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Porcelain Screens

People have been making clay pipes for thousands of years.

But I don’t know if they’ve been making pipe screens out of clay for any length of time, because I’ve never seen any other screens like the ones I make.  I started making these many years ago, when I was still a young potter.  I saw that lots of people were using pipes with metal mesh screens, and that seemed pretty unhealthy to me.  Smoking isn’t the healthiest activity, of course, but why make it worse by inhaling dangerous metals?

Well, I thought, maybe the heat doesn’t vaporize the metal.  Then I noticed that shops were selling these metal screens in packets of 50.

“Why so many?” I asked.

“Because they burn up and have to be replaced frequently.”


I make these little porcelain screens by hand, pierce them with 5 holes, and fire them to very high temperatures, much higher than anyone is ever going to achieve in a pipe bowl.  They will never burn out, or release any metals or other substances during use.  High-fired porcelain is a remarkably inert substance– bottles made of similar clays are used to store extremely volatile and dangerous chemicals, because porcelain and stoneware are so non-reactive.

The screens can be cleaned by leaving them in a mild solvent for a day or two.  A little dish of vodka will do it.  All my pipes come with two screens,purpspirlbwlb so that while one is in use, the other can be cleaned.  With a little care, these screens should last a lifetime.  And using these safer screens might help make that lifetime a little longer.

By the way, this little bowl is available on my Etsy site:


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Troublesome kiln

I’m pretty annoyed with my little old Paragon test kiln.  A couple days ago a nearly new element burned out, from (I think) a bit of glaze that got on it.  Last night a bisque was interrupted when my breaker kept popping.  It’s an old breaker, so I’m hoping replacing it will solve the problem.  But my bisque didn’t get very hot, and cycled through the danger zone several times after I reset the breaker and tried to finish the firing.  A little depressing, as I had a couple nice teapots and a number of small effigy pipes in the firing.

In happier news, my last glaze firing turned out well.1skunka  Several big water pipes survived, including this gray-purple crow.  This little celadon skunk effigy pipe came through too, along with another just a bit bigger.purpcrowa

The crow has a luscious surface– click on the thumbnail to see larger versions of these pieces.

I really like the little skunk pipe.  When I was living in Las Vegas, a guy I knew had a skunk he’d rescued from a roadside zoo that was going out of business.  He was leaving town, and he somehow talked me into taking the skunk.  We named him Edmund Muskie, and he was a truly dreadful pet.  He would bite you quicker than a weasel, and of course skunks are just big fluffy weasels.   It took me years to find someone foolish enough to take Edmund Muskie off my hands.  He was a terrible pet, but for all that, he was very interesting.waterbuffb

The white water buffalo pleases me too.  This glaze has something of the surface quality of polished ivory and is quite lovely to the touch.  I threw the body of the buffalo and then turned it on its side.  The downstem and bowl were added on, and then I modeled the head.  Here’s a detail:waterbuffd


We’re getting ready to go up to New York to get the farm snugged in for winter.  I’ll be away from my wheel for a few weeks.  But I’ll try to post occasionally, anyway.

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Work I’ve done in Other Fields

It’s occurred to me that maybe folks would like to see some of the other art forms I’ve pursued over the years.  That might give some insight into the things I like about the pipes I’m making now.detailfromIVfaith

When I was a kid I took a scattershot approach to art– trying all manner of stuff, from painting to silversmithing.  But in my early 20s, I found clay, and that has been the constant in my life.  I’ve written elsewhere about my early struggles with the medium, which were seriously compromised by a complete lack of money.  My first kiln was wood-fired, and built of sandstone and mud.  My first wheel was home-made, from a truck rim filled with concrete and an iron pipe.  But surprisingly these early struggles did not discourage me.purple_slavery_by_slidercat-d5czpst

In my 30s, I returned for a while to a kind of 2-dimensional art– designing stained glass.  As a lifelong science fiction fan, I naturally gravitated toward that kind of imagery in my speculative pieces.  These windows garnered a fair amount of media attention, and got me into a number of very good shows, but as much as I liked having made them, the process of actually making them was not as much fun.  I say this even though my wife Nancy did the lion’s share of the work involved in constructing the windows. In addition, if I thought dragging pottery to shows around the country was tough, hauling large stained glass windows was even tougher.

the_wealthy_terran_courtesan_by_slidercat-d5eppqhThese windows had elaborate back stories, and in my early 40s, I decide to elaborate on them.  I started writing, and soon was selling just about everything I wrote, including much short fiction and three novels.  Here’s a link to a bibliography.  Some short fiction derived directly from the windows.  A window I called The Transpirene Addict was the direct inspiration for a novella called The Beauty Addict, which was a finalist for the Nebula.

the_transpirene_addict_by_slidercat-d5czo6wI’ve made other forays into flat art– postcard design is something I keep coming back to.

mermaidBut most of the artistic side roads I’ve gotten lost on were closely related to clay.  I made porcelain beads for a while, and I still have buckets of them laying around.  It’s the same with the porcelain cabinet knob business I ran for several years.

