Clay is an incredible material. The process of working with this earthly substance brings up continual symbolic wisdom and endless teachings. From the act of throwing on the wheel, to the resilience of its surface and the temperatures it can withstand, its finished embodiment of functional a vessel to “hold”, to its circular nature of being able to transform from dried up excess bits and pieces back to an elastic workable piece of clay to begin the process of creation all over again. And so much more…
I wanted to share some insight into clay recycling in my studio to show you how I do it and *how* much clay gets recycled here. Most pieces heading out the door these days have a percentage of recycled clay in them. While incredibly regenerative of a process it is, it does take a lot of physical energy (muscle) and space. On its own, its not bad, but as a production potter with a TON of scraps and after working long days in the studio…it is the last thing my body feels able to do.
(scroll down if you want to skip over the jargon and head straight to the fun stuff)
About a year and a half ago, I invested in a clay recycler which has aided this process SO much. I am able to reclaim my clay scraps with little energy and time, which is key. Being a production potter (the *only* potter behind these pieces and business), before having this machine I simply did not have the time to do this. While I still saved all my scraps (every potter has this dilemma), after the end of a very long work day (both physically and mentally demanding) I just could not justify the energy to spend an extra few hours recycling clay by hand. After I became injured over a year ago, and began working in the studio with even more physical obstacles due to healing nerve pain- I knew the time came to upgrade my studio situation with a machine helper. This piece of equipment has a built in vacuum before it pugs out the clay, so there is no need to wedge it before throwing. Wedging is a process similar to kneading dough, that cannot be skipped over. From a bag of clay, each piece is weighed out and then wedged to insure there are no air bubbles. In addition to difficulty throwing if the bubble is too big, air pockets = potential trapping of moisture =chance of the piece blowing up in the kiln due to said moisture (pieces need to be bone dry before being fired for this exact reason). Anyways…to say this machine has helped me VASTLY to keep up with production in the way that I want the pieces to be made (by hand- each wheel thrown with their own character rather than other production methods like slip-casting or RAM press, etc. (google for examples)), is an understatement.
Someone wrote me a while ago asking if my clay was sustainable. They said that there was another clay company or potter (I can’t remember), who had on their website something about their clay being “regenerative clay”. To me, this is like when vegetables at the grocery store started putting a “gluten-free” label on them! I do not market my work/clay in this way because this is a characteristic of ALL clay. This is one of the many incredible elements of clay itself. This is something most potters do, and something potters all over have done since clay first started to be used. I am not taking credit for recycling my clay, because it is inherent to clay itself. It is not a flashy sustainability-marketing opportunity- but just one of the many wonderful things about clay itself.
There are a number of areas in production where clay gets recycled from:
- The slop from throwing, as well as the throwing water itself.
- Trimmings while adding refinement to the foot of a piece.
- Any pieces that I mess up while throwing or I don’t want to follow through the rest of the making process.
- The clay leftover on bats after I use a wire tool to lift pieces off.
- Excess clay from making mug handles.
- Any other pieces that get messed up before they go into the kiln (fired clay cannot be recycled, so I have a pretty good gauge as to what pieces are worth firing and which are better to reclaim while I still can).
The only scraps that do not go in is the water I use to clean the floor. Because…dog hair (and sand and dirt). This water sits until the sediment goes to the bottom. Then I pour off the clean water from the top to reuse for cleaning or throwing, and then dump the small amount of sediment outside in the garden/yard. Otherwise, I try to put as much as possible into the reclaim bucket. It all adds up!
I have a 5 gallon bucket in my studio that houses ALL of these sources of clay. Because of the throwing water being added, I am able to put in bone dry pieces, leather hard, or wet and it all equals out. Once it gets full, a new bucket begins to fill up again, and I let the full one sit for a few more days (or until I am ready) to get fully saturated and let some of the water evaporate (or scoop off to reuse). Depending on production timelines, it sits for a week or so. Currently, I have two full 5-gallon buckets awaiting to move on to the second phase of the process. I will get to them soon…but other work calls! I usually fill about one or two 5 gallon buckets a week. It adds up to being quite a great amount of clay that can be reused!
I then scoop the wet clay onto plaster bats in pancake shape to let air dry for a few days or until it has lost most of its moisture. I have a certain consistency I enjoy throwing with, so I wait until the clay is the way I like it. It doesn’t have to be exact, because I can always add drier clay or some very wet clay slop from one of the soaking buckets to soften it a bit if need be.
Then, I take the pancakes and cut them up to fit into the clay chamber on my pug mill! I usually will add in some fresh clay to be sure the elasticity is supreme (the more clay is recycled it can loose its elasticity, as with recycled clay it is often coming from excess pieces that do not have all the components of a fresh bag, if that makes sense).
The machine then mixes the clay up until its nice and smooth/uniform. I press the vacuum button for it to suck all the air out so there will be no air bubbles. When the pressure gauge is where it should be, then I stop mixing the clay and press pug…and then the machine pumps out the clay into cylinders ready to be thrown! The de-airing function is key, because it makes it so I don’t have the wedge the clay. It can go straight from the pug mill to be weighed/cut into pieces to put on the wheel.
There are countless to recycle clay. Over the 12 years I have been throwing, I have tried probably about 10 of them! But every studio is unique and every production schedule (and human!) is unique. This has been working seamlessly for me.
If you’re a potter and want to look into getting a pug mill, I couldn’t recommend Peter Pugger enough. They are extremely durable, USA made pieces of equipment. They definitely have the best reputation for pug mills. I had such a positive experience buying a reconditioned one from them and if you ever need any help with it, you can call them directly to talk to a pro who will walk you through troubleshooting. This one is a VPM-9 Power Wedger.