make new friends, but keep the old

the song i learned at 6 in girl scouts still rings true....

In case you are new to the Bracker Community/Family, you may not know that just a few years back, we purchased Flint Hills Clay Works from its retiring owner, Les Byer.  With that, we inherited all of his tried and true stock clay body recipies, plus probably a hundred special blends that he has mixed over the years.   But the clay recipe is just where it starts.  I’ve learned in the last couple of years just how hard mixing quality clay bodies and working in custom bodies actually is.  I don’t mean hard in terms of the physical labor, it’s that too, but i’m talking about the other side of it.The scheduling & management of it all.  It’s a fun puzzle, sometimes, figuring out the order in which to mix things, and managing the inventory (both the stuff needed to mix clay and the amounts of each finished body), anticipating needs, considering the time of the year, both in terms of demand and temperatures.  Honestly, it’s all stuff I kind of love…puzzles & discrete mathematics, and if you know me already, you probably already guessed that I created a spreadsheet to track everything, complete with multiple sheets, VLookups, dependencies, conditional formating, cost analysis.  It’s kind of magical, actually.  But it didn’t start there.  We were so lucky to start mixing clay with Les’s 40 years of experience.  I didn’t have to re-invent the wheel (or in this case, invent any clays!).  I was armed with a PILE of recipe cards and a 60+ page manual that basically gave me every piece of information I needed to be a successful clay manufacturer.  This binder, as you can see in the image, is called the ACHE manual.  Because yes, your body will ACHE when you start mixing clay, but really, it stands for Amazing Clay Handling Experience (Les has a great sense of humor). And for the first year, I think I practically slept with that clay binder, and I’m pretty sure i emailed Les about once a month with more questions.


Almost prophetically,

our Missouri Gold sample cup broke about a month before we found out a main ingredient would no longer be available

along the way, some things happened...

  1. Christy Gold Fireclay, one of the primary ingredients in the popular cone 6 “Missouri Gold” stock body became no longer available (Les had warned me this was likely to happen).
  2. I died my hair red, and then was inspired to
  3. start making things out of red clay which led to…
  4. I got curious about red clay bodies

Plus i called Pete…

Pete Pinnell, professor of Ceramics at University of Nebraska at Lincoln and the incoming president of the NCECA organization is known for being one of the top technical minds in ceramics (actually, one of the top across the board – aesthetics, history, teaching, pretty much everything).  Pete wrote a monthly article for Clay Times for years, and continues to be generous with his time and talent.  He is often my go-to person for technical/material questions that I can’t find the answer to in books (I always check my books first).  He listened patiently to the research I had already done, confirmed or corrected as needed and encouraged me to experiment with some of my ideas for new and/or improved clays

Red Clay Love

I started making hanging succulent planters out of red clay as prizes for a bike race. (They are hard to photograph….)


The Quest for Gold….

Here in Kansas, and Lawrence specifically, we never really stocked or sold the Missouri Gold, so we had no idea how popular or how lovely it was until we bought Flint Hills.  (for those of you scratching your heads wondering what the heck Lawrence has to do with Missouri, there is an intense rivalry between KS (and especially Lawrence) and MO with a deep history all the way back to the civil war.  When we talk about “border wars,” we aren’t kidding.  Lawrence was burned down 3 times in raids in the 1860s by “Missouri Ruffians”. We’ve mostly moved past it…mostly)

But like i said, it’s a beautiful and popular clay body, but it was dependent on a specific fireclay refined in a specific way by Christy Minerals.  It was basically purchased by only one person….Les, and it simply wasn’t economical for them to continue to mine and refine it based on the 3000# per year demand, so they discontinued it.  I can’t blame them, but it did offer a puzzle (remember i like puzzles) of how to create a similarly colored body with similar other properties.   The missouri gold originally was fireclay (combination of the darker christy gold and just regular hawthorn), ball clay & and a bit of feldspar.   So my first attempt was the same amount of regular fireclay, and then adding some Redart & Kaolin in a 3-1 ratio to compensate for the golden fireclay.    It came out kind of a dark redish brown color. (See picture at the right)  Looked pretty similar to our 5/6 red, actually….it was boring and i didn’t like it.  
BUT, at the same time, one of my other tests came out this slightly darker than buff color, which was also boring and i didn’t like it much either (see picture at the left), but I thought…hmmmm a hybrid of these might be magic!   So i basically mixed the two bodies in my head and came up with a recipe that was basically the child of these two parents.  The result was still not Missouri Gold.  But i liked it a lot.  It was a  new development…kind of my first clay baby, and really, i was sort of happy it wasn’t actually Missouri Gold.  Because like i said, we’re MOSTLY past it, but i was born and raised in Lawrence, I’m a Jayhawker through and through, and I am quite happy that my first clay body is what I have named “Kansas Wheat”. Totally perfect, i think:

Kansas Wheat,

(Shown here handbuilt, fired to cone 5 electric and unglazed and with a succulent, because why not?) 

