Dishing the Dirt
by Dagonell the Juggler

1 large bucket 1 wedging board or
2 washtubs 1" x 4" x 48" board
2 old broomsticks 1" x 2" x 15" board
1 old window screen 12" x 12" x 1/2" plywood
2-3 2lb margarine containers 5lb pkg. plaster of paris
2-3 old cookie sheets scrap cardboard
mortar and pestle scrap plywood
old rags wax paper

Tools (for building wedging board):
yardstick, pencil, hand saw, hammer, wire nails, piano wire, pliers, wire cutters, small eye-screws, paint stirrer

Like most Buffalo gardeners, my garden consists of roughly a foot of topsoil atop a bed of clay. Like most SCAdians, I like to experiment. I decided to try making usable clay out of the subsoil. I started with one bucketful of clay, right from the ground.

Dump the bucketful of clay into a washtub. Add two buckets of water. Stir with an old broomstick. Whenever one of my neighbors throws away a broom or a mop, I break off the head and keep the broomstick for tomato plant risers, so I have a supply of broomsticks on hand. If you don't, improvise. Stir the mud until the clay, dirt and water become a thick liquid. It should take about an hour. For those of you who are theatrically inclined, I recommend Macbeth by William Shakespeare; Act IV, Scene 1. "Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. . ." For those of you with small children, do not ask them to work the mud for you, they will only suspect a trap. Order them to leave your mud alone and then go into the house to make lunch. Do not come out for at least an hour.

The thick muddy liquid is called slip, equal parts water and clay mixed to a creamy consistency. Place the window screen over the other washtub. Use a margarine tub to ladle the slip. Pour it through the screen into the other tub. The screen will filter out any roots, stones or small debris. Do not try to pick up the washtub and pour everything through the screen at once. For one reason, the washtub full of liquid is too heavy to handle easily, as the slip sloshes around, the center of gravity of the washtub will change drastically. For another reason, the slip is too thick to pour quickly through the screen, you have to wait a moment for each margarine tubful to drip down before pouring the next tubful. The slip should now have the color and consistency of a chocolate milkshake.

Let the washtub of slip stand overnight. The slip will settle out into layers of floating scum, dirty water and watery clay. Since the clay is heavier than the dirt, it will have settled out of the liquid first. The dirt, being lighter, will settle out on top of the clay. Those heavy, shiny particles that settle out before the clay are called gold. Call me, I'll show you how to dispose of them. Ladle the scum and dirty water out with the margarine tub. Do not try to pick up the wash tub and pour off the water. The clay and water will mix and you will have to wait for them to settle out again. The remaining dirt on top of the clay can simply be scraped off with scrap piece of light cardboard. The watery clay is called slurry, a thick slip of paste-like consistency.

While you are waiting for the slurry to settle out, build your wedging board. Wedging is the process of conditioning the clay, making it smooth and elastic by kneading out all the air bubbles. Cut two pieces of 1" x 4 " to 12" lengths. Cut two more pieces to 12" less twice the width of the board. Since a 1" x 4" is actually 3/4" x 3 1/2", this should be about 10 1/2" long. Nail them together to form a square. Fasten the plywood to the bottom to form a shallow box. Attach the 1" x 2" vertically to the center of one side of the box on the outside. Insert an eye-screw into the top of the vertical. Insert a second eye-screw into the center of the top of the opposite wall of the box. Mix the plaster of paris, following the directions on the package. Fill the box with wet plaster and level it off to the top of the box with the paint stirrer. When the plaster is dry, string the piano wire between the eye-screws and tighten. Your wedging box is now ready.

I picked up several second-hand cookie sheets at flea market, the kind that have a raised edge all the way around. Ladle the slurry onto the cookie sheets and leave them out in the sun. When the slurry has dried to dry clay, dump the pieces into the bucket and ladle the next batch of slurry into the cookie sheets. Repeat until all of the clay has been dried out. The process will take several days. If the weatherman predicts rain, move the cookie sheets to the attic. It's not as efficient as direct sunlight, but it will do.

In theory, you should be able to remove the clay from the cookie sheets while it still contains enough moisture to be workable. In practice, it will dry out completely. It's not a problem. While the second batch of slurry is drying, grind up the pieces of clay from the first batch with a mortar and pestle. I live near the railroad tracks, I simply used the bottom of the bucket against the sidewalk and an old railroad spike. Grind the clay into grit-sized particles. When it's completely ground up, add just a few drops of water at a time and mix the water and clay together until it has the consistency of Play-doh(tm). If you add too much water, work it with your bare hands and your skin will absorb the excess moisture.

Dump a handful of clay onto the wedging box and work it much the way you would bread dough. You are making the clay more elastic by working out any air bubbles in the clay. You may notice that the clay is also drying out and becoming firmer. The plaster of paris is absorbing the excess moisture from the clay. If the clay becomes too dry, moisten it with a few drops of water. The piano wire is used to cut the clay like a knife when the piece gets too large and firm to work easily. When the clay has reached the desired consistency, you can store it until you need it. Medieval artisans kept their clay in stone crocks with a little water in the bottom and the clay sitting on large rocks to keep it out of the water. If you don't have any spare stone crocks handy, a margarine tub with an airtight lid works just as well. Wrap the clay in a piece of damp burlap to keep it elastic. If you don't have burlap, use a cloth that doesn't shed lint.

There are several different ways to shape clay. Using a pottery wheel is called throwing clay. Pottery wheels can be seen in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Slab pottery consists of rolling out the clay to a uniform thickness, cutting pieces from the slab like cookies and then assembling the pieces. Pinch pottery is simply working the clay with your hands into the desired shape. I used the slab and coil method for making a bowl.

Clay is best worked on either a marble slab or sheet of linoleum. After my wife chased me off the kitchen counters, I found that a scrap sheet of plywood covered in wax paper works almost as well. Roll out the clay in to a slab about half an inch thick. A one-foot section of broomstick makes an excellent rolling pin. Invert a margarine tub on the slab and cut around it. This is the template for the base of the bowl. Smooth out any rough edges with wet fingers and set aside.

Roll out coils of clay to a uniform diameter of about half an inch. Place the first coil around the circumference of the slab, and successive coils on top of the first. Where each coil meets itself, cut both ends at an angle and weld them together with wet fingers. Do not place joined ends of coils one above the other, this will create a weak spot. Rotate them around the bowl. Roll out thin coils of clay about the diameter of a toothpick. Fit these coils into place in the grooves between the large coils. With small bits of moist clay and wet fingers, smooth out the coils into a flat surface. If you wish to make impressions in the surface of the clay, now is the time to do so. A variety of sculpting tools is available in any craft store, however things like screwdrivers, car keys, toothpicks, and odd bits of bric-a-brac can be pressed into the clay to make interesting impressions. When you are finished forming your piece, let it dry completely in the sun for at least a week. Again, if the weatherman predicts rain, move it to the attic.

If you wish the piece to be used with food or liquids, it must be fired. Kilns are generally available at ceramic stores and trade schools for a moderate fee. When your piece is finished, you may paint it. Again, if the piece is to be used for holding food, make sure the paint is lead-free and suitable for use on eating utensils.

The design on the outside of my bowl is the field of my arms; barry wavy vert and argent, a chief wavy Or. The design on the inside of my bowl is my personal badge; a slipper vair. When the story Cinderella was translated from French into English, the translator mistook the word vair, meaning "fur", for verre, which means "glass". Cinderella's slippers have been made of glass ever since. As a bard, a herald and an incorrigible punster, I couldn't resist registering the badge.


Pottery Merit Badge, edited and published by The Boy Scouts of America, 1969

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