Thursday, March 16, 2017

Kiln update/Warning to potters

     Generally I try to focus my energies on positive experiences, which is why I posted, at length, about the excitement I felt about my new L&L kiln last year.  What ensued afterward was ugly and disheartening and I planned to write about it, but was so stressed at the time to be having issues in my busiest season, that I put it off.  But then, because I did not, and because I fell out of communication with my sister, she ordered the same horrible L&L kiln for her school and experienced the same difficulties.  SO... lest someone else be taken in by the slick ceramic element holders that made me swoon:


Kiln Sitter w/cone
     Before I purchased this kiln, I had a manual Skutt kiln, with an old fashioned kilnsitter that turned itself off by melting a cone.  I had to babysit it a lot.  First I had 3 1/2 hours on low with all the plugs out and the lid propped open, then I turned it up for an hour on medium, and then closed the lid and plugged all the holes but one and switched the kiln on to high.  Since I was always cramming to fulfill orders/deadlines, this often occurred in the middle of the night.
     I wanted a computer to take over.  The photographs of the L&L element holders in Ceramics Monthly were seductive.  Over the years, I replaced the elements in the old Skutt and my aunt's Olympic kilns multiple times, and every time little chunks of the fragile kiln brick chipped off.  I even had to replace the bricks themselves a few times (a hair-raising gamble that puts even more bricks in harms way!).  So the ceramic holders looked like a perfect solution.  And they made the controls so simple (they said) that even an elementary school teacher could run them (their words, not mine.. and not true anyway).
      So I ordered it, online, happy with a 5-year warranty, and set it up in my studio.  However I soon noticed that it was not firing to temperature.  The glaze was not vitrifying, the witness cones (one below expected cone temp, one at, and one above) I put in there to test it, were not bending.   When I contacted the company, I was given phone access to a technician in Oregon.  One of his first comments, when he learned it was my first computerized kiln, was, “like [his] car mechanic always says, ‘It’s the nut behind the wheel that’s the problem.'"  He walked me through some steps, but because the control panel was so "simplified", I could not simply extend the hold time, or adjust what temperature it considered cone 04 or 5 to be.  It would only display, momentarily, the temperature it was currently at.  So I stood next to the kiln and watched it turn itself off BEFORE it reached proper cone temperature.

Unmelted cones in LnL kiln
    The way that cone gauges work is they melt at a range of temps.  For example, bisque firing is generally cone 04, or a 1945-1971o range.  Cone 5 (glaze) is 2167-2205o range.  But the L&L kiln consistently turned itself off at below temp: 1921o for cone 04 and 2123o for cone 5 and with the recommended VentSure system sucking the heat out, there was no way any part of the kiln reached bisque or glaze temperature.
    So I called L&L again.  They sent me a new control card.  Simple though it was, I was unimpressed that, with their highly advertised 5-year warranty, I had to install it myself and no mechanic was sent out to check my situation out, especially when the first message it flashed was "ERR P" which meant "bad control card".  This time, they had me remove the entire control panel and ship it to them.
   I had already sold my old kiln to a friend so I was effectively without a kiln during my busiest season.  When I called L&L to put an express rush on the control panel shipment,  I was told by the office manager, Denise, that I should "take [my] greenware to a friend’s kiln to fire it" while they shipped parts back and forth.  Clearly inexperienced with the product she sells! Greenware is already like egg shell, likely to crack with the lightest tap, and my pots are decorated with slip that can also be rubbed off with the friction of bubble wrap.  So that was NOT AN OPTION!!  Luckily, she did express the shipment.  But that was not the last of my problems....

LnL on left, Beautiful Skutt on right 

     In the end, I spent way too much time and money troubleshooting, test firing, calling a technician, being a technician and being talked down toAfter they delivered and I installed the upgraded control panel, Dynatrol, which had twice the value of the original, was more dynamically controllable and could supposedly take the kiln up to cone 10- I was THROUGH!  So I sold it, at a loss, to another potter in Novato and did what I should have done in the first place: bought a Skutt kiln at my local ceramics store, Creative Ceramics, where they are knowledgeable and helpful and if anything goes wrong, they will help me make it work again.  A lesson I can apply to almost every purchase.

