Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hot Pepper Tiles

Like a lot of people, I really like hot peppers. Not so much to eat, anymore; I lost the tolerance I developed during my two-year sojourn in Singapore some time ago. I like the colors and forms and, in fact, not unlike quite a few other people, as it turns out, I've incorporated a lot of pepper imagery in my kitchen, including framed art, cross-stitch, glass and tile.

For many years, I had wanted to make tiles for my kitchen featuring small hot peppers. I took a class with Dave McGee at Pewabic Pottery some years ago  to learn the techniques of tile making but never really made anything. This winter, along with a number of other "on-hold" projects, I finally took the plunge and got down to business.

I had actually tried to make the tiles once before. I had molded the base tiles and had acquired some habanero peppers from my friends Barb and Ray Radtke. I cut one of the peppers in half (always use gloves and keep your hands away from your face when handling any hot pepper) and stuck one half on a tile, assembled the cottle boards (the four boards that are clamped together to delineate the mold), made my plaster and poured the tile.

A week or so later, I pulled the clay tile out of the mold and found... nothing. The pepper half, because it was not firmly anchored to the tile, had floated somewhere into the plaster, never to be seen again. So the first attempt aborted. But I had learned that I needed to find a way to really affix the pepper to the tile.

This winter, after my wildflower tile project (more about that in a future post) met with pretty resounding success, I decided to take the plunge. I went to Nino Salvaggio, the local market where I purchase my fruits and vegetables (among other things), and picked up two habanero, two jalapeño and two serrano peppers. I had already made twelve base tiles and had them stored, still moist. Working with one pepper at a time, I cut each in half, gutted the two halves,  stuffed them with clay and then stuck each half well onto a base tile.

Habanero Pepper Tiles
I usually do my mold making on a sheet of thick plastic drop-cloth, as it is easier to clean up. I assemble the cottle boards (flat boards with angle irons on one end that can be adjusted to fit various sized molds using spring clamps), allowing about one inch around the tile, seal the seams (between boards and between the boards and the table) with clay and place the master tile with the pepper in the center. I mix water with plaster at a 3:5 ratio for 90 seconds and then pour into a corner of the mold to minimize air bubbles; I also "jiggle" the mold a bit for the same reason. Once the plaster has fully solidified and cooled off (the chemical reaction between the water and plaster causes it to heat up), I can remove the cottle boards and clay seal and, using a shredder soften the sharp edges on the top of the mold. I set the mold aside for some time (maybe a day or so, but  it usually turns out to be about a week in my studio!) and then remove the clay master and pepper using wooden tools only - metal tools will damage the mold, even if the plaster has hardened. The mold should sit for a week before using.

Once I'm ready to make tiles, I lay a dedicated piece of canvas on my work surface, place the mold on it and put a well-wedged piece of clay with no obvious creases so it fits well into the mold. I push the clay with my fingers to make sure the corners and edges are all well filled; then, using a good-sized rubber mallet covered with an old sock, I pound the clay into the mold. You don't have to do this for a long time - just work from the center out to all the edges one time; sometimes I go around the edge just to make sure. Fold the excess clay that has "leaked" out around the tile up and over and use a cutting wire to take it off; I sometimes use a dull fettling knife to remove any remaining excess. Depending on how you're going to use the tile, it should be scored on the back for use as field tile and/or a place(s) for a nail added to hang (Kemper Tools JA32 is good for this). I set the tile to dry and then use synthetic steel wool to do final clean up. The tiles should dry completely before bisque firing, which I do at my usual Cone 06.

Jalapeño Pepper Tiles
Choosing glazes for this series was actually pretty simple. As with most of my work, I wanted to remain relatively "true" to the peppers' actual appearance. I used Amaco's Celebration series of glazes for the peppers - Chartreuse, Green and Scarlet Red for the jalapeño and serrano tiles; Chartreuse, Bright Yellow, Orangerie and Clementine for the habanero tiles. I used the Green for all the stems. I glazed the peppers using three brush-on coats of the glaze, applying the color for the body of the pepper first, then the stem. Once dry, I applied wax resist to the glazed areas. After the wax resist had been dry for some time, I glazed the rest of the tile with Amaco's Potter's Choice Saturation Metallic because I wanted a high contrast between the glossy brightness of the peppers; Saturation Metallic is a dark, satiny metallic glaze that looks quite a lot like the graphite you find in a pencil - it was the perfect complement. Using glazing tongs to hold the tiles and 2-ounce food service ladle, I poured two coats of glaze over the tile, rotating it 180 degrees to hold it from the opposite corner for the second half; this technique really minimized cleanup and glaze waste (which is a good thing, because this is not a cheap glaze!)

If you have clean, washed kiln shelves, you can just set the tiles on the shelves if you've made sure the glaze has been cleaned off the bottom face and the lower eighth inch of the sides of the tile. Otherwise, I just pop them on 1/2" posts and call it a day. I fire to Cone 6 in accordance with the glaze requirements.

Serrano Pepper Tiles
The results were better than I could have hoped; whereas I had started out making them solely for my kitchen, I realized these could actually sell when I started sharing them with folks. I went into production; they start rolling out into selected shops this week. (I also started making plain tiles to go with the figured tiles for my eventual kitchen project - for which I plan on using mostly Saturation Metallic with a few glazed with the Celebration Series colors scattered throughout, this last a suggestion by my friend Chelsea Martin.) I also decided to try making some larger, six-inch, tiles with larger peppers and have made the molds for poblano and bell peppers. Stay tuned as the Pepper Odyssey continues!

1 comment:

Alana said...

Mmmmm, those pepper tiles don’t just look hot – they’re also eye-catching, especially the habanero design. They would look good in Mexican-style kitchens since the Mexican cuisine usually includes peppers as a main ingredient. I'm looking forward to seeing other designs, including the mild pimiento and bell pepper. =)

Alana Geikie