After college in the mid 90's Nancy and I moved to Albuquerque, settled into a semi-permanent residence and started to build our first little art studio. It was then that it hit me-I have no tools-the college workshop had provided everything. Nancy was lucky, she painted in oils and watercolours and had an extensive collection of brushes, mediums, canvas, stretchers-but doing plaster work-try mixing a 30 pound batch of plaster by hand! So our first purchase was an electric drill or more precisely a 3/8 DeWalt electric drill (double the rpm's of other drills-really makes a nice batch of plaster). I was hooked on tools and we had a long road ahead to building a ceramic studio.
In 2002 (back in Chicago) we moved into a larger dedicated workspace and began to grow our business. As a small "production studio" one of the interesting quandaries we face is how to make more work without sacrificing quality. The pugmill is one tool that not only helped with our production but also improved the quality of our wares.
Today's market has many options for small scale clay preparation, everything from clay mixers that are usually paired with a pugmill for a 2 step process to all in one units that will take raw materials and give you ready to use clay. For our purposes, we are happy with boxed clay-the blend is just what we are looking for and when purchased by the ton the extra cost more than makes up for the labour and dust involved with mixing 2000 pounds of raw materials.
One of the drawbacks of boxed clay, however, is it rarely arrives in that nice soft malleable consistency and the act of forming pugs with hard clay for jigger moulds can really beat up your hands (tough pugs can also lead to problems in the ware during the forming process-but that's another essay). Running boxed clay through a pugmill will improve its immediate workability.
For our studio, the process of jiggering generates excess clay;
a 1.5 pound bowl uses about 2 pounds of clay and
a 4 pound bowl uses about 6. After jiggering, this excess clay
is too soft and wet for immediate re-use so it is recycled with the harder boxed clay creating that nice soft malleable blend.
My hands are happy!
Another great feature of the pugmill is its ability to operate as a somewhat decent extruder. While not a replacement it does an excellent job making slugs for press moulding coffee cup handles.
It does have it's drawbacks. It needs to be used at least once a week or be prepared to spend an hour or 3 cleaning it up (or more if you wait until the clay has dried up inside of it!). If you are tight on space this will make your life even tighter. They are not cheap, that $3000 plus can go along way toward other things but a good pugmill will last a lifetime.
Gratuitous endorsement from a small studio: I recommend the Shimpo PM-071 with the vacuum pump.