I've said my piece.  On to better things... 
(BTW, in the photo, terrible temporary cord placement until LnL moved out.. don't do that!  It's not like that now)

  In short, here's the Calendar of Events as they occurred to me. A season of woe:
Noticed that kiln was underfiring  
Ran tests to identify problem: Kiln turns itself off before it reaches the temperature appropriate to the cone selection- 04 & 5
Contacted LnL kiln about issue

LnL Kiln sent new control card
Arrived 5/25
I installed new control card
Got “ERR P” message (bad card)
Returned entire control box
“fixed” control box arrived 6/9
Test bisque firing
Test glaze firing
Called technician. Offset thermocouple
Contacted LnL and they sent new thermocouple
I installed new thermocouple
Did not solve problem
Returned entire control box
arrived 8/8. Upgraded to Dynatrol (fires to "cone 10".  GOT RID OF KILN!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Cooking with Pottery and Blue Apron

I listen to a lot of podcasts while I paint. From NPR to Radiotopia and RISK, most are sponsored by Blue Apron.  My mom joined Blue Apron first and when she brought it on a short trip, I cooked pleasantly with my Dad.  It was a tasty meal and there was no bickering at all.
     So I signed up, and when I went to visit my sister for a week, I had it delivered to her house.  The meals are nicely designed, can be easily adapted to feed more, but mainly, it's a good restaurant-quality meal that you don't have to plan ahead of time and all the ingredients are fresh and thoughtfully harvested.  But the best part is the ease of cooking it together, with anyone, and the kitchen bonding that creates when it goes smoothly.
      I love using "plate" as a verb and the pride in the meal it creates when you plate it nicely.  So now it's time for my own product placement....  People often complain that they can't see the design when it's full of food.. but what motivates you to stay on target better than a gawking owl! And when you empty it of the prepped portion, he stares at you again!
   Ever since I started making octopus serving dishes, people have said it would be perfect for Squid Ink Pasta.   So when it was an Blue Apron meal, I felt the cycle was complete and I had to test the hypothesis.
      I got out all the mini bowls I tell all my customers are great for preparing meals (they are trully the bowls we use most).  And we filled my octopus platter with squid ink pasta.  It was delicious!
"Plated" pasta
Some customers worry that the pots are "too beautiful to use".  People have been cooking in ceramics longer than anything else.  The casserole dishes I've been making recently are built on a mold made from a set of antique Danish (?) ceramic dishes that have been heavily used.  I fire my pots to 2200 degrees, so your oven is certainly not a shock for them.  Just recently we had friends over and we cooked Dutch Babies in my pots (though I neglected to take a photo).  And with all the apples and berries ripening, I've been making pies like mad... .  Now I'm determined to make new pie pans this week...

Monday, November 16, 2015

NEW Kiln!

My Aunt's old Olympic kiln.
Yes, that's a big redwood root behind it
    I started out with my aunt's little Olympic kiln.  The bricks looked ancient when I inherited it, but I made it work hard.  Replaced its elements several times, moved it, grew my hobby into a business with it.  Until I needed to make more product, because I was finally giving myself more time to do it.  Then I bought the Skutt, from another potter who was moving on to a digital control.  It was pretty new, 7 times
Kiln Sitter
The Old Skutt
bigger than the Olympic, and came with all the kiln furniture.  Both of my first kilns are controlled by the melting of a ceramic cone, in a device called a kiln sitter... and, of course, an eye on the clock.  The firing process required me to prop the lid up with the plugs all out for 3.5 hours on low to get the water out of the clay, or in the case of the glaze firing, out of the glaze.  Then you turn the kiln up to medium for an hour, after which you plug all the holes but the top one, close the lid, and turn it up to high.  I set an alarm for when I hoped the kiln would stop, but it was never exactly correct.  So many factors affect the timing from the age of the elements, the density of the load, the weather... So I usually just hoped it wasn't a faulty cone and would melt at just the right moment.  I could peek in the peephole.  But I really can't differentiate the 1000 degree red from the 2000 degree red.  I could use, and officially should use, a "witness cone", a backup melting blob of clay that I could peep at, if my eyeball didn't melt off in the process, to see if  it too was melted.  Usually I was too stingy with my space to give it up to precision.  Most of the time the firings were fine...but sometimes, making a change in the middle of the night, I would neglect to plug all the holes, or not set the timer long enough for it not to go off before the cone melted...and then I'd have to start all over again.
New L&L Kiln

My NEW kiln, an L&L SchoolMaster, tells me what temperature it is all the time.  It also has a venting system that eliminates my need to wake up different times to adjust the air flow.  And it turns itself up exactly as I request it to do.  And once I determine my ideal firing schedule, I only have to press the one button.  One for Bisque, one for Glaze.  It's not perfect, mind you.  The binder of information that came with it was clearly written by engineers, not the school teachers the kiln is marketed to.  It doesn't do voice control or an app interface, but it keeps me sleeping at night.  And though I was nervous to open up this first load... I am so happy with the result!  And I passed my old Skutt onto another aspiring potter so she can learn the down and dirty of the firing process before retiring to a digital control version.

