Productive Play: How Playful Experimentation Leads to Fun Pottery Forms!


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Learning to play in the studio can have its rewards, especially when new and unique forms are discovered. As is evident in her work, Chandra DeBuse embraces play in the studio. How else could she create such fun pieces?

In today’s post, an excerpt from the Pottery Making Illustrated archives, she shares the process for making one of her “Treat Servers.” I especially love the ingenious use of craft foam as a template! So smart. Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

PS. The more treats the merrier! For a bonus treat project, check out Deb Schwartzkopf’s video demonstration of one of her sweeeeet dessert bowls in the CAD archives!


 Using Craft Foam for Templates Results in Fun Forms!

by Chandra DeBuse

Start with an image that you would like to translate into a clay form—mine is a treat server with two tiers showing a visual narrative space. Compose the drawing on a large piece of sketchbook paper, envisioning the outer edge of the drawing as the interior contour of the server’s bottom dish.

Tip: Take care not to design any sharp V-cuts that could weaken the clay or encourage cracking.

Measuring out from the inner edge, mark the drawing of the bottom dish with a 2-inch wide rim to establish the bottom dish’s exterior. The interior rim line also serves as the outer edge of the smaller dish for the upper level of the server. Repeat the process, measuring in from the second line to the desired rim thickness for the upper dish and drawing the outline. Use scissors to cut out these concentric cloud-shaped frames. Trace the paper cutouts with a medium-tip indelible marker onto a 10×18-inch sheet of 2 mm-thick craft foam. Cut out the exterior frame with scissors. Use a craft knife to pierce the interior shapes before cutting, taking care to not cut into the frames. You now have your templates for building the clay dishes (figure 1). Mark the sides with an A and B on the front and back of the templates for each server, to ensure they match up later where using them.

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A smooth, plastic clay with a light color is ideal for this process. Roll out a 3⁄8-inch-thick slab and compress both sides with a rib. Because you will be stretching the slab, the 3⁄8 inch thickness allows for stability. Position the craft foam templates on top of the slab and secure them by running a finger along the edge. Cut the clay around only the outside edge of the templates (figure 2). After cutting, pick up the slab with the template attached and flip it over onto a piece of foam. If the template slips out of alignment with the clay, just re-position it before beginning the next step. Push the clay slab down into the foam with a soft pouncing pad (a small, fabric, sand-filled bag), supporting the structure from the outside edges with your other hand (figure 3). As you pounce, the craft-foam template shapes and supports the outside walls, causing them to spring upright. Once the tray takes shape, use the pad of your middle finger to apply smooth pressure, defining the interior wall of the dish (figure 4). Once you have shaped both large and small dishes, set them aside to slightly stiffen to a soft leather-hard stage.


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I use my paper sketches to design puffy, decorative attachments for the server’s rims—one is a paisley shape and the other is a C-shape (figure 5). The paisley shape will become the squirrel’s parachute. The C-shape will lend volume to the rim on the top tier. Transfer your designs to the craft foam and cut them out, leaving extra room to create a drop frame (see figure 7). The frame is what is used for the drop mold. Position the drop mold on top of a new soft slab. Flip the whole thing over, and use the pads of your fingers to gently push into the negative space of the drop mold while using your other hand to support the craft foam(figure 6). After you press an even volume into the negative space of the drop mold, flip it over and place it on a board. Press down along the edge of the craft foam, reinforcing the shape of the cutouts (figure 7). Peel off the craft foam. Cut out the shapes by holding the knife at an angle that maximizes the surface area for attachment (figure 8). Attach the shapes to the rims of the dishes by scoring and slipping (figure 9). The craft foam template around the outside of each dish helps to support the walls with the added weight of the attachments.

Remove the templates from the dishes once the clay has stiffened enough to support itself at a medium leather-hard stage. Refine the outside edges of the two dishes and concentrate on compressing the attachments by using a soft rib. Finally, smooth the outside with a slightly dampened sponge.


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Throw a 4-inch cylinder (which will become the stem between the two dishes) and shape it into a gentle hourglass. This flare at the top and bottom of the stem accommodates the weight of the upper dish. To prevent warping, throw the stem on the thick side and allow it to stiffen to leather hard. Position and fit the stem onto the bottom dish and attach by scoring and slipping. Add a reinforcement coil to smooth the stem into the interior wall (figure 10).

Chandra DeBuse is a full-time studio potter living in Kansas City, Missouri. She presents workshops across the nation and enjoys sharing how play, as process, pushes her work forward. See more of her work at http://chandradebuse.com.


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**First published in October 2013

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