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Economic Factors and Potters
By Jeff Zamek

Time and Labor
Most potters do not have a true economic sense of the time and labor involved in making pottery. They can suffer from a lack of business training and/or a romantic sense of the single craftsmen turning out much needed ceramic objects. The central economic fact in making handmade pottery is the significant cost of time and labor. It is not uncommon once capital expenditures (kilns, slab rollers, clay mixers, wheels, work tables) labor, fixed costs, variable costs, and other factors are calculated for potters to net only a few dollars per hour. Unfortunately, the cost of production is often hidden by gross sales potters make on their pottery. The true net profit on the pots is often not calculated. Potters not only have to buy the supplies make the pots and fire the kiln, but they then have to figure out how to sell the ware. In short, pottery is a labor-intensive marginal activity producing items for an aesthetically educated but limited market. Potters will always be at an economic disadvantage with the mass produced ware bought by the majority of consumers. An economic system based on mass production, marketing, advertising, and mass consumption is at the opposite extreme from the individual potter who produces, with little access to advertising, one of a kind limited production functional objects. Individual potters do not have the resources or the broad based expertise, organization and personnel to advertise and market their products as do the large ceramic manufacturing companies.

Hand MadeOf all the errors that can derail and eventually eradicate a pottery business it is the mistake of not calculating the actual cost of labor in producing pots. If a potters labor and time were accurately assessed for making one coffee cup it would cost the potential customer at least $35.00. How can a craftsperson compete with the K mart store "blue light" special coffee cups sold for $1.69? Sooner or later labor costs and their economic fact of life effects on the business will literally wear the potter down due to the constant need of more production to fill orders. The whole situation is magnified greatly if the potter has a high percentage of wholesale orders to fill as the net profit is cut by more than 50%. Placing pottery in stores on a consignment basis, with the hope of selling, is essentially giving the store owner free inventory. Potters are left making pots that require extensive labor and must compete against low cost alternative products for the same customer dollar. In most other industries this situation does not make for a good business model.

Variable Quality Raw Materials
In the world of ceramics there is a constant that affects all manufacturers of functional pottery, which includes professional potters, the ceramic industry, and hobbyists: The only thing consistent about raw materials used in pottery is their inconsistency in quality and subsequent performance. With this in mind let's look at the economic facts concerning raw materials. The process of making pots starts with assembling raw materials either for clay body or glaze formulas. If there is a failure in the quality of raw materials the ensuing pottery does not have much of a chance to be successful. Not only will the potter lose the actual pot to a raw material defect, he will lose the time it took to make the pot, glaze the pot, and the kiln space the pot encompassed during the bisque and glaze firings. Raw materials are a fragile component in the production cycle of making and firing pottery. Large-scale ceramics companies can dictate to the mine quality control parameters for a raw material or clay because they order millions of pounds per year. They also have trained staffs of technical specialists to oversee and correct defects caused by a failure in raw materials. Individual potters or small pottery producing companies are undercapitalized not having the resources for a technical staff and not having the ordering capacity to dictate to the mines the quality of clay they produce.

All of the economic conditions of small production potters and large ceramics producing organizations have one element in common: supply and demand. What does supply and demand have to do with the clay used in ceramics? Everything. If you are a large-quantity user of Edgar Plastic Kaolin and need millions of pounds per year to, say, make spark plugs (which, in fact, does happen), you could then go to the mines and say: "I need a white, easily pressed, high-temperature, clean-burning clay. It also has to be "guaranteed" to have these properties with every batch to insure quality control over the entire production run. At this point, the management at the mine looks at your large order and agrees on a specification for the clay you want, then sets a price. Everything is fine, the kaolin is delivered to the plant, and spark plugs are produced with no spit outs, iron specks or other defects, which could be caused by a substandard material. Other kaolins are also "guaranteed" as they are used in the manufacturing of paper. Kaolin added to the paper making process produces a white, opaque sheet of paper that does not show a bleed line when written upon.

