Capturing Clay’s Raw Character


Tea jar, 13 in. (33 cm) in height, stoneware, VC Spodumene glaze over Black Wash/Stain, wood/soda fired to cone 11, 2015.

For as long as I have been making pots, I have been interested in creating vessels with multiple components. The potter’s wheel was my introduction to clay, and most of my early works were wheel thrown and altered. My decision to start handbuilding exclusively was the result of both a natural progression from throwing and altering as well as my desire to incorporate more surface texture in my work. As this texture was originally influenced by the way clay stretches, cracks, and tears along the edges of a freshly rolled slab, the transition to slab construction came naturally to me. Handbuilding with slabs allows me more opportunities to experiment with form and work with various processes. New forms and adjustments in the scale and proportion of classic vessels have evolved from keeping a regular studio practice and my desire to constantly revise and make better functional pots.

As I first developed my tea jar while wheel throwing, early versions of this vessel were made from a bottomless cylinder thrown on the wheel and squared off. These early prototypes retain a few distinct differences from the newer, slab-built version. The earlier form lacked feet and rested flat on the table, with a lid that sat low in the gallery. Recent slab-built versions have added feet to give the jar more lift, as well as a thicker lid that sits atop the gallery to add more volume. In the past, I created texture by faceting the surface with a Surform tool and cutting deep negative spaces into the clay. A more organic type of texture is created in my newer form by layering slabs and staying loose while making. These progressions in my studio practice have helped me to develop more interesting forms and surfaces while still allowing me to capture the beauty of raw clay in the finished vessel.

1 Use three tar-paper templates to cut out ten slab components for the jar. 2 Thin out the top slab used to create a textured layer, then cut negative shapes out of the slab using a wooden rib. 3 Score the back of the top slab, apply slip and place it over the plain inner slab.


4 After compressing the slab to reinforce the join, use the template and a knife to cut the slab to size again. 5 Shape and compress the side using a square bisque mold and a pony roller. 6 After creating and shaping the second side to the jar, place one of the narrow rectangular slabs in the middle of the two after scoring and adding slip to the edges, then compress the join.


7 Use one of the square slabs to cut out the bottom of the jar, then score the attachment points, add slip, and compress the bottom. 8 Add a thick coil to the top to form a rim and gallery for the lid.

Preparing the Slabs

To make the tea jar, I begin by rolling out two slabs measuring about 15 inches square and ³⁄8-inch thick. Then, using three templates made from tar paper, I roughly cut out all ten slab components (1). The large rectangular template, measuring 7×9½ inches, is used to cut the four slabs for the sides of the body of the jar. The long, narrow template (2×9 inches), is used to cut two slabs that join the two sides of the body together. The four slabs cut from the third template (6 inches square), make the base, feet, and lid of the jar. After the slabs have been cut, they are compressed on both sides with a wooden rib. This compression removes any canvas texture left from the slab roller, ensures sturdy construction and reduces cracking during drying and firing.

Texturing and Constructing the Body

To construct the body of the tea jar, I begin by adjusting the thickness of the four large rectangular slabs with a rolling pin. The goal is to end up with two slabs that are about ¼ inch thick to form an inner layer and two outer slabs, about 1⁄8 inch thick, which will be attached to the inner slabs. These outer slabs are textured by cutting and tearing away negative shapes using a wooden rib (2). Special consideration is given to the variation of the sizes and shapes of the marks as well as their directions. It is important to keep in mind how these marks guide the viewer’s eye when observing the piece. For example, for more upright forms I prefer longer, vertical marks to shorter, horizontal ones. When I am happy with the composition of the texture, I join the slabs by misting them with a spray bottle while they are still soft and laying the textured outer slab atop the plain inner one (3). The two slabs are then compressed using a pony roller and cut to a more accurate size with the large rectangular tar-paper template (4). Once I have repeated this process with the other two rectangular slabs and they have stiffened up to soft leather hard, I shape and compress them using a square bisque mold (made from a bottomless cylinder thrown on the wheel and squared off) and a pony roller (5). These two side components are slipped, scored, and joined securely down the middle with the two narrow slabs, and are then compressed using the pony roller and the bisque mold (6). The top of the vessel is trimmed evenly with a knife, and one of the three square slabs is marked off, attached, and compressed to form the bottom of the pot (7). Finally, a long, thick slab coil, measuring approximately 1 inch thick by 1½ inches tall is attached to the top of the vessel to form both the rim and a gallery for the lid. The outer face is flattened and compressed using a pony roller (8).

