Precise Piercing: Using Geometric Principles to Create Stunningly Carved Pieces

How to carefully carve and pierce designs into clay


I first saw Eric Stearns’ work on social media. He posted this crazy cool video of his piercing process and I was mesmerized! My interest in carving and piercing clay has never been high, but after watching Eric work, I knew I needed to try this. His piercing technique piqued my interest and inspired me to give it a go! In today’s post, an excerpt from the latest issue of Pottery Making Illustrated, Eric shares how he meticulously designs, carves, and pierces his forms. Enjoy! – Ash Neukamm, guest editor.

P.S. For more information on Eric Stearns’ process, check out the entire article in the January/February 2016 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated, which includes instructions on throwing, glazing, and raku firing.

Pushing the limits of clay, both in the form as well as the finish, inspires me to create; raku firing tests the limits of those extreme forms. I purposefully make every piece as delicate and fragile as possible while celebrating the robust bonds that are inherent in each molecule of clay. Influenced by the patterns and styles of Acoma pottery, I explore the positive and negative spaces within the design and the clay itself, then build depth with the glazes. Precise application of geometric principles is exhibited in each step.

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Throwing the Form

Vases and platters lend themselves to piercing. A shallow bowl surrounded by a wide, flared rim allows for a striking decoration area. The impact of the negative or unperforated space is just as important as the pierced areas.

When throwing work for piercing (1), it’s important to keep the thickness of the walls to about ¼ inch—thin enough for the X-Acto blade to make a clean cut, but not so thin that it dries too quickly. I use an Ultimate Edger rib to carefully compress and round the rim, adding strength and substance to the structure of the piece. A long metal rib helps smooth and shape the gentle flare of the rim (2). As I throw the shape, the finished surface design comes together in my mind. The precision of piercing necessitates planning and deliberation before I ever finish shaping the clay.

While the piece is still centered on the wheel, lightly incise the horizontal lines. There are 13 horizontal lines (or concentric circles) on this particular bowl (see figure 3), but the final choice depends entirely on the area available. Then, using a small decoration disk, make marks to divide the radius of the piece like spokes on a wheel, subdividing each segment in half several times to achieve up to 80 divisions (3 and 4). Fewer lines create a more open architecture with larger piercings, whereas more lines allow for smaller piercings within the composition. A tighter pattern strengthens the structure of the piece while at the same time adding to the airy framework.


1 Throw a thick cylinder. Widen the rim while keeping the base small.


2 Use a long rib to shape the gentle flare in the rim.


3 Use a decorating disk and a ruler to create marks for a grid.


4 The finished grid before making decisions about the pattern.

Controlled Piercing

While I work, I consider how the line of piercings will flow from the interior bowl to the rim as well as how light and shadow will look going through the cutouts like a kaleidoscope. Each individual pierced space becomes part of a larger network of piercings to create new shapes throughout the sculptural piece. Using a needle tool, lightly create an outline of the design on the grid (5). I begin piercing as soon as the piece can be flipped over and immediately after trimming. Each side of the diamond-shaped piercing is made with exactly two slices from an X-Acto knife to ensure a smooth edge through the entire thickness of the clay wall (6). A thin, sharp blade is critical to produce a clean cut. It’s crucial to work quickly at this point.

Note: Leave the cutout pieces in place until the entire design has been pierced to keep the piece from drying unevenly or too quickly (7). Clean up the un-pierced areas with a semi-flexible yellow rib (8), prior to poking each diamond cutout through the pot (9). Tip: When piercing larger pieces, I control the drying by placing a plastic bag over the form, working through a window cut into the bag.

After piercing, smooth the entire piece with a finishing sponge to erase some of the grid marks, clean up the piece overall, and blunt any sharp areas created along the cut edges (10).

Dry the piece slowly to manage any stress cracks on the fragile clay. After bisque firing to cone 08, put on appropriate respiratory protection and dry sand the entire piece with a 120-grit diamond hand pad. Completely wash off any residual dust before glazing.


5 Use a needle tool to create an outline of the design in the grid.


6 Use an X-Acto knife to cut out the diamond shapes.


7 Leave the piercings in place until all of the diamonds for the pattern are cut.


8 Use a semi-flexible rib to remove the grid marks from the unpierced areas.

Glazing and Decorating

The patterns within the pierced sections of the rim of a bowl emerge from personal emotions and experiences. Beyond that, I also survey how the pattern interacts with that specific form and what kind of energy and emotion it will present to others. Digital tools like Adobe Photoshop help me analyze how different glaze and color combinations might affect both a pattern as well as an overall form.

I use 1⁄8-inch wide graphic-art tape (1⁄16 inch on smaller pieces) as a tape-resist method to ensure clean, crisp lines between the unglazed and glazed surfaces and further accentuate the interplay of positive and negative space (11). Clear crackle glaze underscores the appearance of fragility within the form while selected areas of brightly colored solid glaze add strength and cohesion to the design. A textured glaze adds further depth and dimension.

Allow the glaze to dry thoroughly before removing the tape. The unglazed areas protected by the tape will turn black from the carbon produced during the raku reduction, enhancing the interaction of positive and negative space.


9 Remove all of the cutout diamond shapes by poking them with a stick.


10 Smooth the entire piece with a finishing sponge to blunt any sharp edges.
  • Evelyn H.

    My comment is a question about glazing, as in how on earth do you glaze this without glaze clogging up the cut outs?

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