Inside Austin’s Oldest Father-Son Owned Pottery Supply Store
Words by Jess Hagemann Photos by Eric Morales
“It’s not very glamorous,” Craig Freiburger, owner of Armadillo Clay and Supplies, says by way of apology, but I can already tell this is where the magic happens.
A bright and cheery storefront greets the casual shopper as soon as she walks in the door. My first thought is, “Okay, what part of my budget can I allocate to art supplies this month?” as the offerings on display go far beyond the expected clay. Sure, there are glazes, bisque ware, and of course wet clay available, as well as slip for sale by the gallon, but there are also paintbrushes, glass sheets and rods for fusing and lampworking, not to mention a full bookstore. My favorite part is the example of what glazed bisque ware looks like, showcasing the potential inherent in raw material.
Behind the scenes, things get even more interesting. A giant sheet metal warehouse extends above and behind the storefront, housing pieces of machinery both familiar and unfamiliar. Forklifts cart heavy bags of pulverized clay powder from as far away as Kentucky and South Carolina. The powder is mixed with clay balls, flux, and sand inside multiple lofted metal vats to produce Armadillo’s signature red and white clay bases, in addition to custom clay mixes for particularly savvy potters.
As Craig explains, red clay gets it color from the higher iron content. Iron can react with a glaze during the firing process, creating all kinds of different effects in the finished piece; for that reason, it’s important to keep the red and white clays separated. Reasons that people might want custom mixes include sculptors who need more grit for their hand-built structures to resist shrinkage, versus potters who throw clay on a wheel and require a smoother, creamier consistency.
Armadillo Clay’s customer base ranges from high school art classes to art therapists and professional potters all around Texas. Craig, a longtime potter himself, initially rented studio space in the warehouse to local potters but had to stop once liability became an issue. He still owns a couple oxidation kilns that the public can rent to fire their pieces, and Armadillo also hosts classes and gallery exhibits several times a year. You can check out their glazing workshop May 14-15, or see about renting their gorgeous outdoor sculpture patio for a private event.
Though the East side has seen its fair share of change since 1979, when Craig first bought the acre that Armadillo sits on, the business itself operates much the same as it ever did. Purchase orders and receipts are still filled out by hand; it was a “big deal” when the website recently got its much-needed overhaul. But why fix what isn’t broken? Craig’s adult son Brent, who will inherit Dad’s business, likes what he calls Armadillo’s “antiquated” ways. “We know our customers by their first names.”
All of Armadillo’s ten employees, Brent jokes, “have their PhDs in Ceramics.” With over 200 combined years’ experience, any staff member can answer just about any clay-related question. As a team, they have offered unbeatable service and product quality for over 35 years and can boast of a clientele that has experienced little turnover for that same reason. “It’s the best part of the job,” both Craig and Brent affirm. “People keep coming back to us. We’re like one big family here.” There’s room for more!
“With over 200 combined years’ experience, any staff member can answer just about any clay-related question.”
Native Knowledge: Check out Armadillo’s glazing workshop May 14-15, or even see about renting their gorgeous outdoor sculpture patio for a private event.
Where we came from…
Owner Craig Freiburger moved from California to Austin in 1978 after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Art. He purchased the East side property where Armadillo Clay and Supplies was born. The business he named for the old Armadillo World Headquarters, a famous Austin music venue dismantled in 1980. Parts of Armadillo’s warehouse were salvaged from The ‘Dillo’s wreckage. These days, Armadillo is surrounded by other artists’ studios and workshops, and funky food trailers like Flitch Coffee just three blocks north.