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!

In Search of History

I adore texture and, equally as important, texture making tools. Just when it seems like I have enough different tools to make impressions in clay I run across another one I just have to add to my collection!

I have long been a fan of the work of Michael Wisner and the simple yet amazing textured surfaces he creates. So, much a fan of his work that I had a demo of his imprinting technique on my beginning class’ project schedule for this past week.

It was just random chance that I happened to learn about the work of Kenneth Standhardt when scrolling through the explore tab on Instagram. Kenneth approaches his surfaces much in the same way that Michael does, but with even more amazingly intricate results. Unlike Michael who creates his own tools out of hacksaw blades, Kenneth uses mainly a common enough item – church key openers.

Using these everyday items, Kenneth creates patterns on patterns on patterns for an end result that defies explanation. I’ve shared a brief video of his process below so you can check it out for yourself!

Needless to say I am in the market for my very own church key opener – both the standard one that is widely available on the internet as well as the notched one. I expect I’ll be haunting thrift stores for the foreseeable future looking for that small piece of history.

Standhardt Studio from Engaging Media on Vimeo.

Unusual Tape

You may know that I recently have gotten really into using custom masking tape stickers to create texture on my mugs and planters. This mug is a little different. The tape I’m using to create the skinny lines of bare clay actually comes exactly this super thin width!

The moment I found this super thin tape at the store I knew I had to have it! I don’t think I even had any idea what I would do with it when I bought it at Daiso.

Weeks past and one day at the studio I was so over cutting out custom sized masking tape stickers. I wanted to stop for the day, but I still have a handful of mugs to sticker. That’s when I remembered this tape. It was so super easy to quickly add vertical lines of varying lengths around my remaining mugs.

I really love how this particular masking tape resist design turned out … which is nice since it’s so easy to do in comparison to other patterns!

Oh, and just what is this super skinny tape supposed to be used for when its not decorating mugs? It creates dividing lines on dry erase boards, pinstriping cars and other paint effects. Check out my other taped work available in my Etsy 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!

Bark vs Snow

It can be so hard to know where an artist gets the inspiration for their work – such is the case with this lovely little bark mug.

I’ve been making fake tree bark, or faux bois if you want to be fancy, in clay for what seems like forever. An artist I met some years back, David Gilbaugh showed me the basics of creating bark and even gifted me a special tool he had made to help create realistic bark.

I’ve never achieved David’s level of expertise – he’s a true master and can accurately re-create the bark of any specific tree with ease. Definitely check out his work if you get a chance as it is stunning.

I can, however, create basic generic tree bark easily. It makes a great parlor trick to show my students and I’ve been pulling it out of my back pocket for years as a fun impromptu demo. In fact this mug was created during one such demo a few weeks back.

I was showing some studio folks not in my class the mug pre-glaze and one of them offered up that I must be getting inspired by all of the tire tracks in the snow now that I live in the mountains.

Sadly, no. Snow has yet to inspire anything, but hard physical labor in me this winter season. Have I mentioned how much I *enjoy* shoveling?

I did, however, love getting the reminder that even in what appears an easily interpreted piece of art can take on so many variations when viewed through another lens.

Check out this mug and more non-snow inspired work in 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!

 

Foot Noir

There’s a great Instagram account called Pots in Action run by a wonderful ceramic artist named Ayumi Horie that runs weekly challenges to post ceramic work on Instagram. It is an example of all that is right in the world of social media and does what often seems impossible to bring together ceramic artists and collectors together across the world.

This week’s challenge is all about the foot. Not the walking around on variety, but the part a pot rests on foot. If there was ever a nemesis to my ceramic process it would be the foot. Constructing just the right foot for a particular pot taking into account the structural soundness of the work as well as the aesthetic aspect has long been something I’ve struggled with over the years.

So, I’m taking on this week’s Pots in Action challenge on as a sort of practice and continued search for a great foot for my pieces. I’ll be posting later this week my attempts and trials, but thought I would share another use of a foot in my work with you first. The best kind of foot, in my opinion, is the one leaving a great impression in clay. Too bad it doesn’t absolve me from tackling the other!

Check out more of my foot and footwear inspired work here.

“T” Cup

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One of my all time favorite mug designs. The best part, I’m easily amused, is the play on words off of the “T” stamp on this mug and teacups. It makes me laugh! The other best part is that this particular mug design really embodies my style. It features layers of texture stamps yet not so complicated that I spend more time than I should on glazing. It is actually the just right blend for me.

This particular glaze combo, I’ve tried a couple, is the one I like the best. Sure, I’ve created a blue and green stunner that sold right away, but this softer look really catches my eye. It is just so pretty in pink.

Check it out along with all of my mugs in my online Etsy shop!

Reflections

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This plate is one of my favorites. I really like how it looks like a puddle with ripples reflecting over and over. Strangely, its one of my more simple glazing jobs – three different glazes only, yet I really feel like it impacts the senses in a big way.

Learn more about this plate here.