A Week in the Life of a Ceramics Studio Technician
What Does a Ceramics Studio Technician Do?
Since 2015, I’ve been a ceramics studio technician at a community pottery studio. After working full time for 4 years, I cut my hours back to 3 days/week so I could focus more on teaching (and blogging!).
The pottery studio is at Cedar Hill Rec Centre in Victoria, BC. Since it’s a public facility we’re fortunate to be able to keep our programs very affordable and accessible to all ages and levels of experience. And boy, are we busy!!
We run 14 classes per week for both adults and children. We also have an open studio drop-in program where 60 registered members can access the studio anytime the building is open and we’re not running classes. We’re open 7 days/week and this amounts to over 100 weekly hours of studio access.
All of our programs are over-flowing with long waitlists. Our drop-in program fills up within minutes of registration opening. The pottery community is alive and well in Victoria, BC and our studio simply can’t keep up with the demand for studio access.
We have 4 technicians on staff and there is at least one of us working every day. We also have a team of teachers who teach the classes and volunteers who help us keep the studio clean and organized. Collectively, the volunteers contribute around 20 hours/week to the studio and receive studio access in return for their service.
As the head studio technician, it’s my job to make sure the studio has everything it needs to run our programs and keep the studio running smoothly and efficiently.
- Loading and unloading kilns
- Mixing and maintaining glazes, slips and stains
- Processing the clay reclaim with our “Peter Pugger”
- Sorting and organizing all the pots that are produced in the studio
- Taking inventory and ordering clay, glaze materials, tools and equipment
- Fixing and maintaining kilns, wheels, slab roller, pugmill, spray gun etc
- Firing the gas and raku kilns
- Leading a team of volunteers
- Giving studio orientations and spray booth tutorials to new users
- Writing and updating operating procedures and studio guidelines
- Various administrative tasks (too many!)
I really love my job. It’s very hands-on and I get to see thousands of pieces of pottery go through all the stages of making, bisque firing, glazing and glaze firing.
I learn so much about clay and glazes by watching people try new things and seeing what makes them succeed or why they might fail.
I also get to test and experiment with new glaze and slip recipes and troubleshoot problems as they arise. This is my favourite part!
When I first started working at the studio in 2015, a bunch of the glazes were quite runny at our firing temperature. Some of them had to be super thin if you didn’t want them to run.
Requiring a thin application isn’t very beginner-friendly so I used my knowledge of the UMF (Unity Molecular Formula) to re-formulate the recipes so they could be applied thicker without running.
I also learned all about specific gravity and flocculation because I was searching for a way to keep the water content of our studio glazes consistent. I was tired of estimating how much water to add and conflicting opinions of which glazes were “too thick” and “too thin”.
I wanted a calculated system that all the technicians could use and get the same result. Thankfully, through a bunch of research, I discovered the process of measuring specific gravity. This was the answer I was looking for.
Now we have a routine where we measure the specific gravity of all our glazes on a monthly basis so they stay consistent.
This type of problem-solving, troubleshooting and improving the glazes for studio users has been the highlight of my job over the years.
A Behind-the-Scenes Look At My Behind-the-Scenes Job
I thought it would be fun to document all the things I do in a week as a ceramics studio technician and share a behind-the-scenes look into my day job.
A ceramics studio technician performs all the tasks that need to happen outside of the making and glazing process. The teachers teach, the users make and the technicians do the rest.
If you make pots in a community studio or school, you may find it interesting to know what the technicians do all day.
If you’re a technician yourself, you may find it interesting to hear what another technician does all day.
Or, you may just be interested to compare all your own behind-the-scenes studio tasks with those of a public studio.
Either way, I hope you find it interesting.
My work week is Tues-Thurs, from 8:00am-3:30pm with a half-hour lunch.
It snowed on my commute this morning! First snow of the year but it was melted by the time I finished work. It also took me an hour and forty minutes to get to work today. It usually takes 50-75 minutes. I live 34 kms away. Longest commute yet. Sheesh!
Today is my first day back after a week off. I had a bunch of emails to respond to:
- Questions about what kind of underglazes are permitted in the studio
- Correspondence about purchasing a new Blaauw front loader kiln (I know, awesome right?!)
- Our new slab roller purchase order has been submitted
- Our Ceramics Monthly subscription is up for renewal
- I need to submit my P-Card receipts to the Finance department
I read through our technician communication book to catch up on everything that went on since my last shift:
- Sink traps are full
- Our new hallway display cabinets finally arrived
- The gingerbread houses got bisque fired in time for glazing class (phew!)
- Gas kiln is full
- Kiln ‘A’ under-fired
- Maintenance is looking for the wedging wires that were removed when we removed the canvas from our wedging counter.
View of the studio from the kiln room.
I went through a large order of tools and supplies that we received while I was away to make sure everything arrived as ordered. A couple of things were not quite right so I had to email our supplier to see about fixing the order.
