Drawing in Space: How to Handbuild an Expressive Teapot Set Using Soft Slabs

Margaret Bohls' soft-slab-built porcelain teapot set.

Handbuilding can be thought of as a very basic ceramic technique, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used to create very sophisticated forms. Many artists are using handbuilding techniques to create elegant, polished work. Margaret Bohls is one of those artists. She takes handbuilding beyond the basics to make her pillowy functional pots. The emphasis is on interior volume and Margaret finds the best way to achieve the look she wants is by using soft slabs. And lucky for us, she is happy to share her techniques! Get ready to be inspired! – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.



Process is a primary source of inspiration for me. A sense of inventive play while folding, cutting, and assembling clay slabs provides a stream of new information with which to work. My soft slab work is made simply and assembled relatively quickly, giving it a soft, casual simplicity. For me, each pot is like a three-dimensional gesture drawing. Each form is defined by the edges of the slabs from which it was created. These edges or lines create a drawing in space that defines each form. When making each piece, I’m conscious of the quality of each of these lines defined by its weight and direction. The form language is simple, and soft, satin and matte glazes allow one to see and feel the quiet nuances of shape and shadow.



Prepping the Slabs


I use porcelain slabs rolled out using a slab roller. Rather than canvas, I use SlabMat (www.slabmat.com), a dense smooth paper that doesn’t leave a texture. I sandwich my clay between two pieces cut to fit my slab roller, one for above and one for below the clay.


After rolling the slabs and compressing them with a large plastic rib to align the clay particles, I allow most of them to stiffen slightly, flipping them occasionally, until they are about halfway between wet and leather hard. I save one wet slab for making the handle and spout. The slabs range from about 1/8 to 3/16 of an inch — thicker for the main volume and thinner for the spout and handle.


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Building the Teapot Body


Begin by creating the main body of the pot, which consists of a darted cylinder and a bottom slab. First, cut a rectangular shape from the thicker slab. The length of the rectangle will be the circumference of the body; the width will be the height. Since the edges of the slabs are an important visual element of the finished piece, carefully smooth and compress each edge with your finger, thinning it slightly and softening it.


Rather than beveling edges, use the small end of a pony roller to further thin the edges to be joined. They will overlap so that the edge of the slab will remain visible. Score and slip the edges to be joined and assemble the cylinder, carefully pressing the edges together first with your finger from the outside, and then with a small curved rib on the inside of the seam. To create a sense of volume and to soften the silhouette of the shape, roll the bottom edge of the cylinder on the tabletop (as shown at left), pushing the bottom edge in and under, and then gently drop or tap the form onto the table once or twice, making it slouch a little.



To close the top, cut four darts (as shown at left). Rather than measuring, simply cut out one dart and use it as a pattern for the other three. The depth and width of the darts can vary; however, the resulting opening should be roughly the size needed for the neck of the pot.
The edges of these darts are also thinned and smoothed, then scored and slipped, overlapped and pressed together (as shown at left).


Cut the bottom from a slab that is just a little thicker than the slab used for the walls. Loosely trace the bottom, cutting a soft rectangular shape to wrap up over the bottom of the cylinder, softening and thinning the edges as with the first slab. Wait a bit to join these two parts.


Creating the Spout


The pattern for the spout resembles a whale tail (as shown at left). This shape creates a spout that has a bulb at the bottom and a soft outward curve. The spout is cut from a fresh, soft slab, thinner than that used for the main cylinder. Once the spout is cut out, thin the narrow end of it further using a pony roller, so that the slab is thicker where it will attach to the body of the pot and thinner where the liquid will pour out.


Thin and smooth the edges, score and slip them, then gently curve the spout into a cylinder (as shown at left) and tack together the larger end. Hold the spout upside down and run your thumb down the inside along the length of it. This helps to emphasize the outward curve of the finished spout.


