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Fun with Kitchencrete
Experimenting with Materials
Published online at the Eureka Reporter
Copyright by Charmaine R. Taylor

      So you want to play with mud? If you are at all interested in using natural clay, lime or gypsum plasters on your walls or for other projects, then you need the correct tools. Getting started is as easy as reaching into your kitchen cupboard. Just a suggestion: any plastic bowls, such as Tupperware, mixing spoons, strainers or forks you use, should be delegated to your new "science lab."

      Kitchencrete is a word I invented ten years ago when I started experimenting with paper, clay, lime, sand, sawdust and other natural materials in my kitchen. At first I began making natural plasters and blended papercrete recipes using a used, old cookie pan to bake samples in the oven, plus bowls, spoons and miscellaneous kitchen gear.

      Friends would come over for dinner, hold up a fork and jokingly say, "Is this a salad fork or a papercrete fork?" So, maintain a "Kosher kitchen" -- keep dishes separate -- with your experiments and tools, or just work outside, or in the garage.

Sunbeam Mixmaster and other kitchen tools. Small-Scale Mixing And Blending Tools
      Every new millennium woman needs a 1950s' Sunbeam Mixmaster, especially if she wants to blend clay and paper! This is no joke, so hunt the local thrift stores for an old-fashioned standing-bowl mixer, like a Sunbeam model, or choose a basic electric hand mixer. Buy extra beaters from the cutlery bin while you are there and make sure they fit.

      Small food processors work well, because you will not be placing cement or sand in them. These lower-cost models blend small batches, but will eventually break down from excessive use; and grit in the clay, fiber or debris can clog the locking mechanism. I've worn out two, so I speak from experience. However, placing only water and paper, fine clay or other soft fibers, such as sawdust, in them is a great way to start blending a base mix -- just never add sand or cement.

      Electric blenders are also functional. They are designed to chop and slurry so mixing paper and water in them is easy. Blenders will hold up much longer than food processors; again, don't add cement to the blender. The two-bladed mixer tool shown in the photo is attached to a half-horsepower electric hand drill. This is a more commercial tool and can be expensive. Porter Cable and other companies sell a dedicated mixing tool all in one unit. Find them on ebay or online stores. The cost can be more than $100. A cheaper solution is a "paint stem" or drywall plaster mixer. This is a circular blending wand on the end of a stem, which is attached to a hand drill. Cost is $4-$20 and it can be found in hardware stores.

Kitchen Gear For Mixes
      Plastic popcorn bowls and dishpans are my favorite large bowls. You can find these at the local drugstore or dollar stores. Save all large margarine and lidded plastic containers because they are great for holding small batches of mixtures and keeping them moist until needed. Keep a large-tip felt marker on hand and write the ingredients and proportion on the plastic lid; it becomes easy to lose track of formulas when you make several test batches.

      A great basic mixing fork is a three-pronged garden claw. For mixing of clay and paper or sawdust fibers this is a great starting tool. Soft spatulas are perfect for finer blending. I prefer buying a better-quality soft spatula for the kitchen, then retiring the old good quality ones to clay mixing rather than buying cheap, hard plastic ones. A pastry cutter is also useful for mixing doughy or drier recipes; for making wet clay "slips" a good wire whisk is best. If you will be doing a lot of experimenting just use quality tools and they will last a long time. If you will be painting and plastering entire rooms then these tools are useful for just small batches and test formulas.

      Nevertheless, I use mine all the time for large and small projects. Old-fashioned potato mashers are not as useful as a pastry cutter tool. Flour sifters are also fun to have for sifting dry, powdered clay or pigments into mixes. Plastic colanders are perfect for lifting clay from a pail or drum, letting the excess water drain away, and they are ideal for lifting lime putty from a soaking tub, as the lime water needs to remain in the tub.

      Small window screens are functional for drying test samples and for transporting samples to a sunny spot. You can find these in most thrift shops too. Think outside the box of finding tools such as these. I once spied a nonworking, electric food dehydrator in the Salvation Army yard where goods are sold for 10 to 25 cents a pound. There were eight 2-foot-square drying screens inside, in perfect condition, and they all cost me less than 50 cents.