My volunteer arrived and she:
- filled the pug mill with recycled clay
- sorted and cleaned the throwing/trimming tool boxes
- sieved a glaze
- labelled a bunch of our new tools with Sharpie or nail polish before putting them out for use
I re-stocked our Pottery Tools Shop at the front desk with some new Mud Sponges and chamois.
I checked the firing logs for Kiln A that under-fired. It hadn’t under-fired previously so I’m going to leave the firing schedule as is. If it under-fires twice in a row, I’ll increase the peak temperature.
The witness cones from Kiln A that under-fired
A test tile from a freshly mixed batch of our blue/green glaze came out of the kiln green instead of blue/green.
Yay, a glaze problem! I go into glaze problem-solving mode.
- The kiln had under-fired. Could that be the reason? I doubt it, but I’ll test.
- Was it a new bag of copper? No, it wasn’t.
- Was there too much copper oxide added? This is most likely.
I dipped another test tile of the existing glaze batch to fire again to the correct temperature. If the new test comes out looking right, then the lower temperature was likely the issue.
I also made a new 500g test size batch of the glaze with half the copper oxide then dipped a test tile. I increased the copper oxide to its full percentage and dipped another test tile. If these tests come out looking right, then likely too much copper was added.
If that’s the case, I’ll fix the funky batch by making a new batch of equal size without any copper and I’ll mix it with the funky batch. This will cut the copper of the funky batch in half and hopefully return the glaze to its intended blue/green colour.
The tile on the left is what it’s supposed to look like. The tile on the right is the funky batch.
I discussed wheel heights with one of the drop-ins who asked if they could all be set to their tallest height to prevent hunching over. Another potter came in and sat down at one of the shorter wheels so I asked her what she prefers. She said she didn’t realize there were different heights.
I’ll poll more potters who choose the shorter wheels to see if they prefer them shorter or whether we should raise them all to their tallest height.
Half of our wheels. There’s another row on the other side of the pony wall. And our weird flexi-lights that look like antennae.
I discussed our new glaze buckets with a volunteer who’s concerned that there are bumps on the bottom of the bucket and this will affect how well they can be mixed.
Her concern is valid but there are limited bucket options available in the size we need, so we’ll have to make do with these ones.
I suggested using our long-handled “toilet brush” for stirring those buckets in order to thoroughly scrape all the glaze from the bottom.
I heard back from our supplier about the mix up of supplies. We’re going to do a switcheroo. They’ll send down the right items and have the wrong items picked up by the courier. I boxed up the return items and put them at the front desk for pickup.
I helped a drop-in deflocculate a coloured slip that she was using for image transfer. The slip was either too thick or too watery. Deflocculating was just what it needed to become thin but not watery. Like magic!
I replaced the expired cartridges on my half-face respirator. We replace them every 6 months and write the expiry date on them when we replace them.
DAY 1 LUNCH
After lunch, I had some shopping to do at a few stores around town. I bought:
- 18 large yellow sponges
- 2 long-handled spatulas for scraping the sides of glaze buckets
- 1 box of disposable gloves
- 3 special, flexible paint mixer attachments for mixing glazes in buckets with bumpy bottoms
THAT’S ALL FOR DAY 1
I had a much better commute this morning. It only took an hour and ten minutes to get to work. I listen to podcasts while I drive so I do enjoy the drive but sitting in my car for over an hour is a little hard on the back.
My volunteer was there when I arrived, already unloading the bisque kiln.
Today is registration day for our Winter/Spring programs so I checked in on our drop-in registration numbers when I got to work.
Registration opened at 6 am and both the Winter and Spring programs were full by 6:07!! By 8 am, they each had over 30 people on the waitlist.
Most of our classes were full with waitlists as well. This is normal for us but it does lead to disappointment when people can’t get into our programs. We’re always trying to brainstorm new ways to expand our offerings but our space is limited.
I responded to some emails including one request for a Spray Booth Tutorial. Given the busy time of year, I won’t be able to offer one until January.
I had a meeting with our Centre manager, our maintenance supervisor and another technician about the possibility of purchasing a new Blaauw front loader kiln. If you’ve never heard of them, look them up. They’re amazing for many reasons!
Five years of loading and unloading top loader kilns has taken a toll on my lower back and I’ve needed physiotherapy due to a recurring injury. Since there’s really no ergonomically safe way to load top loader kilns, we’re looking into other options.
Our new Blaauw kiln, if it gets approved, will have a track to roll out the shelving so we can safely load the kiln without having to lean in or bend at the waist.
On top of that, these kilns are very efficient with their energy use which is aligned with our municipality’s green initiatives.
They can also be loaded and unloaded in under 24 hours, compared to the 48-72 hours it takes for the kilns we have now. This will increase firing capacity so people are waiting less time for their pots and we can get lots of work through the kilns quickly.
Not to mention, we’d be able to program automatic gas reduction firings instead of manually monitoring and adjusting them for 10 hours each time.
