Search This Blog

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Clay and Moonshine

Different regions of our country have different tastes in what kind of pottery they collect and use. In the Midwest, I see a lot of stoneware, Red Wing Pottery is the type of pottery that comes to mind when I ask fair-goers what their pottery history is. Here in New England, we know all about Red Ware and Stone Ware. We have tons of red clay and our early potters used simple black, green and clear glazes on the common pots for everyday use. Stone Ware was bought at our local merchants for storing pickles, jams and alcohol in jugs and crocks lined with Albany Slip. I found a face jug supposedly made in New Hampshire in the 1800's, but mostly we liked plain jugs for our moonshine.

I spend some time down south at county fairs.  It seems that face jugs are still very popular down there. There are theory's about why face jugs became so popular. Some say the slaves used them to mark graves, some say they were made to scare the children away from the contents of moonshine. I think that slaves probably did introduce the idea, but face jugs are just plain fun to make and super cool to have on your shelf and to offer guests a swig.

I just found the BBC series of farms in WWII.  Wartimes farm episode 3 has a tile machine. That caught my interest. Anything to do with clay, the simpler and primitive the better for me, and I have to see it.  In this episode, the staff is reviving an old tile making machine using a gas engine and clay they seem to have dug up nearby.  I wish I could see an hour or two of this process, but we are only shown a few minutes. They are mixing the clay with their feet, shoveling it into the machine and pressing it through a slot. Out come primitive red clay tiles that they further work cutting into slabs, adding notches and holes.  Then they fire them!

This is an exciting part for all you back to basic potters out there. They build the kiln of fired red brick, stack the tiles inside, seal it up with clay and sand and fire it with wood for two days. 900 degrees is their goal. Red Clay should be fired between 800-1900 degrees or so. 800 degrees will make the pieces hard and changes the chemistry so the clay will not turn back into mud when wet. Over 2000 degrees and the high amount of iron in red clay starts to turn into... iron, too hard, warped.

As for wood firing...nothing could be more grueling and exciting at the same time!  It's a lot of work. You have to camp out next to the kiln. You need people to stoke the fire in shifts, constantly. You get a little bored, especially during the night.

So what do you do to pass the time? Well these guys set up a moonshine still on top of the kiln. What could be a better use of this oven?  I of course would make a stew, baked potatoes, corn bread, coffee and maybe a cake, but the idea of running a still also sounds like a good idea.

And this leads back to moonshine face jugs.  You probably should not drink all the moonshine as it drips out off the still  on top of your kiln. You should store some for later in a really cool face jug.

I make face jugs. You can put maple syrup in them, lemonade, switchel or moonshine. They make great vases... you can stick flowers in them too. They look great on your kitchen shelf or over your fireplace. They go along with you to reenactments and Sunday picnics. You can take them camping.  They make great gifts, especially for those hard to buy for men in your life.

At the top of this blog, you will see Buford. Buford was a glazing accident. He was already dipped in the tan glaze sitting on my glazing table to dry as I was dipping my famous red birds. Splash. I didn't notice the splash of red on his nose till I took Buford out of the kiln. "Yikes", I said. My first reaction, but then I thought, cool, looks like he got punched in the nose and there is a story behind that.
Buford with the guys... Eastern States Exposition

Buford spent a whole year traveling around country fairs with me and his fellow face jugs. Until Billy the bronc rider and blacksmith in Winston-Salem, North Carolina met him. Billy is the one who took Buford home and named him.  I think Billy talks to Buford some times. Buford is now a moonshine jug in Billy's cabin in the hills.

Billy and Buford

I have posted some of my current one-of-a-kind face jugs on ebay. Check them out and add one to you or someone else's life!

1 comment:

nathan wolfenbarger said...

I really liked that part of Wartime Farm.

In one Episode of Victorian Farm (same people, earlier series) they used a horse gear powered, flat belt driven Pug mill to work clay, so that could manufacture some bricks. That was a fun episode.

Interesting and fun blog post, as always Reggie.