Saturday, November 17, 2007

Digging Clay

I don’t recall how it came up, something about drilling post holes for the new deck, but over the summer my parents mentioned that there was a lot of clay down behind their house. So, I went out and took a look at the clay. It looked like clay, it felt like clay… so, I decided to gather some clay.

As a ceramic artist, now, I know that I can buy earthenware clay, ready to throw, in 25 pound bags for ten dollars each. So, what possessed me to spend the better part of three days this summer digging my own? I am not sure.

It had rained recently, and there were large cracked plates of dried clay all over the ground. This clay was clean and fine textured, with very little contamination, so I decided that the first priority was to gather that. I got a ten gallon paint bucket, and braved going into the barn I never go in to find some window screen.

So, I gathered these tectonic plates of clay and ran them through the screen. They produced a very satisfying fine dry clay. Of course, they probably produced less than a pound of dry clay.

So, it was on to digging clay. The most likely spot seemed to be a big hole where an old tree had fallen. There was lots of clay, and it was easy to dig. So, my plan was to spread it out on a board, let it dry in the sun, then run it through the screen.

That was a no-go. When the clay dried, it set up like bricks, There was no way I was going to be able to screen this stuff.

So, I picked out the most obvious of the rocks and sticks, and started loading the clay into another couple of 10 gallon buckets, which I filled with water. As the clay (and rocks, and acorn caps) soaked in the water, they started coming apart into the component parts. Most of the organic matter floated to the top, though some stayed trapped within the clay. As each bucket soaked, I periodically poured the contents of a bucket though a screen into a new bucket. The dissolved clay and water went straight through the screen leaving the rocks and sticks on top of the screen. I discarded all organic matter, and any rocks that didn’t still have clay stuck to them, then tossed the rest of the clay covered pebbles back into the bucket to continue soaking. This is what I did every couple of hours for about two days. A ten gallon bucket full of clay, rocks and water, by the way, is about at the outer edge of my lifting strength.

When I was finally left with a couple of buckets of thick, silty water, and a couple of buckets of mostly clean rocks, well, I wasn’t really sure what to do. I knew the clay would settle out from the water, but I also knew that could take a while. I sat the buckets in the sun, and periodically scooped the clean water off the top. It was starting to look like I was not going to be home long enough for this process to complete.

My dad suggested sieving the clay through a couple of layers of old sheet. I wasn’t sure this would work at first, but I got an old sheet (70s orange and brown stripes) and a couple of bungee cords, and fastened them over the top of some more buckets. I poured the clay and water, slowly into these sieves. It worked. The clay stayed put, and the water went on through the sheet. Unfortunately, the water went though the sheet a few drips at a time, not all at once, so this process took well more than a day. Once the water had mostly drained through the clay, and I had, at last, very runny mud, rather than very silty water, I spread the sheets with the clay out to continue to dry.

Of course, we were in town when the rain started, and I knew my clay was still sitting outside, and if it was raining out there too, my three days of work would get washed away. We got back to my parents house just as the rain was starting, and my dad pulled some tarps out of his truck, or somewhere, and covered up the boards where my clay was drying, and helped me get the finished buckets of clay into my trunk. I thought this was incredibly sweet of him, since by all accounts the whole clay digging experience was a pretty silly thing to be doing at all.

So, by the time I had to leave my parents house to come back to Dallas, I had probably 40 to 50 pounds of clay. It has been continuing to dry and season, but I have now made one small flower pot, just to test how the clay would fire. It seems to be a pretty sturdy low fire earthenware. I would be interested to see if it can be fired any hotter, but I am reluctant to try it in my kiln. It is fairly sticky, but extremely plastic. It is very orange.

Overall, I’d say I this clay was about three to four times as expensive (in labor costs) as just going down to Trinity and buying clay by the bag, but it was kind of fun, and it is interesting to say that I am using hand dug, local clay.