Carving can be nerve wracking for many. Two steps to help you gain confidence in carving are learning what your clay body’s ideal moisture level is for each tool that you use and maintaining that moisture throughout the carving process.
The same tool can make a variety of marks depending on the clay body used and its dryness. A simple slab test will help you discover all of your options and ideal conditions (1). Roll out a ½-inch-thick slab, smooth and compress the surface, and place it on a dry plaster slab. Drying on plaster is key for carving because it draws water from the inside out, creating a consistent moisture level. Air drying your work creates a hard crust with a gummy center, which can be difficult to cut. You can judge four moisture levels based on the clay’s temperature—freshly rolled-out slabs are warmer to the touch, leather-hard clay is cool, hard-leather-hard clay is cold, and clay nearing bone dry is cool to warm. Pull your tool through the clay at each moisture level, noting the depth and cleanness of each cut as well as ease of motion. If you have multiple tools, test each one separately.
Now that you know your ideal moisture level for creating marks with each tool, maintaining it is the next step. After you create your piece, let it rest on dry plaster and cover it with thin plastic until it reaches the desired dryness. Once achieved, move the piece to a damp box containing a wet plaster slab to prevent any further drying (2). After you take the piece out and start carving, the surface will begin to dry. You can prevent this by lightly spraying with water as you work (3), sponging and smoothing the surface, or covering unworked areas in plastic. If you notice burring or fragile edges when carving (4), lightly smooth your cuts with a damp sponge to prevent dust or damage as you work your way around the piece (5).