Friday, 7 October 2011

How it's made.....soft cleaning

The third stage in miniature porcelain dollmaking is the most tedious, boring, monotonous task in the entire process.  


This follows on from soft-firing, and although it is my least favourite task, it is one of the most important, as it ensures a smooth surface, removing seamlines and any other marks and blemishes left over from the casting stage.

Here you can easily see the seamlines on a soft-fired casting.

I always approach soft cleaning sessions with a mixture of resignation and dread.  Although the soft firing strengthens the greenware castings, they are still very delicate and easily broken so must be handled very carefully to avoid damage.  As a result, after half an hour or so, I have to make a conscious effort to relax my shoulders down from my ears.  Then there's having to sit with my hands in water for hours at a stretch.  I start off with it as hot as I can stand it, but it soon cools and I don't notice until my fingers start to turn blue.

The upside of soft-cleaning is......... well to be honest I'm struggling to think of any, except perhaps that I get to put my brain in neutral and give myself over to Radio 4 for the whole day.

Before I start I assemble everything I need - towel, double basin, used scalpel blade, fine cleaning pads, natural sponge, china glaze and extra fine paintbrush.  I also use a magnifying lamp to help with cleaning the tiny faces.

Firstly the soft-fired castings are soaked in water, which must be no warmer than lukewarm. If they are immersed in water which is any hotter, air which may be trapped in cavities inside the bodies will expand, and the piece will explode.  This happens with quite a  startling, loud POP when you least expect it!  I use a double basin so I can have my hands in warm water for the cleaning, while the castings soak in cold water.

Soaking the castings in lukewarm water. 
Most air bubbles escape though pouring or stringing holes.

After soaking for 10 minutes or so, I can begin the cleaning process, as all of the castings will have fully absorbed the maximum amount of water.  Prominent seam lines must be fettled with a scalpel blade.  I prefer to use a blade with has been used to trim castings and which as a consequence will not be too sharp.  New blades have a tendency to cut into the castings.

Carefully removing seam lines with a bluntish blade
Then using a special very fine abrasive pad, the remainder of the seamlines are smoothed off, along with any blemishes on the surface of the greenware.  

 Smoothing lines and blemishes with abrasive pad

The 'dust' from the greenware is held in the water on the surface of the casting in the form of a fine paste, which acts like micro scouring powder to gently remove lines and marks.  I then add my initials to the back of the doll using the point of a scalpel.   

Incising my maker's mark

Each soft-cleaned casting is set aside on a towel to dry slightly, until the sheen of water has evaporated from the surface, making it easier to check the faces.  Any blemishes on the faces are removed by rubbing my thumb over the area. The ridges which make up my fingerprints are  just abrasive enough to smooth the surface without obliterating tiny details such as noses and lips.  Faces will be checked several times to ensure they are as perfect as possible.

I prefer to use a special underglaze for the whites of the eyes, which is added at this stage, when the castings are not too wet and not too dry.  Being left handed, the left eye (as I'm looking at the doll) is easy peasy, but painting in the right eye is not.  So  have to turn the doll at right angles to achieve an almond-shaped eye.  Obviously both eye whites must be the same size and shape, which is where the magnifying light comes in useful.  Even so, it sometimes takes several attempts..... if I make a mistake I wash off the glaze with a natural sponge, let the casting dry out slightly, and try again.

Glazing the eye whites

Bear in mind too, that the biggest doll heads are roughly the size of a pea, while the smallest are only marginally bigger than a peppercorn.

Mad or what?

The soft-cleaning process also applies to the tiny toy animals and nursery rhyme toys which I make in porcelain.  The most difficult of these are the little Humpty Dumpty toys, which have spindly little legs attached to the egg-shaped head/body, which can ping off unexpectedly despite the very gentlest cleaning.  Out of every 10 Humptys, perhaps only 2 will emerge unscathed from the soft-cleaning stage.

But it doesn't end there.

No by no nonny no.

For every little toy doll, there are two arms and two legs, which must also be cleaned to remove seam lines and blemishes.  That's 4 tiny limbs for every one of these.......

There's 92 different dolls, so that's 368 individual limbs to carefully clean.  From dainty ballerina arms and pointed toe legs and tiny 1" babies, to a brand new range of marionettes, with specially modified arms and legs.

It can take up to a week to soft-clean enough castings to fill my kiln by which time I have invariably lost the will to live and make a solemn vow NEVER to soft-clean EVER again.


Cate and David said...

I am loving this series of posts! If anyone has any doubt how much work is required to make one of these exquisite little dolls - this certainly clears it up! Oi! I stand in awe!

rosanna said...

OMG !!!!

Dave Williams said...

How on earth do you have the patience for all that cleaning up, I would commit suicide if I had that much to do.

Sandra Morris said...

I'm glad you're enjoying it. Soft-cleaning is about half way through the entire process of creating a tiny porcelain doll so there's more to come.

My sentiments exactly!

Yes you're right.
A labour of love it is not.


Robin said...

This is really fascinating Sandra - a great post1