Using Vinyl Masking and Sandblasting to Create Textured and Patterned Wood-Fired Pottery

In this article from the Ceramics Monthly archives, David Bolton explains and demonstrates his use of vinyl sign masking to add depth and texture to his work. He cuts the masking with a (surprisingly affordable) sign cutter that hooks up to a computer just like a printer–but instead of printing, it cuts the vinyl. Bolton then applies the masking, sandblasts the surface, and applies underglaze to the recessed areas. But after that, he takes a drastic departure from most highly graphic surface techniques by finishing his pieces with the unpredictable surfaces of wood firing. The combination of these seemingly opposite treatments actually heightens the impact of each one. —Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.



The creation of my current body of work started with atmospheric firing, in this case wood firing. I fired with salt at the University of Evansville and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I had my first taste of wood firing at Central Michigan University, which later led me to push for a wood kiln where I currently teach. I fire my work in a train kiln at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, and in Dan Anderson’s Mounds Anagama.

For me, the beauty is in the interaction of the glaze created by the wood kiln and the hard-edge decoration created by masking and sandblasting bisqueware. Some pieces receive a blush of color, and others have their edges blurred. Sometimes areas of the pattern are blurred beyond recognition, only to have the pattern revealed on the other side of the pot. This gives the surface of my pots a sense of wear, a sense of history.

After sandblasting, I apply black underglaze over a digitally created vinyl mask on bare Grolleg porcelain. The result at first is intense black and white that is hard on the eyes. After the wood firing, the resulting flashing and wash of ash softens this contrast.

Textiles and geometry influence my surface decoration. The forms are divided into panels to allow the patterns to run off the edge. I often think of the surface as upholstery covering a form or an altered fabric covering the human body. This logic follows through from lip to foot. The openness of a plate, for example, allows me to further follow this logic from the interior to exterior. This negates some of their function; they are probably the least functional of all my forms, due to their decoration. I find that my cups are the most functional, with the patterns only on the exterior. The patterns are very tactile and entice the user to hold the body of the cup. In this way, the surface and form work together to enhance the functional life of the cup.









Vinyl Masking

Tools and SuppliesDraw shapes and patterns on the computer and “print” them out on the digital cutter (1). Peel the vinyl decals and apply them to bisqueware (2). Complete patterns can be applied with transfer tape on flatter pieces such as plates and tiles, but is not possible with most curved surfaces. Rub down the vinyl mask to adhere it to the piece (3). The masking can be cut to fit the intended space after application; simply peel up and remove the excess (4–5). Sandblast the surface (6). Apply underglaze using a fan brush (7). A fan brush covers broad areas without soaking up all your underglaze. Let the underglaze dry and remove the vinyl (8). Wax the rim and apply glaze to the interior, and the cup is ready to be wadded and wood-fired.

Sign vinyl: I use a medium tack 2.8-mil vinyl that comes in rolls 8 inches wide, 15 inches wide, and even larger. I cut it down to 8½-inch sheets to fit the cutter. (Available for purchase here)

Transfer tape: Complete patterns can be applied on flatter surfaces. I use this tape to put patterns on plates, although the curved areas still have to be altered and laid individually by hand. (Available for purchase here)

Inexpensive sign cutter: Graphtec makes this inexpensive cutter, as well as professional sign cutters that cost thousands more. The cutter comes with software that can be used on a PC or Mac. It is also compatible with Adobe Illustrator. (Available for purchase here)

Incidental tools:
tack cloth, X-Acto knife

the author David Bolton teaches at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois. His work available at Schaller Gallery (, and he would like to extend a special thanks to Dan Anderson, Ben Bates, and Ted Neal for furthering his knowledge of wood firing.

  • Richard H.

    I love this idea, have to find a way around the cost of those printers though…

  • Nancy W.


  • Barbara` B.

    AWESOME work!!!!! Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  • Roy J.

    Yes….. You could use water and sponge technique rather than sandblasting.It is easy and you can sponge out carefully then design will raise up.

  • Claudia M.

    El resultado es muy bueno!! me falta tanto por aprender muchas gracias por compartirlo

  • Oops, got my tapes mixed up there. The transfer tape IS used to transfer a design to the pot with ease, and the vinyl is the resist. Transfer tape is like very wide masking tape, I believe.

    You would not want to be blasting with sand on pots that had not been fired yet, I don’t think. I did the sponge and water technique, but used a spray gun instead of a sponge. It worked very well.

  • Terrific! Do you know if the vinyl would stick to leather hard clay and if you could use water and sponge technique rather than sandblasting. My husband banished my sandblasting cabinet from his workspace.

  • @ sanday and @janie, sorry, but think transfer tape is used to transfer a multi cut vinyl design without trouble. The vinyl is the actual resist. Please can somebody confirm this?

  • The transfer tape is used as a resist. When you sandblast, the transfer tape is sturdy enough that the blaster does not obliterate it. The design will show up as a raised surface.

  • Any recommendations on a digital sign cutter?

    This looks like so much fun, thanks for sharing.

  • I’m still not quite sure of the use of the tranfer tape. Can someone explain the obvious that I seem to be missing?

  • has a variety of sandblasting equipment with sprayers starting about $15 and booths at about $200. Please don’t try this without a booth. Make one from wood or an old washing machine exterior or something. Also PROTECT your LUNGS, EYES and SKIN.

  • Genevieve N.

    Sounds interesting, but is a sand blaster the kind of equipment readily available to potters ? One may wonder….

  • I took a workshop this past summer put on by Andy and Virginia Bally at the Ceramic Store of Houston. That workshop was great! This technique is so much fun, and I have done several pieces by now. The Ballys provided designs cut on their printer, and we did a variety of resists. I don’t have a printer yet, but I will one day. In the meantime, I cut the designs with a pair of sharp scissors and an exacto knife.
    So little time, so much to learn!

  • Donna, the printer/cutter is for precision cutting but not an absolute necessity. If contact paper does not work, you can always use the same vinyl as that used by the printer/cutter.

    But neither contact paper or vinyl will do anything awful to your kiln as it will be removed before firing.

  • At $300.00, the “printer” is out of my range. Think I could substitute something like Contact paper for the masking? Of course, I´d never get that precise a cut, but is it possible it could work without doing something awful to my electric kiln?

  • Patricia K.

    Can you provide a link for the sandblaster equipment you use? I’m looking for something economical for small jobs.




    Super!!!!! Thanks for sharing!!

  • Claudia L.

    Amei a tecnica gostaria de saber mais detalhes, estou no brasil e nao sei aonde encontrar esse material por aqui..

  • I have sandblasted glass before and have thought about blasting ceramic pieces to add design elements. I am currently working as a handbuilding potter and would like to ask some questions relevant to the types of clay you have used and the blasting medium you found worked the best. Logic would suggest the finest medium and a clay with little or no grog (porcelain)..

  • This is amazing, I have been using this exact technique for several years and have been wondering if anyone else out there has been doing the same. It is so incredibly versatile as the vinyl can be applied on any form and with great detail. I have blasted the bisque ware to varying depths also: the sandblasting techniques give amazing control and you can “crave” new forms from basic shapes. I have also used “Tool Dip” which is a liquid rubber to paint on patterns and designs and then sandblast the surface.. I’m so glad to see this post. You can view some examples at

  • oops re-read the article and Jennifer references it in the intro- thank you 🙂

  • love this technique. Is the sand blasting step to create an etched surface?

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