Handbuilding oval serving trays with patterns or textures that fit your style of work is an easy way to expand the types of forms you make, or just give you more options when serving food to family and friends.
Start by rolling out an oval slab slightly larger than the final form you want to make. Try to keep it as uniform as you can so you don’t have to trim too much extra clay away to perfect the oval form. Use a template to create the oval, or just cut the shape out freehand. Smooth over any cut edges using a damp sponge. Position a piece of wood on the center of the oval that’s about the size you want the bottom of the tray to be, and place cut out textures on either side (I use strips of textured rubber designed for non-skid flooring). The textured mats are placed equidistant from the outside edge of the center wood piece (figure 1) so they will create a symmetrical pattern on the walls of the tray. If you prefer a more asymmetrical design, patterns and textures can be placed more randomly.
Lift off the wood piece (you’ll replace it later, this placement was just to get the textures in the right spots) and use a rolling pin to press the rubber texture into the clay. Use thickness guides/boards on the outside edge to keep the slab uniform while you press the texture into the surface. Remove the rubber mats to expose the patterns.
Now position the piece of wood back in the center of the oval. Make sure the wood piece is straight and has clean, smooth, sanded edges. You’ll use it as a guide and to make a soft defining line between the floor and the walls of the tray. Begin lifting both sides, smoothing them with a sponge where the clay meets the table to achieve a nice square corner (figure 2).
It’s also important to support the center board during this step so that it doesn’t move while you press the clay walls up against it. Support the sides with foam. Now it’s time to put the pattern onto the longer ends, which become the handles for the tray.
Use a variety of textures or even a type of appliqué—whatever design works with your aesthetic and the texture pressed into the walls of the platter. After applying textures to the handle areas, measure in about 1½ to 2 inches from the end and make two cuts along the creases created by the wood (figure 3). Repeat the process on the other end. Smooth and compress the cuts.
Lift both flaps to make a boat shape (figure 4). These handles should be soft; you may need to use additional foam to help support them. Wrap the cut sections still on the table surface around the vertical flap to support the wall for the short sides of the tray. Apply slip to the soft slab, both on the back of the vertical flap and on the front of the triangular-shaped cut edges where the two pieces will be joined. Make sure you clean any excess slip away with a brush (figure 5).
After joining the two flaps, firmly press them together and add a button of clay impressed with a stamp for added strength (figure 6). Curl the flaps down and over the top of this join to create the handle. Tuck the edges out of sight, then smooth the sides and bottom edge of the handle. After the flaps have been attached and smoothed, add another clay button at the base of the handle to terminate the pattern. Clean up all edges, handles, and seams, especially on the outside where the flaps were joined together. After the piece is cleaned, add the foam supports to the sides again.
While you can leave the edges of the tray straight, you can help prevent warping that may occur while the tray is drying or firing by adding scallops to the edges (figure 7).This also adds a decorative element to the entire piece. Because texture has been added to the surface, most of the pieces work out well with a transparent glaze that can be thicker or pool in the recessed areas, further enhancing the pattern.
Glenn Woods runs Pottery Boys Clay Studio in Palm Harbor, Florida and Blue Island, Illinois. See more of his work at www.potteryboys.com