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!

Sunflowers

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This is one of my favorite patterns! I think part of the reason I like it so much is that it is created entirely with my own handmade stamps. It’s actually made up of three separate stamps: 1) the center, 2) the petal and 3) the pinstripes. I like how big and full the flowers turned out – they really remind me of large oversized sunflowers. I love how they are so big that they dwarf the smaller sized planters I’ve created with this pattern.

This particular version of my sunflower planters is actually a glaze mistake. Shhh! Don’t tell anybody! I used an amber celadon on each of the sunflowers, but applied the glaze too thin. The end result is more of a leathery brown color than a high gloss amber. I think it works though. It color give the pot a nice, rustic feel and doesn’t compete with any plants that might get potted in it.

Sometimes a mistake is really a happy accident!

Check out all of the specifics of this planter and more in my Etsy shop!

New Planter Options – Introducing the Clover Series

Over the past several weeks I’m been working towards standardizing my planter sizes and textures. While I have more work to do, I’m excited to start sharing some of the fruits of my efforts.

I call this pattern my clover texture. I really enjoy how this pattern takes shape as it is repeated around the planter form as well as how the glaze nestles right into the grooves of the clover. It really is a perfect way to showcase my stain and glaze combinations.

Currently, this series is available in four color combos: blue-black, blue-green, shino and pale green. Be sure to let me know if you’d like to see it in other color options!

Clover Series

Pinstripe Love Affair

It’s not unusual for me to be inspired by a texture tool. I collect new ones all the time either by making new clay stamps or running across a strange object. My newest acquisitions feature big in my texture patterns for the next several pieces I create.

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I don’t know how much this goes noticed or unnoticed by my fans, but when I run across an older piece it always looks a little dated to me. This is especially true if that texture maker has been moved to storage and out of my go-to set of tools.

Yet every once in awhile I hit pay dirt with my finds and stamp making. I have some textures that appear over and over and over again in my work. A great example of this are my handmade texture rollers. I learned how to create them a few years ago and over time I’ve made so many different rollers that my least favorite ones have their very own storage container.

Originally, I made these rollers to create sections of lines close together or, with wider rollers, lines of stamped patterns. More often than not though I find myself using my favorites to create pinstripes.

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It seems so strange to me that so much of my work is pinstriped. Anyone who has ever met me would tell you that I’m not a formal dresser – I’m not a snappy dresser at all. To me pinstripes have always implied formality – a word I wouldn’t use to describe my work.

I love the pinstriped pieces I’ve created though. I use them to provide a contrast to the more flowery patterns and textures I favor. They emphasize the roundness and belly I like to add to my forms as well as provide movement in a particular direction. They also provide a great, built-in, separation for my glaze and stain combination.

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I am constantly coming up with new ideas to pair with pinstripes. I can’t even imagine not having them as a subseries to my texture patterns. Who knew my crazy, whimsical pieces really just needed a touch of formality?

Unintentional Pants

I typed the title to this blog post and had to stop for a minute before I could start the post itself – I was laughing too much about pants. Yep, that’s right, you heard me – pants!

Never in all of the time I’ve been doing ceramics would I have thought I’d been sitting here typing a blog post about pants. You see, I’ve rarely contemplated pants in the realm of my ceramic work unless you count having more laundry to be done with all of the clay stains I seem to accumulate. Yet here we are chatting about pants and my work.

I first starting seeing resemblances to pants after a customer pointed it out to me at a show. Setting up at a live show and sale is not for the faint of heart. When I create my work, I tend to have a vision of what I’m hoping to achieve in the piece – what I’d like others to see in it. All of my good intentions are typically dashed five minutes into a show when customers start stopping by my booth. Whether a customer engages and discusses my work directly with me or is talking to a friend or themselves (psst – I can hear you), I always gain a lot about how my art is viewed from those experiences.

I’m philosophical about it. What better way to learn what folks really think about your work then to put it out there for the world to see and comment.

Such is the case with my favorite planter design, which I do have to agree with the many (and there are MANY) customers who think some of them look like pants! Luckily, the sentiment is that they are cute pants, always important, so I haven’t felt compelled to make any design changes. I invite you to decide for yourself. Pants or not?

You can check out even more of my planters here!

