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Rough Science 3 New Zealand: Kathy Sykes' Diary: The Big Smelt

Updated Tuesday 27th February 2007

Kathy Sykes's diary about the challenge for the Big Smelt programme, from the BBC/OU series Rough Science 3

Kathy and Ellen bash clay Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team Day 32 - Melting Gold
This programme is a much looser one than the others… the five of us get to decide what to do and how to do it. Plenty of opportunity to argue!

 

So we just have to make something out of gold. First thing is, to get the gold into a state that we can use it in. We need to melt it, to get all the tiny flakes into a single blob. But gold melts at 1062°C - pretty damn hot!

Mike and Mike are always keen to decide quickly and get on and do. Ellen and I are keen to discuss things before we do them: to get everyone on board; to brainstorm all the possible ideas - then decide on the best approach. M & M think this wastes time - once they have an idea - they want to get on and start. So I think we drove them crazy. Mike B seemed to have some idea how to make a furnace - so we assigned him “Foreman” - and we followed his directions. This gets us all doing the same thing. Partly ’cos Mike B is still a bit sick - and needs to take it easy.

So - we all built the furnace. Mike L built some gorgeous, huge bellows to keep the furnace going. Ellen and I prepared the clay. Mike B and Jonathan and Kate built the furnace from bricks.

Years of doing pottery have taught me that you need to get rid of air bubbles in clay before firing it - or else it explodes. The air expands on heating and can crack or shatter the whole pot. Also - you’re MEANT to really dry off the clay carefully before you fire it, or it cracks. And here we are - putting wet clay around a fire - heating it to 1000°C - and expecting it to survive!

Ellen and I bashed out all the clay - trying to get rid of all the air bubbles. Then we used bottles as rolling pins to flatten it out to line the furnace - outside and in. I just love the feeling of clay - it’s such a gorgeous, cool thing to handle. And once it was lining the whole furnace it was just irresistible. I just couldn’t stop smoothing it down. Drew - the cameraman - had to have a go too. He used to do pottery too and loves the feel of clay. Really enjoyed working with Ellen today. We laughed and laughed all day, like small kids.

We made a fire for the furnace - a small one to leave overnight to dry out the clay - and left it all. Meant we got an early finish. It was good that we decided to work together on the furnace - it took all of us the day to get it done. Would have been really hard to complete with just 3 people.

Over dinner with Ricky, Pippa (Assistant Producer) asked us about what it’s like working together in one big team. It was so interesting. The Mikes said they do feel like we’re wasting time when we brainstorm at the start “we only have three days to get it done, so we need to start”, not spend lots of time discussing it all. And Ellen and I believe we will waste time doing the wrong thing if we don’t talk it through. And talking it through gets everyone on board doing the same thing - thinking the same thing (hopefully!). But, sure if the conversation got tricky too - just some tensions skimming through. Inevitable really, with such different people, all very opinionated, having to work together. Interesting though and teams need people who think differently and approach things differently.

Day 33 - Melting Gold
Gorgeous day. Really sunny weather. Very, very lucky. Rain would have made all the fire-making near impossible.

Arrived in the morning to find the furnace hadn’t exploded, or cracked too much. So Mike, Mike and Jonathan got on with finishing off the furnace. It looked magnificent - 2 huge bellows - and the chimney spurting smoke with each puff of a bellow.
Ellen and I took half the chunk of the gold Jonathan and Ellen found in the Treasure Box, then split it between us and started bashing it. We wanted to get gold leaf. We had to hit it really hard to make any difference. But hitting it hard fractured it too. Decided we had to be a lot more gentle. Just before the boys put all the remaining gold into the furnace - it occurred to me that we needed to start again - but with one nugget. Managed to persuade the boys to swap our bashed gold (easy to melt) for the remaining half nugget. Easily done.

So, we started really gently. And this time we heated it first. It made all the difference. We tapped it with a steel mallet; heated it; tapped it; heated it; tapped it. Not very exciting stuff. But delightful to see it working. Also went to help do some bellowing. Amazing heat haze coming out of chimney. It’s doing really well. Towards the end of the day - we realised that we’d need to keep hitting it for days to get gold leaf. I’d been keen to make a gold leaf electroscope (which detects electric charge). But the leaf has to be thinner than tin foil for an electroscope. Ellen wanted to coat something in gold leaf, and she would need really thin leaf too.

So we decided to just make something out of what we had. We considered making a circular thing for a necklace. But I’d never wear anything like that and I wanted to like whatever it was we made. So I suggested making earrings. Ellen was delighted with the idea. We would make two and keep one each. We cut the metal bit into a kind of yin-yang shape, decided who would have which and did some more bashing.

Over dinner, we talked about highlights. It was a delight. Really nice time.

Day 33 - Melting Gold
A very nice, mellow last day. Began gorgeously sunny too - so soaked up some last views of the amazing snow-capped mountains surrounding the sawmill. Began the day by fishing the container with the gold in out of the furnace. It was an exciting moment! Would it have spoiled? Would it have vapourised? Would it even have melted?

Mike B delved in - and bought out the crucible:- intact! Inside was a lovely green, glassy solid. We could see small bits of gold glinting inside - but lots of them. So, maybe it hadn’t even melted!? J bashed the glassy stuff, and out fell some beautiful blobs of gold, that clearly had melted. We were all so pleased! In spite of all our worries - it had got to temperature! I ground down the glass and gold. Ellen panned it - and got out satisfying amounts of gold. Jonathan went off to try using a carbon arc to re-melt the gold, to get it into more bits. The two Mikes got the furnace re-stoked in case Jonathan’s idea didn’t work. Ellen and I got on with our earrings. We based it on the spiral of a fern-head - the start of the growth of a punga form. It’s a Maori symbol for “life”. We tapped out spiral patterns and toyed with the idea of using garnets. When we finally tried them on, they looked surprisingly good! I never wear gold jewellery - but I love our hammered-out gold!

Jonathan’s idea worked. His biggest problem was containing the gold. At 1062°C, it melted or set fire to everything it was in contact with! Once melted, J painstakingly filed the gold down. He drew a Maori shape that was close to the shape the gold had naturally formed, and, just like me and Ellen, worked with it. So we all finished up. The Mikes stopped working the furnace, Ellen and I finished early, and it was just left to J to file his gold. Not much we could do to help The weather had closed in, the rain had begun and we all sat, wrapped up snug in the coffee room, savouring the last moments of the sawmill (or in some cases, snoring through them).

J finally finished his gold creation. A beautiful Maori ‘shrimp’. So, two earrings and a gold pendant after six weeks’ gold panning. Phew! Very relieved that they actually looked quite lovely.

 

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