This is Wayne Madison. He has worked in virtually every department in his 25 years with the company.
Wayne shook my hand as he explained, “I’m the maintenance man. I’m in charge of security. I oversee the clay room.”
As our conversation progressed, Wayne steadily affixed copper wire to a birdhouse and placed it in a box to be shipped. It was clear from his warm, determined demeanor; Wayne enjoys his work and takes it very seriously. I asked him what he’d learned in his quarter century with Stoneware. He challenged me with this:
“Find another company like it.”
“We make a product nobody needs. So we have to make a product everybody wants. A lot of our work involves educating the customer. They don’t realize how many hands have to touch each piece. We don’t pump them out like machines. No matter how many times you see our products, you’ll never find two that are exactly alike. That’s what makes us unique. Everything is handmade.”
Shortly thereafter, I met Tommy Pound who was busy filling molds for coffee cup handles. Jiggering up to at least 100 handles at a time, Tommy explained a bit more of the process.
“I fill these molds up with slip, and they’ll set there till Monday.”
“Fill it with sweat?”
“Well, that, too, man! Slip. That’s the thinner potter’s clay made of a liquid mixture: two parts water, one part clay.”
“Our master mold maker creates a plaster for everything we put out. I overfill the mold with liquid clay, and the extra is what you see in that cinnamon-roll-lookin’ thing there."
Tommy wheeled over a mold that came up to his waist. “Come back Monday and this’ll be a wine cooler. You could even put your bourbon bottle in there.”
When I asked Tommy how long he’d been doing this, he had it figured out by product. “I made rabbit feeders for a year. Dog bowls for a few years after that. And I’ve been doing these larger molds ever since. All-in-all, I’ve been here about twenty years.”
Next, I met Hahn Mumford in the handle-making department. I watched as she cleaned handles after they came out of the molds, smoothing out the rough edges, and removing any excess. While they’re still wet, she scored both the mug and the handle.
Holding that knife, moving swiftly through her process, I noticed she had the most beautiful hands. When I mentioned this, she told me she’d paint her nails every week.
“Last week, they were pink, this week silver.”
She added a fluffier mixture of potter’s clay, a bit thicker than slip. It looked like whipped cream on her fingers. It acts as the glue that holds the handle to the cup.
When she was set, she bent the handle to meet the scored spot on the cup. At that, someone else in her department chimed in, “it’s basically putty in her hands. She knows exactly how far apart the two ends go.”
Having worked in the handle department since 1990, Hahn told me she finishes approximately 11,000 handles a year.
After Hahn has finished in the handle department, the mugs go to the art department.
When I learned Stoneware offered visitors the opportunity to paint their own pottery, I couldn’t resist adding my own take to the bottom of a julep cup.
Starting in the state that is known as greenware or unfired pottery, I selected a navy glaze. They currently have 59 different glazes in rotation, and they’re all made in-house. Each glaze creates its own unique color.
The gray color typical of Stoneware emerges from a white overglaze. The color change is the result of a chemical reaction during the kilning process.
While I was painting my cup, I learned that until you throw pots in the kiln, every part of this stoneware can be recycled.
Receiving my cup in the mail a short time later, I made a traditional mint julep for myself, and as I did so, I thought back to my time with Wayne, Tommy, and Hahn, three sets of the twenty pairs of hands that touch each piece of Stoneware. Their attention to detail, their reverence for each step of the process made for a really unique experience. Knowing I quite literally had a hand in the process of manufacturing this cup, it made for the best-tasting mint julep I’ve ever had.
731 Brent Street
Louisville, KY 40204