remedial’ tasks to be addressed but our last, modern house and this new house have rather different basic facilities. The last house had lots of built in storage – wardrobes, bookcases/shelving, a larder, bathroom cupboards and a separate airing cupboard. The new place had just one small airing cupboard. Needless to say, putting up shelving has been a major theme of late not to mention buying bedroom furniture. Another difference is in the electrical wiring. This house has no ceiling lights and very few wall lights. Nearly all their lights were plug-in lamps, and the lighting circuits were especially tailored to support this. The switches by the door don’t control lights as such, they control special sockets into which you plug your lamps. These sockets have round pins rather than the square ones usually found on mains electrical appliances. So although we had quite a few lamps from our previous house they had the wrong sort of plugs and couldn’t be operated from the light switches by the doors. We hadn’t come across this sort of wiring before and I had never noticed round pin plugs for sale in DIY shops. Some frantic phoning around confirmed that most places don’t sell them, but we did manage to find some and I spent a merry day changing the plugs on all our lamps.

The iron stud bearing a letter B embedded in the fireplace lintel. The studs maximum dimension is about 1cm

Needless to say, not much progress towards the salt glaze dream, but its never far from my thoughts and this house has some wonderful features as well as its short term drawbacks. Above right is the fireplace and wood burning stove and embedded in the massive lintel above the stove is a metal stud bearing a capital letter B – possibly from a printing press (see left). Given that we are located in the village of Bishopstone this is probably not a coincidence, but its a feature I intend to take advantage of. An impression taken in clay and biscuit fired will make a stamp with which I can sign all the pots I make here. Poetic!

Posted November 21, 2012 by damiankeefe in Uncategorized

This week I have been mostly making…. tough decisions and hardcore

Its a while since I posted on here, largely because my life as a potter is pretty much on hold as we prepare to move house. Its three months since I threw anything on the wheel and one since I glazed anything. Its a frustrating time, only made bearable by the knowledge that in a couple of weeks I can start the process of becoming a wood firing salt glazer.

The concept here is that pots are containers for something precious. They should therefore be physically equipped to guard and protect. In this instance with rather organic looking weaponry inspired by plants or beetles.

One of the tasks I have been undertaking has been emotionally draining. For the first 20 years in our current house my potting activities were largely confined to weekends and holidays as my time was taken up with my full time job as a biologist, the family and the garden. The rate at which I had new ideas and new inspirations about what to make far exceeded my capacity to actually and physically realise their creation. Almost every making session I would be making something I hadn’t made before and almost every glazing session I would make a new glaze or two and try different combinations of glazes and decoration methods. Every firing was effectively a ‘test’ firing.  Many ideas never got made, although I still have notebooks with sketches and concepts and descriptions of the practical aspects of how things could be made. Many ideas did start to be made but for one reason or another didn’t get finished (see left). These part made pots tended to hang around on my shelves as reminders of the ‘concept’ which spawned them, and some of them have been hanging around for fully 20 years. Somehow I haven’t been able to convince myself  that the concept can be abandoned. However, now that everything we own must be put in boxes and moved, and there was a limit to how many firings I could do in the time available, I have had to ‘bite the bullet’ and get rid of stuff.

One of several boxes of broken biscuit ware which ended up at the recycling centre in the ‘hardcore’ skip

Throwing stuff away goes against the grain with me. I’m a bit of a hoarder at heart, although not obsessive…. I usually find that the things I keep do eventually come in useful. I also don’t like to abandon a job half done. I hate wasted effort and wasted resources which is what has made the time since we agreed our house sale and move so difficult. There have been many, many things in the house, garden and pottery that we needed to get rid of. Anything I consider to be of the slightest worth I have been trying to freecycle ( mostly with success. However half made pots are not much use to anyone so a lot of these have been turned into hardcore and taken to the dump. Deciding which ones to dump and which ones could go in the last firing or two was hard, but just had to be done.

This clear-out does have its plus side. These half made pots constituted a lot of jobs half done. Since the age of 18 when I left home and went to University there haven’t been enough hours in the day or days in the year to do everything I would like to do. Things get prioritised which means some things get delayed or abandoned. Each unfinished pot represented a job which needed finishing and constituted a small increment in the weight of expectation I felt I was shouldering. I am no longer carrying this weight and there is a great feeling of release. I have started ‘moving on’ and am looking forward to the next chapter in my life and my ceramics.

Posted August 16, 2012 by damiankeefe in Uncategorized

This week I have been mostly making….a momentous purchase

Interior view of The Stonehouse, Herefordshire

For at least 15 years I have wanted to make wood fired, salt (or soda) glazed pottery. That long ago I acquired the domain name and still own it. The position of our house and garden in relation to the rest of the village and the prevailing wind have made this type of firing impossible…95 days out of 100 the wind would blow the smoke and fumes from the kiln into our house, the neighbours and the rest of the village.  Jobs, family and schooling issues have mitigated against moving house. However last September our son departed for university and a few months prior to that I finished a 9 year contract which provided a handsome payout as a leaving present. Since then we have been looking for a new home.

