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Tour Heath Ceramics | Centennial Style

When I enter a retail store or boutique, I often find myself drawn to beautiful colors, patterns, or shapes of ceramic vessels. Ceramics are an integral part of design due to their practicality and beauty, and their craft can be traced back thousands of years. Every vessel we see or buy was once just a piece of clay until an artisan or group of craftsmen transformed it into something purposeful and beautiful.

I started working with ceramics two years ago and fell in love with the process and understanding all the stages. I started by hand making and then moved on to the wheel, I experimented with various clay bodies, glazes and tools to bring my ideas to life. So I have a lot of respect and admiration for potters and the industry, and I get this weird feeling when I talk to anyone who knows anything about ceramics.

On Sunday, I visited Heath Ceramics in Sausalito, a ceramics factory known in the design world for its craftsmanship and quality.The company has recognizable patterns, such as the 1940s coupe line and Plaza Lineand working with chef Alice Waters, House of Panisse Line tableware.

How cool is it to be able to see inside the organization where the magic happens! If you’re keen on learning how to make things, here’s a peek inside and a summary of the process of making the decorative and functional ceramics Heath produces and sells.

Concepts and Experiments

Heath Ceramics was founded by Edith Heath in 1948 when she began making pottery on a small scale, using the wheel to create original designs that were the beginnings of forms that are still sold today (see historical catalog here). She founded her company in the post-war period, when few women ran their own companies.

Many of the vessels and tableware sold today were made by Edith Heath. Internally, the Heath team is still testing new designs, glaze colors and finishing techniques for the ceramic range.

The sister store in San Francisco houses the Heath Clay Studio, where more experimentation with new designs, glaze colors and techniques takes place.

Form of creation: slip-casting, Jigger and Jolley

The clay body is homemade and sourced from local quarries. In a vat-like machine, the clay is mixed with water to form a slurry, which is a mixture of clay and water that is the consistency of pancake mix. Plaster molds are made in-house and the mud is carefully poured into the molds. After a short period of time, the remaining mud is poured out of the mold and the shape of the container is formed.

Plaster molds allow companies to maintain consistency in size and shape of every part formed in the facility. Plaster molds have a limited shelf life and use time, so they are marked with a black check mark to indicate how many times the mold has been used before being scrapped.

Other popular tableware and cutlery shapes are created through jig and pleasure machines. A jig is a shaping tool that is slowly lowered onto a body of clay on a rotating plaster mold. This technique is used to create hollowed out plates and bowls.

fine-tuning

Once the parts are formed, they are placed on racks to allow moisture to evaporate, then trimmed and sanded to maintain uniformity. Rather than employing the low-temperature bisque firing common in most ceramics studios, Heath skipped this step and allowed the slip-cast pieces to become completely dry before rotating them to the glazing station.

Glazing process

In order to make ceramic waterproof and non-porous, it must be vitrified through a process of glazing and subsequent high-temperature firing. Glaze is applied to the surface of a tile or container to give it its final color and finish. Glazes are individually hand-sprayed by skilled craftsmen in small spray booths, and the weight is then carefully measured to ensure application consistency.

Glazes are made from a variety of chemical formulas and assume an opaque color prior to firing and are not representative of the final color and finish of any piece.

Since glaze turns into a glassy substance when fired at high temperatures, it is important to remove enough glaze from the base so that it does not stick to the kiln shelf. The belt sander mechanically removes enough glaze from the bottom of the container to allow for successful firing in the kiln and allows easy removal after cooling.

If you turn any ceramic piece over you will notice that part of the glaze on the bottom has been removed and the clay body is exposed, this is done so that the ceramic piece does not stick to the kiln shelf!

shooting

The final step in modern ceramic creation takes place in the kiln. Loading these correctly requires skill. At Heath they use top hat gas kilns for large scale production.

The glazed pieces are carefully loaded onto kiln racks and then fired in the kiln to 2,000 degrees, where the glaze melts and becomes matte or glassy during a heating and cooling process that takes up to 8 hours.

quality control

After cooling, the parts undergo quality control. Items that are unusable or deemed imperfect are labeled and separated, and often sold at a discounted price as “defective” items. You can buy a slightly imperfect second hand at your local store.

It’s fascinating to see the process from the gray clay body to the slip cast part, through the fine-tuning stages, glazing, and then firing in the kiln. Making ceramics is very manual and time-consuming, but the results are beautiful!

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Heath is a vertically integrated, employee-owned company with all of their design, manufacturing and sales in-house. They are also a certified B Corporation with a showroom open to the public.

Heath also sells tableware, decorative ceramics and gifts on their website. Please visit the Heath Ceramics San Francisco location Monday through Friday from 10am to 6pm and Saturday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm.The Sausalito factory and showroom is open to the public daily from 10 to 5 p.m.

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