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This post was written by Cindi Anderson, one of the founders of Big Ceramic Store.
Hindsight is always 20/20. Luckily, we have the ability to learn from our mistakes. Here are five things I wish I knew when I first got into pottery.
Get a good stool. I used to use an old office chair but the hydraulic system was not good so I was seldom at the right height for what I was working on. A good adjustable stool is worth its weight in gold.
Don't skimp on banding wheels. Glazing goes much faster, decorating is easier, and pieces are easier to handbuild when they are on a banding wheel. I particularly noticed the difference when I went to the raised style. Getting the piece off the table and more at eye level really helps. as do the concentric circles that many of them have. And yes, the more expensive, heavier banding wheels do work much better than the cheaper laminate ones. Their mass keeps them spinning while you glaze or decorate your piece. But for handbuilding I like the large diameter laminate style.
Make test tiles. I had gotten in the habit of making test "bowls". It does give you a really good picture of what the glaze will look like on a piece. The problem with that they take up a lot of space in the kiln, and the good ones walked away (usually given to people who admired them). The bad ones stuck around until I couldn't stand looking at them or needed the space, then they were thrown out. Not very helpful to have test bowls that aren't around! What I realized when I started making test tiles was not only that you could keep them around forever, but that they are extremely freeing. Test tiles can be squeezed into almost any kiln load. They are so fast to make that you begin to experiment much more. What if I layer this glaze over that? What would this look like really thick? What would this look like on red clay? Does this glaze look good on a textured piece? Does this glaze look better at Cone 5 or Cone 6? These are all questions your start asking yourself, and actually finding out the answers to, when you use test tiles. In another article, we talk about many different styles of test tiles people like to use. Find the one that suits you and gives you the information you want to know.
Keep a notebook! No matter how much you think you will remember how thick you put on a glaze, what your firing profile was, or even what glaze you used to begin with, you will forget! And scraps of paper get lost. So use a spiral notebook or a 3 ring binder. Write down everything you do, as you do it. I number my pieces so I can write down all the details of a particular piece. But what I have learned over time is that I never write enough. I always look back and there are things I wonder, things I wish I had written down. But I am getting better. I am writing down more and more details while I am making and glazing a piece. I am trying not to let a piece leave my studio until I have recorded the results. And in many cases I am taking a photo of the piece with a digital camera. These things are already paying off.
Use witness cones, even if you have an electronic controller. If your glazes are not picky about temperature, you can probably get away with not using witness cones in every firing. Or if you get lucky and things never go wrong. For example, if a glaze comes out weird and you have no witness cone in the kiln, it is almost impossible to know for sure whether it was fired to hot, too cool, etc. There are so many cases where I am glad I have used a witness cone. In fact, in the past I just put self- supporting cones inside the kiln so I could tell after the fact what happened. Did the kiln get to the right temperature? Was this shelf a little cool or hot? But now I am actually placing the cones so I can see them through the peep hole with my kiln glasses. And it is surprising how often my controller stops either a little cool or a little hot, depending on the firing profile I use and how the kiln is loaded. By watching it, I can stop the kiln early or let it run longer, as needed. It really is worth it to do this at least at few times with your kiln. Then you can decide if it is worth it for you to continue. OK, there are my 5 most recent realizations. They may seem obvious to you. Maybe you've always done what you're supposed to instead of cutting corners like me. Maybe you have a different set of advice. Send me yours, and I'll combine them all and publish a list. Then we'll all learn from each other.
Don't forget the Glaze Gallery.
We are looking for photos of pieces made with glazes that we carry! Just email us your digital photos along with description of how the piece was glazed and fired.