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Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Commemorative Tiles With Meteorite Glaze

This story begins a few months over two years ago as a simple ceramics project to make use of the small amount of lunar cutting dust I had saved from cutting the NWA 11273 meteorite. The first moon landing date is very significant for my family and I was trying to think of what could be done to commemorate the date. I have been using meteorite cutting dust for years as the pigment in some of my glazes. I got the idea for commemorative tiles while using my first 3 D printer to make a lithophane of one of my photographs of Meteor Crater. Somehow it occurred to me that if I reversed the setting for lithophanes and printed one as a mirror image it could be used as a mold for making something in clay.

I built my first 3D printer from a kit and it had worked very well, but I knew that it was a basic entry level machine and that it was under-powered and the power supply was known to give out rather dangerously in a cloud of smoke and flame. It seemed kind of dumb to invest in a $30-$40 power supply to improve a printer that only cost $100. Especially when the motherboard was reported to be just as prone to failure. So I put the machine in my garage where even if the power supply caught fire it would do no damage. I used it for a long time making a couple hundred parts over the next two years. It was a little inconvenient having to stay pretty close to it when it was running for safety sake but I was learning everything I needed to learn about running the machines and the creation of 3D designs at almost no cost. It seemed a better thing to do than spending a lot of money on an expensive printer only to find out I could not learn to use it.

The Designing and Clay Creation Phase

I started the mold making with a section of moonscape cropped from one of my images of The Moon. It was an area with many well-illuminated craters. I took the image into Photoshop and increased the contrast and changed the brightness and mirror image flipped the image left to right. I took that image to the 3D slicing program as a jpeg and made the settings for a negative lithophane where “lightest is highest” with a few layers of base plastic before the image begins printing. I did not know if any of this was going to really work so I made the print rather small. It would take less time to make. I got the print and pressed it into some rolled out clay and tried to pull the 3D mold out. Well, that was a disaster. The mold came out but not without wrecking the pressed design. But I could see even as screwed up as it was that there was potential for making an image in 3D in the clay.

Apollo 11 Original Small Tile
This is one of the first test tiles. As you can see it is small but it does show the craters on The Moon quite well.

The idea was to see if I could take a high contrast image and slice it as a 3D model into a few layers of relief. And if I did the glazing well it might show as a few different gray steps of tone. After several weeks of trial and error and the creation of several different 3D files and molds, I had an image that worked. I found that if I let the clay harden for just a little while that I could extract the mold from the clay with little damage to the pressed in design. In the final versions, the drying time before pulling the mold was 21 hours of drying at 73 degrees F.

It was time to move on to an image that would make some kind of commemorative object for the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. That was what would give Paul Harris and I a way to use some of the lunar meteorite dust we had saved from cutting a much larger lunar meteorite than the small one I had cut for myself. It was now a bigger project than several tiles for my family members. I was using Paul as a sounding board during all this process and as always he had the wisdom to constantly offer.

I decided to merge two iconic images from the Apollo missions. The astronaut walking with the small reflection in his faceplate and the astronaut footprint in the dust on the surface of The Moon. The footprint would be the area where the glaze made from the cutting dust of lunar meteorite NWA 11273 would be used and the moonscape with the astronaut I would have to paint with glaze very carefully to make the image appear. That was going to be tricky for sure. I had to get a lot of glaze in the deep recesses where it needed to be dark and have nearly no glaze on the brightly lit highlights of the image where the clay would be up at the top. I also needed to make the image much higher contrast and compress the grayscale of the image into many fewer steps of gray. I knew I was likely to only get a few in the glazing and that I could only make the mold with about a dozen levels of height.

Back to Photoshop again. I created the original images of the two parts and then sized the footprint so it would fit into the lower right corner of the whole image. I had added a border around the footprint image to provide separation for the glazes.

The images once combined needed work it turned out. Even with the increased contrast, there was not enough definition between the astronaut’s spacesuit and the moonscape when 3D printed. I had to go into the image and darken some areas and lighten some areas to really strengthen the amount of change in tone. I had been working with a backward mold during the first experiments. It was time to mirror flip the image and start working on it for real in clay.

I had several years ago made about 50 small samples of clay formulas with various stains and additives for me to use when altering a clay body. Each little sample had the formula stamped into it. For instance, a clay with 20% meteorite dust and gray stain would say that on the small sample, “20% met +Gray.”

For this project, I decided to use very white clay, but had to formulate the glazes and make samples as I did before. I needed a gray glaze that would be dark enough for the black sky and yet in the thinly covered areas be a light gray to clear on the highlights. Black glaze was not going to work because black is always black in almost any dilution in glaze and was not going to make the moonscape look right. The black sky of The Moon would have looked great though.

So I had to make a batch of rough and ragged pressings that could be used for glazing experiments. I made formulas with several different gray stains at different percentage strengths of pigment. I did 5%, 10%, 20% pigment to clear glaze base with the three different gray stains I had on hand. I used the 10% which seemed best over the next couple of months for experiments until I had to stop to move to our new home. That was three months of fixing and packing the old house up and a month of selling and a month of renting back until the new house was done being built, plus almost five months of unpacking and settling in and getting the workshop studio back in operation. Now I had to relearn some of what I had achieved so far. I did have my notebook and my color samples. I had to relearn how to run my DIY 3D printer after 9-10 months of it being in a box.

