A Potter Extends the Practicality of a Cup and Saucer Set

Tea tray, by Paul Donnelly.

Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, and Paul Donnelly’s tea trays are a prime example of this. These forms were inspired by the practical desire to keep his furniture ring free and a spoon or snack close at hand. By extending the length of the saucer, Paul not only made these sets more practical, but he also came up with some sharp-looking objects.

Today, Paul explains how he makes them using a combination of wheel throwing, press molding and slab building techniques. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


The inspiration for Paul Donnelly’s Tea Tray comes from his daily use of ceramic objects, “My partner and I collect a lot of ceramics, and we use them everyday.” “When I am drinking a cup of coffee, I usually set the cup in another bowl or other ceramic object so I don’t ruin our furniture. As a result, I wanted to make a piece with an expanded saucer that also had room for a spoon or a snack,” and so he developed the Tea Tray.

There’s always been a thread of geometry running through his work, although before grad school, it was expressed mainly through surface decoration. Graduate school forced him to explore his geometrical tendency more fully, integrating it from the design of each component to the building of a piece itself. He also notes the influence of Modernist architecture, landscape architecture, and the dialog between the two.

As Paul plans a piece, a process similar to architectural planning, he begins by mapping out his ideas of form and relationships by drawing directly onto his work surfaces, including tables, press-molds, and bats, and then marks them using rulers, compasses, Sharpies, and pencils. This later helps him gauge specific cuts by marking the location of elements he won’t be able to see (like the foot ring) and also sets up a grid system allowing him to create symmetrical shapes. Paul creates a topography in the clay, working in a unique layering method, and using the wheel in unexpected ways.

Creating the Saucer’s Footwell

Paul starts by making the cup designed for the Tea Tray. Referencing the cups scale and diameter, he uses calipers to define the size of the saucer’s footwell (the indented area where the cup rests). To create this element, he first throws a thick, solid slab using the wheel. He uses the wheel because it allows him to add dimension and detail with greater ease and precision.  Depending on the design, the slab may be up to an inch or so wider than the cup’s diameter. After throwing, he leaves the slab disc on the wheel or bat to firm up, and then, with the wheel turning, cuts the middle out of it. The size of the circle he starts with is determined by the size of the cup. He then cuts the ring off the wheel or bat with a wire tool and sets it aside until it becomes leather hard. Throwing this piece on a bat, then leaving it on the bat after running a wire tool under it can help reduce warping.

With a Sharpie and a straight-edge, Paul draws perpendicular lines that intersect at 90° angles at the center of his clean wheel head. He centers the leather-hard ring of clay (figure 1) and uses the lines to cut the outside into a square (figure 2). He cuts additional circles out with a short piece of copper tubing that he has sharpened on one end (figure 3). He now has a square piece with a fancy hole in the middle that will become the footwell for the saucer portion of his Tea Tray.

Fig.1 Throw a slab. Allow it to firm up, cut a circle equal to the foot of the cup. Make marks on the wheel to determine where to cut the outside edges of the footwell.

Fig.1 Throw a slab. Allow it to firm up, cut a circle equal to the foot of the cup. Make marks on the wheel to determine where to cut the outside edges of the footwell.

Fig.2 Make straight cuts from line to line, making a square edge.

Fig.2 Make straight cuts from line to line, making a square edge.

Fig.3 Use lengths of copper tubing, sharpened on one end, to make the ancillary cuts on the footwell.

Fig.3 Use lengths of copper tubing, sharpened on one end, to make the ancillary cuts on the footwell.


Completing the Saucer

Paul rolls out a slab then sets the footwell onto it, traces both the inside and outside edges, and makes a key mark on the top of one side of the footwell and to the side of it on the slab. He scores inside the traced outline on the slab, and the bottom of the footwell, adds plenty of slip, and presses them together using the key marks for proper orientation. Paul uses ample slip so when the two elements are pressed together, slip squishes out past the edges (figure 4). He lets this slip set up until it is the consistency of caulk, then blends it into the seam with a damp, stiff brush. He sets the saucer portion of the piece aside, under plastic, letting the slip set up and the piece reach an equal moisture consistency throughout. Then he uses a Surform on the outside to remove any inconsistencies from the layering and create smooth sides.

Fig.4 Attaches the footwell to the slab. After the piece has set up, use a Surform to clean up the form.

Fig.4 Attaches the footwell to the slab. After the piece has set up, use a Surform to clean up the form.

Fig.5 Use a plaster slab with a recessed rectangle, outline to create a foot for the tray. Extend the marks to locate the foot.

Fig.5 Use a plaster slab with a recessed rectangle, outline to create a foot for the tray. Extend the marks to locate the foot.

Fig.6 Use shims and a cutting wire, to trim the slab and get the exact thickness needed.

