Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, Dec. 4, 2000

Timing can be everything for handmade ceramics

By Lynda Jensen

Sometimes, timing is everything.

To Betty Zachmann, Winsted, it means the difference between handfuls of crumbled clay and beautiful ceramic artwork.

Zachmann owns a kiln oven and dozens of plaster molds that she uses to form and fire hand- made Christmas trees, snowmen, churches and ceramic nativity sets.

First, she pours a wet clay mixture, called "slip," into a plaster mold.

The mixture solidifies to a certain degree until Zachmann pours out the excess to form a ceramic shell called greenware.

It's tricky, because she needs to achieve nearly perfect thickness (about 1/4 inch).

Too thin? It will break. Too thick? The texture isn't right. Too hard? Still breaks. Too soft? It collapses, she said.

The thickness is also important so that she can punch out or cut out bits to form the windows on a church, for example. She also needs to take into account the size of the project.

She lets the greenware dry for two or three days and then, cleans up the seams and edges.

Next, she fires up her kiln to about 1,800 degrees. After its first firing, the pottery is called bisque and turns pinkish white.

At this time, the pottery pieces can be left painted by hand or fired again after glaze has been applied.

Her colored glaze requires three coats, she said.

Most of her colors look very different before they are fired in the kiln. For example, deep evergreen is a dull grey, and gold is actually a dull brown. The most popular kind of glaze is mother of pearl, she said.

How did she learn her sense of timing? "It took three years of 'fun,' Zachmann said.

Zachmann was taught by former Winsted resident Sonya Rood. Rood who now lives in Oregon.

Her first attempts were of the 'door stop' variety, she said. It's also a challenge to have a hobby that is so physically heavy. In addition, she must be careful with the pieces because if they get chipped, they're no good, she said.

She is well-known for her nativity sets, which contain up to 19 pieces. Some people ask for smaller sets or different colored lights on their Christmas trees, and with or without snow, she said.

Her favorite thing to do is Christmas trees, which can reach up to 19 inches high.

All of her children received a nativity set when they got married, and all of her grandchildren got a set when they turned five, she said.

Zachmann has thousands of tiny, multi-colored Christmas lights inside plastic tubs to use for her Christmas trees. She usually plants a bird, rosette or butterfly on the tree as well, since this is popular now, she said.

Her husband, Ron, does the wiring of lighted pieces by hand from a kit.

Her ceramic pieces are purchased throughout Central Minnesota and sent to both coasts.


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