Sunday, October 16, 2011

What Does "Microwave Safe" mean, exactly?

In the twenty years that I've been making pottery, the three questions that I am most commonly asked. "Are your glazes lead free?" "Are your mugs microwave safe?" and "Can I wash the mugs in the dishwasher?"  To these questions I answer "Yes, absolutely."

I don't use lead in my glazes, and I've taken the extra step to have my mugs certified lead-free by the Brandywine Laboratory in Pennsylvania (here's the link to the report). I figure it's nice to say the glazes are lead-free, but it's critical to have evidence in the form of a lab test to back up the statement. (The report is easily accessible on the home page of Mug Revolution's website.)

I ran across an interesting article this morning while reading the Clay Art digest. The folks over at Good Housekeeping ran some lab tests on commercially produced mugs to see if in fact the mugs were leaching heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and others. They also ran tests to determine if the mugs were microwave safe. (Here's a link to the article.) They took the tests one step further, and ran them on mugs that were "aged" for one month of average use to see if there was a difference in the heavy metals leaching out of the glazes after regular usage. And, in one case, they found that a new mug was safe, but after being "aged" for one month and re-tested, it did in fact leach lead. They then ask "What does Microwave Safe" mean?

This is how I define "Microwave Safe": One, a mug from Mug Revolution is Microwave Safe if it can withstand repeated heatings in a microwave oven with no damage to the mug over long periods of time. Two, the mug handle does not get excessively warm and burn the user after putting the mug into a microwave for the minimum amount of time required to heat liquid contained in the mug.

In both cases, Mug Revolution mugs pass these tests with ease. I've been reheating coffee and tea in my Mug Revolution mug daily for over five years with no adverse effects. And many people have told me over the years how glad they are that they can take one of my mugs out of the microwave without burning their hand on an overly hot handle.

While there are no actual standards that provide a clear definition of what "Microwave Safe" means, Good Housekeeping calls for refining the meaning of ATSM Standard C1607 to include mugs that have been tested after they have been used for a period of time to ensure that consumers have reliable data reflecting actual day to day use of a mug. They encourage a standard definition of "Microwave Safe" and subsequent requirement of manufacturers to meet the standard on both new and "aged" mugs, and that the product be labeled "Microwave Safe - meets ATSM Standard C1607."

I'm all for this standard. The culture of "buyer beware" that is so prevalent in society today should not extend into having to worry about the mug you are drinking your coffee or tea from causing potential health issues.

I see my coffee has gone cold while I've been writing. I think it's time to publish this  blog entry and reheat my coffee in the microwave!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Three new mugs added to the Mug Store!

In 2005, Mug Revolution went into business with just one mug - the 16 oz. Classic Mug, and available in one color: Green-Blue. Shortly thereafter, my wife convinced me to add a blue glaze to the color choices. And not long after that, my mother-in-law asked me to make some 12 oz. mugs, and this size was soon added to the Mug Store.

Of course since the first days of Mug Revolution a lot has changed. There are now six color choices and 25 different mugs to choose from. I find this to be amazing!

And now I'm very pleased and excited to announce the addition of three new mug products to the Mug Store.

First of all, when I add a new logo mug to the line-up, it is not usually an instant thing. There are months and months of work with graphic designers, variations are made with different effects in the stamps, sample mugs are made and shown to people for feedback, adjustments are made, and if all goes well, a new mug emerges and is added to the Mug Store at Mug Revolution.

The first new mug to introduce, was designed by Bend, Oregon artist Robert Killen. This one is a lovely Celtic Hummingbird Mug design and is available with the design only as well as with personalization.

The Celtic Hummingbird Mug as seen in Galway, Ireland! (click to enlarge)

The second new mug was designed by Bend, Oregon artists Paul Jones and Mark Blackwell. The Mountain Biker's Mug is available as a logo-only mug or with personalization.

