7 Fun Ways to Decorate with Slips and Engobes

Amp up your surfaces when you decorate with slips and engobes


Slips, engobes, and underglazes are a lot of fun to use for ceramic decoration and there are endless ways to use them.

In this post, the late Robin Hopper explains how to decorate with slips and engobes. With these techniques, you can achieve many different types of surface decorations and patterns in a short period of time using only a simple slip trailer. The post is an excerpt from Making Marks: Decorating the Ceramic Surface, a must for every potter’s ceramic library. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

Slips and Engobes

Slips are predominantly liquefied clay; they usually are applied on wet to dry greenware. Engobes usually have a lower clay content and also can be used on bisque-fired ware. The word slip generally is used to describe any clay in liquid form. All slips and engobes can be colored with oxides, carbonates and stains. Sometimes very crusty surfaces can be made by applying slips and engobes over the fired glaze surface and then refiring.

Ceramic Raw Materials

Learn the fundamentals of clay and glaze materials when you download this freebieCeramic Raw Materials.


Casting slips give extremely good properties for use as a drawing medium in a fine-to-medium aperture trailer. To produce slips for casting into plaster molds, the ingredients for slip are mixed with water to which 1 percent to 2 percent of a deflocculant, such as sodium carbonate (soda ash) and/or sodium silicate, has been added. Since there is much less water in the deflocculated slip, it will leave a crisp, raised line drawing when applied to leather-hard surfaces. To remove sharp points or develop a low relief, raised line slip drawings can be flattened slightly by rolling the surface with a small rubber-coated roller or printmaker’s brayer.

This post is excerpted from Robin Hopper’s Making Marks: Discovering the Ceramic Surface, available in the Ceramic Arts Network Shop.

Slips used for decorating usually are mixed with water only, unless specific qualities of fluidity or viscosity are desired. For these qualities, a flocculant such as vinegar or Epsom salts can be used for increased viscosity or thickening. Or a deflocculant, as mentioned above, can be used for increased fluidity. Decorating slips traditionally are used to coat the surface of clays in a variety of ways. They can be made from naturally occurring clays or from mixed materials and colorants to provide a range of decorative effects. They can be applied to wet, leather-hard or dry clay bodies, depending on the technique being used and the dry strength of the body. The slip decoration usually is covered with a glaze after bisque firing, although many people prefer to leave the slip patterns unglazed. Slips can be used to coat another clay to make it lighter, darker or colored. They also can be used as a coating through which designs can be cut or scratched, resisted with wax or latex or layered with other slips to create a wide range of potential imagery.

7 Methods of Slip Decoration

decorate with slips and engobes

decorate with slips and engobes

2. Combing through trailed slip makes a simple design very complex in short order. This takes practice to do smoothly, without hesitation.

decorate with slips and engobes

3. The more complex you get with your initial slip design, the more options become available, but balance the trailing with the combing. Because this trailed design was a bit more complex, a single line is pulled through selective areas with a single reed or feather quill.

decorate with slips and engobes

4. To trail slip in lines or dots, the slip should be thick enough to stand up and not run, but it should be very smooth and consistent.

decorate with slips and engobes

5. You can stick with dots only, layering them up to increase contrast.

decorate with slips and engobes

6. Any design can be flattened by very gently tapping the piece to settle the slip.

decorate with slips and engobes

7. Free-form designs are good for marbling. Gently shake the piece to move the slip.

Engobes and Underglazes

The word engobe is used most often in North America and describes a wider range of uses in the development of the decorative surface. Underglaze is basically the same thing, and it can be colored with any colorant or stain. Many commercially made underglaze products are available, offering a wide range of color potential. They are applied easily by brush or spray. Whereas the simple liquefied slip commonly is used to coat greenware, an engobe can be formulated for use at any stage, including over bisque-fired ware. Engobes also often are used without a covering glaze, giving a wider potential for experimentation with the surface. An engobe or underglaze is more like a glaze in structure and may contain very little plastic clay.

Materials for making engobes fall into six groups:

1) Clays, with kaolin or calcined kaolin usually used in place of ball clay to counteract shrinkage 2) Fluxes as used in glazes; 3) Fillers (usually silica); 4) Hardeners (borax, calcium borate, and various gums) 5) Opacifiers (tin, zircopax, titanium, superpax) 6) Colorants.The following three recipes for basic engobes give a good starting point for further experimentation. The engobes can be colored in any of the usual ways.

Basic Engobe Recipes

Raw Material Cone 04-3 Cone 4-6 Cone 6-10
Kaolin 20 15 15
Calcined Kaolin 10 20 35
Talc 25 10 5
Calcium Borate (or Frit 3110) 15 10 0
Nepheline Syenite 0 10 15
Silica 15 20 15
Borax 5 5 5
Zircopax 10 10 10
Total 100% 100% 100%
**First published in 2012
  • HI- thanks-awesome tips. Asuming the recipe is a base and I want chartreuse or lavender from a mason stain what would be a good general percentage to add? 15?…

  • I’m a great admirer of Robin Hopper and enjoy his work. I have all his tapes and watched them often until my player quit working. Now I loan them to friends whose players are OK. Thanks Robin for sharing your talent and expertise.

  • Edwards J.

    Hi there. I really appreciate the points you made. I don’t think I’ve actually thought about it in that way. I can really appreciate how you approached the subject matter and what you said really gave me a new perspective. Thanks for taking the time to write this all out.
    Jasa SEO

  • Heidi W.

    @Dana Sperling FYI

    If you read the caption under the first photo it says:

    1. Trailing on top of a BASE SLIP offers many decorative options. You could simply trail slip and let it sit on top of the base color as applied.

    So I assume she made a red slip and poured that on first.

  • Maria C.

    How do I use engobe? It can be used as the underglaze? Potter at the wheel to make decoration Slip Trailer, I use engobe or underglaze?
    What kind of engobe own to use the Slip Trailer?
    Engobes of-Botz

  • Dana S.

    Is the base red color a slip? I found this to be confusing. I see you putting slip on a plate that is bright red (underglaze?) and later using the same color red referring to it as slip. Please explain. Thank you.

  • it is ok, guys. Gail just feels a little insecure right now, apparently. poor thing.
    this is a great post and THANK YOU CAD and RH!

  • gregorio g.

    veo que el margen de coccion es de cono 4 al 10, no podran dar una receta entre conos 010 a 04 en los engobes…saludos

  • Subscriber L.


    Given Hopper’s extensive experience and world wide reputation as potter, artist, presenter, author and lovely person… your comment is arrogant and reflects very poorly on you as a potter.

  • Marijke V.

    to Gail Bass: when you say “worthless, will you please explain why? This is confusing: does she have a rotten day, or are there mistakes in the article or book?

  • Subscriber T.

    Calcined Kaolin in clay that has been pre-fired in its powdered state and the chemical water burned off. I made some in college by filling a lidded bisqued pot with EPK and firing to bisqued temp. Worked just like the store bought stuff. Using this method you can play around with different Kaolins to see if there is a difference.

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