Great Idea for Teachers: A Simple Lesson Plan for Slab-Built Plates with Textured and Stenciled Decoration

A Fun, Simple, and Inexpensive Ceramic Lesson Plan

slab-built platesWe get a lot of inquiries at Ceramic Arts Network from teachers looking for grade-school assignments that can work with a variety of ages. In this post, I have presented an example in which Amanda Wilton-Green explains a cool, simple slab building project that could really be adapted for any grade from kindergarten through high school. What’s more, you don’t have to have a lot of expensive materials to do it—a huge bonus with a tight budget! – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

Making a set of ceramic plates (or casserole dish) can be fun for the beginner, but is also easily adapted for the more-experienced student. This project presents a direct and fresh slab-forming approach resulting in plates that become great canvases for surface decoration. Materials are simple, inexpensive and readily available.

Five Great Handbuilding Techniques and Tools

Pick up variations on classic handbuilding techniques when you download this freebieFive Great Handbuilding Techniques and Tools.


After only a few hours of work, you can learn how to roll out a good, even slab, and can experience different stages of plastic clay and what the clay is capable of at each stage. You become familiar with simple slump molds and start to consider the form and function of your work. Most importantly, you learn how to handle clay in a direct and intentional way.

These plates become a wonderful surface for finishing, embellishing and glazing. I have expanded this project to include experiments with paper stencils and slip decoration, but that’s just the beginning. Try underglaze design work and glazing methods with this project as well. When the project is completed, you’ll have a set of plates to use in your home or to give as gifts.

Equipment and Tools

  • Large rolling pin
  • Cut-off wire
  • Sponge
  • 25 lbs of clay with sand or grog to reduce warping
  • Fettling knife or needle tool
  • Chinet® paper plates.

Note: Chinet® plates do not have a plastic coating
and absorb moisture from the clay. Avoid coated and plastic plates.

Getting Started

slab-built plates

Fig.1 Using a Chinet plate as a template, cut circles in the slab.

Roll out a slab to a desired thickness of ¼ to ½ inch. When rolling out a slab, start by throwing it across the table in different directions until it is somewhere close to 3 inches thick. Use a slab roller or a rolling pin to continue rolling the slab to the desired thickness, taking care not to roll over the edges. Roll two or three times on one side. If you’re working on canvas, you’ll notice that the clay stops stretching after the first few times because the clay holds onto the texture of the canvas. Carefully lift the slab creating as much surface area with your hand as possible, and leave the slab to stiffen to a soft leather-hard stage. The clay needs to be able to bend without cracking, but you don’t want fingerprints to show as you manipulate your clay.

slab-built plates

Fig.2 Remove excess clay from the rim.

Choose the size of your plate. Chinet® brand has dinner, salad and dessert-sized plates as well as an oval platter. Place the plate upside down to use as a template for cutting the slab (figure 1). As you cut, keep your needle tool or fettling knife perpendicular to your work surface to create a square rim.

Remove excess clay and smooth out the rims. Slide your finger across the edge of the rim with firm and consistent pressure (figure 2). The sharp corner of the rim softens without flattening the edge. A damp sponge, chamois or a small piece of a produce bag also works. Stamp or sign the underside.

Forming Plates

slab-built plates

Flip the slab over and place it in the plate.

Flip the clay slab, smooth the top edge then place it into the paper plate, lining up the edges (figure 3). Experiment with pressing the clay into the paper plate with your hands or sandwiching your clay between two plates (figure 4). The clay will have a different character depending on your chosen method.


slab-built plates

Fig.4 Press the clay with your hands or press with another plate.

Allow the plates to dry to a firm leather-hard stage in the bottom paper plate. Remove the clay from the mold to check to see if the plates stack nicely and sit on a flat surface without rocking. Take a moment to look closely at the rim of each plate to do any final shaping they might need.

Decorating Plates

slab-built plates

Fig.5 Decorate using any method such as this stencil technique for example.

These plates are adaptable to all sorts of decorative techniques at the leather-hard, greenware and bisque stages. The flat surface lends itself to painterly and expressive underglaze or glaze work. These slab plates are simple enough for very young students and satisfying for the adult student.

Slip decoration gives dimension to the plates and students draw on their own creative design ideas for the work. Textured dessert plates with slip inlay use found and inexpensive materials to create a design and a slip in contrasting color to further highlight the design. Paper stencils used with decorative slip can make bold, graphic borders or motifs for your set of plates (figure 5). With a little experimentation and practice, you’ll come up with wonderful results.

Making Sets

When you handbuild a set of plates, every artist approaches each plate with a slightly different perspective. The experience of making the first plate, bowl, mug or tile influences the next, as do things as simple as body position and energy levels. We’re thoughtful and inconsistent creatures and we can use these characteristics to great benefit when done so with intention.

A set of plates can be tied together with a theme, color, position of image, size or concept. Because we’re used to seeing sets coming from a factory, the default definition in our minds can be limited to identical objects.

**First published in 2010.
  • Nathalie B.

    @Cathy Newman id the clay cracks in the drying period, either the clay is not evenly rolled when the plate is thinner in the middle than on the sides you will get a difference in the shrinking of the clay (the middle will dry faster than the sides) and the clay can crack. Or you did not role it enough in different directions than it can crack. Or maybe it got stuck in the mold…if it can’t move during shrinking it can crack too. Hope next time you will have plates that don’t crack. Kind regards Nathalie

  • I have tried this and a few of the plates have cracked in the middle section. Any suggestions on how avoid this?

