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Williams restores pottery as hobby and second occupation

Contributed photos Kevin Williams of rural Gladbrook is known across the nation for restoring antique stoneware bottles, jugs and crocks.

Most people in the Grundy County area know the name Kevin Williams as their conservation director and before that as park ranger and park ranger naturalist. He has held that position for more than 40 years.

However on the national scene, Williams is known for his restoration business in the area of primitive and antique stoneware bottles, jugs and crocks.

A native of Colfax, Iowa and now living in rural Gladbrook, Williams said his interest in old bottles and stoneware began at an early age

“There was an old mining town located about a quarter mile from our farm near Colfax, and as a young boy I would go out in the fields and pick up pieces that I would find. That interest continued into the 1970s when I started digging to see what was available,” he said.

“When a bottle or stoneware item is in pieces they are called criers and I began experimenting with putting things like handles back on jugs,” Williams said. “My first real official piece that I restored was a Red Wing salt glazed butter churn.”

This small crock was in pieces after being dug out of a privy near Eldora. The photographs show what it looked like before Williams restored it and what it looked like afterward.

In high school Williams thought auto body work would be something to get in to and also liked woodworking. He attended Iowa State University and received a degree in fish and wildlife biology. He got married, moved to Grundy County in 1980 to become park ranger, naturalist and later, conservation director. He also became a taxidermist.

However restoring stoneware stayed in his blood.

“Stoneware collectors are an interesting group of people. They can get bit by the bug real bad,” Williams said, laughing.

He began restoring some of his own finds and taking them to shows, joined the Iowa Antique Bottler’s Club, and began accepting other’s work to restore in 2004. He now runs his business as Quality Stoneware Restoration.

One of his most interesting pieces that he restored was a 70 gallon jug that was made for the 1923 Minnesota State Fair. Only two or three were made and a man in Texas bought this one. After restoring it, Williams took it to the Red Wing show where it was displayed side by side with the original. He said it sold for $17,000 at the auction.

The before and after of a piece called “Boy with a Boot.”

Williams attends shows in Des Moines and Bettendorf; Red Wing and Minneapolis, Minn.; and Monmouth and East Peoria, Ill., and is a member of the Red Wing Collector’s Society. His work has been featured twice in the society’s newsletter.

“There are elements of taxidermy, auto body and woodworking involved in my stoneware restoration,” Williams said. “A lot of time and materials go into my work and I have repaired things with just a few small cracks up to some that were in many pieces.”

Saying he does not like super glue or pieces that people have tried to clue together, Williams uses two epoxy products and Elmer’s Glue. The pieces are soaked, filled, sanded, smoothed out and then coloration and texture — if applicable — applied. He does not re-fire the stoneware, but instead uses a cold glaze.

Williams picks up his client’s piece at a particular show, then returns it a year later to the same show.

“It takes almost a year to finish a piece, because you have to feel ready to do the work and often that takes just setting it aside and going back to it when the time feels right. I do not like to ship unless distance requires it due to possible damage,” Williams said.

Contributed photo One of the larger pieces restored by Williams is a 2-gallon crock. It was found in the Reinbeck dump.

“The USPS is one of my best clients, as things can be damaged if not packed properly,” he said.

Williams would eventually like to retire and have this stoneware restoration business waiting for him. Yet he feels that is a few years down the road.

“I could close the door any day and still have enough work to keep me busy for at least another year, and that does not even count the shelf full of projects that I need to complete for myself,” Williams concluded.

If you have a piece of stoneware that needs restored, or have questions for Williams, his Facebook site is Quality Stoneware Restoration. Call (641) 473-3045 or contact him by email at kwbjwilliams@gmail.com.