Set the spout down on the table and gently overlap and join the edges, starting at the bottom and working your way up to the top. Use your thumb again to push out the bottom end of the spout from the inside, making it fuller and more bulbous. Using your fingers, pinch the bottom edge inward, and then gently tap the bottom of the spout on the table as you did with the main volume, making it soften and slouch slightly.


Rolling a Slab Handle


Make the handle from a rolled up slab that’s then flattened o
n one side. Begin with a very soft slab cut into a trapezoid (as shown at left). Thin and soften the edges. Be careful to rib the outer surface well to help prevent cracking. Coat the inside surface with a thin layer of slip and fold the very edge over with your fingertips making sure not to trap air, then roll it up the rest of the way using the flats of your fingers in one smooth motion.


Once you have this round roll, flatten it on one side and stretch it out by slapping it on the table (as shown at left), pulling it toward yourself as it comes down, in the way one would stretch a slab.
Bevel the wide end and cut the handle to the appropriate length. Bend the handle into shape and set it aside (figure 8).

Making the Neck and Lid


The lid of this teapot is a cap type lid that sits down over a neck that projects up from the mouth of the teapot body. This is a very snug lid, since you can make the neck and the flange of the lid at the same time. To ensure that the lid fits well, keep the two parts together as much as possible throughout the drying and firing process.


For aesthetic reasons, the neck is made similarly to the handle. Cut a long soft rectangle of clay, soften the edges, rib the outer surface, and slip the inner surface. The strip is rolled up lengthways and flattened. This time, hold both ends of the piece while you slap it onto the table. This ensures that the piece remains consistently thick rather than becoming tapered. Curve this flattened strip into a ring that’s the same size, or slightly larger than the opening at the top of the teapot body. Then bevel the ends of the strip and score and slip them together.


Cut the flange of the lid from a slightly stiffer slab. When made into a ring, the flange should be slightly taller than the neck of the pot. Smooth the bottom edge and wrap the flange strip around the neck ring. The two should fit snugly together. Note: Make the inner ring from slightly softer clay, so it shrinks a little more than the outer ring. The ends of the flange strip are thinned and softened, scored and slipped together. Make sure that the two rings still fit together.


Finally, make the top of the lid from four overlapping triangles. This creates a visual continuity between the darted shoulder of the teapot and the lid that sits on top of it. To make the four triangles, first cut a rounded rectangle of clay, slightly larger than the flange you have already made (as shown above left).



Cut the rectangle from corner to corner in an X, making four triangles. Then turn the rectangle slightly and cut a second X, removing the clay between each triangle (as shown at left).
Smooth and thin the edges of the triangles, then score and slip them together, with each triangle slightly overlapping the one before it (as shown at left). Once those seams have been allowed to cure a little, dome the top of the lid slightly by pushing out from the inside with your fingers or a small, curved plastic rib.



Teapot body


Now that all of the separate parts have been made, they’re ready to be assembled. It’s best if all of the parts are at a soft leather hard stage. Note: Especially when using porcelain, avoid joining soft clay to stiff clay.


Begin by attaching the bottom slab to the cylinder. Score and slip the bottom edge of the darted cylinder to make a print on the bottom slab (as shown at left). This mark tells you where to score, and helps to avoid creating superfluous score marks.


Score the slab just on the printed slip ring, then apply slip. Press the darted cylinder firmly onto the slab. Lifting the piece in one hand, use the thumb of your other hand to press and smooth the edge of the slab up over the bottom edge of the cylinder. The edge of the bottom slab is stretched and thinned slightly in this process. Go over this seam with a damp sponge to ensure that it’s truly joined all the way around. Use your fingers or a damp sponge to press the seam together on the inside of the pot as well.


To add the neck, first trim a small amount off the edge of the top opening and score and slip that flat edge and the bottom of the neck-ring. The two are pushed firmly together and the seam is smoothed slightly on the outside using a sponge. Join the seam more thoroughly on the inside using a round wooden tool to smooth around the inside of the joint.


