Thursday, 26 March 2020

Extracting Clay From Mud

So having recently attended Paul Smith's primitive pottery day I have had my attempt at a  primitive pottery firing and in the natural order of curiosity I decided to test the clay content of some soil.

To add some context, I took along some mud from a site near some football pitches where I used to play, having remembered that the mud used to stick in clumps to my boots, for Paul to have a look at.

He said it had some clay-like qualities but also had some impurities in too so out of interest I decided to refine some. I weighed the wet soil and it was just a shade over 400g, I thought it would be interesting to see a before and after figure.

I added the mud to a 5 litre plastic bottle with the top removed and then tipped in around 1.5 litres of boiled and slightly cooled water. I agitated the mud to get it in suspension and then left it to settle to see how much sediment was made out of curiosity.

This mixture was then sieved into a bowl and the shot in the top right shows the detritous, sand etc that was removed. You can sieve the mix straight after it's sieved but as I'd allowed it to settle I had to rinse the cut down bottle with the dirty water a couple of times to get it all out.

And without further ado I tipped the refined mixture into an old pillowcase to seperate the water from the clay mixture. good job it was an old one as it has taken on a brown hue after a wash...

The pillow case was suspended with paracord on my washing line to catch the filtered water and I'm glad I did as there was a fair bit of what I could only assume to be very fine clay particles. I tried and impromptu sieving session through a coffee filter but it still ran through.

I left the bag dripping overnight and indeed I had a decent looking blob of clay (is there a specific term?) but we'd had a slightly windy night and I decided that the blob was a little on the dry side. So how did I soften it up? By carefully draining the already drained water from the bowl and adding the super-fine clay to the mix. Running a finger through the top of the blob left a smooth indent so as far as I was concerned, job done.

And so how much did this final finished article weight? A tad over 200g so it had almost literally halved in weight. I'm sure I can find a purer source but it was useful to know what I had not far from me.


Finally here's a Youtube video of the process and of a primitive pottery day I attended a few weeks previous to this.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Primitive Pottery Firing

So having attended a primitive pottery day a week ago I had a crack at firing the pieces I made at home. I don't have an area to have a fire so I utilised my fire pit to replicate this. I had intended to also do a Youtube video to accompany this blog but sadly the microphone lead wasn't in properly so all I had was hiss for sound.

I lined the base with a little soil, I'd discussed with Paul who ran the day what to do about the difference in heat retention between the metal and earth and I decided this was the best way to mitgate this.


I'd had the pieces I made  initially sitting on a radiator indoors to start the gentle warming process. I then started some shop purchased kindling with some firelighters off on one side and then introduced the  pieces to the other. They can suffer from thermal shock because despite being hard and abrasion resistant clay items can be prone to brittleness brought on by a large temerature swing so slowly does it.


Once the kindling was established I added some more sizeable pieces of seasoned wood to get the fire building, once it was going well and reducing to embers I then introduced the pieces to the centre and formed an ember ring around them. Note that I put the beads in the oil lamp as I'd seen on the course itself.

I left them to their own devices for around thirty minutes before adding more fuel which once it started catching I then moved closer, piled wood across the top and once blown to a decent flame was left to get on, initailly for twenty minutes or so.

And whilst we have a decent, established hot fire...Rude not to really. I also had some homemade bacon I had planned to fry for a mid session butty but with the all absorbing nature of this session I overlooked it.

I tried checking the gaps in the now roaring fire for hopeful signs and after a while I could see that one of the pots had indeed gone black...Which is a good thing. Shortly after I could see what I thought was a more terracotta hue on a piece which again is where you want to end up. 

As the flames died and left embers I decided to have a look. To my delight as I dug everything seemed to have survived and the terracotta colour was in evidence but there were a few small areas of black left and indeed the larger pendant was still completely black in colour.

With the fact that black should then eventually add to a more earthen cover I decided to pile some more embers back on the pendant and when I inspected the pots they were black underneath too, so I flipped them over and covered the black parts as well. I left it another short while and the pendant mostly turned, as did the oil lamp but bizarrely the potted container went terracotta on the base but back to black on the top! Perhaps I should have started the fire off in the middle to warm the soil too?

