PPP: The Power of a Press

March 1, 2004
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A new air-release press is helping tile producers increase their quality, efficiency and design capabilities

The new press is designed to be user-friendly and cost-effective for a range of tile producers.
Although the term "pottery" most often connotes either functional dinnerware or ceramic art, an increasing number of today's production potters are making ceramic tile. Many decorative tile producers begin their craft cutting and forming tile by hand. However, this is method is neither efficient nor cost-effective, and tile producers can quickly become discouraged with the amount of time and effort involved to produce even a small quantity of high-quality finished products.

In the past, scale-up options have been limited. High-volume operations often use air-release presses because they are fast, produce nearly perfect ware that requires little or no fettling, and require only one or two dies (molds), unlike slip casting or jiggering. However, most conventional air-release presses have been too large, heavy and expensive for many studio and small production potters.

Recently, a new air-release press* has begun to change all that. The system is designed to be user-friendly and cost-effective for a range of tile producers. With this new press, individual artists and small production operations can increase their quality, efficiency and design capabilities.

A tile created by Niel Amon and Ruby Levesque, Tactile Geometrics, using the new press.

Easy Operation

The press is designed to be simple to operate. First, a two-part die made of "hard plaster" (typically gypsum cement, such as CeramicalTM or HydrostoneTM) is mounted and aligned on the bottom and center plates. A wad of clay is placed in the bottom half, and a large "wagon wheel" crank is rotated to bring the two halves of the die together. As they come together, the clay is forced into the shape of the die. A small puff of compressed air is fed into the bottom half of the die to release the formed clay. The crank is rotated backward to raise the center plate and the top half of the die with the formed clay clinging to it. A bat is then held under the clay while another puff of air is fed into that half of the die to gently release the formed piece, which is caught on the bat. That piece is set aside to dry, and the process can be immediately repeated.

Unlike conventional air-release presses, which can take up a significant amount of floor space, the new press is designed to be compact. With its wagon wheel crank removed, the press's footprint is only 1 square foot, and it stands less than three feet high. The press can either be mounted to a workbench or installed on a ware cart for portability.

It is also designed to be easy to set up and maintain. It comes pre-assembled, with installed dies for making a 4-in. tile. The operator simply mounts the press to the bench or cart, attaches the wagon wheel crank, connects an air line to each die plate, and connects the incoming air line to a compressor. Because a manually operated rack and pinion drive system is used, only a small, relatively quiet compressor is needed (11⁄2 horsepower is suitable; 3 hp is ideal). A hex wrench can be used to quickly install and remove the dies, and expanding a product line is as easy as purchasing-or making-new dies.

The tiles in this Tactile Geometrics wall installation were also created on the new press.

Proven Benefits

Although the press has been available commercially for just over one year, tile producers have already experienced significant benefits from using the system. For instance, Adam Scoggin, a prominent ceramics artist in the Pacific Northwest, recently won a commission to create a 25-square-foot mural that would require him to take on the daunting task of rolling, cutting and finishing three hundred tiles by hand. Scoggin had made tile this way for years, so he estimated it would take just two months to complete and deliver his mural. However, he didn't anticipate the number of tiles he would lose due to cracking, warping and uneven shrinkage.

With time running out and his client getting impatient, Scoggin decided to give the new air-release press a try. Using a custom die from Precision Terrafirma in Spokane, Wash., Scoggin was able to press, trim and stack all of the tiles needed for his Blue Heron mural in just a few hours. The tiles fired without cracking or warping, and the project was a complete success.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., the husband and wife team of Nielsen Amon and Ruby Levesque is using the press to make the tiles that have taken their company, Tactile Geometrics, from a "maybe someday" business to a genuine entrepreneurial enterprise.

Ten years ago, Amon and Levesque began experimenting and developing their concepts for three-dimensional, interlocking tiles. They wanted tiles with smooth curves, clean edges and sharp facets, but their early methods were anything but effective. As novice press mold tile makers, Amon and Levesque pounded clay into their molds, then set each one aside and waited for the clay to shrink enough to release from the mold. However, they discovered that their tiles were, as Amon put it, "in soft focus." Amon and Levesque needed more pressure behind the clay to press it more completely into the die, and they needed a method to get the tile out of the die faster. Amon built his own lever press and used it for five years. While this produced sharper tiles, it did nothing to help release the tiles from the die. Making 20 tiles a day required 20 press molds and plenty of patience.

Amon kept looking for a better way, and his research led him to pneumatically controlled presses with air-release systems. He liked that these systems supplied all of the pressure needed for sharp tiles, and that air easily popped each tile out and made the dies ready for another plug of clay. However, Amon needed a system that would not overwhelm his budget or require a lot of space in the studio. Additionally, he was concerned about the noise from the large air compressor that is required to run many conventional air-release systems.

Amon and Levesque decided to install the new air-release press designed for small operations. With the new press and customized dies, Tactile Geometrics is now developing new designs while affordably and consistently making many high-quality tiles per hour instead of just 20 per day.

Tactile Geometrics uses custom dies such as the one shown above, supplied by Precision TerraFirma, to create unique designs.

Beyond Tile

In addition to forming tile, the new air-release press can also be used to produce a variety of other products, such as ceramic light switch plates, small serving bowls and ramekins. In fact, any object up to 6 in. across, flat or 3-D, can be formed using the new machine.

For pottery producers looking to increase their quality, efficiency and design capabilities without a large capital outlay or space requirements, the new air-release press can provide a feasible solution.

Editor's note: For more information about Adam Scoggin and his artwork, visit http://www.blueheronpottery.com. To see more of Nielsen Amon and Ruby Levesque's tile designs, visit the van Brunt Gallery in Beacon, N.Y., or visit http://www.vanbruntgallery.com/Beacon_NewYork.html.

About the Author

Daryl Baird is the manager of the North Star Ceramics Center in Spokane, Wash. He can be reached at (509) 747-6171 or northstarceramic@qwest.net. For more information about the new tile press discussed in this article, call (800) 231-7896 or visit http://www.northstarequipment.com . For more information about custom dies, contact Precision TerraFirma at (509) 879-5964, e-mail engineering@precision-terrafirma.com or visit http://www.precision-terrafirma.com.

For Further Reading

Harvey, Reid, Pressing Ceramics with Air Release, Gentle Breeze Publishing Co. (Division of Axner Co., Inc.), Oviedo, Fla., 1993.

*Supplied by North Star Equipment, Inc., Cheney, Wash.

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