Finding Your Voice

During a teapot demo, one of my students will inevitably ask about how long it takes me to make a teapot, and I usually respond with a dramatic, “20 years!”. This is the answer I give because that’s how long it’s taken me to develop all the skills I need to successfully create the work I’m now making.
As clay artists and potters, we’re always striving to express ourselves in our own voice. It often takes us years to find that voice because it usually develops out of our experiences, our education, and our exposure to as many different forming and decorating techniques as possible. In addition, everything we read about ceramic art history and keeping up with current trends in the art world also helps to form what we do.
Here I demonstrate making a teapot in my own voice, and you may find it inspiring for helping you to find your own way. Like many contemporary studio potters, I make work that’s technically involved, but while my approach is rather complicated, it can be broken down into steps. And thanks to the advent of the Internet, you can view part of this process with an online video clip on the Ceramic Arts Daily website ( Hopefully, you can take aspects of my approach and use it to further your own research.

Making the Teapot Body

Begin by throwing a simple boxy form with 3/8-inch thick walls and a slightly smaller top than base. The simple shape I make reminds me of a Shaker form. Make a fairly shallow gallery in the rim for the lid. Using a heat gun or hair dryer, dry the teapot body to a soft leather hard then cut it off the wheel. A heat gun is an important tool for my process, but if you use one, remember to handle it safely and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Mark lines for the facets.

Using a Surform tool, create the facets. I use a Surform
instead of a wire faceting tool or a fettling knife because it gives me
more control over thickness and the development of line because you can
remove small amounts with each stroke.
Next, use a rounded Surform to bevel the bottom of the teapot.
This helps to visually lift the teapot off the table surface.
Constructing a Handle, Spout and Lid
To create the handle, roll out a coil that’s slightly thicker in the middle and tapered on the ends.
Form it into a C or ear shape and place it on a plaster bat to dry to leather hard. Create facets by compressing the handle with a palette knife, then attach the handle to the teapot body when it is leather hard.
To form the spout, roll out a tapered coil that’s about 3/8-inch at one end and 1-1/4 inches at the base. You may want to roll out several spouts in the beginning to get the one that works best for your teapot body. Form the tapered coil into an S shape and allow it to set up to leather hard. Use a palette knife to form facets. Once the spout is shaped, cut it in half laterally, then draw a line about 3/16-inch from the edge and scoop out the interior of the spout. Re-attach the halves and set the spout aside to set up. Trace the spout opening onto the teapot. Create a series of holes in the teapot body where the spout will attach. Slip, score, and attach the spout when it is leather hard. (Note: I’ve created a video that better illustrates making the spout, which you can view on Ceramic Arts Daily video archive by searching on “teapot spout.”)

Make the lid in three stages.

First, throw the knob on the wheel.


This article appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated

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With a heat gun, dry the knob to leather hard and cut it off the wheel. Use a palette knife to make the spiral facets. Throw the lid right side up and attach the knob on the wheel.
Throw a hollow stem and attach it to the bottom of the lid.
Use a 3/16-inch hole cutter to create the steam hole in the top of the lid. The teapot is now formed.

After the underglazes have dried, I begin sanding through the different layers exposing the other colors, as well as the earthenware clay body underneath. Again, remember to wear a respirator! I start with 320-grit sandpaper working to a 600-grit surface. I then fire the piece to cone 04, holding it at maturation for ten minutes to create a strong bond between the clay body and the underglazes. It is important to apply this surface only to the outside of vessels or in areas that do not come in contact with food or drink. When fired, the Velvets and other underglazes have the durability of a matt glaze, but are not food safe. I then apply a food-safe liner glaze to the parts that will come in contact with food and fire the vessel again. After this firing, I coat the underglaze surface with a food-safe oil sealant (like Salad Bowl Finish, available from home centers) and wax used by woodworkers. This seals the outside surface and makes it fairly durable, but check the instructions on the containers for care and use of these products.

Safety with Spray Guns
It is important to maintain a safe and clean working environment while doing this process. Always wear a respirator with a P-100 rating and, if spraying the underglazes, use a spray booth with at least 1000 cfm. I also have a second ventilation system in my studio.

Nichols uses a respirator and a hooded exhaust vent to manage the dust created when sanding his dry surfaces. Below is a surface detail revealing the layers of colors.

Developing the Surface
After years of honing my skills, I finally realized that traditional ceramic processes were getting in the way of my ideas. I wasn’t achieving the results I wanted with my ceramic art. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s critically important for potters to have a comprehensive knowledge of the material and possess strong craftsmanship skills, but my true artistic voice didn’t develop until I started making work that began with an idea first, not a process.
Inspired by the concept of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic where beauty is found in things that are imperfect, I began looking for inspiration in non-ceramic surfaces. I found it in surfaces like weathered, painted wood and brick, as well as in nature, within fall leaves and spring flowers. I wanted to create works that evoke the same kind of impact that a Rothko painting does.
The following is the process I developed to replicate these kinds of surfaces. After making a teapot, bowl or vase from earthenware, I bisque it to cone 02 and begin spraying the vessel with multiple layers of Amaco Velvet underglazes. Essentially, I use the Velvets as a high-frit engobe. You can also layer the underglazes by sponging them on if you do not have access to a spray booth. I recommend wearing gloves if you take this approach

Jeffrey Nichols is a studio artist and educator working and living in Kentucky. He exhibits his studio pottery nationally and internationally, and you can view more of his work at

Faceted tea bowl with four layers of underglazes sprayed on then sanded off to reveal the layers, giving the piece a weathered look. A black was applied first followed by red, light blue then medium blue.
Faceted teacup and saucer with four layers of underglaze (black, red, yellow, and orange) applied then sanded. Any number of underglaze colors can be added in any combination-the choice depends on the effect you’re looking for.


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