Spout and handle


First score and slip the bottom edge of the spout and press it against the pot to make a print. Cut a hole just inside the printed slip ring. Smooth and thin the edge of the hole, score and slip, and press the spout around the hole. Now score and slip the handle onto the other side of the pot (as shown at left). To score critical areas like the handle joint, I use a scoring tool that creates deeper scoring than the serrated rib.




To join the two parts of the lid, first place the flange ring over the neck ring, already joined to the pot. Dust the surface of the neck ring with corn starch first so that the two parts do not stick together. The top edge of the flange ring should stick up higher than the neck. Slightly bevel the outer edge at the same time so that it is flush with the slanting angle of the inside of the lid. Score and slip the inside top of the lid and press it down onto the flange. Lift the entire lid off of the pot. This process helps to ensure that the flange does not warp and the lid fits snugly.


Compress the seams of the lid inside and out using a round wooden tool (as shown at left), then clean them up. Thin, smooth, and shape the edges of the lid. Sometimes it’s necessary to smooth a soft, thin coil into the joint between the flange and the top of the lid on the inside. After dusting both the neck of the pot and the inside of the lid
with corn starch, place the lid back onto the pot and gently re-shape it to exactly fit the neck.


Finishing Touches


As a handle for the lid, make another tiny, rolled, flattened slab, then bend and attach it to the peak of the lid. For the spout to pour well, it needs to have a sharp edge. Once the end of the spout is quite hard, but not yet bone dry, trim off the very end of the spout at an appropriate length and angle. Use a sponge to smooth and soften the outside of the spout tip, then ream out the inside of it with a very sharp knife, being sure to leave a sharp interior edge, which will help prevent drips (as shown at left).


Wrap the finished pot in plastic and allow it to sit overnight before allowing it to dry completely. Lift the lid once or twice during the drying process to make certain it isn’t sticking.



To learn more about Margaret Bohls, or see more images of her work, please visit www.margaretbohls.com.
  • clarissa p.

    I’m new to ceramics, this is breathtaking.

  • I am one of Margaret’s students and love to see this set. Margaret was my best mentor and helped me find my own touch with clay. Love you Margaret! Went on to get MFA and am getting back into studio and this will be my first exercise. Black and white how elegant. She has a wonderful teaching style if you can take a workshop with her!
    I recommend it!
    After all these years still my favorite ceramic artist, teacher and friend.

    Kate morgan

  • Glad to read the above . I trained at a potter in Yokohama. Fun to use the tecnique now when my back is troubling me! Thank you so much for reviving my memeries of Japan.

  • An amazingly clearly explained method for such a beautiful piece of art.
    You are a special teacher. Thanks so much.

  • Scott M.

    I believe that hand building and throwing from a wheel are equally challenging. I mainly use the wheel but am just starting to dabble with hand building. I appreciate the great clarity of the writing style: it is rare. Thanks much!

  • Cynthia D.

    Thanks Margaret! My ceramic class undertook this ambitious project in the fall. It took two weeks, but the results amazed ALL of us!

  • Thanks for sharing with everyone, it’s good to see clay being so beautifully handled .

  • Thank you for sharing your beautifully creative ideas for the tea set.
    Your detailed explanations make it very easy to understand. I have made teapots with flanges inside or outside. They need to be long enough to avoid slipping off when pouring. Linda

  • Very nice, but I do agree with Michaela – with a teapot the flange ring should really fit on the inside not outside.

  • Crista N.

    Would be cute with some added feet!!

  • I am a hand builder. This teapot is extraordinary. I love the lines, the movement, etc. The instructios are straight forward and easy to follow. Thank you for a wonderful lesson. jaci

  • Michaela V.

    .. a very nice and clean design, thanks for the instructons.
    my Q: isn’t hot water dripping from the lid – as the flange ring goes over the neck ring of the pot?

  • beautiful, original and unique. thanks for sharing. adi

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