Finding a Niche: Using Plaster Sprig Molds to Make Clay Nichos

Day of the Dead Nicho, 12 in. (30 cm) earthenware with assorted underglazes.

Day of the Dead Nicho, 12 in. (30 cm) earthenware with assorted underglazes.

Nichos are Latin American folk art objects traditionally used to honor a patron saint or deceased loved one. Often they are made with mixed media, but they can also be made out of clay.


Lately, potter Tracy Gamble has been working on a series of ceramic Nichos and discovered that commercial sprig molds are perfect for embellishing them. In today’s post, Bill Jones explains Tracy’s process.


I particularly thought of all the teachers out there when I saw this project, not only because it is accessible and fun, but because of how nicely it could combine with a social studies or history lesson. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.






Fig. 1 Using a sprigs from a Day of the Dead mold from Amaco, Tracy adds details and texture.

Fig. 1 Using a sprig from a Day of the Dead mold from Amaco, Tracy adds details and texture.


Sprig molds provide a way to quickly add detailed design elements to a piece without sculpting each piece from scratch. And because the clay is still quite malleable when they’re applied, each element takes on a unique quality as it’s handled.


Tracy Gamble is currently working on a series of ‘nichos’. Nichos have their origins in Latin America and originally served as shrines, protection, or devotional objects. Traditionally, they held images of the Virgin Mary but contemporary subject matter is more non-traditional and can range from secular content to the humorous.


After bisque firing, Tracy applies glaze to a Mimbres-themed nicho.

After bisque firing, Tracy applies glaze to a Mimbres-themed nicho.


Nichos are traditionally made from easy-to-find materials such as tin, wood or even cigar boxes decorated with ornate borders, sequins, glitter, chain, rope, paper mache and bric-a-brac.


Tracy recognized the potential of capturing these qualities in clay and looked to using sprig molds to achieve the right amount of ornateness she sought. Sprig molds can be made from bisqued clay but are typically made from plaster with several designs grouped on a single mold. For content, you can find most anything from whimsical animals, leaves and decorative elements, to more sophisticated cultural motifs. Most ceramic supply companies sell sprig molds made by a handful of manufacturers, such as Amaco, Creative Paradise, and Mayco.


Mimbres Nicho, 9 in (23 cm) earthenware, white opaque matte glaze and a single coat of gloss black painted on top.

Using sprig molds is simple. Take a ball or coil of clay, depending on the overall shape you’re going to create, and press it into the mold. Immediately scrape off any excess with a rubber rib.


Note: Do not use metal ribs with plaster molds as they may scrape plaster off the mold and into your clay.


Allow the clay to remain in the mold for a few minutes as the surface water is absorbed by the plaster, then use a needle tool to carefully lift it out. Score and slip the sprig to your piece.


While Tracy has chosen the nicho to try out different motifs and themes, you can also consider taking one motif and using it across many forms. As you can tell, there are no limits to the possibilities of decorating with sprigs.





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  • Ann B.

    I love your work! I have an awful lot of trouble trying to sprig. Mine always raise from the piece. Any hints?

  • Monica C.

    Love ya, Kathy: a lesson in open-mindedness and tolerance I’m sure is much needed in our benighted species. If no-one had ever voiced any opinions for fear of treading on sensitive toes, humanity would never have evolved beyond nut-cracking.

  • Katherine B.

    This is my first post and I just want to say I find this aside information very interesting and thought provoking. Love the clay tips, but think people should be open to different ideas and not just avoid the subjects that may cause differing views. I love this

  • Paula L.

    think they are a great idea, i have never heard of a nichos before ( only nachos and those are great to eat!!) as for all the stress that goes into explaining it i guess best never get involved in religion anything else………coming from south africa we have to tread lightly.. ha ha… happy potting stick to pottery

  • Monica C.

    No, Linda, I didn’t mean your question. I was referring to my really stupid rant of 4th May.

  • Linda S.

    Monica- First of all what “sort of went beyond anything expected”, do you mean my question? Secondly- Even so? Thank You for your response to my post.

  • Monica C.

    This sort of went beyond anything expected, but Linda, I suggest you first make sure your plaster moulds are really dry (you might pop them into the kitchen oven on minimum for a while because they’ve probably collected a good deal of moisture over the years). Then, before pressing clay into them, sprinkle them with cornstarch, an excellent release agent that burns off in firing. And a sprig mould is a little mould used for adding bas relief details (such as floral wreaths) to otherwise smooth pieces.

  • Linda S.

