Clay Digging

I have always had an interest in utilizing local clay.  I didn’t think I would ever have the time or energy for it and that was when I was in my twenties!  Ha!  So now that I am in my forties, have kids, I’m in school, and run my own business…I find the time!  I am actually using my time in grad school to explore and experiment.  I live pretty close to Watershed for the Ceramic Arts and the folks there have been really great.  Tyler Gulden especially, he has shown me how they process the clay on their property.  Maine is loaded with clay.  If you’ve been here you may have noticed all the brick buildings…no coincidence!  Watershed is actually an old brick factory. 

I, however, live in Hallowell, Maine and do NOT live on an old brick making site.  Nearly everyone I know has clay in their yard, just ask the gardeners and construction crews.  They find it a nuisance. I have had lots of people bring me clay and ask if they can use it.  The answer is yes, but not without some work. I think it is amusing that my yard is without clay, but I go out and look for it.  One of the things I did was to go to the Geological Survey people and pick up some maps.  Yes, they have maps.  They charge a minimal amount, but it is very helpful.  The big issue with finding and digging clay is access.  I have dangled myself above streams holding on for dear life and taken clay out with a bucket and a rope, but that isn’t ideal.  It makes for a good story and if it’s your only choice, well-go for it! 

I found my clay source after looking at lots of options.  I also run a Pottery Studio, so sometimes people will come to me to see if I want clay.  Now that I’ve gone searching and looked at a few samples I have a better idea of what I am looking for.  Also, friend and fellow potter, Molly Saunders in Wayne, Maine has been using clay from her backyard for years.  She digs and processes the clay in a wet state as opposed to Watershed who processes it dry.  I think it is safer, albeit heavier, to process wet.  Dry clay can get in your lungs and do some serious damage if you don’t wear a really good mask whenever you work with it.    Molly showed me what she looks for when she is digging and that is the wet gloppy stuff that contractors hate.  It makes a certain schlocky noise when the backhoe hits it and she knows.  She also uses a backhoe-which she rents every ten years when she digs.  I haven’t gotten to the backhoe stage and you may not be either.  I go out with my special straight long shovel and just dig.  The thing that I learned from Molly was that you want as little organic materials-rocks, sticks, etc as possible so you need to find your clay clean and that usually means far below the surface 4-5 feet. Clay is layed out in veins so you need to find the clean vein and follow it.

It just so happens that the person I found-Harry, who has offered to let me dig clay on his land is also selling clay to the papermills.  This means that lots of clay has been exposed and you can see giant walls of it when they are in collecting.  I don’t dig in their site, I suppose I could, but I would have to haul my clay farther.  So Harry pointed out a small stream that was close to where I can park.  I can get in and out on foot with 300-400 lbs of clay at a time.  Since I run a clay studio I save all those bags that we generate by those “other” clays, my friends are all potters and they save bags for me too, so I recycle those sturdy clay bags and load up 20-25 lbs in each.  That way I can carry them and also have a good idea of how much I have.  I have to say, I love being outside and I love digging clay.  It’s been a year now since I’ve been digging in this site and I enjoy harvesting in August and September the most because  the road is dry, the bugs are gone, it’s cooler, and the clay isn’t as heavy with water, yet still wet.

2 comments

  1. I went looking through your site to make sure the email was correct and stumbled upon this description. Digging you own clay! This confirms your Wild and crazy woman” status in my mind! How about a youtube video sometime? Way too cool.

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