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.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

To Market...

Bodega Bay Fishermen Festival..our "backyard"
     I am daily amazed that I can do what I do for a living.  In my own little studio, in the companionship of podcasts and recorded books, I can feel very disconnected...from reality, from people, from the economics of it all.  Which is why I love selling my wares in person.  Not only am I able to gauge reactions to my pottery, but I collect stories that people associate with different creatures.  Like the ladies who love hedgehogs because they raised a hubub by mistakenly identifying a frayed carpet as one in a zoo.  Or the marine biologists who nerd out on my creatures and introduce me to new ones (from oarfish to roosterfish then nudibranchs).  The familiar context of the marketplace allows conversation between strangers that do not normally occur.  I feel a genuine connection to people, most of whom are not making purchases, just simply enjoying a day out.  Maybe it's because I'm more of a sunlight person than a night one, but I have more interesting conversations in my booth than I do at most parties.  Thank you all who visit!
Tentacle found at Goat Rock Sun morn
     At a market, there are no middlemen (aside from the show promoters & the credit card processors).. it's about as fundamental as you can get.  I love the vendor scene.  There's a nervousness on Saturday morning, setting up expectations along with displays.  We peer sideways at each others' prices and marketing schpiels.  In close quarters, we hear their repeated phrases as I parrot my own ("an you can put them in the dishwasher too!").  This year I got to know the family who raise jellyfish and cast them in resin when they die.  They make great, glowing lamps.  Of course there are always products that you wonder how or why they filled a whole booth with them, though the same can be said of many manufactured products (like shipping containers of blow-up Santas crossing the oceans.. and the engineers who brought them to reality).   There's Sunday sales comparisons and then the joyful closing down racket and dance of the vehicles at the end.  Being so close to home, this time, we even got to squeeze in some boogie boarding at Doran Beach before crashing from over stimulation.
Hanging with my Oarfish.. current favorite
     I can see that, on the whole, I'm bringing joy to people... even if they're just passing by, or noticing that my dress matches the booth.  And I'm OK with that on my tombstone.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Praise to the Bugs!

I listen to a lot of podcasts while I throw, trim, paint and glaze my pottery.  One theme that it is absolutely impossible to ignore is that there are more people, less land, less water, less clean air and less food.  Ted Talks suggest viable ideas from sustainable fish farms, self-stuffing foie gras, and many other notions that keep you wondering.  In California, we're experiencing the longest stretch of drought I've ever seen.  Even glorious Lake Tahoe sports peers over rocky expanses instead of water, there's hardly any snow to play on, the bees are thrown off (this was the first year we didn't harvest honey because they so clearly needed it more than we did), mushrooms are even scarce... it makes you think.  Then I heard about this book, Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet.   I've read books about eating bugs before, but they always focus on the gross-out and the aren't-they-weird factors so that it was not something to take seriously.  But when you consider that 80% of US water use goes to agriculture and half of that is going to livestock, it would be wise to choose less water-consumptive, and even more importantly, less methane-producing protein sources.  Bugs offer more protein, with less input and output, in less space.  All the other considerations you would want to apply to standard livestock, like being able to turn around or get fresh air, don't apply to bugs.  They like it cozy and crowded and confined.  We've already been eating "acceptable" amounts of insects in all our processed foods.  The paper strip around the neck of the ketchup bottle was initially placed there to disguise the black line of insect bits that floated there before they figured out a better method to incorporate them.  With all the ingenious food scientists and chefs, I expect to see tasty bug-based products on our shelves.  They can be cleverly disguised. The revulsion reveal of "Snowpiercer" that the otherwise unappealing protein slabs were made of insects was a non-issue.  How else would you provide food for a sample of humanity contained on a train?   If this catches on, maybe we can cut back on the pesticides and genetic manipulations that are killing us and the beneficial insects we love (like bees).
Cicadas are apparently tasty
     Which brings me to my new design plan for the year: Edible Insects.  I've started out with Cicadas (because they have beautiful red highlights), crickets, and wood lice (sow bugs, rolly pollies).. there are a ton more and I plan on tasting them too (heard there is a bug food truck that shows up at Fort Mason on occasion).  Dragonflies are apparently delicious, so they will be coming back too....
  Never fear, cephalopod fans, I will never abandon the octopus in my quest for new designs. They will just have a lot of varied company, a couple fewer legs.....

Another bug-eating Ted Talk
Cricket Protein Bars
Cricket Flour