Mine and Work Your Own Clay

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Introduction: Mine and Work Your Own Clay

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You can do this! The clay is out there, just waiting to be harvested. For the throwing, you'll need access to a pottery studio. Check your local recreation center, senior center, or school, and see if you can use their equipment.

Materials needed include:

A clay source (look along a dirt road or pond)
Large glass jars
Pillow case
Canvas squares for wedging

For a thrown bowl, you'll also need
Pottery wheel
Low-fire clear glaze
Low-fire earth brown glaze

Step 1: Find a Vein

Clay is abundant, but some areas are richer than others. I happen to live in an area that was once known as Pottersville, and we have some really good veins. These samples came from two areas nearby; dirt roads are cut and graded, revealing high banks that clearly show the clay veins. If you're digging it, go deep. The better clay is usually way down there.

Using a small grappling hook or a pick axe or even a spoon, dig out the clay, avoiding as much of the surrounding sand and debris as you can. Collect it in plastic bags or buckets, and take it to the house.

Step 2: Saturate the Clay

Mix the clay with your hands to break up the clumps. A strainer can help you remove any rocks. Put the clay into jars and cover with water. I kept these two samples separate because the color was distinctly different, and I wanted to see if there was much difference. The clay will settle pretty soon. These samples were fairly clean, so there were only two layers--the water and the clay. Sometimes you'll see a third layer at the bottom. That will be sediment and rocks.

Step 3: Pour Off the Water

After the layers are distinct, carefully pour off the water. If you have three layers, slowly pour the clay layer into a pillow case to let it drain. Stop pouring when you get to the sediment level. Since my clay was fairly clean, I poured off the water layer and poured everything else into the pillow cases and squeezed out as much excess water as I could. Then I hung the pillow cases on the solar dryer and let them drip for about 24 hours.

Step 4: Prepare Your Clay

Remove the clay from the pillow cases. My first sample was drained enough to form into a roll, but the second one needed to air out. I spread it out on a piece of canvas and let it air dry for several hours. Now, this difference in the clays was a telltale sign that the first sample had too much sand in it. You'll see what that meant to the throwing process in a bit.

I got about two pounds of the Sandy clay and a pound and a half of the smooth.

Step 5: Get Into a Studio

Okay, I have two samples. One is sandy and one is smooth, but I'm going to try to throw both of them.

First, I need to wedge the clay. The difference between the two is becoming more and more obvious. If you throw or hand build, you know the feel of clay. I knew as soon as I started that the smooth clay body had potential, and that I'd probably lose the sandy one. I was right.

The wedged mound on the left is the sandy one; the one on the right is the one with purer clay.

The sandy sample threw like cookie dough.

The smooth sample was the easiest clay I've ever thrown. I thought it was a little too moist to hold its shape; fortunately, I was wrong about that.

Step 6: Fire It, Glaze It, and Fire It Again

Because this clay didn't come with instructions, I had no idea how it would fire. Some clays are low fire and some are high fire. If you fire a low fire clay at high fire temperatures, it will melt, and you don't want that. I didn't even know if this would survive the low fire bisque, so I made a couple of tiny pinch bowls, just to check. I set them inside a larger bowl in the bisque firing to protect any other pieces, in case they exploded. They both survived, but the sandy one is like old brick--very crumbly. I'll deal with that another day.

Okay, the bowl survived the bisque. I'm going to treat this clay as low fire for the time being. Maybe later I'll see if it will fire high, but not this time. Because I want to retain some of the natural look of this clay, I'm using clear glaze on the inside, with a rim of brown earth at the top and bottom. The band around the outside has been left unglazed. Now back into the kiln for a low-glaze firing.

The final result is now a little treasure, commemorating the earth that I call home!



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    Thanks for the link, Bigtoothcow! That looks doable. One question--I lay the wood directly on the pots? I'm thinking my greenware won't support the weight.

    Great instructable, for those people who don't have a potter's wheel never fear! coil pots were made long before the potters wheel was invented.
    you simply roll long snakes and wrap them around and building them to the shape you want. then using a smooth stick (a paddlepop icecream stick will do nicely) blend the long snakes together.... try really hard not to leave any pockets of air in the joints as they might explode in the heat.

    You can do what is called Raku firing which is a bit like building a long rocket stove to fire your pots in or you can fire in bonfire and the pots will still be functional though they may not last as long and they may be a bit more porous too.

    This porosity can be used to your advantage (e.g. If you need to keep something cool the evaporation from a porous pot can help keep the contents cooler, or water may be able to be filtered through a porous pot). Even if a cooking pot starts off porous, if you cook with the pot, enough of the fats and oils from the foods you cook will slowly seep into the fired clay and solve that problem for you, especially if you don't wash up with harsh detergents.

    The beauty of wood fired pots is the lovely colour variations that form where the wood or straw or charcoal was in contact or not with the pot during firing.

    Do you happen to have a suggestion on making a homemade kiln out of limited materials?

    I don't, although wood firing, raku, and anagama are all traditional firing methods that yield some breathtaking results. If you're near a college that has a 3-D art program, contact the faculty members there and see if you can observe a firing. Potters tend to be generous with their information; someone there might be able to give you some guidance.

    Try a good old fashioned fire.... make it hot and make it last a relatively long time.
    look up Raku firing as an example (the times i did it it was a bit like firing in the elbow of a rocket stove)

    Very Helpful!!! I live in Cottonwood, Ca in an ancient riverbed rich with clay. This is definitely going to help my aspirations to make my own clay firepit. Thank you very much!!


    Really nice instructable. Congratulations.