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!

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.

Custom Clay Ribs

If you’ve been working in clay for any length of time you’ve probably got a favorite rib. In fact, you probably have a couple of favorites depending on what you need to do with them. For me, I love my metal rib with teeth for scoring, my flexible red rib for smoothing and my rounded wooden rib for shaping … that is until I lost my favorite wooden rib. Even though I found a similar one, it didn’t have quite the right curve and size of the one I lost.

That’s when I learned that I could make my own rib out of clay. I figured it couldn’t hurt to try it out. What I found was that I was able to create the exact curved, shaped and sized ribs I had been wanting after losing my favorite one.

I thought I’d share what I learned about making several ribs out of clay for myself.

Tools Needed: Pin Tool, Rolling Pin (or slab roller), Paring Knife, Slab Bevel Tool

Clay: Typically a quarter to half pound of clay depending on size

First, start by rolling out your clay into a slab slightly bigger than the size you want your rib to be. Slab should be rolled out thick – ideally 1/2 inch in thickness.

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Cut the slab into the shape, size and curve you want for your rib. I’m partial to this rounded almond shape for my ribs because I find it gives a nice supporting curve for when I shape my pots. However, you should cut the curve and shape you think would be best for your purposes. That’s part of the beauty of making your own ribs you can experiment with all sorts of shapes and sizes.

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After creating your shape, the next step is to bevel all of the edges. I used a slab bevel tool (pictured) for my rib, but you can use a pin tool or paring knife to cut the beveled edge – a 45 degree angle works best for this project.

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After beveling the first side, flip over the slab and bevel the edges on the opposite side as well. This creates a tapered edge for your slab that is perfect for use in your clay projects while the thickness keeps the rib from being fragile.

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The timing of the next step will depend on your clay’s firmness. Wait until it is relatively firm (like a soft leather hard) and then spend a few minutes softening the sharp edges created in the beveling process.

Next, pick up the rib and press your thumb and forefinger together in the middle of the slab to create an indent for you to hold on to the rib comfortably. You have probably noticed holes and/or curved areas in ribs you’ve purchased for the same reason it gives you a great place to hold on to the tool. Be sure to think about how you would hold your particular rib before placing the indents.

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The last step before firing is to dry your rib flat. I like to sandwich mine between two plaster bats, but you can use anything flat with some weight to it. It is also possible to weigh it down with a heavy object placed on top of a light weight bat or board sandwich.

A lot of times tools made out of clay are only fired to bisque temperature, but for this project it is actually best to fire your rib to the full cone temperature of the clay. This will depend on what type of clay you’re using, but you should take the rib to the highest temperature the clay is meant for – typically the same as your glaze firing cone.

The reason for this is you don’t want the clay to be porous like it would be after a bisque firing. If the rib is still porous then it will stick to your pots (particularly wheel thrown ones) when you use it for shaping. Once the clay is fired and vitrified, it will glide easily like any other rib.

And that’s it! They are so easy to make that you may soon have a whole collection!