Topic: Articles

In the Studio: Keeping it Clean

I have never felt good about having my clay space in the basement of our home. No matter how much time I spend cleaning up, I am still concerned about clay and chemical dust migrating to the rest of the house. Recently, I set out to improve the situation. Most of these improvements focus on cleaning the mess at its source and not allowing it to spread.

To begin, I identified practices that could negatively impact my health and that of my family. I began with focusing on clay scraps and ways to prevent them from ending up on the floor and getting tracked throughout the studio and into my living space. My second focus was on the air quality in the studio.

Containing Clay Scraps

Left to their own devices, clay scraps generated by forming, trimming, and other clay practices will wreak havoc on a clean workspace. My first upgrade was the purchase of an industrial-quality vacuum cleaner equipped with a self-cleaning HEPA filter system (Unitec CS 1445 H, HEPA Dust Extraction Vacuum, 99.99% filtration efficiency). I use this to vacuum up leather-hard clay trimmings and scraps within minutes of generating them. I also fitted the edges of all work tables with plastic gutters. With a small window squeegee in hand, the scrap clay is easily moved off the work surface and into the gutter to be vacuumed out at the end of each work session.

Five Dirty Tricksters

Plastic bags, slab-roller canvas, throwing tools, throwing bats, and clothing—these all catch a lot of dust. Just picking up a piece of plastic with dried clay on it sends a cloud of dust into the air and scraps to the floor. I place all used plastic immediately in a covered 20-gallon plastic pail. If I need to reuse this plastic, I take the bucket outside and clean the plastic off in the open air.

Slab-roller canvases left to dry and then later handled are a real dust storm. After each use, I spray them down outside with a garden hose and leave them to dry on a clothes line.

1 Aluminum baker’s cart with casters.

2 Track-and-brace shelving system. Kiln furniture placed at a height to reduce bending.

When I throw, I place an 18-inch square piece of ½-inch upholstery foam on the wedging table next to the wheel. During use, all tools are placed on the foam. At the end of a work session, the tools are rolled up in the foam and moved to the sink for cleaning. The foam is washed with water and wrung out to dry.

I used to pile loosely cleaned bats on a shelf near my wheel. Moving them around generated scraps and dust. To remedy this, I built a simple rack to use as a dedicated home for the bats, which encourages me to do a better job cleaning them and helps with general studio organization.

Finally, if you wear dirty clay clothes and shoes into your living space, all of your other work is for naught as they will contain and spread clay dust and scraps. Wear a dedicated set of studio clothes and shoes and be able to change in and out of them before you move from one space to the next.

The Floor

My studio was slowly cobbled together over a number of years with as little expense as possible. The result was a mixture of garage-sale shelving and tables. Even when working consciously to keep clay and glaze spills off the floor, it still happens. When cleaning and mopping the space, the hodgepodge of self-supporting shelving and work tables made for a difficult task and the spaces beneath the bottom shelves and under work tables became nasty dust traps. To remedy this, I removed the old shelving and installed a track-and-brace system that attaches to the wall. Since this system has no legs, the floor space is open and vacuuming and mopping is done with ease.

Early on, I built a wedging table by creating a frame with construction lumber, filling it with plaster, and then covering it with canvas. This free-standing table was a heavy to move, difficult to clean dust trap. To remedy this, I constructed a new table surface from a reclaimed solid industrial door. I mounted this to the wall at a wedging height that works for my 6-foot 2-inch frame using angle iron and front supports braced to the wall to create a legless work surface. I replaced the plaster and canvas wedging surface with a simple 3/4-inch piece of exterior-grade plywood that I stretched canvas over. My new wedging board was sized to fit into my utility sink, making it easy to clean after each use.