Oh technology...

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Things I Do to Make a Buck

  Self-employment means you have to seek a variety of means to make a living.  Here's how I define those current differing activities that support R Honey Pots:

1) Bees.  We take honey bees, live, from buildings where they're not wanted and put them in our box.  Then we wait over night for them to move in and collect them, at the crack of dawn, before they wake up.   Transport them home, nurse them and check for queen rightness, then move them to the apiary (at the crack of dawn).  If we're lucky, which, thanks to the drought we haven't been for the last 2 years, we harvest honey which is the extremely messy process of transporting heavy boxes, flinging sticky substances, bottling it, then giving the frames back to the bees to clean up.

2) Make Pottery.  I heave a ton of clay from my van down to my studio in 50lb increments where I fling it on a wheel or pancake it in my slab roller.   When it dries, I paint it, fire it, dust it, glaze it, fire it, photograph it, put it in a box and heave it back up the hill to my van.  Then I update the website, post to facebook, instagram, send out postcards.
The Van

3) Sell Pottery. While an increasing amount of my sales are done online, I still fill the van monthly and transport everyone to craft shows, the farthest of which, this year, was to La Jolla- 11 hours one way.  Usually we leave at our favorite hour, crack of dawn, and set up in the 2+ hours before the show starts.  We unload all the boxes, set up the tent, then the display structure, and finally, painstakingly, Joey displays as much pottery as he possibly can in our 10x10 domain.
Some sights have a lot of variation (KMAF)
Levelling the booth at night

Joey arranging the booth

4) Take on New Challenges.  Every year there's someone asking if I can do something I haven't quite done before.  I always say yes.  This year I'm making new tables and meeting with architects and interior decorators to design remodels.  Tile projects I have only completed in my own home are now going to be adapted to someone else's (there will be photographs of this after January).  With Joey's metalworking and carpentry skills, we are hoping to develop and expand this custom installation side of our business.

5) Share the Knowledge.  Around January (details still being ironed), I will be teaching a ceramics class at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts (  In February, I will be giving a presentation to the Rossmoor Ceramics Club (

6) Enjoy life.  Swim in the ocean as much as possible.  Do pilates.  Garden.  Rock climb.  Kayak.  Hunt mushrooms (if it rains!).  Visit friends.  Play music.  Dance...I love being my own boss, even if the common themes are waking up at the crack of dawn, heaving boxes, and being filthy.  The rewards are great!

Doran Beach

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Summer of Bees

When we first checked this situation out, the bees were just exploring.. visiting in small groups and taking the building's measure.  A week later we got the call that, "the queen is here!"  In fact, two separate queens moved in.
1. Drilling a hole through the plywood on the inside, Joey located the hives using a boroscope

2. Cutting the white plywood a prying open

3. Half the hive attached to the plywood

4. The other half of the hive in the bay
 We smoked them lightly to assure calmness, but they still behaved like a swarm when they were exposed: calm, disinterested, and nicely clumped together.
     I scooped bees and cut the fresh comb so Joey could fit it into empty frames, temporarily holding them in place with rubber bands (in a few days, once the bees have attached the comb to the wood, they will dispose of the rubber bands)
5. Exposing the second hive

6. Hive #2 revealed and new box in place

7. Slightly smaller second hive

Following the same procedure as the first hive, I cut and scooped while Joey prepared the comb for the new hive.  We verified we had two queens since each section had fresh eggs in it.  This queen kept trying to run away and we had to corral her using smoke and cloth soaked with the nontoxic but dissuading, Bee-Gone.

