Railroad Stoneware

From 1975 to 1985 I operated Railroad Stoneware, a one-person production studio located just off South Railroad Avenue near the tracks of the Arcata and Mad River Railroad in Blue Lake, California, five miles inland from Humboldt Bay up in the Redwood Empire. I made wheel-thrown functional stoneware, retailing through biannual studio sales and local craft shows, and wholesaling to galleries, gift shops, and kitchen/gourmet stores in Northern California and Oregon. I discontinued Railroad Stoneware in 1985 when my wife and I moved to Amherst, Massachusetts to attend graduate school.

Fresh out of undergraduate school I worked as a mechanic and welder for the City of Arcata, and that proved to be some of the most important training I have received. I built most of my own studio equipment including a Shimpo-style ring-cone pottery wheel, a 100-cubic-foot downdraft gas car-kiln, ware carts, and a large vacuum-deairing pugmill adapted from the Harry Davis plans. Below are images of my work from Railroad Stoneware. Scroll down for technical information about the work, plus images of the studio, kiln, and pugmill.  Email me with any questions.

Click on the thumbnails to see a larger image.

I used stoneware claybodies from Westwood Clay Company (now Laguna), primarily Rod’s Bod and Danish White with sand, and sometimes a blend of the two. Most of the ware was decorated with underglaze brushwork in iron slip and cobalt oxide wash, glazed with a clear glaze and sometimes a simple palette of colored glazes, and reduction fired to cone-10. Non-production one-of-a-kind pieces were often decorated with pattern impressed with bisque-stamps, or else slip-decorated.  The latter can be seen on the Slipware page.

The examples with impressed pattern were all done with bisque-stamps that I made.  I decided early on that I did not want to use patterns created by someone else, so I started carving bisque stamps and rollers.  If you like pattern and texture, this is one of the best ways to individualize your work, as compared to using appropriated pattern or texture created with commercially-made stamps or pattern/texture mats.  If you are interested in bisque stamps, see my handout on “Making and Using Bisque Stamps.”

It is worth noting that when I began doing production tableware and kitchenware in the mid-1970s, I did the brush decoration with water suspensions of cobalt carbonate and iron oxide, as shown in the sixth image below. After frequent problems with glazes crawling over both the iron and cobalt, I experimented with other options and settled on applying the iron banding to damp greenware with a saturated iron slip (25% RIO) that shows up through any glaze, and did the cobalt brushwork on bisqueware with black cobalt oxide rather than cobalt carbonate, as seen in the seventh image below. Cobalt oxide is less powdery and doesn’t change chemically during the firing, and thus is far less likely to cause crawling when used underglaze.  Also, with the brush decoration hidden beneath the glaze, there is no chancing of the smudging or contamination from fingerprints that often happens when handling the pieces before glaze-firing if the oxide decoration is done overglaze.

When applying brushwork with ceramic oxides in water suspension, the oxides particles settle very quickly in the container, and it is essential to stir the oxides back into suspension every time you dip the brush in order to ensure opacity in the brush mark. Enlarge image #6 below and you’ll see the laboratory magnetic stirrers that kept my oxide mixtures in constant suspension while doing brushwork. I cannot begin to estimate the amount of time and trouble these little devices saved, considering the high volume of brush-decorated production work I was doing at the time.  The stirrers look like small hotplates, and beneath the upper surface is an oblong magnet driven by a variable speed motor.  Inside each cup of oxide is a matching oblong Teflon-coated magnet that looks like a suppository.  You can see the little whirlpools caused by the spinning magnets.  Low-end stirrers are available from Amazon for less than $60, and remember to get the Teflon-coated magnets too.  For anyone who does a lot of brushwork with oxide washes, these stirrers will pay for themselves in no time. The banding wheel in the same image is electric and was adapted from an antique Garrard record turntable.

Enlarge image #6 again and you’ll see that several of the oxide containers are “blue willow” coffee cups recycled from a cheap dinnerware set my wife and I obtained with Blue Chip stamps when we were first married in 1970.  I’m not sure it occurred to me at the time, but there’s a nice irony in using faux Ming Dynasty blue-and white cups to hold my cobalt mixtures.

Below are images of my studio, the 100-cubic-foot car kiln, and the pugmill.  I designed and built the kiln with Fred Olson’s The Kiln Book as my bible, and used the kiln for cone-08 bisque-firings and cone-10 glaze-firings.  I used special silicon-carbide posts made by Ferro Refractories referred to as kiln posts for floating set.  The posts and the bottom, middle, and top shelves stayed in place all the time, while the rest of the shelves could be moved around as needed to accommodate different stacking arrangements.

A nice feature of this kiln was an extension track normally stored against the wall in the kiln room.  When loading or unloading the kiln, I plugged in the extension track, and the kiln car could be rolled right into the glazing room, as you can see in the images below.

I built the pugmill using plans made available by the late Harry Davis, well-known Australian potter and advocate of studio self-sufficiency.  Although rarely credited, he is the inventor of the single-shaft vacuum deairing pugmill.  To find out more, check out my article, Building the Harry Davis Pugmill, and go to the Lue Pottery website to download PDFs of Harry’s plans.  In 1972 during a visit with a friend in Eugene, Oregon I was introduced to Hank Murrow, and am indebted to him for generously providing Harry Davis’s basic plans for the pugmill, plus information about the Ferro kiln posts. Building this pugmill is a huge job requiring advanced welding and fabricating skills, but mine will process a ton of clay per hour and has worked perfectly for 43 years with only periodic replacement of the shredding screens.

Click on the thumbnails to see a larger image.