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Published May 5, 2016

salt-pepper-695 Sets are a lot of fun. They're a great way to play around with form, and a wonderful project if you like to make animated work. Jen Mecca sees her salt and pepper shakers as characters that need to interact and relate to one another.In this post, Jen shares her method for wheel throwing and altering the salt and pepper shakers, as well as how she embellishes them with various "costumes" such as sprigs and finials. - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor

From the Bottom Up

Almost everything I make is thrown and altered. All of my oval, square, or closed forms are thrown without a bottom, so that has to be created separately.

When I make the bottoms to all my pieces, they start off on the wheel. They’re not a flat pancake as you might guess, but rather start as a bottomless cylinder. I prefer throwing these slab bottoms over other methods of slab making for two reasons. As a thrower, I can work more quickly on the wheel head than on a flat surface. I have also always had a limited budget and space in my studio so I don’t have a slab roller or large table top surfaces. In order to make the bottoms of the salt and pepper shakers, use a small ball of clay (around ½ lb) to create the cylinder. I clean up the side walls and make a vertical cut from top to bottom. After doing this, I cut the cylinder off the wheel, and lay it flat on a ware board lined with paper or canvas, like a slab. I carefully smooth out the throwing marks and use a large spackling knife to smooth and level it. A rib would also work. The finished slab should be ¼ inch thick for stability and shrinkage.

Throwing the Shakers

Let these forms set up to leather hard, then cut through the slab around the outside bottom edge of the shaker. Next, use a Surform tool or blade to shave away any excess clay (figure 4). I find that holding the blade on its own (without the handle) allows me to keep even pressure while removing clay. Be very careful to not trim too much clay away or you will make a weak spot or hole in the wall of your shaker. Once you have shaped the salt and pepper forms, take a metal rib and gently smooth out the rasp marks. The final step before the adding the feet is to create a hole in the top so air can escape.

Foot Support

The feet for the shakers have continually evolved. Like many potters, I am always looking through old books and magazines or just playing with clay to figure out new ways to make feet. The feet and the embellishments are very important parts for me; these added body parts are what brings life or animation to the pieces. I see the embellishments as accessories or clothing for my sets.

Start off by marking where the feet should sit. Be careful not to place them too far in or too far out. Try out different spots with spare clay balls before attaching the real feet, making sure that in the arrangement you choose, the feet hold up the body well so there is no rocking and no threat of tipping over.

To make feet like those shown here, take a lug or bar of clay and square it off. Cut equal sections and work in groups of four. Take the sections and carefully square them off more, then taper one end where the foot meets the table and fatten up the other for the attachment point. The process is much like thinking about, then echoing, the way that your legs support your body; the hip bone attaches your leg to the body, and your feet and toes provide the contact to the ground.

When adding the feet, score and slip both sections and then carefully push the fat part of the foot into the form. You can finish the top part of the hip anyway you would like. I choose to flatten it out by rubbing my thumb back and forth. After the front side of the foot is done, turn it over and reinforce the legs with small coils of soft clay (figure 5). Finally take the entire piece and tap it on the table surface to make sure it doesn’t wobble and that the form is level (figure 6).

After attaching the feet, make a small hole (a little bigger than ¼ of an inch) in the bottom of each shaker with an X-Acto knife. This is the fill hole for pouring in the salt or pepper. After firing, it will be sealed with a small cork. To reinforce this hole take a very small coil and score, slip, and attach it around the hole. The corks I use come from a home improvement store and can be purchased in a wide variety of sizes. I usually keep a variety of sizes on hand since I don’t measure every hole I cut.

Adding Costumes/Sprigs and Inlay

Potters make sprigs several different ways and I have several different types of molds. I have some molds made out of plaster, many out of bisque ware and a few made out of a linoleum print block. I press colored clay into these molds (figure 7), then add the resulting sprigs to my work.

I make my own colored clays by adding various Mason stains to my clay body. I usually knead up one pound balls or mix up a slip for casting purposes. Depending on the color, I add 1 to 3 tablespoons of Mason stain. Lately I’ve found that just pressing the colored clay onto the mold and using the sprig right away is quicker than prepping a large number of sprigs and storing them in a plastic container for later use. Note: Be careful not to waste the colored clay because adding the stain to it can be costly. Finials for the top of salt and pepper shakers offer so many opportunities for adornment. Currently I have switched over from solid birds to hollow forms that look like feather plumes (figure 8).

After you’re finished the adornments, use a drill bit or the end of an X-Acto knife for putting in the holes for dispensing the salt and pepper (figure 9). Tip: Be careful not to make the hole too big or too small. I usually dab water on the holes before glazing to keep glaze in that area thin so that it does not clog the hole. If you find that it does flow into the hole during the firing, a diamond drill bit works wonders for drilling out the clogged hole.

**First published in 2013