I am of course a total noob when it comes to ceramics so I don't understand the subtleties of what's just unfolded but I decided to call it a day and slowly cool the OKish bits and pieces, again on the opposite side from the still seriously hot embers and removed the bits getting an extended fire slowly after. I left them for around an hour to cool which might have been longer than needed but I had to nip out and that was the duration of my errand. I was also pleased when tapping the oil lamp to get a satisfying ring from it, even with the beads still in it.

With the bits now completely cool I set about doing an initial examination. I noticed a small hairline crack on the rim of the lidded pot, about the width of my little finger in the above right hand side picture so no biggie. Both the pictures show the colour difference between the afore mentioned pot and it's lid. 

I filled up the lidded pot with water to see if the firing process had made the vessel watertight-It had I'm pleased to say.

A further inspection also showed a small hairline crack on the oil lamp base about a third of the way up from the front. I also filled this with water to test it's integrity but alas the crack negates it being used for it's intended purpose. The tallow I made lives to fight another day...Maybe I could line the pot with beeswax?

So all in all I'm really happy with the results. I would have course have liked no cracks, a perfect terracotta colour and a crystal glass ding on the bowls but I counted them all in, and counted them all out again so that's a win for me. I have also pondered if something like the rune pendant could have a fairly large and simple design that could facilitate pewter being poured in? That's for another day of course but I must get round to doing a simple pewter casting blog/ video at some stage and maybe I could try with a homemade pottery piece.

At the start of the silent video clips I made the point that whilst in most cases a clip can be reshot, with pottery there is no second chance...As it also proved with the footage for the Youtube video that never was! I am however including links to the videos of the primitive pottery day that I made these pieces on, and a look at some more of the 'dog poo' mud which I processed to work out the clay content.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Primitive Pottery Day

Whether rightly or wrongly bushcraft can have  a masculine, macho feel to it, especially if you also chuck in the miltary and prepper aspect so when I saw a primitive pottery course advertised my first thought was that it was towards the more gentle end of the many disciplines that this hobby can encompass. 

It was however a chance to try something that wasn't within my skill set or perhaps even my comfort zone as clay was a medium I last dabbled in at school. I quickly got myself booked onto this day and then waited for, quite literally, several months to pass before the day came.

It was a new course being run by Paul Smith, a largely self-taught instructor who seemed to suddenly appear in the bushcrafty corners of social media (have a look at his 'Who am I?' video on his Youtube channel here) and Dan Aylmer was hosting it on a cool but rain free day at Bushcraft UK Wilderness Living Skills HQ near Basingstoke.

We had to park offsite due to the wettest recorded Febuary ever in the history of the universe which had turned the track and parking area into a bit of a mudfest. If you attend a course here in fairer weather the place is pretty easy to find, if the elements dictate that you have to meet up at the nearby garden centre as we did it is very easy to find.

As mentioned earlier this was the first pottery course that was being run so I decided to think things through and bring some bits that might help maximise my experience. The first on the list were some fossiled plant stems, I'd seen a potter using a piece of ammonite to add markings to a bowl rim but when I checked my small fossil collection I didn't have a suitable piece so I went with a plan B, the second thing was some tallow I made on an Autumn camp last year with a view to making an oil lamp on the day, some sticky mud from a field near me to ask Paul if it was suitable and a Swiss Army knife just because.

Well sadly the mud I'd brought along was just that, mud...Very clay-like but he showed all of us the difference between my sample and the real thing. I was very childish and turned it into a poo.


Paul started us off with some clay manipulation to get a feel for it, to see how it behaves and to hunt out any impurities before moving onto a simple first project, namely beads. I used the small blade on my penknife to fashion some basic patterning and a pointy hole making stick and whilst I was happy with my efforts it was clear that Paul had done this many times as his looked like he'd carved Oak galls they were that round and smooth.


We then progressed to things like pendants and other such baubles (a tanged arrowhead in my case) and this is where I started to try using the fossils and practiced on a spare piece of clay. They have clear segmented sections but they didn't mark the clay in quite as pronounced way as I'd have liked but I still used it around the pendant's edge. The unintended discovery was that the fossil has a five point star profile and it made a pleasing indent. I made the lanyard hole star shaped and then decided on Nordic runes with "bow" on one side and "fire" on the other (hopefully).

