The Woeful Saga of the Molten Buffalo: A Cautionary Tale

This blog post is brought to you by the letter “B”.

A few weeks ago, amidst a flurry of feverish throwing, building, glazing, and instant meals leading up to my first craft show experience, I made three butter dishes.  I mentioned when I put photos of two of them in a previous post that there was a story about the third.

Let me first lay out some basic knowledge I possess, and which all potters should:  it gets real, real hot in a kiln.  The gas-powered reduction kiln we use at the community studio to fire our glazeware in goes above 2336° F.  A conclusion to follow this fact is that anything that goes into said kiln would also be heated in excess of 2300°.

Here’s where it gets tricky:

1) Pottery that goes into this high-heat environment becomes, to some degree, molten.

2) It also, to some degree, holds its shape.

The first is due to the aforementioned extreme heat, and to various chemical particles in the clay and glazes that melt, flow, and cause movement.  The second is, I think, due to these facts:  a) pottery has usually (always, in the case of my studio) been pre-fired, or bisque-fired, so it is strong enough to be glazed.  b) clay, especially grogged stoneware, has substances and particles in it that give it structural support and minimize movement.

As another complicating factor, clay shrinks anywhere from 14-20% during the process of firing.  This means that any part of the pot touching the kiln shelf will move slightly across that surface as it shrinks inward.  (This shrinkage rate is also why I take very careful measurements of lids and galleries (where lids sit) as soon as I make them, to prepare for the inevitability of replacing broken parts.  I learned this the hard way.)

One last fact:  glazed pots are not allowed to touch each other in the kiln– the glazes, which basically become molten glass in the firing, will inevitably adhere to whatever hapless object touches them.

And now the letter “B” brings you . . .

. . . the buffalo, bowl, and butter dish.  Fused ceramic sculpture by three cooperating artists–unintentional art at its finest.

It’s a love-triangle of sorts; a hastily-arranged rendezvous that didn’t go well. The legs of this buffalo sculpture became too hot to support the weight of its body, and all four slid across the kiln shelf and splayed out in various directions–this allowed the bulk of the buffalo to slump down and rest against the two other pieces, its glaze fusing to their glazes.

Fortunately, with the help of a hammer and chisel and the wisdom of my pottery betters, we detached first the bowl, then the butter dish, from the dying buffalo.

Let me say that this buffalo was a beautiful work of art by a talented artist.  Once we had separated the pieces, I moved from anger at this inanimate object to deep pity for it (this goes back to my hatred for futility and my propensity to anthropomorphize which I alluded to in an earlier post).  Poor buffalo.  So much work.

After that moment of silence, back to my butter dish:

All is not lost.  Some glaze has been chipped away from the dish, but I think most of the dark stuff is Buffalo which can be filed off somehow (this is a new experience, so I’m ignorant of exactly what kind of tool I’ll need) and then I can re-glaze the piece and hope its texture will disguise some of the flaw.

Since this is a cautionary tale, here’s the pithy saying:  Don’t put your butter dish under a buffalo, no matter how sturdy the buffalo looks.

The letter “B” thanks you for your kind attention.

(To see a successfully completed butter dish, visit my Etsy shop here or here.)

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4 thoughts on “The Woeful Saga of the Molten Buffalo: A Cautionary Tale

  1. Don’t borrow one. I’ll buy you a Dremel set. It will be your graduation present that I never got to you.

    Uncle Paul.

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