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.
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.
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, 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: