My Process

(I’ll be adding photos in place of the brackets soon, but in the meantime, read away!)

Working with clay is one of my favorite things to do.  I can sit down with a formless lump of clay, put it on a spinning wheel, and turn it into… anything!  Its a very zen process for me – I love the way I can use earth, water, motion, and fire to create.

Right now, my wine stoppers and Curly Creatures are my focus.  I enjoy making functional wares as well, but not as much.  To me, the more creative pieces are just more fun, and definitely more unique.  I’ll try to document my process here so that you’ll know what goes into making each one of these.

(Most of this deals with the Creatures, but the majority applies to stoppers as well. I don’t throw them on the wheel, but the rest of the process is the same!)

First, I get a large piece of clay – several pounds worth – and center it on the wheel.  It doesn’t have to be too precise, because I’m only going to use the very top of it.  This process is called “throwing off the hump”.  Production potters often work this way because it means they can center once, and then throw many pieces in a row.  I use it because I’m working with small pots, and because of how I pull off the tails.

[throwing off the hump]

I then pull the body of the creature – first as a straight cylinder, then bow out the sides, and last create the flared mouth.  I use very little water, and then dry the body quickly using a heat gun.  Once the body is firm enough to hold its shape when handled, I push down around the base to create a stem – at this point, the creature looks a lot like a little wine goblet.

[body with stem]

I cut off the base of the stem, and then wetting my hands repeatedly, pull the tail.  This is a finicky process – its very important not to let the clay get too wet, especially as it becomes thinner, because it will just tear off.  But it needs to be wet enough to reduce the friction between clay and hand, otherwise it will tear off.  And of course, I have to hold the body very carefully so I don’t change its shape.  In the end, hopefully there’s a long, gradually thinning tail coming naturally off the bottom of the original pot.

[body with tail pulled, but not curled]

At this point, its time for the heat gun again!  I carefully use the gun to firm up the tail, working in sections.  Once its firm enough to hold shape (a stage called “leather hard”), I start working it into a curl.  This part is tricky too – as it dries the clay goes from too wet to hold a shape… to just right… to dry enough that it will start to fracture as it bends… to so dry that it will snap when bent.  I’ve had to learn over time how to tell when the clay is at the right stage to do what I want.  A good way to think of it is as the reverse of the way spagetti changes from hard to soft as it cooks.

[Body on end with curled tail]

Finally, its time to add features to the Curly Creature!  Once again, dryness makes for an interesting time here.  The body at this point is on the dry end of leather hard, while the clay I’m making limbs, ridges, wings, etc out of is still wet.  In most cases, the process of working the fresh clay dries it out a bit, so its closer to the dryness of the body.  Either way, I use white vinegar to make slip to attach the features.

[working on attaching pieces – legs drying next to the piece while I attach one]

Done!  Almost, anyway…  at this point, the creature needs to dry further, to the point that almost all moisture has evaporated out of the clay.  At this stage it will be considered “bone dry.”  This has to happen before going into the bisque kiln, or the piece can explode.  (Not fun.)  The trouble is that clay shrinks as it dries.  The body, tail, and features are all at different stages of “dry”, and if the piece dries out too quickly, the features can fall off.  (Sounds like something out of a Far Side cartoon…  looks like it too.)  So, I spray down the piece with water, wrap it tightly in plastic, and wait.  Larger pieces, or pieces that I’m really worried about, I’ll sometimes dry slowly for over a week.

[piece drying in plastic, maybe one end of plastic being held up to show]

Once the piece has reached bone dry, its time for the bisque kiln!  In this step, the clay is heated slowly to 1730⁰F (945⁰C) – this leaves the clay hard, brittle, and ready to accept glazes.

[bisqued pieces]

Next step – glazing!  First, I always brush a thin coating of wax on any surface that could touch the shelf of the glaze kiln.  I do this so that glazes won’t stick there – if glaze gets between clay and the kiln shelf, the piece will fuse to the shelf!  This is bad for the kiln, and bad for the piece (since, you know, breaking off a leg or tail isn’t very nice.)   Once that’s done, I use a combination of dipping the piece in glazes, brushing glazes on, using wax (sometimes with oxides in them) for different effects, and more.  Glazing a piece can sometimes take an hour or more!

[photos of glazing pieces]

I have several favorite glaze combinations I like the results of – see the Glazes tab above for close up photos of them.

Last but not least, the glazes are allowed to dry, the piece is fired to cone 6, and the glazes turn to glass.  Assuming it makes it through the firing and out of the kiln without an accident, I’ll sand off any sharp bits, and the Curly Creature is finished!

[photo of finished creature!]

There’s a great article about what happens as clay is fired here: