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Ceramics Workshop 2014

Sunday: January 18, 2015

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I attended Indiana State Museum’s Conservation and Mending of Low-Fired Ceramics workshop a few months ago. It was great!

On the first day, following a brief lecture about the need for archaeologists to understand how to conserve and mend pottery (because not everyone can afford an actual conservator), we opened by breaking terra cotta pots.


We then learned the process of consolidation, which I knew nothing about. Essentially, ceramics can be very friable – especially low-fired ones such as that in prehistoric archaeological sites – so it is important to reinforce them structurally before gluing them together. That is where an acrylic resin solution (dissolved in acetone) called B-72 comes into play. We used several solutions: 3%, 6%, and 12% to consolidate and 50% to glue. By using B-72, if needed, you can break the mend with a simple acetone vapor bath (which I also learned how to do).

Slender strips of painters tape was used to piece it back together and label the order we would glue the them back together in. We were also asked to leave two pieces out – one from the rim and one from the body (mine included a bit of the base which was a little problematic later).


We then painted around our missing areas with cyclododecane – a type of wax that sublimates (disappears) in room temperature over time. I painted a smiley face to watch it change. The point of this part is so that when we poured plaster, we didn’t get little specks of it around the missing portion.


The next process was to use dental wax to work as a backing for the plaster. Since mine included a little of the bottom, I had to use a roll of clay along the edge as well (this is more evident in the photo below). We mixed some plaster up, poured it on, and let it set.


On the second day, we then learned how to sand the plaster using tiny sticks (these can be seen standing in the rice; we used 220, 400, and 600 grit sand paper). You can also see how my smiley face had started to disappear.


We also took a small scalpel to pop off any bubbles of B-72 that squeezed through from the previous day’s mending.

Then, we learned how to use varaform (a thermoplastic mesh that acts like cloth when briefly set in warm water, then dries hard). Using clingwrap for protection, we pressed the veraform against the pot to get the shape of the rim.


The next part was tough – cutting the varaform to fit inside the missing area. Don’t cut enough, and it will not fit flush. Cut too much, and you cannot glue it to the pot with B-72. Plus, it is thick and difficult to cut. Aside from sanding and filling in the veraform, this probably took me the longest.


Back it with some dental wax again, and the fun time of filling it in came. We used vinyl spackling this time, but the problem here is getting it to fill without air bubbles. It was tedious, but mine came out ok.


Last, in some pieces that will be showcased, like at a museum, the fill needs to be painted to avoid drawing the eye away from the overall piece. We were provided paint chips and small plaster turtles or frogs to try to match. I tried to just match the terra cotta color on my turtle. It was difficult, but I like to think I got pretty close. Part of this project was also to see how paint takes differently to consolidated and non-consolidated plaster (the lighter areas had B-72; the darker areas did not; the whiteish areas are where I wiped the pigment off).

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It was a little pricey for me with my uncertain job outlook and all that, but it was really informative and worth it – we got a handbook of all kinds of articles and supply lists. I am so glad I did not let the price deter me! Gaby and Michele did a great job keeping it fun but educational and answering all of our questions. I got to try out the Eiteljorg Museum Cafe, got some behind-the-scenes look at the Indiana State Museum, and Gaby showed me how to properly hang my crazy quilt which is currently just draped over a giant curtain rod.

Plus, I got to hang out with these fools, in a Schwitzer Wonderland, complete with plastic – uh, I mean ice – skating, so I won’t complain.



I also realized that I just must be a student for life. As Gaby was explaining what she does at the museum, it was like meshing my artsy side with my academic side and I said, “hey, maybe I’ll go back to school to be a museum conservator!”. So, that is on the table now, alongside zooarchaeology, still, and teaching human anatomy (which may be a thing here, local to where I live if Dr. T has his way!). Of course, if only I lived in Indy, where the opportunities seem to already abound…


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