There was a long ‘wish list’ for the new property.  My items on the list centred around the pottery facilities. My wife’s centred on the property having options for keeping animals and poultry, having a large vegetable patch and running a Bed and Breakfast establishment. The joint items on the list included being located somewhere with hills, valleys, rivers and woodland and lots of nice walks, the house being old and having lots of character but not too much work to do on it, and not in the middle of nowhere or right next to a busy road and having broadband and a mobile phone signal.

Our target area was vast. From Devon and Dorset in the South northwards through Somerset, Wiltshire,  Avon, 

The Stonehouse viewed from the rear garden

Gloucestershire and  Herefordshire to Shropshire in the North. We had holidayed or lived in all of these areas and considered, at least parts of all of them, suitable. The property we have found is in Herefordshire, close to the England /Wales border and about 7 miles from the county town (city) of Hereford.

As a pottery facility it has all the potential required but nothing immediately usable. There is enough land to build as big a studio as I can imagine wanting together with a kiln shed and a wood store where I can let large quantities of wood dry out for a couple of years. The prevailing wind blows away from the house and the rest of the village.  In the short term there is a huge garage/workshop and a summerhouse where my equipment and materials can be stored.  My short term task is to get a studio built and have suitable electricity, water and heating installed.

The other items on the wish list have been met and our current house is sold. So, barring problems with the buying/selling chain we will be moving house in August.

Saltglaze here I come!!!

This week I have been mostly making…. tracks

I have just had a week off from pottery and spent a few days walking in and around Dorset.

The weather was very kind to us. We could see the rain pouring down in the distance every day except today, and we were walking in sunshine or sitting in the pub. Today we walked in a very gentle drizzle through the New Forest. In some ways it was my favourite walk. The rain made all the the colours of the dead leaves, mosses,  grasses and tree trunks much more  intense, highlighting the more subtle beauty of  the woodlands.

I can recommend

Stourhead Garden

The South Dorset Coast









The New Forest








The artwork of Fiona Gordon-Abbey. We were given a sneak preview of her latest work, produced during her, fortunately victorious, battle with cancer. Some of the works clearly reflect aspects of her emotional state during an obviously stressful  episode of her life and are very powerful.

Posted April 14, 2012 by damiankeefe in Uncategorized

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This week I have been mostly making ….. bowls (again)

8cm x 18cm bowl freshly thrown

Spring is on its way. Only five weeks since the maximum temperature during the day was -1C and we had a 21C day last week. Having recently made a batch or two of my usual breakfast/desert bowls I felt it was time for something new. That’s what Spring does for you. I have never quite settled on a Soup or General Purpose bowl shape and as I was in a bowls groove I thought it was time to explore the possibilities. My desert bowls are small, quite delicate and have a turned foot, which requires them to be put on the wheel twice. This requires quite an expenditure of time and effort, which I don’t begrudge as I think the end result is worth it. I felt the Soup Bowl should be larger, more robust and  more stable which meant I should probably dispense with a turned foot.

I started with Simon Leach’s GP bowl, clay weight (450g) and dimensions (15cm x 8cm). They turned out to be quite sturdy little fellas, considerably smaller than I had in mind  and a little more heavily potted ( ie thicker walls) than suits my taste. Also, the rolled rim just isn’t me. They all went in the clay reclaim bucket. I increased the diameter to 16cm, dispensed with the rolled rim and put a slight change of gradient in the wall. When I threw them I was happy with their shape, but when I came to look at them the next day I felt they were too narrow in relation to their height. They were also a bit on the small and sturdy side. I increased the diameter to 17cm. Again, when I threw them I was happy with their shape, but when I came to look at them the next day I felt they were too narrow in relation to their height. The clay recycling bin was filling up rapidly. Was it just me and my perceptions or were these bowls changing shape overnight?. Every potter knows that thrown items shrink as they dry out, but it seemed as if my bowls were changing proportions as they dried out. This is something I haven’t  considered, noticed or heard of before. So I made a couple of 18 x 8cm bowls and measured them very carefully just after throwing and when dried out and took some photos.

The same bowl when almost completely dry

Sure enough they were changing proportions as they dried out. The diameter decreased by 1.6cm (= 100 x 1.6/18)  ie.  8.9% whereas the height only decreased by .5cm (=100 * 0.5/8) ie. 6.25%. Its amazing how this slight change in proportions affected my liking for the shape, and if there is one principle I stick to its that I must only keep items whose form I am happy with. No matter what I do afterwards by way of decoration and glazing I won’t be happy with the final product. “You can’t polish a turd”.

I have yet to fire these bowls. They will shrink, that’s for sure, but will they change proportions again?  I don’t know. Developing a new product is always more involved than I expect it to be. Its one of the challenges in a potters life which keeps it interesting and, ultimately, rewarding when you finally overcome the problems.

