There are many different ways to create handmade pottery. Over the years most of my experience has been thrown work. The act of “throwing” is a pottery term that means making pottery on a potter’s wheel. Recently as a result of building out my own studio, I’ve started utilizing other methods of creating work.
Handmade pottery is one of them. Using either a slab roller or rolling pin I create large slabs of clay with even thickness and make pottery by manipulating the slab into the desired shape. Additional slabs or even parts thrown on a wheel are sometimes added in this process. Below is a high-level overview of my process using the wheel and slabs.
Handmade Pottery The Steps Involved
The pottery wheel lets you take a lump of clay and make it into a cylindrical form that you can then alter in many ways. I spend 15-20 mins on each pot I make depending on the type of shape I intend to make. A lump of clay can be modified a few times on the wheel but if you push the clay too far by working it too roughly or too fast or let it absorb too much water, it will collapse.
One challenge for new potters is understanding how to center the clay onto the wheel-head. It is one of the first steps in the process and is so critical and the foundation that allows you to continue in the making process.
Once a piece is removed from the wheel bat, it is set to dry to a leather-hard firmness ready for trimming (if needed). Leather-hard is a term used by a lot of potters to describe the firmness of the clay. A lot of steps in pottery require an understanding of how wet or dry the clay is at various stages.
These stages dictate when certain finishing or decorative techniques should be used. Getting pottery to this “leather-hard” consistency can take anywhere from 2 to 5 days depending upon the thickness of the clay and the temperature and moisture levels in the room the piece is in.
Trimming is the act of removing clay from the pottery to reduce the final weight of the piece and to also help shape the pot. A piece can be completely transformed in the trimming stage. Texture can be added anywhere on the piece and the shape from the lip to the foot can be altered multiple times until you like it.
Drying for the bisque fire:
A trimmed piece is set to dry until it becomes a delicate bone-dry. This can take up to a week or more depending on the temperature and moisture levels in the room. A bone-dry piece is ready for a bisque firing in a kiln, which changes the clay into ceramic material without fully fusing it.
The bisque fire:
Bisque firing dehydrates the clay, leaving the clay body somewhat porous so it can absorb the glaze. A bisque firing brings the temperature slowly up and down. It takes about 36-48 hours from firing to cool down. A bisque piece is ready for surface decoration and glazing. My work is fired in an electric (oxidation) kiln to cone 06.
This can take several minutes to several hours. A piece may be hand-painted with underglazes, dipped in multiple glazes to reach a certain color and effect, etched with designs via sgraffito, decorated with wax resist, and on and on…straightforward glaze dipping and drying typically takes less than 10 minutes depending on the size of the piece. A glazed piece is now ready for the second firing.
The glaze fire:
The second firing melts the glaze and fuses it to the bisque piece. A glaze firing brings the temperature slowly up and down. It takes about 24 hours from firing to cool down. My work is fired in an electric kiln to cone 5. I also fire some of my work in a wood kiln which is fired to Cone 10
Hand Made Pottery
Making The Slab.
Placing a large ball of clay out on a work area just like you would think of a baker or chef rolling out dough; the clay in this regard is similar. Using a rolling pin or a Slab roller (pictured below) I would roll out a sheet (slab) of clay out to an even thickness, then using a rubber rib I would compress the clay on both sides of the slab.
This helps avoid cracking and other defects in pottery during the drying and firing process. I will then allow the clay to stiffen up for a bit so that it is more manageable to shape the slab in the next phase of constructing the slab into a shape. Ideally, before even starting this process
I would hope to have had a general idea of what I’m making out of the slab.
I use foam sheets you might have seen in an art supply store or a typical box store to make templates of the shape and size of a variety of objects (cups, vases, plates, and platters to name a few) Before allowing the slab to dry I would trace a general area that would fit the template I plan to use just to give me a guideline as to where to apply the texture.
APPLYING TEXTURE To Handmade Pottery
The texture is either added soon after the slab is rolled out or afterward depending on how much of an impression I’m trying to achieve. This part of the process has become my favorite. You can pretty much use any found object and use it to make impressions on the surface of the clay. I have tons of stamps and other objects I use in my work. See the picture below for an example of texture in my work.
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
The template is now used to cut out the shape from the rest of the clay. If I’m making a cylindrical shape I would at this point cut out the connecting side at a slant so that when the 2 sides of the template meet they allow me to attach them together in a seamless way, think of miter joint if you’re familiar with woodworking.
The joint is first scratched up with a metal rib and water or a watery-clay is applied to the joint. This is a way to “glue” the parts together and later smooth it out. This construction process of putting slabs together can have multiple attachments to be made depending on the final shape I’m looking for.
DRYING Hand Made Pottery
The pottery is then wrapped up in a plastic sheet and allowed to dry slowly for several days. I’m checking on them sometimes daily and smooth and refine the look of the pot as it dries. If you’ve read the section above about wheel-thrown pottery you might notice that I’m not mentioning trimming.
I rarely trim anything that is hand-built as hand-building gives me complete control of the clay shape from the first step of the building process. Whereas wheel-thrown work will normally always require this step of taking away clay from the final shape.
Once the pot has dried slowly for several days I’ll then take the plastic away and allow the pottery to dry even further to bone-dry.
Now that the pot is completely dried out it is now ready for the Bisque firing. At this point in the process Hand building and Wheel-thrown merge. The process from this point is documented above.