How to Smooth a Clay Edge Without Water

Water is great for so many things not the least of which is helping us stay hydrated, but, in my humble opinion, not so wonderful when it comes to working with clay.

As I mention in the video, I receive no money (its not an ad) from any of the companies who make the tools I mention – they are all of my own personal choices honed over my years of working with clay. I feel strongly that all of us eventually find the right tools that work best for each of us personally.

Surform Shaver Tool – Also available at your local home improvement store.

Mud Tools Polymer Rib

Some links in my posts may contain affiliate links for products I personally use and recommend. If you choose to purchase using these links your price for the item remains the same, but I receive a small amount towards supporting my blog. Thank You!

Creativity Block?

Blocks are not just for writers anymore – all of us can find ourselves struggling to think up new ideas and fresh perspectives. The trick is not to avoid those times when creativity blocks happen because let’s be honest, you can’t escape, but instead to look upon it as an opportunity.

I find that I go through cycles with the texture patterns I create in my work with the same patterns emerging over and over until I’m stuck in my comfort zone. Since what else is a creativity block except getting nice and comfy, all curled up in the same old thought processes?

I have some tried and true methods for helping me break out.

For an easy fix, I set-up out in the “wild” – somewhere that will bring me into contact with lots of people. I’ve always found engaging others as part creators of my work forces me to solve for the unexpected. I never quite know what someone will do when I give them free reign to place an imprint on a piece of clay. Viewing this unknown as a problem that has to be solved (I’m not allowed to simply scrap it out of the gate) usually introduces fresh ideas into my work.

Sometimes though I’m stuck just a little bit more than one of my quick fixes will help.

I find in those situations that I need to completely leave behind my main medium, clay, and explore other mediums. Whether it’s through research into these other mediums or actually creating non-clay works, it puts me in back in the realm of a complete newbie. I can’t fall back on any past experience. I might explore outside of the world of clay for a day or a few weeks before feeling that I can return recharged for my work.

What do you do to help get yourself out of your comfort zone?

 

Do You Believe in Sanding?

When most people think of ceramics sanding is not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, it is really an integral part of the ceramics making process. I have fuzzy memories of the first time I learned about how my work could be smoothed of rough spots, but the first time I ever taught it to my own students is crystal clear.

It all started when one of my students asked about how to prevent the work he was making from scratching his table. I told him I would show him how to correct for that issue in the next class’ demo. I gathered up some of my own work that had recently been glazed fired, wet/dry sandpaper and a big bowl of water. At the time I had three classes back to back and I covered the pros and cons of sanding at each stage of the clay process. Other than making a mental note to include it again in future sessions, I figured that was that.

Boy was I wrong!

Apparently, my innocent little demo on sanding had spread like wildfire throughout the studio. Just like it hadn’t occurred to me before being asked, it hadn’t occurred to any other instructor either to cover with their class. The fact that those of us who sold our work sanded every single piece blew the minds of some of the studio members. Not in my class, these studio peeps didn’t get the benefit of the before sanding and after sanding work I passed around for folks to examine, leading one to ask my student, “Do you believe in sanding?”

It still makes me laugh to this day just thinking about it. The phrasing did and always has struck me as so funny that every time I sand pots I’m reminded of it.

So, why do I (or why should you) sand ceramic pots?

Basically, clay shrinks. My work, which is fired to cone 10 or 2365º, actually shrinks three times. First, during the initial drying process as the water evaporates from the piece before the first firing. Second, during the first firing, otherwise known as bisque, much of the organic materials burn away further condensing the clay. Last, during the glaze firing when the clay vitrifies and any porous aspects of the clay close up. It’s always startling to folks new to the medium how much smaller their work gets.

The shrinkage is important to note because modern clay bodies are typically not a single type of clay, but rather a mixture of various types combined to support easier construction. Oftentimes this mixture includes sand or grog (among other additives) to help provide strength during the forming process. Both sand and grog (which is pre-fired clay ground up) are already shrunk when they are added to the clay mixture. Each successive firing of a piece pulls back and condenses the clay and brings the sand and/or grog to the surface – hence the need to sand what otherwise seemed a smooth surface.

For the ceramic artists out there, here are some tried and true tips for sanding your work.

