Adding Strength to Your Clay Work with Paperclay

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Detail of Fossil Fantasy II, clay with perlite and paper fibers, by Barbro Aberg

Adding paper pulp and other fibers can make things you never thought possible with clay totally doable. Combining the fibers with clay reduce shrinkage in the drying stage and strengthen joints, allowing wet and dry pieces to be joined.

In today’s post, an excerpt from Additions to Clay Bodies, Kathleen Standen explains the ins and outs of the remarkable combination of clay and paper. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


Strengthening Your Clay

by Kathleen Standen

Making Paperclay

The most commonly used fibre is cellulose, made from paper pulp. Ceramicists generally have a favorite paper they use, such as newspaper, egg cartons or toilet paper. The proportion of clay slip to paper pulp varies, but a typical sample would be 4:1. The clay slip and paper pulp are mixed thoroughly together, with the best results achieved using a blender or electric mixer. The blended mixture is then laid out on plaster batts to dry a little so it can be wedged into balls of clay. The proportions can vary from 5% to 25%; carrying out your own investigations is the best way to find out what suits your work.


Add something!

Adding materials to your clay can change the look of your surfaces and produce a wide variety of textures and shapes. Kathleen Standen takes a look at all the possibilities in her book Additions to Clay Bodies where you’ll discover how adding non-clay materials to your clay provides a great way to be creative in a whole new way.

Read More and Order Today!


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Making your own paperclay is economical and versatile, as any clay body can be used. There are some issues to be aware of:

The shelf life of homemade paperclay is about two weeks, so it needs to be used up quickly; if kept for longer, the organic cellulose starts to break down and decay, with all the health issues explained in Chapter 3 (p. 46).

When paperclay decays, the tubular structure of the cellulose fibers breaks down and the paperclay loses the properties associated with it; toilet paper is more prone to rapid decay because of a corn-starch coating on the cellulose fibers.

The usability of paperclay can be extended by adding a small amount of Milton sterilizing liquid or disinfectant (but not bleach) to the wet mixture before drying.

Alternatively, rolling out unused paperclay into thin sheets and allowing them to dry completely preserves the tubular structure of the fibers. They can be stored, and later softened up by laying them out on a damp cloth.

Cotton Fiber and Clay

An excellent alternative to paper pulp is the addition of cotton fibers. This can be purchased in sheets as cotton linter. Preparation of the materials is the same as for paper but cotton fibers don’t break down as easily as paper, so it can be stored in its wet form for longer. If you don’t want all this hassle, then the pottery suppliers listed at the back of the Additions to Clay Bodies will sell you a ready-made paperclay with an unlimited shelf life (as long as it is wrapped up well).

Fossil Fantasy II, clay with perlite and paper fibers, by Barbro Aberg

Fossil Fantasy II, clay with perlite and paper fibers, by Barbro Aberg

Paper Fibers, Perlite and Clay

Barbro Aberg’s large-scale sculptures are not easily categorized. As a Swede living in Denmark, combined with a five-year stint in the US, she has developed her own distinctive style. She exhibits her ceramics in galleries and events throughout Europe and the US.

She was introduced to additions early on: to perlite by US artist Bob Shay and paperclay by Rosette Gault. Testing of several different mixtures followed, until she found the correct formulae to suit her way of working. “During the years, I have developed several specific clay bodies: one for large, solid work, one for small pieces and one for open structures,” Aberg says. “They give me a range of possibilities for working freely with my sculptures.”

Most of her ceramics are modeled by hand, a slow process that allows Aberg to change the form as she constructs it. Larger pieces can take 6-7 weeks to finish. “I allow myself to reflect, alter and change, follow the impulses that emerge, and give room for a dialogue with each sculpture.” The work is fired to

1135-1140˚C (2075-2084˚F) in an electric kiln, often more than twice, or until the right surface is achieved. Terra sigillata is sometimes applied to the surface.


**First published in June 2013
Comments
  • “An excellent alternative to paper pulp is the addition of cotton fibers. This can be purchased in sheets as cotton linter.” I’m curious – has anyone tried dryer lint as an additive? From the description, it might be an interesting (and free) material.

    “The proportion of clay slip to paper pulp varies, but a typical sample would be 4:1.” Is this by weight or by volume?

    Thanks!

  • I have used lint, coating the clay rod for extrusion, so doesn’t stick to the walls of the extruder, also for fiberclay, but find little hard to mix them well.

  • Kathleen Standen, your sculptures are very beautiful, thank you for sharing your experience.

  • My simple recipe for paperclay:
    Grind up some egg carton, torn into pieces to fit into the food processor, with enough water to make a slurry – not too runny, but not so thick that the machine is working too hard. Consistency like an ice cream malt?
    Pour into a bowl and add powdered clay until you can wedge it, and use. Easy!

  • This is GREAT info… thank you all so much for sharing. I have been dabbling with paperclay and still not sure what I am doing. So.. while I am practicing I will give the dryer lint a try. Happy New Year and thanks again.

  • To Kathy, I know this is a later post, but I’m just getting to this article. As a paper artist the question of using lint from a dryer has come up in paper making. Making the slurry is similar in both processes. No you cannot use the lint from your dryer as it has other components than cotton, depending on the clothes you wear. Unnatural fibers, like polyester and the chemicals from dryer sheets do work well in paper making, and would not work well in paper clay either.

  • Thank you Maria, I was wondering about that! I have used the newspaper only and don’t like the fiberous way it works.. Will keep trying.

  • Correction to my post. I meant to say dry lint Does NOT work well in paper making, for the reasons stated. Thank you.

  • This conversation may have expired, but I learned a good trick while working with a family of potters living near Cuernavaca, Morelos, MX. They use cat tail fibers, thoroughly loosened, mixing them into wet clay (by foot). Their clay body tends to be rather brittle, but they made huge pots using the “plumilla.”

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