PPP - The Economics of Raw Materials

March 1, 2001
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Dinnerware set fired to 2300ºF, using T3 clay produced by Sheffield Pottery, Inc.
In the world of ceramics, one constant affects us all, from large industrial users to individual potters: The only thing consistent about raw materials is their inconsistency. With this in mind, let’s look at the economic facts concerning raw materials.

Just as in the wider world of commerce, the same forces of supply and demand are in play with regard to the clay used in ceramics. 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 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.” At this point, the mine management 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.

Potters can also benefit from knowing that one bag of such clay is identical to the next, year after year, and use materials such as 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. However, potters have not forced this guarantee of uniformity, chemical composition, particle size and quality on raw material suppliers. Instead, it has come about through demands of large industrial users of the materials. As potters, we often simply take advantage of a situation that has been worked out by the large players in the supply and demand market.

Avoiding Impurities

Unfortunately, there is a down side to this economic fact of life, which occurs when a large user industry changes its specifications for a raw material that potters use in their clay and glazes. While other large users are informed of changes, potters do not constitute an economically statistical part of the market. Suddenly, a favorite clay body melts or bloats due to a change unforeseen by the potter. Something a potter would consider a horrible defect, such as large manganese nodules in the clay, might not be considered a defect by a larger user, so it’s allowed into the mine’s batch.

An example of acceptable clay for industry that is sometimes inadequate for use by 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 large particles of iron and manganese, as they might ruin the fired surface of your best casserole.

Why doesn’t the mine remove the “impurities” before it ships the clay? Well, those impurities don’t matter to its industrial users. What are a few large specks in a brick? They aren’t considered a defect, so why spend money adjusting or refining clay that is acceptable to 99.9% of the market? Potters represent less than 1⁄10% of the clay market in the U.S.

Potters will always have a certain amount of difficulty using A.P. Green Missouri fireclay, Hawthorne bonding clay, Lizella clay, Kentucky ball clay (OM 4) and other such variable quality clays. The probability is high that over a given period of time some “shift” will occur in the quality of these clays as it pertains to the pottery market. All of these clays are widely mined and fulfill industry needs, but they do not fit the specific requirements of most potters.

Some companies, however, do mine and mix quality clays for both large industrial users and potters. Alchemy Ventures, Ltd., Richmond, B.C., Canada, and Sheffield Pottery, Inc., Sheffield, Mass., are just two examples—both companies are proving that it is possible to serve the relatively small pottery market without compromising the quality of clays or the method in which they are blended and eventually sold to potters. A number of other raw material suppliers are also willing to customize their products for potters, but that leads to another question…how do you choose a supplier?

Covered jar fired to 2300ºF, using T1 clay produced by Sheffield

Choosing a Supplier

Typically, potters believe their most important choices revolve around aesthetic considerations, such as choosing the correct glaze and clay color, temperature range and forming method. The question of how and where to obtain the necessary materials is rarely given as much attention, but this decision should also be made carefully.

A retail store location and showroom displaying equipment, tools, books and supplies are characteristic of a full-service supplier. This is usually the place to find an extensive line of commercial glazes and a wide range of pottery tools and equipment. Expect slightly higher prices on some items (kilns, slab rollers, wheels), but also expect good customer service, efficient repairs on equipment, and technical information on materials and equipment. If you’re just starting out in ceramics and need product information, a full-service store will probably prove more helpful than a discount supplier.

A discount ceramic supplier might not have a retail store location or an extensive range of ceramic products. Some operations are run through a post office box or business phone number. While the inventory may be limited, low overhead generally results in lower prices on stocked items. Repairs on equipment, returns of defective products and specific technical information might be difficult or impossible to obtain from this type of operation. However, if you have better-than-average knowledge of manufacturers and their products, a limited service discount store should be considered.

The following is a list of objectives to pursue when buying from suppliers:

1. Before ordering from a ceramic supplier, find out its policy on the return of goods or raw materials. Is there a restocking charge? Does the pottery equipment carry the manufacturer’s warranty? What is the procedure for repair or replacement of defective products? Some other important questions to ask: When I order 12,000 pounds of clay, will it be delivered to my front door? Will the delivery person help me stack the shipment in my studio? Is there an additional charge for this service? Also, read the supplier’s catalog carefully in regard to placing an order, back-order policies, taxes, shipping charges and terms of payment.

2. Does the company have a good reputation? Ask other potters if they have received good service. Are they made to feel it’s their fault that the fireclay caused blisters and spit outs, or is the problem clay replaced without delay? With every business, a reputation develops—good or bad—that can guide the actions of the customer. Find out how the company is regarded by the pottery community, and then act accordingly.