Fig.6 Use shims and a cutting wire, to trim the slab and get the exact thickness needed.

Forming the Tray

Paul uses a large, smooth plaster slab with a narrow, recessed, rectangular outline, cut into its center as a press mold to create a foot on the bottom of the piece. He sets a straight-edge even with the outside lines of the recessed rectangle, and uses a Sharpie to extend the lines to the edge of the press mold so that the location of the foot is visible even when he places a slab on the mold (figure 5).

Paul throws a pug of clay on the tabletop to flatten it slightly then continues to use his palm to pound it into a slab. He makes this slab about twice as thick as it needs to be, and centers it on the plaster press mold using the marks he made earlier to locate the recessed line. Paul uses a rubber mallet to nudge the clay into the foot ring, then sets a pair of shims along the sides of the slab (figure 6). With a wire cutter sandwiched firmly between each thumb and a shim, Paul cuts through the thickness of the slab with one decisive gesture. He takes a long rib and smooths and compresses the freshly cut surface. Working in this way rather than thinning a slab with a rolling pin, reduces the likelihood that the piece will warp as it dries.

Fig.7 While the clay is still on the plaster slab, use a piece of textured plaster to landscape the piece.

Fig.7 While the clay is still on the plaster slab, use a piece of textured plaster to landscape the piece.

Fig.8 Put two 2x2 boards on the edges of the plaster slab, place a ware board on top, and flip the sandwich.

Fig.8 Put two 2×2 boards on the edges of the plaster slab, place a ware board on top, and flip the sandwich.

Fig.9 Decide where the saucer will attach to the landscaped tray.

Fig.9 Decide where the saucer will attach to the landscaped tray.

Paul grabs a small piece of plaster, cut from an old mold, with a subtle stratified texture on it. He uses this tool to impress a ‘landscape’ texture into his piece (figure 7), and then he lets the slab set up for a little bit. He sets a pair of 2×2 boards onto the press mold on either side of the clay slab, places a ware board on top of that, then flips the whole thing over (figure 8). The 2×2 boards hold the press mold up off of the ware board, allowing the slab of clay with the foot to drop off of the press mold. After removing the press mold and sticks, he flips his piece over, so that it is right-side up, and begins to plan the placement of the saucer.

Paul moves the saucer around, inching it here and there until he finds a nice spot for it visually. He places a fork on the piece beside the saucer, to get an idea of the interplay between the objects (figure 9). Once satisfied with the location of the saucer, he uses a fettling knife to trace the edges of the saucer onto the tray. After setting the saucer aside, he cuts right through the traced lines, then scores and slips the adjoining areas of the saucer and the tray (figure 10). As before, he uses lots of slip that squishes out when he joins the pieces. He uses a slip trailing bottle to add an additional bead of slip to all of the joined areas, lets it set up to the consistency of caulk, then blends it into the seams with a damp, stiff brush.

Fig.10 Score and slip the adjoining edges, and attach, pressing from inside the footwell.

Fig.10 Score and slip the adjoining edges, and attach, pressing from inside the footwell.

Fig.11 Use a piece of foam to accommodate the height differential when flipping the piece over to work on the bottom.

Fig.11 Use a piece of foam to accommodate the height differential when flipping the piece over to work on the bottom.

Fig.12 Score and then add soft clay where the footring of the tray meets the bottom of the saucer.

Fig.12 Score and then add soft clay where the footring of the tray meets the bottom of the saucer.

Paul positions a square piece of foam onto the tray, to equal the height difference between the tray and the saucer (figure 11), then flips the whole piece over in order to reinforce the new seams (figure 12). Paul deeply scores the seams and across the abutment where the foot ring meets the side wall of the saucer. He slips the score marks and, with his fingertip, adds a coil of soft clay. These measures reinforce potentially weak areas that may be likely to crack during the drying and/or the firing

Fig.13 Cut the edges clean and then texture them for consistency.

Fig.13 Cut the edges clean and then texture them for consistency.

To finish the piece, Paul cuts into the straight lines of the edge of his pieces with a loop-tool, removing clay in a way that relates to the texture he laid down earlier. This is purely to satisfy his own visual desires. He takes his texture tool and uses it to compress and texture these fresh edges, zipping up every last detail of this complex piece (figure 13).

After slowly drying the piece under plastic to even out the moisture between all the parts and to prevent warping, as it dries, the tea tray is ready to bisque fire. After the bisque, Paul glazes the pieces so the textures are accentuated. The piece shown here is glazed with a green transparent glaze, then fired.


Paul Donnelly received his MFA from the New York School of Ceramics at Alfred University, and currently teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. To see more of his work visit http://pauldonnellyceramics.com.

