Wheel Throwing and Handbuilding to Add Quirky Personality to a Vase

click to enlarge

Nick Ramey started out making high-fire, wheel-thrown pottery, but during graduate school became enamored with handbuilding low-fire earthenware sculptures. After grad school he decided to combine his various new skills and interests to make thrown and altered functional work, but add sculptural details to infuse it with humor.


In today’s post, Nick explains his forming process. To learn about his decorating processes, check out the September/October 2012 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated! – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.




During my time in graduate school, I made the switch from producing wheel-thrown, high-fired functional pottery, to working with low-fire red earthenware to handbuild large-scale figurative sculptures. With this change came a whole new array of possibilities for colors and surfaces that were more difficult to achieve at high temperatures. I am attracted to the bright colors available in commercial underglazes and stains, but feel that they are inherently flat, and lack the depth and sense of life that I was used to with high-fire glazes. To counteract this, I use a multi-step firing process in order to give these low-fire colors more of a high-fire look.


After graduate school, I returned to making pottery, but had to figure out a way to combine the things I enjoy about working on the wheel with my newly acquired handbuilding skills, and infuse it all with humorous narratives. The body of work that I have created with these criteria is broad ranged, and includes a series of lidded containers, casserole dishes, and vases. The pieces all start as round, wheel-thrown forms that are altered into different shapes and finished with a variety of handbuilding techniques. One of my favorite of these forms is the Basket Vase. I love the dramatic contrast between the profile of the front versus the side, and the tension that is created with the handle springing off of, and connecting, the figures.


Throwing and Altering


To create the body, start by throwing a tall cylinder that is open at the bottom. It is important to use a bat when creating this form. This makes it possible to move the piece off of the wheel without messing up the form or any of its details. Based on the proportions, I make light marks on the surface with a needle tool to divide the form into sections (figure 1). Pressing in from the outside using a kidney shaped rib creates the concave contour of each individual section. After defining the contours, use a wooden knife to create a clean line between each section in order to make the individual curves stand out (figure 2), and give the appearance that the piece is comprised of multiple forms stacked on top of one another. The idea is to fool the viewer about exactly how a piece was made, making the process a bit mysterious.



click to enlarge

The next step is altering the form from round to oval. By throwing the cylinder without a bottom, it can easily be transformed into virtually any shape, from oval, to square, to a figure eight. The alterations are done on the wheel immediately after the form is thrown. I start by cleaning up any slip or excess clay that is on the bat, both inside and outside of the cylinder. Then I add a small amount of clean water to the bat and cut the piece off using a wire tool, while the wheel is spinning slowly. This is important with bottomless cylinders; if the wheel is not spinning when the wire is pulled through, one side will cave in and create a flat spot. Next, using a long dowel rod on the inside of the cylinder (figure 3), the piece is reshaped into an oval and fine tuned by hand. Pulling the cylinder from the inside with the dowel and by hand, instead of pushing it from the outside, preserves the lines and details on the outside and maintains the integrity of the oval.



Learn about Nick’s decorating process in the September/October 2012 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated.

Subscribe today!

Your subscription comes with online access to the previous 12 months!




Handbuilding Takes Over


The first step in the handbuilding process is to dart the sides. When the form is stretched into an oval, the narrow sides lose their concave shape. Darting restores that shape without distorting the rest of the form. When the piece is at a soft leather-hard stage, use a needle tool to make football-shaped marks where each individual section will get darted (figure 4). These pieces are cut out with a fettling knife and the sides are attached together after scoring and applying slip to the cut edges (figures 5 and 6). The same steps are repeated for the opposite side.


The next step in the process is attaching a bottom. Start by rolling out a ¼-inch to 1⁄3-inch thick slab, slightly larger than the bottom of the piece. After marking the placement of the body on the slab, score and slip both pieces and attach (figure 7). Cut the excess slab off with a sharp fettling knife, leaving a 1⁄8-inch strip all the way around, which is rounded out both while the piece is right side up, then again after it is flipped over onto a piece of foam. This strip acts as a foot ring (figure 8). A rubber-tipped detail tool works well to clean up the line where the walls and bottom are attached. When altering the foot, I first decide on the spacing of the marks to create an undulating foot. Using a large dowel rod, I give the bottom of the piece one good whack in each spot (figure 9) and smooth it out using a mini (pony) roller (figure 10).

Once body of the piece is complete, make the handle. At this point, I also make the figures that will attach the handle to the piece. The handle starts with a coil that’s about 6 to 8 inches long, 1 inch in diameter in the middle, and 1½ inches in diameter at the ends. The coil is pulled out into a handle from alternating ends to the desired length and width, then draped over a small bucket or paint can until it sets up to medium leather hard so it will maintain its shape when attaching it to the piece (figure 11).



click to enlarge

While the handle is setting up, I work on press molding the figures. The monkey boy on this piece comes from two different commercial slip-casting molds, the head from one and the body from another. Press molding the figures rather than slip casting them allows for imperfections, such as creases, folds, and stretch marks, which give more character to the finished piece. Clay is pressed directly into each half of both molds, so the walls are approximately 1⁄8 inch thick. The halves are then scored and slipped and pressed firmly together (figure 12). Next, after removing the pieces from the molds and attaching the heads to the bodies, I let the figures rest, so all of the joints can even out in moisture content before attaching them to the body of the vase (figure 13)


Once everything is at the same medium leather-hard stage, I attach the figures to the vase, and the handle to the figures (figure 14). Rolling a cake decorating wheel across the surface adds stitch marks that help separate the sections (figure 15) and reinforce the perception that the piece is made of multiple pieces stacked on top of one another. For the last step, before letting the piece dry, I take a few minutes to clean up all of the lines in both the vase and the figures with the rubber-tipped tool. The piece is then dried slowly, using a sheet of plastic as a tent over the handle. After the piece is bone dry, I bisque fire it to cone 06. At this temperature, the fired clay is still porous and takes the underglaze well.


Nick Ramey is currently an artist in residence at Baltimore Clayworks in Baltimore, Maryland. He received a BFA from Indiana University and an MFA from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. To see more of his work, visit http://nickrameyceramics.com.



For more interesting handbuilding techniques, download your free copy of Five Great Handbuilding Techniques: Variations on Classic Techniques for Making Contemporary Handbuilt Pottery.




Comments are closed.

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