USING LOCAL CLAY

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For classes at Hallowell Clay Works we use commercial clay. Malley uses local clay for her artistic and sculptural work.

*I’ll be updating these pages soon as many of you are interested in a How-to
My quick and simple first tips
1. Know the purpose of your project- You will have different needs
ie. throwing, building and firing pottery? Making sculpture or building a brick oven? making bricks? pavers? beauty masks?
Clay is abundant in Maine- Geological Survey has maps!
Locate clay- streams, rivers, lakes -Ask a contractor or a gardener they always know!
You need a shovel and some buckets/heavy duty bags
Find an accessible safe source close to you
Clay is heavy especially when wet, also slippery be careful
*****There are ecological impacts about disturbing clay in waterways so be mindful and don’t cloud the water, rivers, streams********
This is the story of how I came to it….
Malley digging clay in Livermore Falls

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.  He also sells clay to private contractors.  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.

PROCESSING THE CLAY FOR THROWING

cordjia Harryclay 013

My Bailey Pug Mill Mixer

So once I’ve been out and gathered all the bags I can carry, I bring it all back to my garage.  I made a big purchase of a Bailey Pug Mill Mixer last year (2009)  I had some other options but decided that if I was going to spend some money and have a giant piece of equipment I wanted the biggest, strongest, easiest to maintain and use, piece of machinery I could get.   This is what I could afford, it fit in my garage, and they delivered it to my door.  I really love it.

I empty a bag into the hopper, add OM#4 ball clay, Hawthorne fire clay, bentonite, and grog and mix it.  I decided to follow Watersheds recipe, roughly.  I do not add Barium Carbonate.  It is quite toxic and I’m not worried about scumming as of yet.  I always wear a really good ventilator mask so I’m not breathing in dry particles.  I may need to add water depending on how wet or dry the Maine clay is.    Mixing takes about 20 minutes.  I’m very careful to look for sticks, rocks, etc.  I don’t want these in my batch they can clog my screens and chip blades etc. also are a pain to come across in when you are throwing the clay…not to mention can explode if they make it to the kiln.

After the clay has mixed, it goes through a screen into the pug mill tube and is compressed into a solid cylinder.  It is de-aired so that no air bubbles are present and I don’t need to spend hours wedging and comes out in a long skinny tube.  I slice it off at 8 inch increments and stack it in a pile until I have enough to bag up.  I re-use the same bags if they are clean enough.  It takes about 30 minutes to process about 25 pounds of clay.  I usually do a few batches at a time.  I don’t think I could stand there all day.  I work pretty hard for this clay and have had to rethink the size of my art work with regards to that.   I will probably become more efficient with time, but for now it is so precious.  I think of it as sacred.  I also wonder if I will ever want to make it easier on myself and use a backhoe.   Maybe. (I don’t appear to be getting any younger…) Which is why I don’t sell my clay.

See Watershed if you are interesting in purchasing Maine Clay for use in the studio www.watershedceramics.org

4 comments

  1. Hi Malley, This is my first time on facebook so I hope I am doing it right. I read some of the stuff about digging for clay and all that. Your Mom told us about your “digs” when she visited. I really admire your gumption of going out and getting down and dirty to gather your material. How did you get interested in this hobby/business in the first place…? The closest I got was going to a ceramic class at the Senior Center. We would buy a greenwear piece, clean the seams and then paint it. I usually liked the undercoated pieces where you put three coats of paint, get it fired and then put a glaze on it. That was fun but I don’t go there anymore.

  2. Hello,
    My family and I are going to be transitioning to a more sustainable life within the next two years. I will be making our home from cob as well as many other daily objects and structures such as our cookware, furniture and farm animal enclosures. If you know anyone that would be kind enough to donate clay or kindly allow us to harvest some please let me know. I am trying to do all of our transitions for as little cash cost as possible. That being said, I am more than willing to barter or work for any goods needed.

  3. Hi there, i am not on Facebook so i ask you to please answer me via email. I am interested in Maine’s local clay offerings, however have no true knowledge of finding and then harvesting/processing it. I am intetested in its benefits as far as our self care/hygene as a family, but safely. We live in the Augusta area but have the desire and ability to travel within a 1-1/12 hour or so distance in order to fulfill our wish.

    Thank you,
    Jennifer

    jrjlpalmer@gmail.com

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