  • Sanding greenware, or unfired clay, is usually not worth it since the piece is so fragile at this stage. If you feel you must, then the drier the piece the better. Be sure to do it in a well ventilated area, preferably outdoors, wear a dust mask/respirator and use scotch brite pads.
  • Sanding bisque ware is typically only valuable if you notice a previously missed sharp or rough point on your work – remember it’s only going to shrink again in the glaze fire. Wet/dry sandpaper of typically any grit will work and be sure to get the piece and sandpaper thoroughly wet to prevent dust.
  • Another good time to sand bisque ware is if you need to level the bottom of a piece. It is an ideal time since the partially fired work is still soft. Thoroughly wetting the sandpaper and the piece are necessary. Tape the wet sandpaper to a table if you have no one to hold it in place for you and move the piece back and forth to level.
  • After glaze firing, sand the bottom or any raw clay portion of the piece using a rough grit wet/dry sandpaper (the lower the grit number the more rough). Be sure to get the piece and the sandpaper thoroughly wet to prevent dust. I do this even if I’m working outside so I’m not breathing in all of the dust.
  • After glaze firing, sand over a glazed surface using a fine grit wet/dry sandpaper with a grit of 400 or higher. Using such a fine grit sandpaper will allow you to sand the glazed surface without scratching it. Again thoroughly wet both the piece and the sandpaper to prevent dust … did you get that part about preventing dust yet?
  • Technically any kind of sandpaper will work, but wet/dry sandpaper is made to be used when wet and will last longer. Regular sandpaper will fall apart quickly when used wet.

Here’s a little behind the scenes of my own sanding process this week. I use a big five gallon bucket to wet each piece and the sandpaper before sanding and again afterwards to rinse the pots off. I typically let them dry overnight.

See my work all sanded smooth and ready for sale online in my shop!

Repeating Stamps

As some of you may know, I hand make a lot of my texture tools from clay. Among my absolute favorites are the stamps that can be used both as a single impression and as a repeating one that creates an entirely new pattern.

I love when I learn that one of my stamps is capable of creating a pattern or two. For those who don’t work in clay, it’s not possible to fully test a new stamp until after it has been fired. It can be like Christmas getting new stamps back for their first impression testing and not all of them make the cut let alone the creating a new pattern cut.

I thought I’d share one of my favorite pattern creating stamps with you today! I created this one using a plaster carving technique to achieve fine lines in the stamp.

First, a single impression of this stamp.

Now, here is the start of building the pattern. First, I did a row of the stamp all oriented in the same direction across the length of the slab. Then, I flipped the orientation 180 degrees to create some great rounded rectangles in the negative space.

I really like when I figure out great patterns like this one to create with my stamps. I love using the positive and negative space to leave some parts of the pattern bare clay and some parts glazed. Sometimes I alternative which parts are glazed and which parts are bare clay. It really gives me so many opportunities from a single stamp!

Check out my Squares series in the planters section of my online shop to see this stamp in action and glazed!

Here are a few behind the scenes shots from my photo shoot of my stamped pattern! This is my baby boy Bennie! He is 15 years old and loves being a studio cat!

Thinking About Drainage

Every time I share my planters with plant people I learn new things about drainage. I’m always happy to hear feedback on how to make my planters better homes for the plants that grow in them.

I will admit that sometimes I struggle initially with the feedback and how to incorporate it into my planters in the most effective way. There are lots of factors to consider from maintaining even, consistent wall thickness and other structural considerations to aesthetic considerations like continuing my personal style in the final form.

One such challenge revolved around adding additional drainage in the feet of my signature planter form. As you can sort of see from this angle, the method I use to form my planters’ feet creates low points in the pot where water can collect and cause root rot.

Here is a view of the planter upside down before any drainage holes are added.

The challenge was to decide the best way to avoid the low point.

Do I fill in the inside with additional clay? Well, that adds weight to the pot and the potential for uneven drying which can cause cracks.

Do I put in a thin layer of clay on the inside suspended over the low point? Then I create a hollow section in the pot and trapped air can cause explosions in the kiln during firing.

Do I fill in that part after the planter is completely fired with some non-clay material like caulk or silicone? I tried it on some pots I had already created and it works, but needs a lot more caulk, etc than it would appear. In addition to the added cost of the filler, the end result doesn’t look great.

In the end it was my second idea above that actually gave me the best solution. To release the trapped air in the pot I tried that idea on, I put holes in the bottom of the feet. The minute I did it, I realized, “Duh! Just put holes through the feet.”

It turned out to be the easiest, simplest solution and has the added benefit of being virtually invisible unless you look inside the pot or turn it over. So, now all of my planters from the very smallest to the largest have a minimum of five drainage holes (as pictured below).

At a recent show I learned that all of my drainage holes in my feet are actually helpful if the pot is used to plant bonsai since the initial planting requires the bonsai tree to be wired into the pot for security while it roots. So, there you have it! Two solutions in one – prevents root rot and allows for wire!

Looking for a great planter with absolutely fabulous drainage? Then be sure to check out my Etsy shop!