Potters do benefit from knowing about this particular situation - meaning one bag of such clay is identical to the next, year after year - and use Edgar Plastic Kaolin with consistent results. Other virtually guaranteed raw materials are Custer feldspar, G-200 feldspar, nepheline syenite, whiting, dolomite, flint, calcined kaolin, Kona F-4 feldspar, magnesium carbonate and lithium carbonate, to name a few. This guarantee of uniformity, chemical composition and quality has not been forced on suppliers of raw materials by potters but by large industrial demands. Potters should simply take advantage of a situation that has been worked out by the large players in the supply and demand market.

Calcium Carbonate TabletAnother raw material commonly used by industry is calcium carbonate. A popular antacid tablet sold over the counter contains as the active ingredient calcium carbonate. Other large users of calcium carbonate in varied industries also use this material as it is found in chalk and pharmaceutical products. The demand for calcium carbonate by large industries "guarantees" a steady uniform supply for potters. In ceramic use whiting (calcium carbonate) supplies calcia oxide to glaze formulas and some low fire clay body formulas.

BlisteringUnfortunately, there is a down side to large industries using raw materials that are also used by potters. It occurs when the industry changes specifications for the material. Suddenly, a favorite clay body melts or bloats. Something in the raw material that the potter would consider a horrible defect might not be considered a defect by a larger user, thus it's allowed into the mine's batch to the large user. An example of a good clay for industry that is sometimes a bad clay for potters is A.P. Green Missouri fireclay. Used mostly in the brick and steel industries, it is a perfectly good fireclay for their products, but watch out for those specks of iron and manganese. They might ruin your best casserole. Why doesn't the mine remove the "impurities" before it ships the clay? Well, those impurities don't matter to the large industrial users. What are a few large specks in a brick? They aren't considered a defect, so why spend money adjusting or refining a clay that is acceptable to 99.9% of the market? Potters will always have a certain amount of difficulty using A.P. Green Missouri fireclay, Hawthorn Bond fireclay, Ocmulgee red clay, Kentucky ball clay (OM 4) and other such variable quality clays. The probability is high that over a given period of time there will be some "shift" in the quality in these clays, which will cause defects for potters. The same raw materials will cause no noticeable defects for the industries that use them in producing their products.

Mass Produced ItemOccasionally, a large industrial user of raw materials simply drops them from their inventory or doesn't need them any longer for their products. In such cases the raw material supply still exists in the mine, it's just not profitable for the mine to keep producing the clay for only a few potters. At that point potters will eventually exhaust the supply of material in their studios, or buy a supply of the material from other potters. In time they will have to find a substitute material that will produce the same effects in their clays and glazes. This scenario is a recurrent event in the history of raw materials potters have come to depend on for their formulas. Buckingham feldspar, Kingman feldspar, Oxford feldspar, Albany slip, Michigan slip, Gerstley borate, and countless other raw materials are still in the ground but not available any longer to the small market of potters.

Individual potters cannot order enough kaolin, or other types of "guaranteed" clays to demand a specific level of quality control from the mines or processing plants. They are forced to accept the raw materials as is, which in many instances means particle size variations, chemical composition deviations, and tramp material contamination. Inconsistent raw materials and the potters inability to change this economic fact are recurrent areas contributing to the loss of product. While ceramic suppliers, as a general policy, have limited liability on the clay they sell, it is the potters who suffer the greater loss. A ceramics supplier will replace "bad" clay but the potter will not be compensated for their time and labor in producing the defective pots caused by sub standard clay. The potter will also not be compensated as a general rule for the damage caused to kiln shelves or other kiln furniture caused by a defective clay or raw material. In many instances the potter must prove that the defect originated in the clay and not in their forming or firing procedures. Regardless, at some point an inconsistent material will cause damage to a whole load of pots causing a major financial loss for the potter who depends on a successful firing for their income.

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