Posted April 7, 2012 by damiankeefe in Uncategorized

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This week I have been mostly making …. sure.   Leave a comment

Just like peas in a pod

Quality Control Cat

All craft practitioners must apply their own standards of quality control. But its also important to seek outside references and advice. To me it has always seemed that cats have a certain degree of Zen-like serenity and wisdom, so one of my quality control references is Suzi. Suzi is the mother of 5 offspring, so knows about families. She is my final arbiter when it comes to the uniformity of products. She believes items of the same type should look like a family. To ensure that us small family, ‘weed-eaters’ understand, she suggests that we should adopt the view that things should be as alike as peas in a pod. Apparently, the Zen masters say “How can you have a favourite if all the options are identical?”. Having favourite things enriches our lives. I have a favourite bowl for soup, a favourite mug for redbush tea, a different favourite mug for liquorice tea and a still different favourite  mug for ordinary tea. I could go on, but you’ve no doubt got my drift by now. Here is a picture of Suzi doing a spot check to make sure my bowls are not too alike. Sufficiently similar in shape to stack properly in the cupboard, sufficiently different to be able to choose a favourite.

Posted March 23, 2012 by damiankeefe in Uncategorized

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This week I have been mostly making…..bowls

Bowls, or at least a bowl, was what got me interested in ceramics. I remember the day I bought it quite clearly. Prior to that I’d had no real interest in ceramics and at school had turned down the chance to do the pottery option in my art lessons. This bowl was the first ceramic item I bought because I thought it was beautiful. Any other pots I owned I had because I needed them and, being an impoverished biology student, had been scrounged from my parents or bought from jumble sales or from the hardware shop along the road from my flat. As long as they did their job that was fine.

"The first bowl"

The bowl that changed me came from Neal Street in Covent Garden (London). My latest girlfriend and I had been wandering around the back streets in the area,  which was much more down-market and bohemian than now, and discovered a shop which imported all manner of Oriental domestic artefacts. Today there are plenty of places which stock this type of thing but at the time, around 1980, it was a revelation.  We had never seen chopstick stands, steamers, sushi mats, woks and their attendant cooking utensils, ceramic spoons and chinese rice bowls, calligraphic scrolls and chinese brushes and ink stones. The prices were very low and we spent an age in there deciding what to get with our meagre funds. I was particularly struck by the elegant shapes of many of the ceramics, the bowls in particular. They were unlike anything Europe had to offer. I left with two bowls, one, blue and white, essentially hemispherical on quite a tall foot, which I thought would make a good cereal bowl and one like an inverted cone or parabola also on a distinct foot. It had a quiet green glaze with iron speckles and a design of a spray of grasses on one side, upside down!. (see left and right). I wasn’t sure what I would use it for but found it too attractive to leave behind. At the time, being almost totally ignorant of pottery and its manufacture, I thought it was hand made. It had strong ridges on the external surface and the grass design seemed very free. With hindsight and over 30 years of pottery making behind me its so obvious it was made in a factory but with features designed to make it look handmade. It was those features, together with its shape, which drew me to it. A year later I enrolled for a pottery evening class. Miraculously, it is still intact and I still have a certain amount of affection for it despite its duplicitous character.

Posted March 13, 2012 by damiankeefe in Uncategorized

This week I have been mostly making …. corrections.

Photographic setup in the corner of the spare bedroom

This website lark is not quite as straightforward as I thought it would be. Or should that read  “as I think it should be”. I seem to have spent an awful lot of time making minor modifications to get the pages to look as I want them. I’m not sure if its a limitation of WordPress, the ‘theme’ I’m using or just my knowledge, but to get the layout of the ‘Galleries’ page to look good I’ve had to seek the advice of a website expert, namely my better half, and get my hands dirty with raw HTML code. But mixing hand crafted code with the automatic formatting tendencies of WordPress has proved time consuming. Things you put into a page often get stripped out when it is saved. At last however I am happy with the look of the Galleries page and know what needs doing to add further galleries.

I’ve also spent a lot of time fiddling with photos. Although they look fine on the camera’s view screen, when transferred to my computer everything seems to have a pink tinge. At first I thought this was just poor colour reproduction on my laptop screen but looking at the photos in an editing utility clearly shows that the white of the background is not actually white. The pink tinge detracts fairly severely from the appearance of my chun glaze when used over red clay. In real life this has a nice bluish tinge, but this is lost in the as taken photos. I’ve therefore edited the colours on each photo. This is easy to do using the picnik tool in Google’s web gallery Picasa. You just place the cursor over an area on your photo that should be white and Hey Presto! it alters all the colours in the photo to what they should be. A bit time consuming, but most of the photos needed cropping, so I was editing them anyway. Clearly it would be better to get the right colours first time. Although I am illuminating with tungsten lights and have chosen the tungsten white balance setting on the camera its obviously not quite right. Time to investigate the mysteries of the custom white balance setting procedure!

Posted March 6, 2012 by damiankeefe in Uncategorized