Make a Great Impression with Slab-built Ceramic Wall Art

Ceramic wall art is the perfect way to deck the walls!

ceramic wall art

Ceramic wall art is a wonderful way to explore your creativity with clay. Where do you find inspiration for your art? For some it is in nature. For some inspiration lies in the work of a favorite artist. For others, it can be found in their friends or family. But inspiration doesn’t always have to come from things traditionally thought of as beautiful or profound. As ceramic artist David Gamble demonstrates, mundane objects can serve as inspiration too. All you have to do is look around with an open mind.

Today, we’ll show you how David turned manhole covers and sewer grates into handmade ceramic wall art. Plus, if you’ve ever wanted to know how to mount ceramic wall art, David shares a great method. Enjoy! –Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

Inspiration for Ceramic Wall Art

Artists often look for hidden compositions existing in the mundane, ordinary and commonplace objects of everyday life. When ceramic artist David Gamble looks at manhole covers and grates, he sees pattern, line and low-relief opportunities for terra-cotta ceramic wall art. The process of lifting/pulling a relief from a textured surface is an image transfer technique. It’s very similar to making a charcoal rubbing except you substitute clay for paper. David uses AMACO’s terra-cotta clay no. 77, a heavily grogged clay. The grog opens up the clay body and promotes even drying, which keeps his wall pieces flat during the drying and firing process. He also enjoys the rich, dark-red color of the terra cotta after it is fired to Cone 03, and the contrast it provides for his gold luster glazes.

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Ceramic Wall Art Project – Step 1.

David starts by rolling slabs that are about 1/2 inch thick. This allows him to get a deeper impression and still maintain an adequate thickness in the recessed areas to prevent cracking. If the slab is too thin, it merely conforms to the surface and doesn’t actually receive an impression. If you use canvas while rolling the slab, smooth the surface with a soft rib so it is clean, clear and ready to receive the image.

ceramic wall art


TIP: Roll out a few extra slabs for test prints and for constructing walls later in the process.

Ceramic Wall Art Project – Step 2.

Place the canvas-backed clay slab on a large wooden board and carry it to a manhole or storm-drain cover. Take a brush in case any debris needs to be removed from the cover or grate. Stand the board on edge and position in front of the area of interest, flop the slab down onto the grate, and rub with mild pressure to create a deeper relief. Extra pressure works especially well when pulling a complex texture from the asphalt surrounding a grate.

ceramic wall art


Ceramic Wall Art Project – Step 3.

Gently but quickly pull the slab from the grate and lay it back onto the board. Take a look at the image you just pulled to see if it has the detail and depth that you need for your wall piece. As is the case with most new endeavors, your first transfer may not meet your expectations. Make a test print or two to practice how much pressure is needed for the relief, and how best to line up your slab to get the section you desire.

ceramic wall art


Ceramic Wall Art Project – Step 4.

Since David’s manhole reliefs are part of an ongoing series, he has a board precut to specific dimensions so they are consistent. Place the board over the relief and crop the areas of interest to determine the orientation. Besides pulling the print, this is the most important step of the process. Careful consideration goes into determining the compositional balance of shape, form, line
and space.

ceramic wall art


Ceramic Wall Art Project – Step 5.

It’s important to figure out in advance how you will install or hang the piece to ensure your work can be hung easily and securely. For hanging brackets, David attaches small slabs of clay with holes punched through them. To do this, turn the trimmed relief over and score the perimeter with a wire tool. Cut four rectangular slabs for each edge of the tile, then score and spray them with apple cider vinegar. Build walls with the slabs around the perimeter of the piece, and firmly press and smooth them during the construction process.

ceramic wall art


Ceramic Wall Art Project – Step 6.

After determining which end is the top, cut, score and spray two clay gussets to be used as hanging brackets. The gussets should be placed approximately a third of the way down from the top and trimmed to match the height of the walls.

ceramic wall art

For added strength and structural integrity, press and smooth a coil into all the interior seams. Poke holes with a pointed tool through the center of the hanging brackets for heavy gauge wire to be strung through when ready to hang.

ceramic wall art


David finishes with stamping the date and number of the print on the back, and signs his name with a rubber shaping tool. The wall piece needs to stiffen to leather hard before it is turned over to avoid sagging.