Its Good to Have Standards

Last fall I worked out and began creating standard sizes for my planters. It makes life so much easier. I no longer have to sit and sort pots by approximate size to figure out the right prices. I no longer willy-nilly cut out slabs of clay and hope that the proportions make sense once I start to form them.

Lots of unexpected things have worked out as a result of this change too. I can easily size up or down my planters with very little effort. Before I would make what I thought were larger and/or smaller sizes only to discover there was not as much variation as I had anticipated. I can also list multiples of the same planter design in my online shop since it has become a no-brainer to re-create the same dimensions.

But the best result of standard sizes? You’ll never guess, but my planters now all nest perfectly inside one another. Isn’t that cool?! I think that’s so cool!

Foot Problems

As I shared in my last post, I have struggled with getting a great foot on my plates for a long time. I thought I’d share today what I’ve learned through my challenges.

First off, a great foot does way more than most people realize. Sure, it has to add to the aesthetics of a pot, but more than that it comes down to structural integrity. The most beautiful foot in the world is worthless if the piece slumps during firing. I always recommend to students to focus first on good construction before they start to get fancy.

It’s the marriage of the two – structure and aesthetic that is one of the ultimate challenges of clay. The other, for those curious, is non-dripping teapot spouts!

Without further delay, I’d thought I’d share my tips and tricks for a successful plate foot.

Use a Thick, Long CoilWhile there are many ways to create the basic plate foot – slab, tripod feet, etc., the most stable that I’ve found is a rolled coil. The trick is to roll the coil slightly longer and thicker that you think you’ll need for the end result. Length is important to give you options to ensure the foot is big enough to structurally support the curve and width of the plate. Thickness is equally as key since you’ll have more clay to use for attaching the foot well.

Marking Foot PlacementIf I had a dollar for every time I spend time figuring out the right placement for my foot, only to have to repeat the exercise after slipping and scoring I’d be rich! Slipping and scoring of clay is like the glue that holds to pieces together. Once its been done you run the risk of tearing the foot and/or the plate as you try to figure out the right placement. I like to mark the inside of my foot ring lightly with a skewer, but anything not too sharp will work.

Slipping & ScoringAs I mentioned earlier, this is the glue that holds two pieces of clay together – all of the smoothing in the world won’t save you if forget to slip and score. Technically speaking, the amount of slipping and scoring that needs to be done depends greatly on the moisture level of your clay – both the pot as well as the foot. Extremely soft, wet clay for both and you might get away with not doing it at all. Leather hard clay (meaning it holds its shape but can still be dented with a fingernail) and both pieces need to be scored, slipped a couple of times to bring the attachment areas to a moist enough level for attaching.

This is typically where I see a lot of folks go wrong, They don’t take into account the moisture levels of the pieces being attached and don’t slip and score enough. Generally, the plate (or pot) will be firmer and the foot softer resulting in unequal levels of wetness. For some reason people tend to score/slip the softer clay, relying on the extra moisture to hold the attachment when raising the firmer piece’s attachment area to the same moisture level as the softer clay would be more effective.

Scoring the Foot Ring Into the PotI love, love, love this tip I picked up from Amy Sanders’ Ceramics Arts Daily video on textures. Her DVD is full of so many great tips and tricks, but this one is like a good foot – structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing. She uses a metal rib with teeth to score her foot ring into the pot. She leaves this texture visible on her work, but I use it for my starting point to smooth the coil into the piece. So much easier to grab just enough, but not too much clay to smooth with this rib than any other tool I’ve tried. Once I’ve done this additional scoring, I smooth the clay in a horizontal motion. I find that this delivers a one-two punch of compressing the clay in multiple directions to prevent cracks.

Flaring Out the RingA subtle, but necessary part of the foot process, if like me many of your plates get hung as wall art, is to flare out the foot ring. In addition to having enough clay to adhere the foot well, that extra thickness in the initial coil also helps here since you lose a small amount of width in the flaring process. I use either a curved rib or my finger to gently push out from the interior while my other hand supports the exterior of the foot ring. This subtle flaring allows a wire to wrapped around the foot ring for hanging – the flare prevents the wire from otherwise slipping off.

Simulating the TableA big part of a good foot is one that will allow your piece to sit correctly on a table, etc. The challenge in hand building plates is that often they are constructed, like mine, upside down. How to solve for a flat foot when you can’t turn over the piece until both the foot and plate can hold their shape? The answer is easy, you simulate the table with a piece of wood or a bat. This trick can be used even before attachment to see if a tripod foot, for example, will sit level. Once the board has been placed on the foot just gently press down to remove any raised areas.