      Plastic soda bottle scoops: These are fun to use and recyclable. Keep the cap on the soda bottles and cut at an angle right across the middle. You will end up with a curved scoop on the neck side, and a base container, which can be used to hold water, sand or other ingredients. These are great as simple measuring units, so you can keep many around. Tuna cans and sardine cans are also good for holding small blocks of sample mixes. You can get a good idea of final mix strength from observing a 2-inch-thick sample.

      Also practical are flat-foam trays, which hold meat.

      Junk Mail CDs: I love these! CDs are an excellent medium to apply thin plaster layers onto. The image side has a textured ink surface, which will hold the text mix, and the silver side is used to mark the recipe/mix formula with your felt pen. [CDs are also great spatula tools, you can directly apply wall plasters with them, with just a little practice.

      Large plastic tubs: Many owner-builders use large plastic 32-gallon trash cans or metal drums to hold clay, lime and plaster materials. These are heavy when filled and difficult to move if needed, plus they make it difficult to reach the last few gallons at the bottom of the drum. I recommend the 30-gallon rubber totes with lids sold at K-Mart and other stores. For $4, the Rubbermaid totes offer a quality soft tub that will last several years. Harder plastic tubs are good for storing sawdust or paper or light fibers; they crack easily at the corners.

      Experimenting is messy work; keeping several colorful tubs to store all your gear helps keep the work area neat. Cookie cutters can be used to stamp impressions and make fun shapes for decorative use. I use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to make thick clay hearts. Place a hole in the top while still wet, and when dry thread raffia or ribbon through and hang a cluster of clay hearts on a garden urn or straw basket.

Mud Clothes
      Of course you will need old clothing you can get muddy in. Long sleeves and long pants are recommended, old shoes and wear a face mask or kerchief when handling dry powdery clay -some high silica clays are easily breathed in -- or powdered lime. Wear a big T-shirt or extra large men's shirt over your mud clothes as extra protection from wet splashes and mud clumps. I have my old dental-assistant smocks hanging on a hook in my studio and I wear those a lot. Hats are good to keep splashes off your head; wear safety glasses or your older eyeglasses when mixing. Avoid scratching or mucking up your good glasses. Bits of debris, small sticks, rocks or a broken tool piece can fly into your face so use common sense and protect your face, eyesight and hands. Buy the best rubber/latex garden gloves you can afford; these cost $8-$20. You can find them locally or at Inexpensive dishwashing gloves will fall apart quickly and turn "gummy". When you are handling lime and lime plasters you want to protect your skin from harsh drying effects.

      Clay and gypsum will simply suck the oils from your hands and any sharp pebbles or debris in mixes can cut fingers, so wearing gloves is advisable. Use a thick lotion or "bag-balm" cream on your hands before donning the gloves. And keep a bottle of common vinegar handy; vinegar immediately neutralizes the harshness of lime should you get any on your skin and it works better than soap and water.

Large-Scale Mixing
      Of course my favorite blending tool of all is "Dewey" my 1950s' wringer-washer. I located Dewey in a barn and purchased him for $40. A wringer washer is a simple laundry mechanism invented in Canada. The tub has a spindle in the center, driven by a small motor; the spindle has four stiff blades, which turn 90 degrees, then back, over and over again. This is a gentle agitation that breaks down clumps in clay and turns it into a thick milkshake consistency.

      The washer is ideal as a mixer because the tub is heavy-duty metal, elevated, on wheels, and simple to use and move. As long as the motor functions, you don't need the surge/drain hose to work; however, being able to rinse the tub down is convenient but not necessary. Most of the time I add water, and clay to the washer, let it run for 30 minutes to make a thick "clay slip, " then add lime and fiber to the recipe. Larger volume mixes can sit in the washer until needed as long as cement is not added and you keep a lid on it. And no, I do not do laundry in Dewey; I have "Bernice," a 1970 model wringer-washer for that!

      Project: Gathering Tools Now that you know what you can use, begin looking around the house and local thrift stores for useful items. Buy at least one colorful lidded tote to store all your gear in.

      Next Column: My next column will be about finding and testing clay.

     Charmaine Taylor is a writer, mad scientist and online bookseller. She is a Silicon Valley ex-patriot, with a prior career in marketing. Charmaine experiments with natural materials, lime and clay paints and plasters, and researches low-cost and recycled products for home renovation. She is currently greening a 1940s' fixer-upper cottage in Eureka, where she lives with two dogs, and an ancient cat..

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