Fingers crossed that this goes through and we have a nice, new, efficient and ergonomic kiln by the end of 2020.
View of the kiln room. 2 top loader electrics, 1 front loader electric and 1 gas kiln at the back.
I loaded a bisque kiln and then organized the kiln room a little bit, moving some of our warped kiln shelves off of our shelf racks to make room for the four new shelves that arrived last week.
I checked on the gas kiln witness cones at the request of another technician who loaded the gas kiln. The cones were a little bit up from the peep hole so she wanted to make sure I’d be able to see them during the firing. I wrote her a note that they were just fine.
Our Bailey gas kiln. Empty and full.
I went through the “Oops shelf” and cleared out pots that had been there for over a month. The Oops shelf is a place where we put pots that don’t meet our firing requirements.
Reasons your pots may end up on the Oops shelf:
- Your piece doesn’t have your initials and your class code on the bottom
- You have glaze on the bottom of your piece and need to wipe it off
- Your glaze comes too close to the bottom and you need to wipe it back a bit
- Your glaze is cracking and falling off because it’s too thick and you need to rinse and start again.
We leave little pre-printed notes with each piece explaining what needs to happen before we will fire it. We write the dates on these notes and give people a month to fix their pots and move them back to the firing cart. If they’re still there after a month, they get recycled if possible or thrown away if not.
I had a discussion with our building maintenance supervisor about the possibility of offering soft plastic recycling. So many clay bags get thrown away because we don’t offer a soft plastic recycling service. He told me that it was a possibility and he would look into getting a bin put in the studio. Thumbs up!
DAY 2 LUNCH
I prepared the pug mill so my volunteer could pug the clay that evening. Our pug mill will mix 250 lbs of clay at a time. We first fill the mixing chamber with clay from our big reclaim bin.
This clay is often very wet so we add dry clay to balance out the moisture content. I add a recipe of dry fire clay, ball clay and EPK to the mixer. This not only absorbs the excess water, but it increases the plasticity of the clay by introducing small, medium and large-sized clay particles back into the clay body.
If you want to read more about clay plasticity, check out this article I wrote about clay recycling. The article is about my home recycling system. I use a different system at work because I have access to different equipment and I also can’t control what gets thrown into the reclaim bin.
Our Peter Pugger clay mixer/pug mill.
I oiled some stiff glaze bucket wheels. Our glaze buckets are stored on bucket dollies with wheels that get wet and rusty over time, which prevents them from rolling freely. Every now and then the bearings need a bit of oil.
I helped a drop-in user with a loose Giffin Grip. It kept loosening its grip every time she stopped the wheel from spinning. I explained that coming to an abrupt stop will often shake it loose and by stopping gradually, it will stay snug.
I also decided that it’s probably time for a new Giffin Grip for the studio because the one we have is probably the first model ever made and we are due for an upgrade.
I explained to a drop-in user why some people cover their pots with a bedsheet before wrapping in plastic. When you just have plastic on your pots and the water evaporates, it can collect on the underside of the plastic and then drip back onto your pots.
By covering them with a piece of fabric, the moisture in the atmosphere around the pots under the plastic is more homogenized and the pots can dry more evenly.
I contacted Pottery Making Illustrated to get an invoice for our subscription.
I made a task list for volunteers before going home.
THAT’S ALL FOR DAY 2
I checked through the new Winter/Spring drop-in lists to see who will need a studio orientation. I made a list of new registrants who haven’t had an orientation yet for our Program Technician to call/email and get them registered. A one-hour studio orientation is mandatory before you’re granted unsupervised access to the studio. 2 previous pottery classes is also a requirement to register for the drop-in program.
I brought over some clay pugs from our storage closet to the clay room for easy access.
Pugs. pugs and more pugs!
Since a bunch of classes are finishing soon, I created and printed some slips with a schedule of times when beginners can come to finish their glazing with a teacher present. At the end of each 6-week pottery class, we offer another 2 weeks to finish glazing because not everything is out of the bisque kiln by the last class.
Experienced students can come do their glazing independently during our drop-in hours, but we offer a few windows of time where there’s an instructor present to help beginners.
I emailed the teachers to let them know about the beginner glazing times so they can let their students know during their last class.
I re-stocked our studio supply of band-aids.
I loaded a glaze kiln. I should probably have gone for lunch since it was after 1pm, but I really like getting kilns done before lunch so I know the most important task is done.
DAY 3 LUNCH
After lunch, I made some white slip for the studio and then it was time for me to go home!
AND THAT’S ALL FOR THE WEEK!
I’d say that’s a fairly typical 3 days at the studio. Every week is different, of course. There are always kilns to load, clay to recycle and glazes to mix but each week there are new problems to solve, new things to fix and new ways to improve the studio.
I hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look into my job as a ceramics studio technician.
If you’re running a studio and have any questions about how we run ours, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below. I’m happy to share.
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