Playing in the Mud

Playing in the Mud
July 5, 2014 Jchon
In Projects

I love making things. Had you guessed that yet? Especially when I make things from scratch. Especially especially when I make things from scratch from free, raw materials.

We recently had an in-ground storm shelter installed in our backyard, which is awesome. However, it left us with a mountain of displaced dirt piled up for us to somehow dispose.

Unfortunately, it’s not all nice top-soil or even just plain old dirt that we could use in the re-design of Dawn’s raised gardens. Nope. What we have is good old rock-hard Texas clay.

Well – when life gives you mud… make some clay! Pottery clay, that is! I mean, clay is clay is clay, right? Meh – mostly.

I’ve never “made” my own clay, but that’s never stopped me before! People have been making clay pottery for thousands of years without fancy kilns or measuring pH levels or adding other stabilizing chemicals.

I did a little research and found that about 80% of the ground around us contains clay. And most of that clay is usable for low-fire pottery as long as it’s cleaned and has a good elasticity. What is elasticity? I’m glad you asked! An elastic clay has the ability to be “worked” or shaped without cracking or breaking apart.

A test you can perform is simply taking a small amount of the clay from the ground (assuming this is wet clay), try rolling it into a smooth ball (this is test #1) and then rolling that ball into a “snake” (test #2). If you can then wrap that snake around your finger without it cracking or breaking (test #3), you have elastic clay and can likely use it for some good ol’, down-and-dirty, mud-slingin’ pottery.

So I watched a YouTube video or two and started on my own batch of backyard clay.

I started by selecting what I thought to be some good, solid clay from the piles in the backyard with as little debris as possible and let it sit in the wheel-barrow for a few days in the Texas heat to dry out.

I then enlisted my boys to help me break up the large, dried clumps of clay into smaller, dried clumps of clay. I mean, come on – what boy wouldn’t want to smash things with a hammer?!

Sifting the dry clay.

We sifted the broken clay into a bucket using a section of window screen mesh, leaving us with one batch of finely crushed, clean clay. The rest, we divided into other buckets in larger clumps and rocks, separating any rocks, grass or twigs as we went.

We then added water to the finely-sifted batch until it was covered by a couple inches and mixed it completely, being certain to scrape the bottom to make sure there was no dry clay left. The clay slurry will settle and we will keep it covered by an inch or so of water as needed indefinitely until we are ready to work it into usable clay.

We then did the same with the buckets containing the larger chunks and pieces of clay.

Mixing the slurry

An overnight soak was needed for the larger chunks batches before we mixed it into a slurry, breaking up the wet clumps completely. We then poured the clay slurry through the screen mesh again to remove any remaining rocks and debris. A little more water was added to all the batches before setting them aside to sit and settle as we did with the pre-sifted batch.

Letting the clay settle

The clay slurry (pretty much clay slip) needs to sit for anywhere from a day to several months (there are advantages to each that I can go into later). The clay will settle as it sits and water will evaporate, so again, we make sure to top off the water every now and then to keep an inch or so over the clay until we are ready for the next and final steps.

Once we are ready to finish up our clay, we need to get all that water out. A lot of it can (and should) be siphoned out as the clay settles but there will still be a lot that needs to evaporate.

To hasten that process, we scoop/pour our [condensed] clay slurry out onto a surface that can help suck out some of that water, such as a concrete, drywall or wood (if choosing drywall, we have to make sure the outer paper doesn’t peel off and mix in with the clay).

As the water evaporates, the clay will becomes thicker. The edges of the clay will dry out faster than the center, so we use a scraping tool to fold the edges in on itself.

Depending on the water content of the clay, outside temperature and how much sun-exposure the clay has, it could take anywhere from 12 hours to several days to work your clay to its final form. As you can see, my clay was VERY wet when I started this portion of the process, so mine took several days and lots of scraping and working of the clay before I had something I could wedge and form without it sticking to my hands.

Using some towels or other (preferably cotton) cloth to cover the clay as it dries will help wick away some of the moisture as well as keep debris and bugs from getting into the clay.

Wedging the Clay

Once the clay is sufficiently dry and wedged, we can keep the clay for later use by wrapping it in an air-tight plastic bag and stored in a cool place.

And the best part is, I now have plenty of awesome clay on-hand to either turn on the wheel or do some free-forming!

Have you checked out our “keeping with the-way-they’ve-been-doing-it-for-thousands-of-years theme” method of firing our backyard clay pieces?

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