All of us potters and ceramics artist usually don’t like recycling clay. When I took pottery classes, clay recycling was taught as the most annoying, messy and daunting activity you could do in the studio. Spoiler : it’s not, cleaning is.
As it turns out, I’ve been making more and more tableware recently so there were loads of clay scraps lying around the studio. I hate to throw things away and with figurines and handmade porcelain jewelry, I basically have zero waste. So seeing all the clay lost in a single trimming session did not make me happy. I had to recycle clay. It was unavoidable but it also looked like a huge commitment. I decided to take it easy and recycle clay the lazy way.
This article covers recycling clay by hand, there’s no pugmill involved in the process.
This method works for recycling a bone dry block of clay, it will only take longer when the clay is in a big block rather than scraps and trimmings. You can also recycle any piece that didn’t make it through trimming until the dry bone stage. Cracked pieces will go through reclaiming too, as it will actually waste less time than trying to repair an S cracked bottom. I mean, I tried, like all of you to save a cracked rim or an S cracked bottom. And like all of the older potters, I came to the conclusion that reclaiming S cracked pieces is the easier way, you gotta learn to let go ^^
1. Recycling Clay requires discipline
When you decide to recycle clay, lazy doesn’t mean disorganized, you’ll have to pay attention in order for it to be the least work possible. First, I don’t mix clays. I have several bags – old bags of clay because recycling clay isn’t about just the clay. Each bag is identified with the clay body type that it holds. It’s important because when you deal with several white clays for example, you will mix them up. And then your recycled clay body properties might change. If you only throw one white and one red, you should be fine although I really like to write up what’s in the bag.
I store the bags on a shelf and add corresponding clay scraps to each bag as I go along. I add trimmings, bat scraps and any clay that’s left over. I don’t let it dry, I keep the moisture it already has. When a bag is half full, I add a decent amount of water. What I’m looking for is a melted ice cream kind of feeling. This ensures that the air bubbles mostly get out of the recycled clay.
That’s why there is no recipe : the amount of water depends on how wet your scraps are, and how much clay there is. The type of clay can also be a factor. Recycling clay follows a learning curve and you’ll try with your own clay and settings to achieve the best results and process for you.
TIP : If you have a new bag of clay that dried up, there actually is a recipe ! Awesome ! You can just weigh your dried bag, the amount of water is needs is what’s missing from it’s initial factory weight.
2. Reclaiming clay takes time
Once I’ve added water to the bag of scraps, the clay isn’t mixed and there will be hard and soft parts. That doesn’t really matter because I’m fully relying on time and water chemical properties. In any given environment, water will try and even itself to achieve a balanced moisture level. If you close your bag, it will take a few days but eventually, water will soften the whole bag of clay.
Some people like to make it more of a slurry and mix it with a plaster mixing tool, if your clay recycling is time sensitive, it’s a good way to do it too. Here’s a great podcast episode about recycling clay by the way.
Immerging your closed bag of recycling clay in a bucket of water will also speed things up.
When you don’t feel clumps anymore, your clay is ready to dry up.
3. Drying recycled clay
When you’re ready to dry clay, the best way is to get a plaster slab. The plaster will help absorb excess water evenly. It’s all a game of wetting the dry and drying the wet all over again.
Depending on the amount of clay and the moisture, this can take several days. I try and put an even coat of recycled clay on the plaster and just wait. If I have to leave the studio for more than a day, I’ll put the recycled clay back in the bag and repeat the process when I’m back.
The plaster slab used was already in the studio so I don’t have much info about it but it’s a regular, thick plaster rectangle. It’s really nondescript. I bet you can make your own watching some videos about plaster. Take care as it’s a finicky material and you should follow instructions carefully.
You could also dry clay on canvas but it would take longer, it’s easy and faster to use plaster slab for recycling clay.
4. Wedging your recycled clay
When your clay isn’t sticky anymore, it might be time to wedge it. I recommend wedging it thoroughly and what I like to do is divide it in throwable balls that will be ready to use.
That’s it, as you can see, there isn’t one recipe to recycling clay, it’s more of one process per potter.
5. Tips to recycling clay and more
A few tips that were helpful to me as I recycle clay by hand
- I keep clay bodies separate and try to work on only one on a given day, cleaning up at the end of the day.
- I write what’s in the bag, I cannot stress this enough
- I take all the time I need to do it
Why clay reclaiming is important
To me, recycling clay is an essential part of the work. I couldn’t waste perfectly good material, especially clay, which is reusable forever, as long as it’s not fired. I have an environmentally friendly policy and values, so this was a no brainer.
Clay is basically extracted from mines and it takes a lot of energy to get a bag of clay from the factory to me. Even with local clay, this is a heavy process. Recycling clay ensures that I make the most of the material and keep it as sustainable as possible.
To advertise or not to advertise recycled clay
I do not advertise the fact that some items are made out of recycled clay.
For the very simple and excellent reason that once it’s thrown and dried, there is no difference with the ‘new’ clay. If anything, recycled clay is often better to work with because it went through an extra mixing step. The more mixed a clay is, the better it actually throws.
Once my batch of recycled clay is on the shelf with other pieces, there’s no way I can tell which is which. That’s why you might have a recycled clay piece or a new clay piece, it really doesn’t change anything.
I hope this was helpful, and if you don’t already recycle clay in your studio : please try it !