9 Attach a thinned, textured outer slab and smooth inner slab to create the square lid, then compress and form it into a plywood slump mold using a rubber rib. 10 Cut out the lid shape using the lines created by the edge of the mold as a guide. 11 Place the lid upside down onto the jar body to use it as a chuck, then add a tall slab coil to the bottom of the lid to give it lift.

Constructing the Lid

I begin building the lid of the jar by repeating the texture process used to construct the body on two of the square slabs. The textured outer slab is scored, slip is applied, and then it is attached to the inner slab. Next, the lid is placed over a wooden drop mold and shaped with a rubber rib (9). When the lid has stiffened up to soft leather hard, it is removed and trimmed with a knife (10). A length of coil cut from a slab that is roughly 1-inch thick by 1¼ inches tall is measured out on top of the gallery in order to give the lid more lift (11). Once this coil has firmed up, the top of the lid is attached and trimmed (12), then the joined edges are compressed with the pony roller. Next, the lid is flipped over and a smaller slab coil is attached to the inside with a slight inward bevel, forming the flange (13). The gallery is then trimmed with a knife and smoothed with the pony roller to ensure a snug fit for the lid.

I make a knob by rolling and forming a short thick coil, texture it using scrap pieces of a thin slab, then score and attach it to the top of the lid. Lastly, using a needle tool, a small hole is poked through the inside of the lid into the knob to reduce the chances of breakage during firing.

12 Flip the lid over, trim the edges to match the curve of the newly added slab coil and profile of the jar. 13 Add a small coil to the inside of the lid to create a flange that will secure the lid to the body.


14 Place the last square slab over a plywood slump mold and use your fingers to stretch the clay into the mold, creating feet for the jar. 15 Cut the altered slab into four sections and trim the feet the size.

Forming the Feet and Finishing the Tea Jar

The feet of the jar are formed using a second wooden drop mold. Texture is added to the remaining square slab with a wooden rib, and then the slab is draped over the mold. I form the feet by pressing the slab down into the drop mold with my thumbs or fingers (14). Once the slab has stiffened up, the feet are trimmed to size (15), and a coil is added to the outside edge of each one to give the form more height and visual lift (16). The lid is removed and the jar is flipped upside down. The feet are then arranged on the bottom of the vessel and attached in place (17). I use a needle tool to puncture a small hole in each of the hollow feet, releasing any air that may have been trapped. Finally, the vessel is turned over and adjusted to stand level, the lid is set in place atop the body, and the tea jar is left to dry (18).

16 Use the plywood mold to hold each of the four feet upside down while you add a short coil to the outside edge. 17 Score the bottom of the jar and the feet, add slip, then attach all four. 18 Turn the vessel over, level it, set the lid in place, and allow it to dry before bisque firing.


Alternate view of the tea jar shown on page 52, showing the textures on the other side of the jar.

Glazing and Firing

I was introduced to wood firing early in my ceramic education; I often say that my decision to wood fire came before my decision to become a potter. I believe that wood firing allows me to achieve surfaces that reveal the natural colors and full potential of the piece while preserving some of the beauty of the clay in its original, raw state. The majority of my work is wood fired in a two-chambered Noborigama kiln. This kiln is fired with recycled pallet wood and bark chips, with the addition of salt and soda in the second chamber. A 50/50 mix of soda ash and whiting is introduced as a paste applied to boards that are added to the kiln after cone 10 is down. When glazing, it is important to take into consideration the two distinctly different atmospheres created in each chamber of the kiln. Typically, I divide my work into thirds. One third of the pieces are left raw or sprayed with a thin layer of Bauer Flashing Slip, one third of them are glazed with Shino, and the final third of the pots are brushed with a black wash that is wiped off of the high points before the entire piece is covered with VC Spodumene glaze. The shino pots are reserved for thewood chamber, while the spodumene-glazed pots do well in the salt/soda chamber. The remaining pots are generally divided between the two chambers. The long firing period and the organic interactions between the wood ash and the glazes create surfaces that complement the forms and textures of my pots, ideally creating work that is pleasing to look at, to touch and to hold, and ultimately, to use as a functioning object in daily life.

the author Jeremy Wallace is a resident artist at Baltimore Clayworks. Learn more at


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