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!

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!

 

No Shoes Were Harmed

Last Friday night I set-up a table outside Artisans Etc in Big Bear and started rolling out slabs of clay. I was there to collect shoe prints from folks passing by and to give them a little introduction to the world of ceramics and texture.

There I sat there enjoying the cool mountain breezes, I reveled in the twists and turns that had brought me to that point where this was my job. Talking people into donating their shoe prints to one of my clay slabs is one of my all time favorite clay projects. The exercise is both a reminder of works past as well as a challenge to my normal thought process on my texture patterns.

I love the process of it – creating the work around the donated shoe prints is almost secondary. I had the pleasure of introducing adults to the childish pleasures of shoe print patterns. As I listened as one of them absolutely crowed with satisfaction over compliments to his, to that point ignored, shoe print, it was so wonderful to take in the joy that art and creativity brings to us as human beings.

To use that joy people have for learning that they too can create in my work is the best feeling. I thought I’d share a little peak into the plates I created that night with all of you and I’m pleased to note that no shoes were harmed in the process of making these plates.

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Tire Tracks

I got interested in tire tracks a little over a year ago when I was creating patterns for a series of work inspired by the gears of pocket watches. While much of the work I created was an abstract view of gears, I had felt it important to incorporate some textures recognizable as mechanical components.

I found and bought this fabulous wagon wheel-sized tire that I use in a couple of ways: 1) to create tracks and 2) face down for a perfect gear reference. You can actually see both uses in the plate pictured. The tracks race across the plate through the middle creating an oval shape. The “gear” is glazed in a pale green in the upper right hand corner.SAM_1032

My favorite, by far, tire is actually a small swivel wheel that must have been used as a castor for a small metal cart or something. It is a great texture tool. First, the wheel itself has variation in its tread from larger to smaller circling it. Second, it is a castor of some type, so it was this great handle/swivel attached to it making for easy rolling across the clay. I don’t even know where I got it from and I’ve been using it for awhile as a background texture in my work.

This little tire is getting front and center coverage these days thanks in large part to all the planters I’m making. Turns out its a great planter texture. (Psst – click the planter picture for available planters!)

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Its so popular as a planter texture that I decided to try it the other day on mugs. You know what? It makes great mug texture too! I love how the swoops and tracks of this little tire turn out different each time. The variation between the positive and negative space when the tire is all by itself just really works with my forms.

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As I shared in my last blog post, I’ve even starting using my favorite tire tracks tool on my plates as well. Check out some examples and more here. Let me know what you think of all these tire tracks – just click the thought bubble to the right of this (or any) blog post’s title to comment!

Form vs Surface

A few years back, when I was first starting out creating work full time, a really insightful individual at the studio asked me why I felt the need to create functional work. We had been discussing a series of mugs, these great wonky and tipsy mugs, I was creating at the time. Why did they need to be functional? Why couldn’t they be sculptural? Why was I limiting my art by boxing myself into the “functional” category?

That talk ranks up there as one of the more interesting conversations I’ve ever had about my work. That gentleman was more on point about the direction my work was going than I could have ever understood back then.

I’ve always considered myself a functional potter. I make things that people can use whether its for food, keys or plants, each piece can be utilized in some way. My work has not been, and probably will never be, traditional functional work. I’m not trying to compete with the perfection of a well thrown cereal bowl, but instead strive to create something as decorative as it is utilitarian.

There, right there was the crux of that conversation all those years ago. Form versus surface – which is more important to the piece of work being created? Some ceramic artists are masters at form, some at surface decoration and some, a rare few in my opinion, capture the holy grail of both in their work.

Its taken me all this time – four years to be exact – to come to the realization that I AM boxing myself in with my insistence on functionality.

Now before those of you who enjoy my work panic, I’m not planning to completely abandon functional work. I’m just starting to view my work from a different perspective. Its actually the right perspective – one that I’ve heard over and over these past years. Given the number of customer conversations I’ve had about how to hang my plates on walls you’d think I would have realized all of this sooner. Doh!

The most important aspect of my work in the texture design, the form that creates mystery in that design and the glazing that highlights it. Form, for me, is pretty much secondary. There is a lot of freedom in this realization as well as a focus on what really matters in the forms I do create to showcase my surfaces. I can’t wait to see where I go next with this in mind.

Did You Wax Your Hair?

At the studio where I create my work and where I teach an adult handbuilding class, we have a closet door literally covered in small pieces of paper.  Each scrap features something that someone said that taken out of context is rather … well, strange and maybe, just maybe a little bit funny.

The other week in my class there were so many, “That’s one for the door” statements that I thought I’d share a few of them (recent and past) with you.  Don’t worry, I explain them too!

“Make Sure to Put a Hole in Your Head” – When creating hollow forms, e.g. heads, it is a good ceramics practice to have you pierce the form to allow the trapped air to escape.  Air expands when its heated, so if the air has nowhere to go when it expands (see science in action!) during firing the piece will explode.  Yep, that’s right explode.

“Wipe Your Bottom” – A classic usually heard when glazing a piece.  It refers to the need to have no glaze, at all, on the part of a piece that will touch the kiln shelf during firing.  Glaze is glass, so any remnants will fuse the piece to the shelf destroying the art work.

“Butt Hole” – Truly PG, well, mostly PG, it is a common practice to place the hole for a hollow form somewhere that makes sense in the form.  In the case of an animal sculpture this sometimes means that the animal gains a butt hole.  One never really outgrows potty humor.

“Did You Wax Your Hair?” – Melted wax is an extremely useful tool in ceramics.  It can help keep your bottom clean when glazing.  (See!  That’s exactly how it happens!)  Wax can also keep delicate portions of a piece, e.g. hair, from drying too quickly and cracking off.

“Just Write a Note That Says, ‘Please Fire on Chuck'” – I got no end of razzing the first time a student heard this one from me.  A “chuck” is not a person, but instead a somewhat cylindrical form used to trim the bottoms of narrow neck vases on the wheel.  Since they are made out of clay, chucks can also be used to fire work that needs a broader base to support the piece.

“You Need a Cookie” – Nope, it’s not a chocolate chip cookie.  This type of cookie is a flat piece of clay with a layer of kiln wash on one side.  Cookies are used to prevent rogue glaze drips from making it to the kiln shelf.  They also make it easier to fire super delicate work since the person loading the kiln can pick up the work by the cookie instead of a breaking off a delicate piece.  It throws new students all the time.  Fun fact – the penalty for failure to use a cookie under a glazed pot that sticks to the shelf is to bring the Studio Director a batch of homemade (real) cookies!

There you have it.  A little bit of ceramic humor to brighten your Monday!