Craft Shops

Looking for something to do in your “spare” time on base? Thinking of taking up a new hobby?
The base craft shop may have exactly what you’re looking for—and then some, with tools and instructors for a wide range of hobbies.

No military post is complete without a PX, commissary, hospital, theater, library, snack bar, and a craft shop. Craft shops provide both active duty personnel and retirees some after hour’s diversions, but also give military dependents a place to go to and things to occupy one’s time and to keep you out of trouble.

Craft shops offer everything from leather working to jewelry making to wood shop, and often these facilities were hidden in plain site, offering us Military Brats an opportunity to use our hands in a creative way.

Biggs Airfield

In 1966, when I was 10, we lived in El Paso, on Biggs Airfield, where my father was a drill instructor.

I can still recall vividly going with my mother to the craft shop to make ceramics. With a summer day time temperature of well over 100 degrees and with virtually no humidity to speak of, the ceramics area of the craft shop had large fans blowing and after the sun went down, was actually bearable.

Combined with the moist air from the drying, newly cast pieces and the drying plaster molds used in the process, there was an earthy smell to the craft shop, and almost a cool breeze as we worked away in the evening.

Of molds and casting

The craft shop had several hundred molds to choose from and I remember we would go through a catalog, which showed the final product. What was interesting to me was that all you had to do was to pour “slip” or liquid clay into a hole at the top of the mold, let it stand for a while as the mold pulled water from the slip.

Then, after a while the remaining slip was reclaimed into a milk jug for another session.

The mold would be allowed to stand for another 30 or 40 minutes, then, ever so gently, we would remove the large rubber bands holding the mold together to reveal our creation.

We made everything from ashtrays to flower pots, to candy dishes, lamps, goblets and jewelry boxes. For a ten-year-old who had worked with clay in school to make a simple coiled clay pot that turned out lopsided, this process of using molds to create intricate pieces was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

While the clay potter’s wheels went mostly unused, a number of us who were devoted to this form of art creation came to the craft shop again day after day, trying new molds and different colored glazes.

There was something very peaceful there in the craft shop, with the fans blowing and a radio playing Dione Warwick, with her distinct voice singing, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” we worked away. While the newly poured molds sat on tables and absorbed the water from the slip, we would work on pieces from our previous sessions.

Cleanup

When a ceramics piece is cast with a plaster mold, there are several seams where the mold piece fit together, which must be carefully scraped and smoothed with a sponge. If this is done before the first firing of the piece, the mold seams can be removed. If the piece is fired with the seam, it’s there forever.

Sometimes someone would be working a lump of clay on the potters’ wheel, which was real treat to watch, especially if the potter was well practiced and fairly advanced. Seeing a lump of clay turn into a tall vase or a wide bowl was truly inspiring, but a little intimidating to a 10-year-old.

After we finished our session and cleanup of the previous batch of ceramics we would leave our works of art to dry. Since a newly created piece is really a thin layer of clay, they are somewhat fragile and prone to nicks or getting out of shape if handled too much at this stage.

The dry pieces, which we had cleaned up all the seams, were now ready to be fired for the first time in the kiln. Generally, we didn’t see this process—the pieces were give to one of the instructors and placed on a shelf to be loaded in the kiln and fired at night. Firing the pieces turned them from a dull gray to a bright white, giving them a statue-like appearance.

Glazing

Once fired, the pieces were ready to paint with glaze. Glazes always a mystery to me. The colors we bought were always lifeless and dull, but when the piece was fired again, the glazes would mysteriously transform into bright, shiny colors, sometimes with streaks appearing in the surface. Even if you could imagine the final color, there was always an element of surprise.

I have no idea how many things we made that year. I’m sure my dad thought we just accumulating more junk to worry about being broken when we moved. Over the years, as boxes were unpacked and old things came to light, something would appear that my mother and I had made together and I would remember fondly that special time my mother and I had together.

Before my mother passed away, she gave to me a nativity set we had made together. This set was always displayed every year during the holidays and had become a tradition. My initials, scratched in the surface of the figures while the clay was still wet, are as sharp and clear today as when I first made them 34 years ago.

I was always impressed that so many of our household goods managed to make all the moves without being damaged. Maybe it was luck or the fact my mother watched the packing crews like a hawk during the packing process.

And today, I am truly glad we had craft shops on bases, where a sergeant’s wife and children, living on a tight budget could make something which would last a lifetime.

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