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Tips for building studio in Ohio

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Potters in the Midwest, I need advice! I am planning to build a studio in SW Ohio. My present studio is an old, shaded, unheated greenhouse in northern California, near the ocean and I have never lived, let alone potted, in a climate like the Midwest. The climate here stays between 40 and 60 degrees most of the time, and the humidity tends to average around 75%.  I know that letting a studio get below freezing is bad for ware that hasn't been bisqued yet and messes with kiln controls, but that is as far as my knowledge goes. What do I need to consider? How warm should I plan on keeping the space if I want work to dry within a reasonable amount of time (say, 2 days)? What about the summer? How does the humidity and heat affect pottery (and potters)?  What else should I consider?   Thanks!

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Hmm, if you condition the space, which for winter you will need to do then very low relative humidity levels will exist and you will need to learn the speed that stuff drys. If you arę used to 75% relative humidity then you are familiar with things that dry slowly so summer (even conditioned) should be similar to what you are used to. Freezing is a no go for sure so definitely plan on heat for comfort and workability.

Lots of folks fire outdoors and yes some controls will not function till they are heated above freezing. This is often solved with a brief warmup with a heatgun or hair dryer.

You will definitely need to experience the seasons though at your conditioned comfort level. The relative humidity will definitely affect drying time, and your level of conditioning for comfort will affect the relative humidity.

Edited by Bill Kielb
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As someone who lives farther north, although I’m not super humid: MOST of the time, none of the kiln firing stuff is an issue, but it might happen a couple times a year. It will be a non-issue if your studio is heated. If you have a kiln in an unheated shelter of some kind, a hairdryer or heat gun won’t cut it to warm the thermocouple. You’ll burn it out. You will want to get a small electric space heater, and pop it in the kiln to run for a little bit before you load. Bonus, this will make loading more pleasant!  You need the inside of the kiln to be above freezing so your thermocouple can register anything. For the coldest times, Keep the thermal mass of your pots and kiln furniture in mind if you store them outdoors/unheated. If you have an old cone sitter kiln with no electronics, none of that is an issue. You can just turn it on and go, whatever the temperature. 

Humidity wise. In the beginning, you’ll want to be able to check your pots a few times a day to get the feel of how it’s working. My “humidity” can fall as low as 35% in the winter, although that’s a pretty dry week. Speeding up your drying is not the problem that time of year! Rims and edges will dry out very quickly, and I’ve seen freshly thrown pots go to nearly bone dry in 12 hours or less. If you make a lot of pots, I recommend building some form of damp cabinet, even if it’s just a matter of having lightweight vapour barrier plastic that you can drape over your shelves. If you don’t make too many things, you might be able to get away with clear plastic bins. You don’t need plaster inside if you don’t want, just a reasonable seal on the box. Or if you want to go old school, dry cleaner plastic over your wareboards. A spray bottle, or some damp sponges inside a container or damp cabinet can help slow things down as well. Flip anything that needs trimming as soon as it can support itself: rims will dry a LOT faster than the thick part you left for the foot, and trapping the humidity inside the pot is very effective at keeping things even. You’ll want to cover mugs for an hour or so after attaching handles to let the pieces marry properly. 

Right now because it’s a La Niña year, I’m getting rain, the air is heavy and it’s weird! 95% humidity is alien to me! If I had to live with this on a more regular basis and had to turn things around faster, I’d get a dehumidifier. While it’s slowing my drying, it’s not currently impeding my production too drastically, although I did add a one hour soak to the start of my bisque to make sure everything was fully dry before climbing above 100*C. 

If you’re going to be working in an unheated building like a shed, garage or barn, when the weather cools off, it takes longer and longer during the day for the inside to warm back up. It shortens the number of weeks you can work comfortably in your studio. If you want to work year round, you will have to insulate the building and find a way to heat it. The most fuel efficient thing when it gets really cold is to keep a minimally insulated building at a relatively steady temperature, and if you have a thermostat, not move it more than 3*C/6*F up or down if you are adjusting it when you’re not there. Much more than that, and you waste the energy you saved when you rewarm the space. 

Even though wet pots are more or less okay until the actual freezing point, working in an unheated studio when it’s cold is unpleasant. When I was still working in rental house garages, I found that once the weather dropped below 10*C/50*F overnight, the cold clay would hurt my hands when I was wedging. I’ve heard of some keeping their clay in an old unplugged fridge/freezer/cooler, but I’ve never tried this personally.  I highly suggest using hot water for throwing. While I haven’t tried this personally because I found the tip after I got a heated space, others have suggested using a thrift store crock pot in studios without plumbing to heat their throwing water. 

Something else to watch are your glaze buckets. Some glazes, especially ones that contain lithium, or borocalcium frits (looking at you,  Ferro 3134) can precipitate out some solids if they’re stored below I want to say 15*C/59*F. I don’t remember the exact number off the top of my head, and if someone else does, I’d be obliged.

The lithium crystals can be incorporated back into the glaze by dissolving them in hot water. The little calcium balls are much more resistant to being added back in. They don’t redissolve, and it’s a right nuisance to grind them down again. You need a mortar and pestle and a lot of frustration to work off! If you only wind up with a few of them, or small ones, it’s not a big deal, although the lithium glazes will have a much lower tolerance for material loss. If your glazes sit for 2 months and you get a lot of them though, it can affect your chemistry. My suggestion is to keep these glazes somewhere at least room temperature, and don’t allow them to freeze. Or, if you mothball your studio for the winter, use up what you have before the cold and mix fresh in the spring.

If your glazes do freeze by accident its not the end of the world, although it is a job of work to get them back in working condition. If the buckets freeze solid, they’ll hardpan like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Some will recommend scraping the solids off the bottom of the bucket with a large loop tool, but I favour a commercial sized kitchen whisk. You will be tempted to pull out a drill and a paint mixing bit: don’t. That will compact it harder. It’s slow going, but you can work out the lumps and re-sieve. 

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  • 4 weeks later...

Thank you all for the tips! It is good to know that there are ways to manage a kiln in an unheated space in winter if I have to. In a mild coastal climate like the one we are living in now, I wouldn't mind sharing space with a kiln, but the extra heat would be a bit much in summer in Ohio.  Yes, Mark, we are practically neighbors and my 93 year old father always drinks out of one of your mugs.  I wear lots of layers and heat my throwing water in winter (plug in water pot) to work in my present studio, but it gets a lot colder in Ohio.   I hadn't thought about how dry a conditioned space might be in winter -- good reminder.  We are planning a conditioned space, with the kiln being the one question mark, mostly because of zoning issues that limit the size of a studio with onsite sales to 20% of the size of the house and we don't want that much house.  

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