Tips and Tools: Foolproof Handles

Drawing a loop tool through a block of clay is only the first step to making consistent handles—the subsequent steps outlined here ensure a stable join and cohesive feel when attached. 

I haven’t pulled a handle in years, since I developed a foolproof method that eliminates the mess of the standard pulling process while still compressing and stretching the clay. It’s a sure way to get consistent handles each time.

Using a Handle Maker 

Take your handle maker (a common type of loop tool that can be found at your local pottery supplier) (1) and drag it across your open bag of soft clay (2). Make sure the full oval of the loop tool goes through the clay so that the cut-out oval is consistent in shape and profile from one end to the other. I typically get 5 full handles from each layer of clay block. Cover the resulting oval coils with plastic while you work on each one separately. 

1 A handle-making loop tool.

2 Drag the loop tool through a block of soft clay, being sure the tool is deep enough to create a full and consistent oval segment.

Tapering and Shaping 

Roll along the length of the handle segment (toward the end you are holding) with a pony roller (3), raising one end of the coil while the clay is being stretched to prevent it from sticking to the table surface. Reduce pressure as you get near the end you’re holding to keep it thicker, turn the clay over a few times, and repeat. This repeated process stretches the clay and tapers the thickness of the handle, keeping it thicker where it’s held and thinner and wider at the opposite end. 

Take a straight edge of a similar width to the handle (like a ruler), and mark the taper you want the handle to have from top to bottom. Start by making two marks for the thinner end. Angle the straight edge from the very outside of the fatter end to the new marks, and cut each side. This tapers the shape of the handle (4).

3 Hold the oval segment at one end, then use a pony roller to thin and stretch the clay, rolling from the free end toward your hand.

4 Taper the thin end of the handle segment.

Using a damp sponge (with the water squeezed out), drag it along the handle from the wide end to the narrow end. Add a little pressure while doing this to compress the whole handle (5), then drag your fingers along the cut edges to further smooth, round, and compress the edges. Turn piece over and repeat, always going from the thicker, wider end to the narrower, thinner end. You should now have a refined and compressed tapered handle. 

Drape the handle over a round tube to keep shape while you repeat the process to create all the handles you need (6), then cover in plastic. (I usually make 6–12 at a time.) I bend the end of the handle because it looks aesthetically pleasing with the voluminous form of the mug shown here, but this is personal taste, of course. 

5 Compress the tapered segment with a damp sponge.

6 Drape handles over tubes to firm up.

Attaching the Handle

Cut the top/wide end at an angle to give the handle some lift when attached to the mug. Score using a wire-brush tool or the edge of a serrated rib and apply slip to the cup and the handle before attaching. I use pure white vinegar applied using an old toothbrush to abrade the surface and create slip. I score and apply slip twice to give a better attachment as the vinegar goes deep into the clay and both slakes down and flocculates the particles, making them bond and stick together for a stronger attachment. 

7 Use a small dowel to seal the edges where the handle is joined.

8 Blend small coils of clay around each attachment point using the dowel to create a seamless transition from cup to handle.

After attaching a handle, use a small dowel or skewer stick to seal the edges of the attachment areas (7). Next roll out a thin coil and place it around the joins. Roll the small dowel or stick toward yourself or toward the cup to create a smooth, seamless attachment (8). This makes the cup and handle look like one piece, without joins. Repeat the addition of a small coil and dowel rolling to the lower attachment. The final step is to add any finishing touches and designs to complete the cup. 

the author Tania Rustage’s pottery adventure started in South Africa as a hobby before her move to Colorado in 2008, and has since become her passion. Her focus is on the fine details, making clay for display and everyday use, decorative art yet functional—as well as some sculptural work thrown in for fun.

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