  • i think i will try this with my high school ceramics students. I have such a “foot fetish”, i will ask them to add a coil of slab ring to the bottom. any ideas/inspiration i should give them?

  • Robert H.

    i’m going to share this idea with my International School art colleagues in GUANGZHOU, China, thank, jaci stucker

  • Marybeth K.

    Amazing that the plates don’t warp without plastic over them. Can’t wait to try it. thanks.

  • Gene T.

    I have used this technique successfully. To get stencils that last, I photocopied my images onto an overhead transparency and then cut out the design. A light misting of water on the backside stick’s it to the clay. I use gentle pressure around the edges when applying the underglaze colours. If you have a more experienced class, then you can make a couple of copies, and using an Exacto knife, cut out different areas of the design. This way you can build up multiple layers of colour. Work from the biggest colour area to the smallest. After bisque firing the piece, cover with a clear or transparent glaze and fire to glaze maturity.

  • María Kr. O.

    Great idea for a teacher to work on with students – one to take with me in the classroom.

  • María Kr. O.

    Great idea for a teacher to work on with students – one to take with me in the classroom.

  • Carole F.

    A fast and easy way to create a decorating surface! How often we balk at “messing” up our clay “creations” especially in the beginning. Also a great way to test ideas.

  • Judy C.

    At Space Studios, we routinely use this project for students of all ages (4-89!), but haven’t tried the stencil design yet. Thanks for the great ideas!


  • Karen J.

    So great, I just discovered the website, but I think I ‘m going to try this Idea Tomorrow.
    Once again, great websites!! Love it !!!


    Sono un insegnante ed ho appezzato molto questo lavoro. Nel prosssimo anno scolastico lo proporrò ai miei alunni. Grazie

  • Myriam G.

    Please continue with the specifics of using underglaze and any other surface decoration after the plates have been bisque fired.

    Also,suggestions for what final food safe glaze to use for either matt or gloss finish.

    Are the finished plates dishwasher safe?


  • I just did this project with a kids class today (before seeing the email) I remembered the article from when it was in PMI. I had kids from 4-13, and they were all able to make presentable plates. Great project!


  • Cheryl A.

    Hi Irene:

    Whether you can put anything you make out of clay (doesn’t matter whether it is a plate or not) in a dishwasher depends on what clay you used, how you fired it, and how you finished the surface.

    To be able to put your ceramic item in the dishwasher: You need to glaze it– use a product where the label says it’s a glaze, not an underglaze or stain. And you need to coat the whole top surface (the surface you eat on) with the glaze to seal the ceramic surface. Then you need to fire it in a kiln to the recommended firing temperature.

    You can use the technique described in the article above by stenciling the design onto greenware (totally unfired pottery) or bisqueware (pottery that has undegone a firing to harden it enough to drive out the water and make it harder and easier to not break when you handle it). You can use underglaze or stain for the stencil, then apply a coat of clear glaze over it. Or you can apply a colored glaze and after it has dried, stencil on your design using another color of glaze, or a stain.

    Note that different clays shrink different amounts when they are fired, and they do not all fire to the same temperature. Same thing with glazes.

    You will need to make sure the glaze you choose is formulated to go with the clay you are using. Shrinkage is important. If the clay doesn’t shrink about the same amount as the glaze during firing, you can get glaze flaws (crazing, crawling, etc.) that can make the glaze not fully cover the ceramic. If the glaze doesn’t fire to the same temperature as the clay, you will have problems with either the glaze melting & running off the clay or the glaze won’t fully mature. If you already have your clay, ask the people at a local ceramics supply store to help you pick out a glaze that is likely to work with your clay.

    If you want to do purely ornamental plates to hang on your wall, you can paint clay with just about any kind of paint or surface treatment that works on paper or wood. Acrylic paints are great for this kind of thing, but they don’t stand up well to being washed, and you can’t (or shouldn’t) eat off it.

    Many kinds of Native American pottery, and raku-fired pottery should not go in the dishwasher.

    Hope this helps.


  • I’m new at working with Clay, so I look at Ceramic Arts Daily on a daily basis! My question is, I have some sculpting clay and wanted to know if I made these plates, could i put them in the dishwasher?


  • Christine P.

    Very cool!! Even my 6-7 yr old students can do this… They’re gonna love it!
    Thanks much.

  • Sarah A.

    What a clearly explained and easy project! Great with kids and inexperienced adults alike!

  • Marianne M.

    How much fun and creative can a project be? This is fabulous and, indeed, usable for all levels and ages. Summer fun on a roll! Thanks a million (plates!) Marianne, PA PS: great description of the process.

  • Marianne M.

    How much fun and creative can a project be? This is fabulous and, indeed, usable for all levels and ages. Summer fun on a roll! Thanks a million (plates!) Marianne, PA

  • Mary G.

    Wow…awesome lesson! Anxious to get to the studio and start on plates! Easy and the surface is a perfect canvas. Thank you!
    …Mary, Coos Bay

  • Richard P.

    i haven’t started on any plates yet. i use a similar process for bowls…i have an old computer speaker shell[google jbl creature speaker] as a hump mold[shop. bag as the release]…re-purposing picture frames for rectilinear polygon; plates/platters should work well, too…this plate-making process has me going shopping for paper plates now…thanks!!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Enter Your Log In Credentials
This setting should only be used on your home or work computer.

Larger version of the image
Send this to a friend