Annie Chrietzberg is a ceramist who, among other things, teaches workshops in the US and Canada. You can keep up with her at www.earthtoannie.com.

Comments
  • This is very cool – I can’t wait to try it – thank you!

  • Wow. These are lovely. Thank you for sharing your technique.

  • i wonder how practical this dish is. looks rather bulky though as an art piece it is nice, clean lines and so on. i think that carrying a cup and a plate,one with each hand is much easier. how about arranging it in the dishwasher, not one but 4-6 of them? convenience, that’s what counts at the end.
    all and all, i think it is very nice for presentation won’t use it on a daily base.

  • Being a tea and cookie person I think this is a great Idea.

  • I’ve seen similar mass-production type dessert/tea sets. They are handy!

  • In response to the comment from Adi…I have an extensive collection of antique tea trays. They are frequently borrowed by friends and family for special occassion parties. Not only are they unique, but they are extremely functional and easy to use. Although I do not allow all of them to be put into the dishwasher (due to hand painted designs and other age considerations) the ones that are put into the dishwasher are no more inconvenient then your average dinner plate. I think if you held one in your hand you might like it. They are not bulky or awkward. I would hate for you to discount this lovely design and miss out on something great. Balance is what is important here and the weight of the cup and balance of the saucer need to feel right in the hand, but if they do they are wonderful to use.

  • This is an interesting design and presents some nice structural challenges. Viewing the bottom reminded me that I’d like a tutorial regarding how to get added (vs circular wheel-thrown) footers onto pieces. This has been a major annoyance for me for years. They are uneven or warp longways or otherwise are not on the square or level. Every book I’ve seen seem to skip that set of instruction in the images or demonstrations. What’s the secret? Paul’s look perfect.

  • I love this! I’m always trying to balance a cup and a snack to have while I read. I’m anxious to get into the studio and give this a go. Thanks for sharing your idea and your techniques!

  • In response to Adi’s remarks, I think perhaps she really doesnt see the absolute brilliance in these sets. Plates, platters…they all fit in the dishwasher, what’s the problem???? If she doesnt use them, oh well, the rest of us will. The instructions are great, the idea is great and I can’t wait to try it! Thank You Paul!

  • I have tried for ten years now to make these for my family and friends, never having much success. Thank you for a much needed detailed idea and plan. I know what everyone is getting for Christmas now.

  • I am truly inspired to try this technique. What I particularly like is it combines wheelwork (which I love but can be a bit restrictive design-wise) with slabbing to produce a both functional and beautiful object. The platter part of the saucer could be one of many designs as simple or as complicated as you wish. The plus side for me is that as a hobby ceramicist at this time of year I now have something that may be made as a truly beautiful and practical gift that need not be made in quantity to be effective.
    Thank you Paul for sharing this all the way in the UK! Mandy

  • Tres cool! (Cup is not bad either…) I don’t do wheel work but I’m always looking or inspiration for hand building. This is definitely inspiring. I love geometric designs.

  • Oh, Adi…where were you when the sage people of life taught the Golden Rule. What on earth motivated your negative comment? What appears to be a feeble attempt to level a playing field by lowering someone else merely negated the credibility you so overtly sought to create. Your positive comments would have been taken seriously by others reading the reviews if you hadn’t wrapped it up with your “but…..”. Best regards, Sue.

  • (hi annie!)

    i kinda agree, partly, with adi…to a point…the picture of the finished glazed piece is deceptive; scale-wise.
    …when viewing the process, it becomes apparent[to me] that these aren’t ‘dainty’ functional ware…the saucer section must be about 5″ or 6 ” square, then double that for the plate…guessing of course…
    they are simply beautiful, i really like the asymmetry, for sure! i’d like to try something similar in my own style.

  • Hi, I really love them! I usually make this kind of dish on the wheel. For the tray I add another stage which I engrave a circle in the tray after I shift it from the center. So the place for holding the cup is not in the center. I think that this addition of hand built sections is much more interesting. Thank you!
    I think that dishwasher is not a relevant criteria for testing beautiful design. This design capture the eye and it is interesting to talk about.. Thanks!

  • Nonga, another great simple idea! Not as creatively involved perhaps as Paul’s work but great for mass production. Do you leave the tray looking like a large saucer or change it somehow? Another idea I will be trying out; thank you!

  • Taking that idea a step further I am giving thought to altering the thrown “saucer” to incorporate a method of holding it; maybe along the lines of an old fashioned candle holder to stick your thumb through..

  • Dear Paul,first of all,if that wasn’t clear on my first comment, i think that your work is beautiful, very precise (something i can’t achieve in my works), and i admire the way you design and present your method of work. i never expressed negativism in my comment only the mere fact, that for me it doesn’t look practical, though the Cup and Saucer Set meant to be practical. i guess it is a matter of age when one starts to weigh dishes before purchasing them…..