The Mountain Biker's Mug (click to enlarge)
And finally I'd like to introduce the Personalized Thumb Rest Mug. Folks who want a personalized mug with a bit more pizazz can get the initial of the name on the mug put on the thumb rest. It's also possible to put up to two numerals on the thumb rest - this would be a perfect gift for a birthday present.
The Personalized Thumb Rest Mug (click to enlarge)
I hope you enjoy the new mugs! As always I wish to extend my gratitude to you for supporting handmade coffee mugs made in the studio pottery tradition - without you, there would be no mug store, and I would not be doing what I absolutely love to do for a living!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Summer and Mugs!

Summer has arrived on the west coast. Susan and I (along with Kelty)  just got back from a lovely week of camping in southeastern British Columbia. The weather was fantastic for the most part, and we were treated to lovely scenery in every direction. 

On the way north, we saw a coffee shack and had to take a mug shot.

Every morning at the lake, we would make a cup of coffee and head down to look at the water and mountains. It soothes the soul to look at nature, doesn't it? Much better than starting the day with the stress of the current news and negativity the machine of media perpetuates.

While in Nelson, I had to get Susan to take a photo of me on Silica Street. I really should set up my studio on Silica Street in Nelson. Such a street name for a potter! (For those of you who don't know, silica is one of the main ingredients in clay and glazes, hence my adoration of this lovely town's street.)

A month before our camping trip we drove down to the Bay Area to see U2 in concert. I hadn't seen the band live before and I was absolutely blown away by the show. 

The band that opened the show, Moonalice, had previously given one of my mugs to Bono. 

I hope you are all having a wonderful summer! 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Steven Hill Pottery Workshop

Steven Hill throwing one of his signature pitchers on the wheel. (Click any of the photos to enlarge)
I tend to stumble across wonderful things quite by accident. In late January I e-mailed my friend Phil Fishwick in Southern Oregon with a glaze question, and in his reply he mentioned that Clayfolk would be bringing Steven Hill to Ashland for a workshop in February. Having seen Steven's work in many prestigious clay magazine articles over the years, I jumped at the chance to go and I am quietly thrilled at how deeply satisfying an experience it was.
Perhaps in every way, Steven Hill's pottery and clay working technique is as opposite as it could be from my own. Yet, there are striking similarities in our respective philosophy and personal relationship to clay that resonated both with me and with many of the students in the workshop.
Mugs by Steven Hill. 
Steven began working with clay 41 years ago. For years he has been known as one of very few potters around who single fires - that is, he completes making a piece, dries it bone dry, glazes (by spraying) and then fires it. Most potters, including me, fire the pot twice: Once when the piece is made (a low temperature bisque firing) and then a second time after the piece is glazed. I never really understood how a piece could be single fired without exploding in the kiln before the workshop, but with Steven showing us how to do it, it seemed simple. Which, of course, is usually the case when I see a master potter at work!
In 2008, Steven switched from firing his work in high fire gas kilns in a reduction atmosphere to a lower temperature using electric kilns, firing in oxidation. What is amazing about this is that you cannot tell the difference between the glaze effects on his new works compared with his old works. This is a huge myth buster, and because of this, Steven is in demand as a workshop teacher around North America.
Our workshop started off with Steven talking about his early influence from American ceramic pioneer Don Reitz and the type of glaze effects Don acheived, which he desired for his own pottery. Because of difficulties with zoning laws and permits, he was not able to build a soda kiln when he started out in his first studio, which lead him on a quest to find a way to replicate the effects of atmospheric kilns (such as a salt or wood fired kiln) in a gas kiln. Sounds simple, but believe me, this was a monumental task that evolved over many years.
(l-r) The same mellon pitcher, final drying, glazed, and after the firing. 
Steven makes wonderful forms. He calls his signature pitchers "Mellon Pitchers", and explained that his lovely bowls were inspired by a story someone told him about swimming with stingrays in the Carribean. Without ever having seen one, he came up with a lovely bowl that does, in fact, give a sense of graceful motion.
The bowl shape inspired by stingrays.
And motion is what he wants to achieve with his pots. His cylindrical forms suggest elevation from several spirals incorporated in them, from a subtle touch at the base and rim, to overt, where the walls are given bold spirals at the end of the throwing stage on the pottery wheel. To add a last touch of texture that enhances the movement of the piece, he slathers great gobs of slip onto the pot and moves the surface of the slip into harmony with the shape of the form. He said it again and again during the workshop, the form of the pot is as critical as the glaze that goes on it. Without a pleasing form, no amount of glaze technique can make the pot any better.
Steven applying glaze to a pitcher. 
Steven sprays his glazes, which allows him to apply many layers of glaze on top of each other. The final result of his glazing technique is a very deep, rich, satisfying finish. He explained that what we were seeing on his finished pots were separate layers of glass melt, one on top of the other, the result of which could not be duplicated by any other glazing technique. You don't need to know any of this, however, when you hold one of his pots in your hands. Educated about the technique or not, you can't help but drool over his unique work.
In response to the all-to-common issue of beginning and intermediate potters trying to replicate a master potter's work, Steven had this to say: "You have to find your own voice, your own unique expression in clay. We all get inspiration from other pots and potters. The thing is to find your own interpretation of these influences and make them yours." He also went on to say that one of the best sources of inspiration for pottery is from historical pottery. "For one thing, it's been proven to work as a form or a body of work if it has been around and admired for hundreds or thousands of years. For another, if you get inspired by it, you're not going to be seen as copying a contemporary ceramic artist's style, while you are exploring and incorporating this influence into your own expression in clay."
During the workshop we all had a chance to glaze some of our own pots using spray techniques Steven taught, and then our pieces were fired. On the final day of the workshop we unloaded our pots, still super hot, from the kiln, and had a lovely wood-fired pizza fest and critiqued our work. (The clay studio at Southern Oregon University has a wood burning pizza oven in the kiln yard - a brilliant idea!)
I left this workshop with a renewed spirit and gratitude towards the forces in my life that have led me to working full time with clay. Spending time with a master potter as generous and talented as Steven Hill will do that to you! When you watch the video, you'll also hear Steven's musical talents - he's a great guitarist!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Love, hockey, and mugs - a love story

