Building Complex Pottery Forms Simply

Bryan Hopkins jokingly refers to his pots as dysfunctional vessels because of their high loss rate. But he says that just comes with the territory when your goal is to push the material to its limits.


In today’s post, an excerpt from the Ceramics Monthly archives, Hopkins explains his process, which includes throwing pots on the wheel, cutting them into slab sections, pressing some of the sections into bisque molds, then putting it all back together in interesting constructions. – Jennifer Harnetty



I think my building processes are simple—the easiest way to an end—but when I consider each step involved, I suppose it is kind of complicated. Each step invites failure, and I lose about 50% of these Dysfunctional vessels between drying and glaze firing (including this one!). But that comes with the decision to push the material to its physical limits.


click to enlarge

It goes a little something like this: I begin with a simple overhead view of what I want the finished piece to look like, done on the dry erase board in my studio. The necessary parts are gathered, in this case two wheel-thrown cylinders and some slabs, each about 3–4 mm thick. The cylinders are placed on the floor piece, and decisions are made about proportion and proximity (figure 1). Excess clay is removed from the cylinders, leaving me with the necessary arcs, and the floor is cut to the proper size (figure 2). Slabs are beat into bisque-fired molds, which are taken from various materials, and in this case, old barn planking.


I was a mathematics major in college, and still enjoy the nerdy satisfaction of working precisely with rulers and squares to ensure angles are correct (figure 4), which actually relieves pressure from the porcelain when it dries and is fired to cone 11 in reduction. The edges of the slabs are very important to the finished piece, and they are carefully broken or cut accordingly (figure 5). This piece has an end section that is perforated, and holes are drilled with a 1/8-inch bit on a flex-shaft.



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hopkins2This piece had over 2500 holes (figure 6). Finally, the clay burrs from the drilling process are scraped away when bone dry (figure 7), all edges are touched up, surfaces cleaned, and the piece is dry in about 48 hours, ready to fire (figure 8). After bisque firing, I mask off surfaces that will not be glazed with wax, tape, and/or toilet bowl gasket, dip the piece in clear glaze, clean it up, and fire in the gas kiln. The final step is a luster firing, for the band of platinum on the thrown elements.


1. Gather and arrange thrown and handbuilt parts according to a plan.

2. Cut excess clay from the cylinders to achieve the right arcs.

3. Press slabs of clay into textured bisque molds.

4. Create precise cuts using rulers and squares, which helps with both design and relieving pressure on seams as they dry.

5. Finish the edges of the slabs, then join the parts together

6. A flexible shaft drilling tool is used for repetitive, delicate piercing work.

7. Once the piece is dry, remove clay burrs from drilling process using a metal rib or knife.

8. Clean the edges and surfaces before the piece completely dries, then bisque fire.



For more interesting handbuilding techniques, download your free copy of
Five Great Handbuilding Techniques: Variations on Classic Techniques for Making Contemporary Handbuilt Pottery.



  • Karen B.

    I love your work, thanks for sharing it with us – I am a ‘neat freak’ and love precise angles and clean joins. Like Darlene M, I would be interested to know if you are scoring and slipping. Would also like to know what type of ‘flexible shaft drilling tool’ is used for the holes – assuming it’s not eg a Dremel?

  • Kathleen H.

    He uses Southern Ice…Beautiful porcelain work, too!

  • Allan M.

    does it have a closed bottom?, or is bottom as *uneven as top*?
    like to see a finished glazed, whatever it is called.
    Gives me some inspirational project to further develop.

  • Darlene M.

    NICE stuff! I love all the curves and angles. What Porcelain is that?
    “I was a mathematics major in college, and still enjoy the nerdy satisfaction of working precisely with rulers and squares to ensure angles are correct (figure 4), which actually relieves pressure from the porcelain when it dries and is fired to cone 11 in reduction.”
    Soooo- can you explain, for dummies, the relief of pressure concept? Can I correctly assume you are using score and slip at joining lines? And are you using added coils for more support or managing without to keep the lines so clean and the curves and angles precise?

  • Carolynn B.

    Interesting! But I’d rather see an image of the finished piece (the one described ) than hear about how many holes were drilled. Thanks, though. It’s good to see others’ approaches.

  • Subscriber Y.

    Love your work Bryan! Nice explanation of technique.

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