Hidden treasure

Hidden treasure

Good clay is abundant if you know where to look

By Christopher Nyerges 07/23/2009

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Some of the best wild clay that I’ve ever found is located in the hills above Pasadena and Sierra Madre. Not that I’ve searched the globe for clay — I haven’t. But I have sought and found lots of local clays of many colors — white, pink, green, blue, gray, red — in river bottoms and erosion cuts in hillsides.

In the many classes that I teach, I show students how to take locally found clay, process it and make such useful things as vessels, pots, oil lamps, plates, tools, pipes and countless decorative items. This is a skill that in the past most people simply took for granted.

If you enroll in a ceramics class at any local high school or college, you’ll learn what it takes to make useful and ornamental objects that won’t explode or crack when they are fired. You’ll learn how to use a wheel, how to keep the walls of your pot thin, how to glaze and how to add color and ornamentation to the objects. You should also learn some of the basics of using a modern kiln.

But you don’t usually learn how to find and prepare the clay yourself, or how to fire the object using primitive methods.

I was once one of those people who believed that there wasn’t any good clay anywhere near home. But then, I wasn’t really looking. Once I began searching for clay, I realized that while it was abundant, good clay was not so easy to find.

Here is a good rule-of-thumb test to see if your found clay is good quality. Assuming it is already moist, roll a little in your palm until it is as thin as a pencil. Does it stay together? If it contains too many impurities, or if your sample has too little clay content, you won’t be able to form a pencil shape.

Next, test the flexibility of the pencil-shaped clay. Good quality clay will hold together well when bent.

Though you may find a good batch of clay, chances are that you’ll have to refine what you find and add temper to it.
Though I read a lot about how to process clay from the wild, it was mostly by talking with Phil Cornelius that I learned some of these basics. Cornelius is a master potter who has taught for decades at Pasadena City College. After I called him with lots of questions, he invited me to his class.

I arrived one evening with a bucket of the raw red clay that I dug out from the foothills. He answered all my questions about making pinch pots and primitive firing. He then looked at the clay I had brought and we added water to my bucket so it was all very soupy. One of his students then took a paint mixer attached to an electric drill and mixed up my raw clay until it was homogenous. Then we poured it through a sieve to remove any lumps and foreign matter. He said that when I got home I should pour the sifted material onto a sheet laid on the ground. The liquid would strain through and I’d soon have good quality clay material.

This is how I have processed clay ever since. I blend the clay-and-water mix with a paint mixer on a drill, strain it through a fine metal sieve, then pour it onto a sheet on the ground. It may take a day or more, but when the liquid is gone, I have good workable clay.

Sometimes I simply crush the dry clay and shake it through a sieve and then moisten and use it.

It is very fulfilling and even therapeutic to collect and process clay, then to sit making an object with your own hands that you can ultimately use and enjoy.

Christopher Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine, the author of “How to Survive Anywhere” and an occasional blogger of current events. He can be contacted via this paper or ChristopherNyerges.com.

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