Time seemed to fly by and we soon called a halt to the morning's activities to get cleaned up for dinner. Luckily there was a crystal clear stream flowing on the edge of the basecamp which was useful.

Dan had been busy getting the grub knocked up as we broke and once it was ready we retired to a tarp covered shelter to consume it.


After a leisurely chat over lunch we reconvened to start looking at pinch pots, followed by coil pots after that. I used the pinch pot method to start fashioning my pre-planned oil lamp. It was effectively an elongated pot with a dropped point at one end, perhaps a little on the deep side but I was happy enough with it. 

I've included this shot because it kind of shows the vibe of the day. Paul had said it would have a laid back feel and it was indeed the case. Fellow attendees Dom and Russell were well versed in the bushcraft arts (as was Paul of course) so there was a lot of chat, and Paul's wife was a useful person for me to talk to about sewing and stitching. 

Also in attendance was freelance instructor Chris Lundgren who has worked with the likes of Coastal Survival and Dyrad Bushcraft. He was on site to deliver a green wood working day on the Sunday and was someone who I'd previously only had fleeting conversations with at shows so it was good to spend some time chatting with him too.

All that said there were also moments of extended silence as we processed and engaged our imaginations as objects were formed.


Predictably as we finished our pinch pots we moved onto the slightly more consuming coil pots. Pinch pots are, as the name suggests, made by 'pinching' and manipulating hole in a ball of clay whereas a coil pot is made by starting with a small thicker walled pot and adding coils of clay to the rim and moulding it.

I made a small coil pot and then decided to make a reciprocal coil lid  which I'm pleased to say fits rather well.

So two shots of what I'd managed to make, one featuring the poo and one without. Overall I was really pleased with my output. You can hear Chris asking me a technical turd question in the Youtube video to accompany this blog. 

We gathered around the fire and whilst it was technically already lit Paul wanted to demonstrate a primitive way of lighting one. He displayed a very tidy flint and and iron pyrites technique before blowing a tinder bundle into flame.

Paul was going to fire some bits he's got but we didn't have any of our creations considered, why? Any clay creation needs to stand for a week before any firing is attempted so of course that rules new stuff out.

There is a gently does it series of steps when firing and during the process the pieces went from fudge coloured, to black...

...And then almost magically to a terracotta red colour. The process was almost alchemical in the way it happened. 

Once cooled Paul kindly gave us all a pendant from the firing, as well as being a momento of the day it will also a good comparison/ guide to the colour our homebound efforts should be. On top of that Chris also generously gave us all a Hazel whistle too.

This was a day that exceeded my expectations and it's always a bonus to have a good crowd to converse with too. Obviously I'll take the tallow home as I need to fire the lamp first of course, fingers crossed that everything will survive my attempt.

Finally, here's the Youtube video to accompany this blog.

Suggested further reading:-

Friday, 21 February 2020

A Kelly Kettle Brew From Poo

I have had an outdoors itch that I needed to scratch for a while, and that was to experiment to see if I could power a Kelly Kettle with dried horse poo to give me a brew. I collected some frozen horse droppings (probably, no certainly to the disgust of my family) and in the accompanying Youtube video that I did I couldn't recall how long the poop had been drying...I guessed at a year, it was actually three! 

As I did the video I pretended to eat a piece of the poop on the pretence of seeing it mentioned as a possible survival food on the internet! I declare that is wasn't so at the end...

I don't know what the dried weight of the 'fuel' was but I had around a dozen of the 'biquette' style fewmets (when likened to Deer scat) and initially I tried lighting them with a single match. They scorched the droppings but didn't quite take.


I then introduced a piece of waxed card firelighter which will of course have added a little additional heat but I wasn't being too scientific, just curious with the fuel source, this had the desired effect.


With only  a small amount of water to heat the efficient Kelly Kettle had me some boiling water within 2-3 minutes-Success. I probably won't be rushing out to collect more poo but I'm glad I did this little test.

Having had a post experimental internet hunt I found this bbc link regarding the burning of horse poo. And if you are interested the video is below.