Posted on

Wasps and Pipes

Here’s a little-known problem that can afflict clay pipe makers who leave their greenware outside.

Mud dauber wasps may decide to make their nests inside the stems of unfired pipes.

My wheel is on a covered porch at the back of our house, and I have a shelving system that is basically open to the outdoors, though sheltered from rain and wind.  Ware gets put here to complete drying, and eventually moves into the kiln room when it’s ready to be fired.  But apparently wasps find the inside bore of a pipestem to be just the right size for a nest.

These simple little pipes stayed on the shelves for a week or two before going to the kiln.  Somehow I failed to notice that a wasp had built her nest in the stem of one of them.  I bisque-fired the piece, and still didn’t notice.  I glazed it, fired it, and photographed it, all without noticing that a nest had completely blocked it up.

When I finally did notice, I was astonished.  wasppipeb

Mud dauber wasps gather up clay from various sources and use it to build their nests.  When a colony of such wasps has built a large nest, you can actually fire it and turn it into a ceramic object, which makes an interesting conversation piece for the coffee table.

Had the wasp gotten her clay from my porcelain scraps, which are omnipresent in my studio, the blockage probably would have been irreparable.  But I took a piece of baling wire and forced it into the stem, clearing out much of the blockage.  But the pipe still wouldn’t draw.  A careful examination revealed that the wasp had built another nest at the bowl end of the stem.  Evidently she flew into the bowl and around the corner into the stem.  This blockage was sturdier than the first, and eventually I had to pound a deck screw into the nest through the carb hole in the side of the pipe.  That did the trick, and the pipe draws very well now.

I don’t know what if any special qualities a pipe that was intended to be the home of wasp babies might have, but it’s an interesting overlap between the natural world and the world of ceramic art.wasppipea


Posted on

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:


Posted on

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.

Posted on

Close-ups for glazes

Last night I spent a couple hours editing photographs for my Etsy shop.  I have a fairly elaborate set-up for photographing my work– there’s a light tent, and couple good lights, a gradient background and so on.  My digital camera is getting old but it still takes high resolution images.  Lately I’ve been trying to include a close-up shot of the glaze for each piece.  Because the camera’s resolution is so much higher than is needed for web applications like the shop, I can zoom right in and get images that can be pretty amazing. stripemugd  For example, this is a zoom of a mug I photographed  last night.  The mug was fluted by cutting a flute in every other slot around the mug.  Then I dipped the mug in a blue slip.  Once the slip stiffened and became part of the leather-hard piece, I cut the remaining flutes between the already-cut flutes.  This gave me a strong striped effect, with the glaze breaking green on the edges.  The crystalline effect that you can easily see here is one reason I like this glaze a lot.

Here’s a close-up of a hand-sized simpl2plainwaterde water pipe.  This was a fairly complex decorative effort.  I sprayed the leatherhard piece with a lavender slip, and then incised a pattern into the slip.  I glazed the bisque pipe with the white titania glaze above, then lightly sprayed the pipe with blue ash glaze and a saturated iron glaze.  I was happy with the way it came out, but in the zoom, I was even happier, because it revealed details that were not as spectacularly obvious as they were in the enlargement.

This small bowl was fluted, dipped in white titania glaze, and oversprayed with blue ash.  A pale, almost iridescent blue was visible in the close-up, where the glaze had flowed down the flutes and collected.  Again, the crystallization is much more obvious in the zoom.2smallbowlc




Sometime the enlargement even reveals interesting details about the texture of the glaze.  In this hand-sized water pipe, it’s surprisingly clear from the image that the glaze is a very smooth buttery matte, and in actual fact, the tactile quality of this piece is wonderfully satisfying.1plainwaterd

I’m enjoying this little touch of technology, and I think I can use it to improve the quality of my glazes.



Posted on

Why pipes?

For most of my life as a potter, I was a production potter, and that’s a situation where change almost has to be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.  A production potter mixes glaze by the big bucketful, he or she must value consistency in many things that non-production potters can vary at will– a consistently rewarding clay body is very important, a good and repeatable firing schedule, and so forth.  Change is sometimes an uninvited and often destructive enemy.  Forms evolve slowly and carefully, surface treatments must be reliable, and so on.  None of this is to disparage the creativity of production potters– all my favorite potters fall into the production category.  The best way to make great pots, in my opinion, is to make a lot of pots.

All that said, when I began my latest round of making, after several years away from clay, I decided to go in a wildly different direction, one that I had not explored for many years.1steampunkliza

When I was a young, invulnerable, and immortal potter, in the mid 70s, I became interested in clay pipes.  I made many of these pipes, and they helped pay the bills.  But time passed, and I gave hostages to fortune, in the form of a family, and I decided the risk was too great a risk to take.  I stopped making pipes.

2handaThe children are grown now, and I no longer have to worry about what would happen to them should bad things happen to me as a result of making politically incorrect objects.  So I’ve taken up pipemaking again, and I have to admit that I am enjoying it greatly.  One of the reasons for that enjoyment is that almost no one with first-class skills is making wheel-thrown pieces in this category, so I get to be a trail-blazer.  Even better, clay pipes have a history stretching back millenia, and yet there are so many forms to make, including many that I’ve never seen in any collection of ancient pipes.  My central gauge in assessing the worth of a pot is how intimately connected to the user it is– thus my love of mugs and bowls.  Pipes are also extremely intimate objects for those who use them.  When I began researching this market, I found that many users actually named their pipes, and referred to them by these names– something I found fascinating.whitebuffalo1

I’m not exclusively making pipes, because I enjoy making other things too much to not make them.  But this new category of forms is tremendously exciting to me, because almost every thing I make is something that has never been seen before– in a much less subtle way than the mugs and bowls I make (which I hope are different from the work of other potters too.)

For me, excitement translates directly into creativity.  These days I have trouble going to sleep, because I’m always thinking about new forms, new glazes, new decorative treatments, or how I’m going to explain my new works to everyone I know.