Currently all of the perimeter floor space in my work room is open and free of obstacles when cleaning. I also painted the concrete floor with a 2-part epoxy floor paint to make it easier to wet mop. I placed Teflon sliders under the wheel and table legs so they move with ease for cleaning. My reclaim clay and glaze buckets are on wheeled dollies. I also purchased a used aluminum baker’s cart on wheels. The cart is used to store green and bisque ware. For the rest of the studio furniture, large equipment, and glaze buckets, if it is not mounted to the wall, it is on wheels—Harbor Freight’s moving dollies work well for this.

3 Table with wedging board, exhaust, and air-exchange fan. Industrial vacuum and anti-fatigue mat. Wheel with leg extensions.

4 Tools hung or stored in 1-liter measuring cups and drying rack.

Sink Area

To keep my sink area clean, I tacked rows of finish nails into 2×3-foot panels and attached them to the walls adjacent to my sink. I then made small holes in as many of my tools as I could so that they can be washed and hung up to dry rather than throwing them in a container with a bunch of other tools. This makes them easy to find and prevents clay residue from forming in the bottom of containers. Tools that can’t be hung up are placed in 1-liter measuring cups that hang by their handles off what is essentially a wooden towel bar attached to the wall above the sink. All of this reduces the clutter and mess around the sink area. On the small counter space next to the sink, I have placed a large aluminum baking sheet on top of which is placed a low-sided plastic crate, which acts a drying rack.

Finally, I placed heavy rubber anti-fatigue mats in front of my sink as well as my wedging table. The mats create a non-slip surface and the holes in these mats trap clay scraps until they can be vacuumed. The mats are rolled up and taken outside for a weekly cleaning with a garden hose.

Air Quality

To improve the air quality in my workspace, I installed an industrial fan that functions both for exhaust and air exchange. In the exhaust-fan mode, exiting air is pulled across the surface of the table I use for working, wedging, and glaze mixing. By opening and closing a couple of gate valves, exiting air can be directed to pull from a hood under the table, which is home to my vacuum cleaner. While the vacuum cleaner is HEPA rated at 99.99%, having it live under an exhaust hood makes me feel .01% better about it! The 15-foot hose on my vacuum allows me to reach all areas of the studio without moving it. A central VAC system is also a good, but expensive option.

Exhaust fans have a cfm (cubic foot per minute) rating. A fan with 100 cfm rating will move 100 cubic feet of air per minute. While I could not find a recommendation on air exchange rates specific to a clay studio, by looking at online data (www.industrial
fansdirect.com/pages/exhaust-fan-cfm-calculator
) for other applications, I settled on 10 air exchanges per hour as appropriate for my studio. The link above contains a calculator to help you determine a cfm rating required for your application.

When installing an exhaust fan, you must also consider a fresh-air intake. A local heating and ventilation contractor recommended that the fresh-air-intake duct be at least equal to the size of the exhaust and up to twice its size. (A larger air intake allows for more efficient operation of the exhaust fan.) For me, this was easy because I have two windows on the opposite side of the room from my fan. If windows are not present, the air would need to be brought in through a duct. When doing this kind of work, it is important to consult with a HVAC professional to know and understand local codes. In older homes with passive-exhaust gas water heaters and furnaces, you could create a situation where your exhaust fan is drawing the exhaust from your gas appliance back into your home, which could be a deadly situation.

In the end, my simple system is not perfect. It brings in untempered outside air, which means things will get cold during the Wisconsin winter. I did install a variable-speed control on the fan so that I can reduce the number of air exchanges during cold months and will run a HEPA-rated air cleaner in the space in the winter.

This and That

I moved all my dry glaze chemicals to the garage and try to mix most of my glazes outside during non-winter months. I have a dedicated hamper for a pair of Crocs and clay clothes that I change into and out of in the studio. I am sometimes frustrated as it seems I spend as much time cleaning as I do making, but in the end, I sleep better knowing I have taken steps to establish a cleaner work and home environment. 

Dan Ingersoll taught for 35 years as a public school art teacher, 17 of them teaching high school ceramics, and continues to pursue his passion for clay and sculpture in his retirement.

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