That’s it! A few, hard earned tips to a good plate foot.

You can check out my finished plates online in my Etsy shop!

 

Inked

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I have a love/hate relationship with shino glazes. Shinos are a type of glaze that is heavily dependant on the kiln environment, so you never quite know how they will turn out. Occasionally, you’ll get a result like I did with this mug. Instead of all of the wonderful burnt oranges and grey carbon trapping swirling around, I got white. Blah!

Now, I have nothing against the color white per se, it just isn’t my favorite glazing option. Fortunately, while I didn’t get the results I was hoping for I did get to do the next best thing to this mug – I inked it!

Shinos, as a glaze, don’t always fit the clay body as perfectly as other glazes and when it fires without the heavy reduction of oxygen in the kiln environment it tends to go white, but also tends to crackle. If you look closely at the picture you’ll see minute cracks in the glaze surface. Now, since I know that this can happen, I use a non-shino glaze as a liner on the inside of the mug to prevent any food safety issues from bacteria getting in the cracks.

These little cracks go all the way to the surface of the clay body and using india ink you can darken the cracks of the lines. It seems weird and it is, but it is also super cool. If you notice, I only inked some of the sections on this mug to help create a little bit more contrast and interest in the surface.

Since I’m essentially staining the clay body the ink won’t wash away (I’ve already scrubbed this mug to remove any residual ink) making it completely safe to use.

For those of you interested in learning more about shinos, as a glaze category, I’ve linked here to a great article on the origins and principles of shino glazes – they truly are a breed apart.

Check out this mug and more in my online shop!

Masking Tape Madness

Every once in awhile new inspiration comes along and you have no choice, not really anyways, to follow it. That is exactly the case for me recently. I ran across an article in Ceramics Art Daily by Lindsay Rogers about creating your own glaze resist “stickers” out of masking tape and parchment paper a few months back.

I search for tips and tricks like this all the time to incorporate into projects for my students and that’s how I viewed this idea originally.

I purchased the supplies, taught the class and it was so much fun! I started putting custom cut stickers on all of my demo pots as well as another teacher’s demo pots. I just might have been a little teensy bit obsessed!

Fast forward to the next time I sit down to make some mugs. I was feeling rather lazy that day and didn’t want to pull out all of my texture makers, so I made a bunch of texture-free mugs thinking I’ll use some masking tape stickers on them.

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It was even better that I could have thought! When I glaze work that I created as a demo for my class I tend to get really wild with the combinations. It’s usually a good break from my super detailed brushed glazing method I use for my personal work. Creating custom stickers for my own mugs was like a little bit of both – exact and thoughtful as well as wild since I wasn’t sure if my patterns would turn out.

I really, really love the finished look. Its almost reminiscent of my planters and vases I’ve created that have both glazed and unglazed sections. I can’t wait to try other patterns as well as a two-toned glazed effect using the stickers.

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Look for more of these mugs to come as well as new planters in this glazing style as well!! The first batch of mugs is currently available in my Etsy shop here.

Explore Beyond Ceramics

As artists we have a tendency to get “stuck” in our medium. At first this single-mindedness is extremely valuable, we use it to master the craft of our chosen medium and begin gaining technical competency. Then we need that focus as we put our acquired skills to use creating work in our own voice.

Our work develops and grows and grows and then all of a sudden it stagnates. One day we look around and realize that our work – what was once a new and fresh expression of our vision – has become, well, production. Repetitious. Old news.

That is why it is so important as artists, and really in any creative field, to get out of our own heads every once in awhile. Do something completely different.

I’m not advocating changing mediums completely unless that happens to strike your fancy, but I’m am standing on my soapbox to say that there is great value in learning about making jewelry or painting with watercolors or, heck, creating a garden to furthering your work.

If you’re not able to spend funds on a new workshop or class then the internet can be your very best friend for getting started. Obviously, we’re all familiar with YouTube and the plethora of tutorials available there, but beyond that I’d love to give everyone a starting place – the website of Will Kemp.

I stumbled upon Will’s website in my quest to pull together some handouts for my intermediate class on the elements of art. Will is an award-winning artist and has a ton of experience too lengthy to get into here, but he is an absolute genius at teaching and explaining concepts so that anyone can understand and implement them.

Yes, he speaks to two-dimensional examples of the points he’s illustrating.

Yes, there is nary a ceramic form to be found unless it’s the subject of a still life example.

Yet, that is, in my humble opinion, what makes it absolutely magical.

The combination of refreshing myself on composition, color theory, etc coupled with the lack of clay really helps clear out my head. Suddenly, and completely unstuck.