Susan and I first met in a bar.

It was spring 1993. My beleaguered and beloved Toronto Maple Leafs had somehow caught on fire, made the NHL playoffs, and knocked off two top teams and improbably had made it to the third round. Since I did not have cable, I realized that I was going to have to find a sports bar to watch what could have been history in the making, and so I found myself at the Irish Pub in Ashland, Oregon in the midst of a huge crowd of rabid basketball fans.

The Portland Trailblazers were doing extremely well that spring, and much to my chagrin, the three television sets in the bar were all showing the Blazers game. As I sipped my beer, I noticed that nobody was watching the tv in the middle of the bar. Everyone was watching the game on the sets at either end of the bar.

Summoning up my courage, I asked the bartender to switch the middle tv set to the hockey game. She was incredulous. "I'll get killed if I turn the Blazer game off!" she said. "Look around," I said. "Nobody is watching that tv behind you!" She looked at the crowd, leaned towards me and said "OK. I'll put it on hockey, with no sound. If I get one complaint it goes back to the Blazers game. Got it?"

Fortunately not a soul there noticed the game had been switched. By the end of the evening I had made several new friends who had also come in to see hockey. We started meeting at the bar to watch subsequent games, and one night a lovely gal came along with them. We have pretty much been together every day since we met all those years ago. Alas, the Leafs did not get the Cup that year, and it turns out that they have never come closer to winning it since then.

One Christmas Susan gave me a Leafs mug. Perhaps one of these springs I will fill it with champagne and raise a toast to a Leaf's Stanley Cup victory, though it's now looking more and more likely that  my days will be over long before the Leafs win the Cup again. Clearly, though, I owe the Leafs my loyalty for life - I never would have met the love of my life without their surprising performance in the spring of '93.

A year ago, I made Susan this personalized love mug and it's become one of her favorites. Last night, we watched a hockey game, and just before we went to bed Susan told me that she had been looking at my blog and thought that I should do a post on her love mug. So here it is Suz, a lovely mug for a lovely, lovely soul.