8. Finally, she is in the box, indicated by the bees fanning their "Come hither" pheromone at the entrance
  Once we got the majority of the bees inside our boxes, we'll leave them for a day or so to reattach their comb and adjust themselves to our boxes.  Then we'll return before sunrise, wrap them in a sheet burrito, and take them home.
9. Two hives, One wall, One happy Liz

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Maker Faire

I expected 3D printers and Burning Man vehicles, which I saw... but there was so much more!  I love this new (10 years old) truly empowering trend, breaking away from mere consumer fair to engaged and interactive.  They had small children using sewing machines, learning silk screening, observing glass blowing and metallurgy, puppets, legos, making buttons with LED lights...
    While there was certainly a technological focus, flying robots and such, the main thrust of the whole event is to support creativity in all its forms.  In the spirit of things, I handed out my "How I make a Mug" card.  Our neighbors on one side made dresses from dress shirts salvaged from salvation army bins.  On the other side, Frankenstuffies swapped heads and other parts to make new creations from discarded stuffed animals. 
     We met a club of people who "haunt" each others' houses with moving skeletons that have grotesque rotting flesh thanks to plastic sheeting melted with a heat gun and painted with gel stain.  People walked around in massive, complex and uncomfortable costumes. While the Burning Man crowd made explosions and apocalyptic organ noises, the Greenies collected and sorted the waste, sending me home ecstatic with two massive bags of clean bubble wrap. 
     This was the most inspiring event I have ever attended!   I will most certainly be back for more!

Monday, May 4, 2015

2 swarms in 1 weekend!

     I was putting the finishing touches on a large stag tree bowl when I got the call.  A swarm sprawled across a potter's Art Walk display downtown Guerneville. Couldn't be more appropriate for the first call of the year! I grabbed my nuc with freshly waxed frames, my smoker, my eager neighbor and we took off.  At the bottom of our hill, the woman called again.  
     "Are you on your way?"
     "Be there in a couple minutes.."     "Good! He wants to power wash them off..."
     "Did you slap him?"
       She didn't, and he didn't either.  I parked my car in the center lane with hazards on and joined the small crowd.  As soon as I put my box on the table, the bees paraded in, to an appreciative ooh from the observers.  They asked questions while I coerced more speed from the bees with my smoker.  They all entered the box and got wrapped up, burrito style, in a towel from my car in less that an hour.  Then home for a jar of sugar water until they find a decent nectar source.
Who could resist?
     Sunday I got a text from a woman in Santa Rosa.  She said a swarm was hanging on a tree in front of a busy shopping center for the last couple days.   When she texted this photo and another photo of the tree for orientation, I called the high school student who wanted to explore bees for his senior project.
   "Are you ready to go?"
     Luckily, he was and he and his parents met me in the parking lot with a ladder.  The branch the bees were on was too large to simply snip or give a decent shake, so we set the box under them and smoked and scooped them down into it.  Ian, still grinning from a perfect prom the night before, calmly worked the smoker, unfazed by bees landing on him.
   Soon we wrapped these bees up too, burrito style, in a sheet this time, and took them to his high school where he built a Ware hive.  This is a top bar style hive, no prepared beeswax foundation like the Langstroth hives I use now (though similar to the Kenya Top Bar hives I was promoting in Peace Corps Paraguay).  I shook the bees off my frames into his box and coaxed them again with smoke.  Without the obvious lure of beeswax (though he said he rubbed the bars with wax), the bees were not as easily convinced of its merits. 
     I found a clump on a corner of the box that, with a little examination with a stick, contained the queen.  She climbed onto my stick and I delivered her into the entrance. Hopefully, now they will stay.  
    We put a feeder at the entrance which should help the bees with their reorientation, but I warned Ian that, while in the search for the new nectar source, the bees might be a little more all-over-the-place for a few days.  Since the hive is directly adjacent to the school, it might make them temporarily unpopular.
     Few things give me more joy than capturing a swarm.  In that state, they are so focused on finding a new home, there is no need for protective gear. You can stand in the middle of cloud of bees, have them banging against your face, and, unless you crush one, you won't get stung.  I love the opportunity to talk about bees, their castes, challenges, behaviors.  And I love the awe that they generally inspire in the lucky observers. 
     And I got to see the queen!  Lucky me!  So please, if you see a swarm, call your local beekeepers.  Often the police have their numbers, or even exterminators do (since they're not allowed to kill them).  Certainly, any store that sells bee equipment can help out.  In Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties, if I can't get them, here's our swarm list:
but call me first...(707) 696-0861 

UPDATE: 5/24 - Guerneville bees moved into their permanent new home.  They filled out the 5 frames of foundation beautifully and were clearly ready for more.  For all those observers who asked what I was going to do with them, here's the answer:  They are now pollinating and making honey in Santa Rosa.