Old 3D Printer
This is my now non-functioning 3D printer. Perhaps I can make something from the parts someday.

It was not too bad I had a few issues with getting the printer to run and then it was OK for a time until it died. Not the power supply as I had always thought but something on the motherboard. The extruder was not getting any power and was cold. What to do? I was printing my frames and final molds so I could do the commemorative tiles in batches and reduce the chance of damage to the molds if they were used too much. Paul and I had decided on doing this as a limited edition of ceramic art tiles with each numbered and initialed. I was also 3D printing the frames that the clay was pressed into to give them all a beginning uniform size before the finishing work. I decided to print 10 molds and ten frames. I was about done with three when the printer died. I got online and looked for the replacement I had already chosen which for some reason was not on in my wish list anymore. I had spent $108 on the first kit printer and had learned and experienced all the classic problems such as adhesion difficulties where the print separates from the hotbed during printing and gets totally messed up. I was ready for something better in a printer but had learned that with printing only a single filament that it did not have to be expensive. I wanted the same large print volume that I had which was 8 inches by 8 inches by 8 inches. The one I had picked and finally found again among the hundreds for sale was the one pictured here which cost only $250 and had lots of modern conveniences my DIY did not.

New 3D Printer
My new 3D printer. Which I am enjoying using very much.

It came in two days and I was back printing. I had only three large subassemblies to put together and it was up and going in about 5 minutes. I leveled and gauged the hotbed and sent the mold file to print. I had figured that the hotbed would do what they all do so I sprayed it with AquaNet hairspray to make sure the print would stick and 2 hours and 28 minutes later I had a perfect printed 3D mold for pressing into the clay. Over the next three days, I printed the balance of the 10 molds and frames.

Apollo 11 Clean Dry Molds
This image shows the ten 3D printed molds all cleaned between a batch of pressing into the clay. As you can see they are a mirror image and the part that will be dark are high and the part that will be light is deeper.

I had done a batch of experimental pressings months earlier that was terrible looking with rough wavy borders and which had air dried without weights into twisted squares. But they were fine for my glazing tests. I made up a tiny batch of lunar dust glaze carefully weighing out the moon dust and the clear base and recording the percentage. I had found over the years that I got good results with chondrite dust when I used 20% chondrite powder as a pigment. I ground the lunar dust even finer than it was in my mortar and mixed up the glaze. A little water was all that was needed to make it a liquid I could paint on the experiment slabs. I did the same to make the gray that I thought was best which was 10% Taupe Gray Mason Stain with clear glaze base. I painted up a test. I painted more tests. I had some learning to do to get the moonscape to look right and the astronaut to stand out right and to get the darkest parts dark enough. Also, I found that 15% Taupe Gray was much better. It was a percentage I had skipped in the original test formulations. As the two-year mark came around I was just about ready to make some real tiles pressed in frames and weighted down while they dried to keep them flat. I thought I was passed most of the problems but that was still not the case. I was having problems extracting the molds without destroying the whole tile. Over the next month, I refined a process that worked. It did require repair work to fill the small damaged spot where the prying tool is forced under the edge of the mold to pull it out very carefully. But on the second batch of ten I got eight that were good and two that were destroyed. For me 80% success in ceramic work this complicated is good. I would get 10 out of 10 successfully extracted molds on the other batches.

Apollo 11 Wet Tile Mold
This shows the way the wet tiles look after the mold has been pried up and removed. It is still in the 3D printed frame. When the adding of the words was decided the square frames needed to lengthen vertically so I cut them and added the 3/8 inch of plastic seen in red with my 3D drawing tool. It was easier and faster to do that then to recreate the file and reprint.

Each tile required two stages of clean up and finishing by hand before being set aside for long slow drying. The first finishing is at leather hard when I remove with a knife and straight edge the small amount of squeezed out clay around the edges of the tiles. The tiles shrink in two days of drying to where they will fall out of the frames. But after just a single day I have to have removed the molds and repaired any damage or further drying with the molds in will cause the tiles to crack in multiple places 100% of the time. Since the clay is still very soft after only a day of controlled temperature drying they have to remain under a weight to keep them drying flat. But the area with the pressed image must be held down to keep from warping upward as it drys. So thin paper shims have to be placed in the image area to hold it down while they are under the weights. Too much paper and the image is mashed. Another balancing act I had to learn the hard way with two cracked tiles and two smashed and faded image tiles. By the second day of drying, they are ready to fall from the frames but still require drying under weight after the first hand finishing. After about four days of drying between plywood boards, they can be finished to the final state. They get filed and sanded flat, all edges are filed smooth and square and some artifacts from the 3D printing are smoothed away with wooden and metal tools. A final tiny bevel is put on the front and a larger bevel on the backside and my initials are cut into the back. They then go back under a reduced amount of weight for several more days. They get dryer and lighter in color and are finally ready for the kiln.