    Sorry for being an air head but what exactly is a aprig mold. Sounds interesting and I have a lot of plaster molds that I haven’t used in ages. So I’d love to find a use for them is possible. Just not quite sure I understand the method. I have tried pressing clay into parts of my molds but cannot get them out without tearing the up. Any suggestions appreciated. Linda

  • Barbara M W.

    Wow, so every person’s interpretation of the written word, even in the ‘same’ language, IS unique. The objective lesson re. using sprigg molds to pots, slabs et al is a great one to pass around. How about s/one who can present own mold making in an understandable form for one whose brain will not allow her to ‘see’ what will come out of plaster and so produce a mold!!
    negative, positive brain deader, Babs

  • Sandi F.

    Wow, a lesson in sprig moulding, history, religion, political correctness …We’ve got to take our caps off to Ceramic Arts Daily because we all learn something new every day!

  • Monica C.

    Right,no insult intended. And I certainly didn’t mean that the Pentecostal church is necessarily ‘backwoods’, but that the particular church advertised as five-ribbed was indeed situated in a remote area of the beautiful southern Indiana woods.

    I didn’t know the nichos were actually of Islamic origin, which makes them even more syncretic than I expected. Here in northern Argentina we have something which I think is distantly related: ‘ermitas’, which are small temple-shaped constructions built at roadsides to commemorate people who have died in traffic accidents at those points.

  • Patricia J.

    I am trying to renew my sub. What does cvvcid mean it is stopping me from renewing on line a

  • Lucille O.

    To Ann,
    The sprigs that Tracy is using are rather thick. This type of sprig can be scored on the back and slip applied of course score the area where they are to be placed and apply slip there also. Be sure the clays are at the same moisture content. Attach the sprigs with a little firm push down wiggle motion the same action can be used for knobs, handes and lug feet. If you are applying thin sprigs like is found on Wedgwood ware, a good narrow bristle brush can lightly score and add a little slip at the same time. A good soft brush can be used to clean the edgings.

  • Lucille O.

    Monica I don’t think an insult was intended. Nichos are in fact not of Spanish origin at all but Islamic. They go back in Spanish history to the Islamic occupation of Spain and followed across the sea to the Americas. The Mihrab or prayer wall is still used today to denote the location toward Mecca.
    And by the way, ‘Pentacostals’ are not ‘backwoods’ they are in love the Lord Jesus Christ and the work that he has given us to do. But I am sure you meant no insult, God bless you.

  • Cheryl A.

    Hi Monica,

    Ok. I’ll take the bait. When she catgorized “nichos” as “latin american,” it never occurred to me that anyone would think ALL latin americans would own nichos.

    Mexico is part of Latin America. That would make anything Mexican also be part of the broader category “Latin American.”

    I don’t know which North Americans you have been talking to (apparently some real morons), but most North Americans do not think all Latin Americans are Mexican.


  • Susan D.

    Monica, I’m sorry you’re hurt…it’s just pottery, not a political statement. I’m Sicilian…ever heard the term “WOP”? Just a term…ignorance of those of us “without papers”. Pottery…terminology…growth…evolution….not personal, just pottery.

  • Carolyn L.

    Monica, chill.

  • Monica C.

    I usually really love Ceramic Arts Daily, with all your useful information and helpful video clips. But today I’m somewhat ticked off! Calling ‘nichos’ Latin American art is no better than calling Cokena ‘American religious beliefs’. Mexico is no more Latin America than Manhattan is North America. But this confusion of Mexico with Latin America regrettably goes further than merely geographic error: it illustrates general US ignorance and total disregard for the great cultural diversity of the Americas, and contributes to stoking the fires of anti-US sentiment in your continental neighbours. Wise up, CAD, or one of these days we in Latin America will retaliate by lumping all US citizens in some backwoods ‘Pentacostal’ (five ribbed) church, the adversitment for which so amused me 40 years ago in Indiana!

  • Lynne N.

    This article is a classic example of why we should keep looking at each other’s work. Sometimes someone else’s idea inspires us – not to copy their work , but by giving us something to build on for ideas of our own. Your wonderful nicho article has filled my head with images not of nichos, but of elaborate house frontages to hang on the wall. Thanks for this – I’m off to fill a few pages in my sketchbook!

  • Catherine C.

    I use sprigs a lot and the most important thing is that the piece you are applying the sprig to must not be too dry, but rather soft leatherhard.

  • Viva J.

    You might also look at Halldar Hjarlmarson and his sprigs. He also has a book out, “Old Dog, New Tricks”

  • BETH W.

    Cover the piece for a couple days very tightly. It will give the two clay pieces time to equalize. Make sure there is no air between the clay pieces.

  • Lisa C.

    i heart tracey gamble.

  • Brent S.

    Ann, you might try Magic Water or slip with a little vinegar mixed into it.

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