Speaking of Succulents

I’ve been getting more and more into the world of plants this past year – particularly with drought tolerant plants like cactus, succulents and bromeliads. My explorations have taken me to several show quality displays of these living works of art.

You know what I’ve noticed? The more I see, the more I’m struck by the similarities between these plants and the gears of pocket watches.

If you’ve been following my work for awhile now, you probably know that I created an entire body of work for a solo show last August, GEARED, based on the movements of pocket watches.

All of these thoughts simply reinforce for me how interconnected everything really is in the world. Pocket watch movements that mimic a beating heart, radiating out plants leaves that seem to capture a still frame of that same pulse …

I’m thinking about doing my next texture pattern series using succulents and my new favorite, bromeliads. Check out some of my inspiration for yourself!

Home Depot Love

It’s Friday and time for a field trip! Today we’re headed to one of my absolute favorite places – The Home Depot, and yes, there is a “The” in their name we, or at least I, just never use it! Imagine my surprise when I went to take a picture of the front entrance of my local Home Depot and discovered it there!

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Prior to working in clay, I never really had any need to go to any type of home improvement store for the simple reason that I rent. My first several trips resulted in strange looks and panicked expressions from employees.

Pro tip – the worst thing you can tell a home improvement store employee when they ask what you need assistance finding is that you’re an artist and you’ll know it when you see it.

The more comfortable I’ve gotten with the layout of my store (and really all of them – they are all basically the same) the fewer sideways glances I get. I’ve even managed to meet some extremely helpful employees who, after explaining what I was looking for, have helped me search out and evaluate items from several sections across the store for just the right item.

Let’s go inside and take a look around at all the obvious, and not so obvious, things available for clay use at Home Depot.

Welcome to the garden section of the store. This is a great place to start! Typically housed in a fenced-in outdoor area adjacent and connected to the main part of Home Depot. It is open year-round and offers some great things for clay projects, alternative firings and art fair booth displays.

The very first aisle features clay pots of all kinds. I like taking a look through these for inspiration. You can get a great idea of what constitutes the pinnacle of functionality when examining commercial products. If a commercial product doesn’t have mass appeal and superb functionality it won’t sell – period. Be sure to check out drainage hole size and placement as well as shapes of pots and water catchers.

Ever wonder why so many planters are made out of terra cotta or earthenware? Well, when fired to temperature that particular clay never quite vitrifies and therefore remains porous making it great for allowing plants to breathe. If you’re partial to glazed planters then one solution is to forego glaze on the inside of the pot.

Lastly, take a look at the prices – this will help you gauge your own prices when making planters. While your prices won’t be exactly the same, it will give you a starting point.

Around the corner from the ceramic planters are ones made out of plastic. This aisle is a gold mine of forms of all shapes and sizes for molding your own planter and/or other projects. Since they are lightweight and non-breakable (and cheap!), you’ll be able to get great supports for creating larger forms.

Pro tip – Be sure to grab the corresponding water catcher if you’re form – ahem, planter – comes with one. Often they are molded to have a snap in place feature that is detrimental to using it as a mold for clay (see the two right-hand pictures above for without and with the catcher). If there isn’t one or if even the water catcher has raised parts too then simply fill that section in with clay until level before placing a sheet of plastic over the whole thing to make your clay easy to remove once set-up.

The garden section is all purpose when it comes to clay. Also near and around the planters is a whole area devoted to plant food. For the ceramic artist on a budget, these are great solutions to purchasing many of the minerals and heavy metals that are used in alternative firing options like pit fire. Miracle-Gro, in particular, is a great one to try out.

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Before leaving the garden section be sure to stop by the trellises. They come in all sorts of sizes, shapes and materials. They are great for art fair booth displays if you have tiles or wall pockets, etc to hang. I’ve even used them with fabric tacked on with upholstery tacks for a more finished look.

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On your way out of the garden center, you’ll find displays of seed packets of all kinds. Be sure to pick up a few, along with some good soil, to make seed bombs! Its guerrilla gardening at its finest! Once made, you can throw seed bombs into vacant lots, by the side of the road or anywhere that needs a little sprucing up.