3. Besides asking previous customers if they received good clay from a given supplier, try to visit the clay mixing facility. If the clay is mixed on the same premises where retail sales occur, a visit is more likely to be granted. Always ask to visit at a time when it will not interfere with business operations, and don’t stay long enough to hinder production. During your visit, take a look at the clay storage and mixing areas. Are they reasonably clean and well organized? Do the people mixing clay appear well motivated and knowledgeable about their jobs? Are the pug mills and clay mixers kept clean? Are any special cleaning procedures enacted when mixing white clays or porcelain? What quality control measures are taken when different clay body recipes are mixed? You don’t have to test the pH of the water or request a maintenance service record for the pug mill, but a few common-sense observations will reveal how seriously a ceramic supplier regards clay mixing.

4. Find out if there is someone on staff with technical and practical knowledge of raw materials. Can you reach this “expert” when a problem or question arises? A certain percentage of customer problems occur when the product or raw material is used incorrectly. We’ve all been in the studio, mixing up a batch of glaze, only to run out of Custer feldspar. What is a good substitute? Can your supplier tell you what other potash feldspar is likely to work?

5. Are the salespeople knowledgeable? Do they show an interest in helping you find the right tools and materials for your individual needs? Do they know the advantages and disadvantages of each type of kiln? There are over a dozen electric kiln manufacturers in the U.S.—can the salespeople tell you which ones have the lowest incidence of repair? If not, to make a cost-effective purchase, you will have to find this out for yourself.

6. Always try to buy raw materials and clays in their original bags. When you receive a shipment, make sure each bag is properly marked. Each time a ceramic supplier has to take a 50-lb bag of flint and repackage it into ten 5-lb bags for resale, the chance of mislabeling increases, along with the price per pound. Obviously, buying 50 lbs of tin oxide at a time would be too expensive, but purchasing flint, whiting, dolomite, clays and feldspars in 50-lb lots shouldn’t be too costly, because most clay body and glaze formulas contain the previously mentioned materials.

7. Keep accurate records of your purchases. Note any irregularities as soon as the shipment arrives (e.g., make sure your order of manganese carbonate is not magnesium carbonate, or that the nepheline syenite is 270 mesh, not 400 mesh). If a problem does occur with an order, it makes replacement easier when your records and delivery date are available at the time of a complaint.

Once the complaint is stated, give the supplier a chance to make an offer of compensation. If an offer is not made or you think the response is not adequate, speak to a higher authority within the company. Keep in mind what you believe constitutes realistic compensation. If you are not satisfied with the response, small claims court is always possible.

8. If planning to pick up materials, call ahead to give the supplier enough time to assemble your order. While there, double check each bag label and note any irregularities. This is the time to ask if that plaster is fresh (plaster has a shelf life of about six months), or if that bag of black powder is manganese dioxide or black iron oxide. Discovering you have the wrong material back in your studio can be expensive and definitely time consuming.

9. Always test new shipments of raw materials before committing time and effort to a production run, whether you’re making 100 coffee cups or a single sculpture. Having said that, I fully realize how often we’ve all found ourselves in this very spot. It is a risk, though, and the longer you allow yourself to use new materials without testing, the more likely a problem will develop with a deficient order. Try to think one or two steps ahead in the production process. When you’re down to that last half of your clay shipment, order a new batch and test it along with your current production. In this way you’ll allow some time to adjust the clay or let your ceramics supplier know about any problems and get restitution.

10. Establishing a good business relationship with your ceramic supplier is important. Jumping from one supplier to another in search of the lowest priced clay, wheels or tools, may be only a short-term gain. Long-term benefits are realized when you are considered a valued customer. These can be in the form of getting clay delivered and unloaded inside your studio, rather than on a “nearby” sidewalk. Returning defective equipment or raw materials is also easier. It might not be fair, but it’s human nature. While most businesses have specific policies on the return of “defective” goods, the interpretation of “defective” may depend on how long the customer has remained loyal to the company and how much business they have generated.

A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way

As potters, we’re on the tail end of the raw material economy, and it’s not likely that this tail will ever wag the dog. Instead, potters should pick and choose carefully, using “guaranteed” clays in their clay bodies and glaze recipes whenever possible. Trouble-free glazes and clay bodies can be formulated if we learn to use the market supply and demand strengths, rather than being discouraged by choosing raw materials blindly. A little knowledge in these areas will produce better results, every time.

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