Just Copper Mesh (or Steel Wool), without Salt…

There seem to be two kinds of potters out there. Some will put their best efforts in trying to make better or more beautiful objects, functional or otherwise; while others will spend at least equal amount of time — and energy — in finding out how the process really works, and treat the whole exercise of making and firing pottery almost like a branch of empirical science.

I most probably belong to this second group. Well, some might even say I had gone over the edge, that I was actually more a mad scientist than an artist — which I would gladly take as a true compliment, by the way. :-)

just copper mesh: no steel wool, and no salt

figure 1: just copper mesh, no steel wool, and no salt

And here is a manifestation of this truth over beauty tendency of mine. Instead of following my own proven three amigos (steel wool, copper mesh, salted raffia) formula to make more good-looking pieces like these or these, I decided to try just one amigo at a time, and see what will happen.

As a first experiment in this vein, I wrapped two of my terra sig-burnished rocks with Chore-Boy type copper mesh, no steel wool, and plain unsalted raffia; and did the same to two more pieces, but with steel wool and no copper mesh this time. The four were then fired together using my new copper carb-free firing protocol, i.e. in a bed of sawdust and horse manure, but without copper carbonate or any other chemicals.

The results are shown in figure 1 above for a copper mesh piece, and figure 2 below for one of the steel wool pieces.

steel wool only -- no copper, and no salt

figure 2: steel wool only — no copper, and no salt

In some way I wasn’t too surprised by the results, as I had already seen what appeared to be the fuming effects — though with the presence of salt — of copper mesh and of steel wool from past firings (see figure 3 and figure 4 below.)

Nevertheless, I was still quite taken aback, first and foremost, by how unmistakably clear and precise the imprints of the copper mesh and steel wool strands were on the surfaces of these rocks. Indeed, what is most striking about these pieces is the complete absence of larger swathes of colors — all the marks are linear, and only at exactly where the fuming source materials have been and nowhere else.

copper mesh effect with salt present

figure 3: copper mesh effect with salt present

Incidentally, what I had wanted to find out originally, is whether the salt near the copper mesh and steel wool — via the salted raffia — had a role in the fuming marks and colors in a more typical firing, i.e. one using all my three amigos as fuming materials. In other words, was the salt needed as some kind of catalyst, chemically speaking, to get the copper mesh and steel wool to fume so colorfully?

Or, more figuratively, did the salt act as some kind of ‘outside agitator’ or agent provocateur, and cause the copper or steel wool to ‘act up’? Or could the copper (or steel wool) actually have become volatile enough by itself, under the intense heat of the flames, to do its own ‘thing’ regardless whether the instigation and abetment by the salt were also in the mix? Well, I can see I’m veering close to some treacherous territories with my choice of words in the sentences above, so let’s get back on topic — art and science, and not politics, shall we?

steel wool effect with salt present

figure 4: steel wool effect with salt present

Anyway, it looks like we have a mixed verdict here. The copper and steel wool did indeed act up on their own, but the presence of salt — in previous firings — also seemed to have helped spread the colors around quite a bit more. Perhaps a follow up experiment should go something like this: same copper mesh or steel wool as before, but cover half of the piece with salted raffia, and the other half with unsalted raffia — then if our hypothesis is correct, we should see color smears on one side, and clear linear marks on the other.

3 Responses to “Just Copper Mesh (or Steel Wool), without Salt…”

  1. Chad Dykstra says:

    It good to see you playing in the pit again. I have enjoyed your updates. I do agree the salt is required for color with copper. I have tried your method with some success, I am wondering if we achieve different temps or just the different clay bodies involved. Keep it up. If you are on Facebook i been updating my page there, more often than the blog, just search up in smoke pottery. thanks again, Chad

  2. Hello Hilary,
    I just wanted to post a quick note to tell you that the RSS feed for this blog has been added to the Potters and Ceramic Artists Blog Feed at Pottery Making Info. Thanks for all the hard work with your clay and your blog!

  3. Ashley says:

    Enjoyed the site, spent quiet an amount of time with it (as a google search it sent me to some of your 2006 posts). I was looking to find out more about pit firings and what I could do to change up some of my results, most of which I liked and was hoping to replicate, but we fire rather differently.
    Still very fun, looking forward to trying it out in the future!

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