A perfect project for kids and the kid-at-heart, all you need are seeds, good soil and clay. First, create a mixture of soil and seeds and add a little bit of water – just enough to get it damp and you don’t overwhelm your clay. Then get a ball of clay and start to wedge in the soil/seed mixture. There are no right or wrong proportions here as long as there is enough clay to hold the ball together. I would recommend avoiding larger sized seeds as they tend to create cracks after the clay dries. Once dry, your seed bombs are ready to be used (no firing!).


Seed bombs work because the clay gives them heft to be thrown and protection from being eaten. Rain slowly disintegrates the clay while giving time for the seeds to sprout. Its a lot of fun!

Pro tip – Be sure to pick up seeds for wildflowers and grasses native to your region of the world.

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Adjacent to the garden section are lawn mowers, outdoor grills and other yard appliances and power tools. A quick look through shows us a few great texture making purchases!

One of my latest favorites in the studio’s found object collection for texture is an air filter! While these are available in many stores and places, here are a couple for lawn mowers that are a nice, not too big, size. The best use? Personally, I like to roll my coils into them (any direction works) to create texture coils to use as handles for mugs. I’ll be featuring my favorite texture making tools throughout, but I encourage you to explore on your own as well. I always find something new when I visit.

Next up is lighting! This section can get a little overwhelming. The most important thing I’ve learned is to ignore the actual lights and focus on the lighting hardware.

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This rather fuzzy photo (sorry!!) is of a lamp making kit. These are great for ceramic artists. First, it makes you realize how absurdly easy it is to actually make a custom lamp. Second, most of them, like this one, come with rubber cylinders to help you fit the lamp kit securely into the top of your lamp. In this kit, you can see them in the upper right hand corner.

How do you make a lamp out of clay? Make a form – it can be literally anything – that meets the following criteria:

  1. Some height is necessary to balance out the lamp shade. I would recommend a minimum of eight to ten inches
  2. Some weight is necessary. Lamps can get bumped and knocked over. You’ll want to make sure that your base is not so lightweight that it can’t take normal wear and tear. Stable is a word that should come to mind when creating your lamp base.
  3. There needs to be a small opening at the top no bigger than 2 inches in diameter. Don’t get too caught up in precise measurements since that’s why kits have rubber fitters.
  4. There needs to be a hollow path running down the interior of the lamp to hide the cord. Typically, this is a no-brainer since good clay construction practices encourage hollow interiors.
  5. Lastly, you’ll need an exit hold near the bottom and in what you consider to be the back of the base. This allows the cord to exit so the lamp can be plugged into the wall. It should be approximately 1/2 inch in diameter to account for shrinkage.

That’s it. It seems so simple after all, doesn’t it. It makes you wonder why everyone isn’t creating lamps!

Pro tip – Look for lamp shades at thrift stores, discount home good stores like Ross or TJ Maxx before trying other places. You might find a great bargain!

Next up in lighting, you’ll want to check out all of the electrical gear. There are some really cool and unusual textures to be found.

First up, these metal tubes (no, I don’t know the real name) are for corralling and protecting wiring – they are great for rolling into clay. They come in several different diameters and can be cut up into smaller more manageable pieces if necessary. Sometimes it helps to bring a friend or two with you on a texture shopping excursion to split the cost and materials!

Second, another, and recent, favorite of mine are outlets. They look kind of boring from this side, but if you turn them over the imprint they leave is really cool. The examples are all bolted to the shelves and the ones to purchase are packaged, so I don’t have a picture of it for you. Prevail on a friend who is a handy person to see if they have one you can take a look at the back.

Pro tip – I strongly discourage you from taking part your outlets at home. There are safer ways to take a look at the back of an outlet.

Alright, on to our last stop in lighting – electrical tape! Electrical tape is a wonderful material. Its flexible, water tight, hard to rip and cuts cleanly making this kind of tape perfect for glaze experiments.

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Electrical tape can be applied to bisque ware as a removable resist for glazes and stains. Once the glaze or stain is applied and before it gets too dry (the glaze will flake if too dry), remove the tape for super clean resist lines. Feel free to experiment and apply the tape over a stain as well. I suspect that it shouldn’t be put on over a glaze as it mostly likely will remove the glaze with it. Auto detailing tape can be substituted if you’d like instead of electrical tape.

Wow! This post is getting rather lengthy and we’re not even a third of our way through the store yet! I’m going to pause here in our visit. Stay tuned next Friday for some more Home Depot Love!