We are excited to announce this clay body has been mixed into its first full test batch and is ready for testing “in the (wheat) field”.  If you have already emailed us or filled out our Clay Body Testing form and indicated you want some, you will be directly contacted soon about getting the clay to you.  If you missed hearing about this opportunity, it’s not too late.  We still have some un-spoken-for blocks of clay for testing.  Just fill out this form and we’ll be in touch!  We will continue to do more testing to find a body that matches Missouri Gold.  Stay tuned for more mad scientist moments of  (insert imagery of Cindy throwing “potions” into a giant cauldron and waiting for something to make fireworks…

And to echo what I wrote at the top, make new friends, but keep the old…these new clay bodies will not be replacing current Flint Hills recipes.  The 5/6 red isn’t being replaced, and we are STILL going to pursue the missouri gold colored body.  We’ll also be making more new friends….did you catch what I said about red porcelain?  mmmm it’s luscious, it just needs a bit longer in the cauldron, so to speak.

Red is the color of love, and of passion. Red is also the color of insanity

My dad’s favourite shirt when i was growing up was a bright red shirt with a black outline of Van Gogh’s self portrait.  “Lend an ear, Vincent,” the shirt read.  It was my first art history lesson.  I would give just about anything to have that shirt now, because just thinking about it makes me smile.  They say there is a fine line between genius and insanity.  My dad definitely tiptoed on that line.  He would proudly proclaim that red was his favourite color because it was the color of insanity.  Me too.  

Have you ever seen red clay while it is mixing?  It’s so beautiful…silky smooth and it looks like blocks of milk chocolate coming out of the pugmill.  Low fire red shale clays made with redart fire out like flower pots at 06, and as you get hotter, they are a richer, darker brick red.   The Flint Hills Clay line up also includes a Cone 5/6 Red clay.  If you have ever shopped at Brackers, you have likely seen the really cool cup that a customer made using the red plus the buff and black, all of which feature similar shrinkage rates and can be blended and used together quite successfully. We also have a cup that Les made out of the 5/6 Red as an example.  But there’s one problem with both of these.  The 5/6 red really isn’t red these days.  WHAT????  Yes, take a look:

So what to do?  RESEARCH… I did a lot of research.  Digital Fire, plus mom’s library (in particular, the Chappell & Hamer books), and then I started to synthesize.  I took two approaches.  ONE was to modifying the existing Flint Hills recipe.  I  started with 3 changes.  Well, 2 really.  In one, I added more redart and took out some fireclay.  The second, I left those alone and JUST added some red iron oxide, and in the third, i did both things.  I mixed up some test batches of those and just made test bars.  I also created 4 other tests from scratch.  two were fireclay based with different red clays and ball clays added and two were actually kaolin based (I have this dream of a red porcelain…but more on that in a future post). After reviewing the fired samples, I refined my recipes and ran some more tests.  6 more tests yielded a nice variety of red colors.  With this array of recipes and I have arrived on what i think will be as close to theoriginal color of the 5/6 red as we can get with current veins of red shale clays.  When it came down to it, there were two recipes that i liked, and i really wanted a hybrid of them.  SO much like i did in creating Kansas Wheat, I merged the two into one recipe, and we have mixed up a batch of it.    

Red Rover (...?)

(Shown here thrown, fired to cone 5 electric, unglazed with a different  succulent,) 

We are excited to announce this clay body has been mixed into its first full test batch and is ready for testing  AND naming.  We had been calling it “Rederrr” but for a variety of reasons, we can’t name it that.  So while on the phone with a customer, we came up with Red Rover.  That’ll be the name unless someone comes up with something better!!!!  If you have already emailed us or filled out our Clay Body Testing form and indicated you want some, you will be directly contacted soon about getting the clay to you.  If you missed hearing about this opportunity, it’s not too late.  We still have some un-spoken-for blocks of clay for testing.  Just fill out this form and we’ll be in touch!


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