10 Apollo 11 Tiles Moulded
This image shows a batch of ten tiles still in the plastic frames drying under weigh between plywood sheets.
Apollo 11 Dry Tile Batch
Here the fragile dry tiles are seen light gray clay color, cleaned up, smoothed and trimmed ready for firing.

The Firing

The firing of the tiles was pretty straight forward. I have a big batch of stilts that I made from clay and high temp wire. I stacked the tiles three or four layers high using four stilts one in each corner and set a 04 pyrometric cone in the kiln and turned it on for an hour of safety heating. A slow rise of temp to 300 degrees. This was just to bake out any tiny residual moisture that might explode a tile if I just turned the kiln on high and let it go. After the hour of low temp, I do just turn it all the way up. I checked it periodically until the pyrometric cone fell to the 3 o’clock position and then turn it off. Several hours later the kiln is cooled enough to open and look into. Then a while longer with the door cracked open a little and they cool the rest of the way to where I can handle them. Each tile loses 15.25 grams of weight in the bisque firing process.

Pyrometric Cones
This is an image of pyrometric cones that are used to measure the heatwork in ceramics. Some artists use three cones and try for the pattern seen in this image. They use the cone for the temperature they are shooting for and fire it until it bends roughly to the three o’clock position and also use the next hotter which just starts to bend and the next lower temperature cone which completely bends to add confirmation of the correct kiln temperature. I only needed to use the single cone of the required temperature. I have a pyrometer on the front of the kiln that I am very used to at this point so a single visible witness cone is all I need.
Apollo 11 Fired Tiles
This is the same batch of eight tiles pictured earlier now fired. They are very white in color and totally changed to ceramic glassy material. It took several hours of heat and cool down to make the transformation and a temperature of over 1950 degrees F.

The Glazing

There are at least three glaze firings for the tiles and a few had four. The clear glaze that goes on the edges, the gray of the moonscape with astronaut and the lunar meteorite glaze on the footprint image all fire at cone 06 in a single firing. Then if the clear glaze is smooth enough they receive a decal for the wording. This is applied like many decals by soaking the cut out words in lukewarm water for a few seconds until the decal slips off the backing sheet. Then lining up and centering the decal on the tile and smoothing out the water so there are no bubbles. The decals then dry for hours and the tiles go back into the kiln for firing at cone 018 and a cool down. The final firing is the 22K gold overglaze for the other edges of the tiles. This is tricky. The gold overglaze is a thin liquid that is applied to a very well cleaned surface and in just the right amount. It is not a dark layer but it is also not the thinnest layer that can be brushed on. This took a little experimenting to figure out. I painted some test pieces with a thin layer and photographed it before it was fired so I would know how a layer of glaze painted a certain way would turn out. The first layer was too thin and the gold came out of the kiln with a purplish tint. The manufacturer has pretty complete troubleshooting online and that told me the reason was not enough gold. So I painted a slightly thicker layer of the overglaze and that worked very well. The decals and gold fire at nearly the same temperature but to get nice clean sharp lines where the gold stops I needed to be able to mask the tile when I painted the gold on and that is not possible with the unfired decal there. Any tape to mask the ends of the gold will pull up and damage the decal application. So decals and gold must be fired separately.

Apollo 11 Decaled Tiles
This is an image of a portion of the run of tiles with the three glazes fired and the decals applied but not yet fired on. The glaze is fired at about 1790 degrees F for a short time again until the pyrometric cone falls nearly all the way down. This is normally enough to turn the glaze to smooth glass. The decals fire at a much lower temperature for a very short time at about 1350 degrees F with a 018 cone. The gold of the third firing is also low temperature using a 018 cone. I have to actually sit at the kiln and open it a crack and check every couple minutes using a timer so I do not overheat the gold. The 018 cone will go from unbent to fully into a puddle in about 3 or four minutes. I need to catch it right at the moment it starts to bend on the gold firing.

This began two years ago as a project for me to make as gifts for the family since it marked the 50th year to the day that my wife and I met as we huddled around a TV at a summer camp watching the astronauts walk for the first time on The Moon. But it turned into a limited commemorative ceramic piece. Over the years I have shared on Facebook my ceramics and there are always some inquiries about whether I sell the pieces. I have never made a piece for sale before this and these are quite limited but if you are collecting some of the available Moon Landing commemoratives that are currently being made this is a chance to get something I have made that contains lunar meteorite material and is a commemorative at the same time. Please click the link if you are interested in purchasing one. 

Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Commemorative Tile
This is an image of a finished tile. The area around Buzz Aldrin’s boot print contains 200mg of NWA 11273 lunar meteorite dust in the glaze and the edge borders are overglazed in 22K gold symbolizing the golden anniversary of Mankind’s first steps on the Moon. Each tile required about twenty or so steps in their creation that had to be executed exactly the same for each tile. The Artist’s personal touch applied to each tile combined with the heat from the kiln gives each tile it’s own unique character.
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