But I can honestly say that I’ve never had as enthusiastic a response to any of those as I’ve had with the pipes.  And I’m having a wonderful time making the pipes, and I’m sure it’s partly because of the reaction I’m getting.  It’s nice to be appreciated.


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Work in Progress– September 1, 2015

I had a bit of a merchandising setback last weekend.  Etsy suspended my site because I was selling water pipes and pipes with carburetors.  This, I learned, violated their Terms of Service.  I was surprised, because searching Etsy for water pipes yields hundreds of hits in dozens of stores.

But, Etsy doesn’t belong to me, so I have to abide by their rules.  I removed the offending items, and they were kind enough to re-activate the site.  Unfortunately, it appears that most of my visitors were coming to the store after searching for water pipes, so my traffic has taken a near-fatal hit.

pip2On the happier side, they will allow me to sell effigy pipes, as long as those pipes don’t violate their TOS.  Over the last few days I’ve been making pipes that do not have carbs.  Here’s a shelf of green pieces, drying out for the next firing.


There are several of these pipes that I like a lot.  Probably my favorites are a couple of skunk effigies, done in blue slip with the white stripes reserved.skunkpipe

These were made by forming the body and tail around dowels, letting them stiffen up a little, joining them, and then adding a thrown bowl.  They incorporate several elements that I really enjoy– especially the sinuous reserved stripes.  Because the body and tail are mostly solid, these little pipes have a very pleasant weight in the hand, despite their small size.

There are also several nice water pipes in this batch, started before the Etsy fiasco.  I made a crow, anpip1 abstract piece with swirling thorns, and a water buffalo.  One trouble with these big elaborate pipes is that they are vulnerable to a high rate of flaws in the processes of drying and firing.  They’re like teapots in that respect– not every teapot is going to survive, especially when made in porcelain, a material notorious for the difficulties it gives the potters who work in it.  It’s hard to get pieces with modeled-on or joined elements to dry out without cracking, and many times a crack will not be visible until after the glaze firing, because that is when the piece undergoes its greatest stresses.

Finally, since I’ve mentioned teapots, here are a couple I hope will survive.teapots  With any luck, they’ll appear on my Etsy shop, along with a few new carb-less pipes.



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How do the various pipes fit the hand?

I’ve always been a maker of functional pots.  It would no more occur to me to make purely sculptural ceramics than it would occur to me to jump out of a plane, with or without a parachute.  Sure, I could probably do it, but I’m just not interested.  At all.

That’s because I’ve always wanted to connect with the people who own my work.  I’m not one of those artists who’d be content to starve quietly in a garret, unconcerned with whether or not anyone sees or appreciates my work.  To be perfectly clear, I have starved in a garret, or something approaching a garret (which I’ve always thought of as some sort of creepy attic, maybe a place where Victorian dolls animated by evil spirits hang out) but I was never content.  I always wanted my work to be seen and appreciated.  I wanted my work to be used.

That’s one reason I’m enjoying the pipe making so much.  You can be pretty certain that the folks who buy my pipes will use them.  They aren’t likely to put these pipes in a display case or on a bric-a-brac shelf and let them gather dust.

That’s why it’s so important that these pipes be pleasant to hold.  I doubt I’ll ever make porcelain equivalents of the glass heady pipes that sprawl across table tops and can never be moved lest important pieces fall off.  I’m really only interested in pipes that can be held by a human being.  Partly that’s for pragmatic reasons– use, but it’s also because of one of the great advantages of porcelain pipes over pipes made from other materials.  Porcelain glazes (and other high-fire glazes) have uniquely interesting surface qualities, and an important element of those qualities is the way they feel.

So I pestered my lovely wife Nancy until she agreed to model several of my pipes, so you can see how they look in the human hand.


Nancy has small hands, and I got too close to the shot, so the bowl of this pipe isn’t as enormous as it appears here.  Another shot of the same pipe, photographed more competently:1sthandpipeb





Here’s one of my favorite recent pipes, an ash-glazed salamander.  Notice that it would really take two hands (if your hands are small) to use this pipe comfortably, because the carb hole is at the head of the newt.hand2 I’ve actually been making a new batch of carbless pipes this weekend, because Etsy does not permit pipes with carburetors or water pipes to be sold through their store, and they shut me down until I removed the offending items.  That’s okay… it just accelerated my efforts to get this blog turned into a place where I can sell my pipes.


But for a pipe that really needs two hands, take a look at one of my favorite effigy water pipes. hand3 The big turtle water pipe is nearing the edge of what is practical to hold and use, but this is an unavoidable drawback to big elaborate pipes.  I love to make them, because they require a degree of skill that’s not common, and like many artists, I’m a bit of a show-off.


hand4But it’s possible to make water pipes that do fit the hand beautifully.  My last example shows this quality wonderfully well, and even filled with water, this pipe is entirely comfortable to hold.