Over the last year, potter Clay Cunningham has become quite the tea connoisseur at a tea shop in his town. So he started to think about making teapots for loose leaf tea, as it is served at the tea shop. He spoke with the owner who then commissioned him to make teapots to use in the shop.
In today’s post, Clay shares his process for making optimally functional loose leaf teapots by hand. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
Over the last year, I’ve spent a great deal of time at The Tea Smith in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s here where I read or sketch, occasionally write, and enjoy endless varieties of loose-leaf teas from around the world. Loose-leaf, or whole-leaf teas, keep intact all of the essential oils that make teas flavorful and aromatic. They offer a much richer experience of tea than tea bags, which are often made of tea dust or fannings, age quickly, and lose much of the original zest that makes for a great cup of tea.
While enjoying my tea, I began to ponder the problems inherent in making a teapot meant for serving loose-leaf teas. Usually when making a teapot, I simply cut a large hole where the spout will be added. This is all well and good if a tea bag is used to corral the tea, but with loose-leaf, all of the leaves would either collect in the spout, cutting off flow, or would wiggle their way through and end up in my tea cup. I spoke with the shop owner, Tim Smith, about the subtleties and nuances of a great teapot and we decided that I should make some loose-leaf versions that include an infuser to be used in the shop.
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Throwing the Teapot Body
One of my most deeply held tenets in the studio is to begin with the end in mind. In keeping with that mantra, I chose earthenware as my clay body for creating these teapots. Its high-iron content helps a pre-warmed teapot hold its heat much longer than a stoneware or porcelain teapot.
Begin by using a three-pound ball of clay and throw a cylinder. Lift and refine the wall to an ideal thickness of ¼ inch and leave extra thickness at the top ½ inch to create the gallery for the infuser. Before creating the gallery, belly out the teapot by pressing outward from inside the pot while supporting the wall with the opposite hand on the outside. When doing this, it’s important not to apply pressure to the lip of the teapot as that will make the opening too wide.
To create the gallery, place your hands just below the lip, about ½ inch from the top, as if you were going to pull the clay taller. Instead of lifting the wall, use your fingers as supports for the clay as you press your left thumb straight down the middle of the lip, separating it into lower and higher halves (figure 1). Immediately take a measurement of the gallery opening with calipers (figure 2).
Throwing the Teapot Infuser
The two biggest concerns to consider when making the infuser are that it fits snugly in the teapot’s gallery, and that the gallery on the infuser is deep enough to accommodate a well-fitting and secure lid.
To create the infuser, open and shape a one-pound ball of clay into a cup shape. Leave a little extra clay at the top to create both the lip that will sit in the teapot’s gallery, and a gallery built into the infuser for the lid to sit on, getting the sizing right for this part of the infuser takes some careful measuring and a little finesse. Create the gallery (figure 3) and take caliper measurements of the outside top edge where it will fit into the teapot and where the lid will sit in the infuser (figure 4)
Making a Teapot Lid
Throw the lid as you would a small shallow bowl. The diameter of the lid should be the same size as the gallery on the infuser (figure 5). Use a 3⁄4-pound ball of clay, making the lid as wide as the gallery on the infuser and only about 3⁄4 of an inch tall. Keeping the curve shallow helps the lid to have just the right arch so as to visually continue the curve in the form of the pot.
Making the Spout
Create the spout with a 3⁄4-pound ball of clay opened into a bottomless cone shape, with the wide point at the bottom and the slender end at the top. Shaping both hands into the ‘pinching’ position, collar the clay to resemble an upside-down funnel. A long, flamboyant spout is great for a purely decorative teapot, but a frequently used pot is better with a quiet, understated spout. Additionally, a larger spout means more weight. Since teapots have many added parts (spout, lid, handle, infuser), and are picked up and poured often, a lighter weight is better.
Let the spout dry for a few minutes; just enough for the glistening surface to dull. In order to create an organic curve, slide a pencil into the spout while cupping the outside and carefully coax a slight curve (figure 6). The trick to achieving a curve is to create mu
ltiple small bends in many places as you pull the pencil out, rather than one big bend in one place. Let the spout dry a little more until slightly firm to the touch.
Bringing It All Together
After all the pieces are leather hard, it’s time to trim the bottom of the teapot, the infuser, and the spout to give them all a graceful curve. Refine the surfaces with a rubber rib to create a smooth surface (figures 7).
Because the lid is inset, it needs a handle. I create a leaf-shaped handle that pairs well with my decoration. Set the handle aside until it slightly stiffens and then score, add slip, and attach the handle onto the lid (figure 8).
To create the holes in the infuser so the water can circulate through the tea leaves, use a needle tool or a small drill bit to pierce the wall and the bottom. Use a chamois to smooth up any rough edges around the holes (figure 9).
Use an X-Acto knife to cut the spout at an angle, taking off a majority of the upper half. I prefer to cut with the blade perpendicular to the clay, slicing around the wall, instead of cutting straight through. This ensures that the spout holds its shape and doesn’t collapse.
Hold the freshly cut spout up to the teapot body and position it so that the bottom of the spout is high enough on the pot so that when entirely filled, the tea won’t spill out of the spout while at rest (figure 10). Trace around the spout with your knife so you know where to connect the spout to the teapot. Before adding the spout, be sure to cut an opening for the tea to exit the pot. Because the tea leaves will be contained in the infuser, the opening can be of any shape or size. Attach the spout by scoring the joining surfaces and coat both sides with a hearty amount of slip (figure 11). Smooth the seam using a chamois.
How to Make a Teapot Handle
There are endless ways to make handles. I prefer to pull mine from a two-pound ball of well-wedged clay. Begin by forming the ball of clay into a cone shape using the heel of your hands. Using a bucket of water over an area you do not mind getting messy, such as a sink, wet both your hand and the clay and get ready to pull. With your hand held in an okay sign around the cone, lightly pull down on the clay, coaxing it slowly into a long thin strap, leaving a little extra clay at the top and bottom of the strap to provide a little extra surface area when attaching the handle to the teapot. Drape the strap handle over a cylindrical form until it can hold its shape (figure 12). Note: Be sure the handle is tall enough to fit the placement and removal of the infuser (figure 13). Attach the handle then let the entire piece dry slowly and bisque fire it to cone 06.