  • I have been doing something like this with espresso cups! I make the saucer big enough to hold a biscotti or the like. They are not bulky; are very user friendly and people love them. Right now, they are selling like hotcakes for holiday gifts.

  • Good grief, Sue! Among all the fawning, one person dares to make a very mild, very conditional criticism and you complain about it! This is more like a Tupperware party than a ceramics forum. Read quickly because this comment will probably be deleted because I used the “f” word (fawning).

  • Love the modern twist on the design. So then, what are you charging for these sets? Anyone else…Karen…what are you asking for your expresso sets? Funny how we are all working to make a living in clay, but no one ever talks about prices…

  • I love this idea and design! It resonates with my love for bamboo: the green cames on the platter, the circles on the cup, and the “frond” around the cup’s rim all of which are parts bamboo structure…in addition to the green glaze. I’m taking this to be a “gift” that I need to try. Thanks for your input! Is it possible to know the glaze/recepie

  • I really like this design & inspiration! I look forward to trying this out. the design possibilities are endless. On a side note if Adi doesn’t like this she/he doesn’t have to make it. More stuff for us to play with!!

  • Hi, I think Adi is intitled to have their own opinion. It did not come across as rude and I am sure was not meant to be. I really like looking at how other people approach new designs as even a small idea can grow into something entirely different. For my part I have found the first idea of throwing a slab for stability and cutting a circle as a recess for the cup and also making a mould for a square footing. Both of these can be applied in lots of uses. I have been making square vases by slabbing and I will use the moulded foot idea so I can make several quickly and easily.
    So thanks again for passing on the inspiration!

  • I think the design is brilliant! What is the controversy about not fitting in a dishwasher…anyone ever hear of soapy water and a sponge? How dirty can a tea cup and saucer get for crying out loud? I would never put anything that nice in a dishwasher! I’m an old coot and a fledgling potter just beginning to get my hands muddy…thank you for all the great tips, ideas and advice!

  • Is perfectly natural in shape, color is similar to banana leaves.

  • Thanks Naomi for posting the link to see more of Paul’s beautiful work. It also answers Margie’s question about pricing. Paul’s work has definitely inspired me to give something similar a try. Thanks Paul.

  • I make a similar set, tho a newbie attempt, for individual tempura/sushi dishes with saucebowls and they sell quite well. New technique for me and I am looking forward to adapting it to my clientele and skills.Thanks much

  • As I set some bowls on a ware board they looked rather pleasing in a group so I thought I would use the idea 2 thin slabs with holes cut out for a recess for the bowls. Three small bowls for savouries.
    Thanks Paul for setting my mind working on new ideas!

  • Hey guys: it’s ok to have personal parameters for functional ware. The way a piece fits or doesn’t fit into a dishwasher is a valid parameter of functionality in today’s world. You might not use a dishwasher for your handmade treasures, but some buyers do. It is equally ok to disregard how things might or might not fit into a dishwasher, and in fact to request that pieces you make be washed by hand, just like fine fabrics. These decisions about functionality inform the things you make, and it is good to know which side of a line you come down on, and make pieces accordingly.
    Paul teaches at a university, and is working more with ideas and aesthetics than a strictly functional potter who makes a living selling work at craft shows might.
    As far as dishwashers go: when I have them, I don’t tend to use them. I like to handle and wash the beautiful things that I use and see them in the drainer. That said, I have done the crazy thing of taking all the pots down off of shelves and from the top of cabinets when they are dusty, and put them all in the dishwasher. One of the many t-shirt ideas I have is one that says “Puts art in the dishwasher.” This would have a picture of a dishwasher photoshopped to be full of important historic as well as contemporary pots. Someday I will take that photoshop class.
    And hello back to you, Richard, whichever Richard you might be…
    I’m off to the studio where I am making functional things that definitely won’t fit in the dishwasher. Back of the truck through a car wash, might work, though.

  • So very cool! A modern twist on an old idea. This definitely can be made for the dishwasher and the size cup enlarged to fit the modern-day beverage size. I, too, am wondering how you keep everything so straight. My tiles end up rather wavy.

  • Anything that cuts housework is wonderful!! Ringless furniture. Almost anything fits in the dishwasher if you insist! I have various experimental tiles, irregular in shape with dents in them which are servicable but not as awesome as Paul’s well thoughtout designs. If you grab something quickly to use, then its obviously functional for you , use it! Flat broad shapes even balance securely on lounge armrests!! Don’t even have to reach to the side table!!
    Exhausted potter!!

  • These look great! I would like to see the underneath side to understand how to best achieve a finished bottom or foot that maintains the best level stability and one that is less apt to warp during the drying process.

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