Monthly Archives: May 2020

Making Clay from Dirt: Supplemental

I wanted to say that I do this writing free of charge. I don’t want to put this kind of writing behind a paywall or a Patreon. Much of this I learned free on the internet, and then experimented with it, and I want to offer it to you the same way. That being said, this kind of work is… well.. work. It takes a fair bit of labor to type this all out for you. So, if you want to donate $5 or whatever to help support me, my Paypal is here. Again, not required, but donations are appreciated! Thank you for those that have already donated! 

Hello again folks!

Now this one isn’t a full how-to, but more information that you may find useful about my previous post about Making Clay from Dirt. That is why this one is called a supplemental!

(Captain’s Log, Supplemental. You’re welcome.)

Maybe you don’t know diddly squat about dirt, or the land your reside on. Maybe this is the first time you have ever held a shovel in your life. Hey, there was a first time for all of it. I’ve been digging holes since I was a kid (much to my parent’s dismay, at times), but there was a time when I had no idea what I was doing, and we all start somewhere. So, for today I want to share with you a quick an easy way to learn a little more about the soil, especially if you want to make clay from it.

Materials:

This one is real easy.

  • You will need an empty jar, I used a mason jar

  • Something to dig some dirt with. A shovel is probably your best bet, because we have to dig down into the “banking” layer of the soil to have the best chance to find some clay.

  • A water source, a sink worker well for me

  • A spoon, or stick, or something to stir mud

  • Sifter, optional, but it helps.

Soil Horizon.

(A quick refresher)

Just a quick reminder, layer B is the layer we are after. Clay minerals leach out (because of water weathering) of the upper layers and move down into the B soil layer. There is usually a noticeable color change, (my soil turns tannish after the darker brown of the upper layers.) But in some ways each soil is unique, and there can be a lot of variety based on both the cultural and natural history of the land we are digging. My home land is an old onion farm, so it’s been turned over, and over, and over. Wet soils (river beds, swamps) may have clays a lot closer to the surface, others may be deeper down.

The cool part of what I am about to show you is that you can do it more than once, and really get a good feel for the clay (sand, and silt) content of your soil. This is really good information to have on hand.

The Process

Take your shovel and go out to wherever you are wanting to dig clay from. Make a small hole that gets you down into the banking layer. It helps me to make the hole wide enough were I can clearly see the layers in the wall of the hole. You can scrap the wall with your shovel or a trowel if you really want to see the layer changes.

Once you have your hole, you need to fill your jar around half full with dirt. Do you best to avoid lots of organic matter (roots, twigs, debris), gravel, and stones. You don’t want these in your sample. You can sift your soil quickly if that helps, but this part is optional if you are careful.

Now that you have your jar of dirt, take it inside and add some water to it. Don’t overfill it, but you need enough to be able to liquefy your dirt. Grab yourself a spoon or fancy stick, and stir that dirt up real good. You want a dirt cloud when you are done.

Now set it aside for a few hours or a couple days and let the dirt settle. This is going to allow the dirt to settle, and the particles are generally going to do this by density. Sand and gravel will settle towards the bottom, followed by silt, and on top.. Clay!

That’s the process, but now we explore the why.

The Soil Texture Chart

(My sample, clay is the smoothest layer on top. Followed by silt, and then a buttload of sand.)

The information we get from this short process is really valuable. Look at my sample above after a few days, and tell me what you see? Alright, I’ll tell you. This short little process gives you an idea of the proportional makeup of your soil. Ignore the water, and just focus on the layered soil. Mine is about 10% clay, 20% silt, and the rest is sand.

With that information in hand, let me introduce you to the Soil Texture Chart. It’s a triangle that covers most of the soil types you will encounter.

(Soil Texture Chart)

Also, there is handy online tool from the USDA that is super helpful here. Once you have your proportions, you can enter them into the tool, and it spits out your soil type. You only need fill in the percantages for sand and clay, and it will highlight your soil type on the chart above.

My soil type is called “Sandy Loam” in the bottom left, which means I get a little bit of clay, and a mountain of sand when I make clay. Your soil may be different, from really clay rich soils at the top of chart, to really silty soils at the bottom right. And that’s it, that’s the whole process. Now you know a little bit more about your soil, and this has wide implications beyond just making clay. It is also important for things like gardening (plants like minerals), agriculture, and even things like carbon sequestration. But I don’t have the space to go into all that here.

Future Posts

As this was a slightly shorter post, it gives me a little bit of space of what I am working on right now. I think my next skill sharing post will be about making charcoal, as that is another important building block for future projects. I also want to cover traditional pit firing of clay, and there will also be a little bit about slip casting (poured clay) in the near future. Ideally this is building towards a few posts on blacksmithing and metal work. (clay and charcoal are both components.) There are a few other things I may talk about along the way, woodwork, forestry and some other stuff too. I also have more folklore and animism I want to tie in too.

As always, thanks for reading!