Once flipped, smooth the corners by hand to remove the sharp edges. The rounded corners also help the surfaces dry more evenly and avoid unnecessary cracking or separating.

ceramic wall art


David Gamble lives and operates his studio out of a former church in Plainfield, Indiana.

The author, Paul Andrew Wandless, is a studio artist, workshop presenter, educator and author. Visit his website,

ceramic wall art


**First published in 2014.
  • Andrea T.

    Dirk, cant see any element of copying in you link-only similarity is the basic circle. How do each of us interpret a circle?
    And by the way, great wall sculptue! Nylon coated s/steel fishing tracer wire is great for hanging your works, afterall it is designed to land a BIG fish!

  • Deborah E.

    Jan, I do a lot of slab work and have never had a problem with slumping. I would biscuit fire the piece flat, face down, and if the framing(edge) slabs are sturdy/thick enough, they should not slump. A grogged clay would also be beneficial in building large hefty pieces. For the glaze firing,( for higher temps), it should be fine( obviously fired glaze side up), but if you are still concerned, you can use temporary supports ie extra shelf supports, or fired clay pieces made just for this purpose. Or I think you can use fibre blanket as I have used for firing glass. But I really don’t think you will have a problem unless your clay slab is too thin to support itself or you overfire.

  • Janet W.

    I’m with you, Deborah. I was hoping someone would answer my question about firing position and slumping. I think we got lost in the other discussion.

  • Deborah E.

    I’m still hoping someone will answer my above question about what type of wire is used to hang these pieces and if a 4 point hanging system would be helpful or just be superfluous. Any ideas anyone?

  • Kathie F.

    I too really enjoyed your piece and thank you for sharing. I love making prints in clay but have never worked that large. You have inspired me to look in new places for shapes I might use.

    I often use things I find in nature.

  • Myra S.

    Deborah, Your comments are well taken…Yes, there is no need for hostility here, Thanks for sharing !

  • Julie N.

    Thanks for that idea, Deborah. I will try it on a couple of smaller pieces first.

  • Deborah E.

    Julie, I have seen a wire grid used to lessen the weight of the piece and I believe the tiles were set kinda like a gemstone is set using prongs, if I remember correctly. Worth a shot.
    Myra, I agree to some extent. This website IS for the love of our art. I hope you realize that Dirk brought up his Darwinistic viewpoint ( with hostility)and that in itself is a religious matter, as athiesm IS a form of religion. I’m sure many of us choose to thank God for His inspiration( He is, after all, the original Artist) and we have every right to do so without adversely affecting the content of this website. At least we still seem to have this right. And I think it’s rather sad that one would actually “leave his religion for his church” and not express his faith on an everyday basis. Just exactly when did that become offensive? The only one trying to agitate and “convert” was Dirk.

  • Myra S.

    Julie…like you I have used wooden backs with epoxy also, I am pleased since I know they will never fall off the wall. Wood in the back keeps the tiles safe with that support. Several years in the past I made larger pieces and I made large thick pieces of clay as support pieces that gave it strength, with wire to hang the piece. I have also made frames for some big pieces out of clay as the
    brace in the back. When I use wood I paint the word a color that compliments the glaze. It sure is fun to plan & play with clay. Having FUN !

  • Julie N.

    I am designing wall hangings using ten six inch tiles, five down each side. As of now my husband is building wooden backs for me and I epoxy them to the tiles and add a wire hanger to the wood. Does anyone have any better ideas on how I could hang them with clay? I would love to have the wood out of the equation (and am sure my husband would not complain either).

  • Janine W.

    Great post. Certainly there is beauty all around us if we notice. There was a grate on the drain that I liked between toilet stalls in the bathroom next to the ceramics studio at school. I kept sneaking in with slabs of clay to make impressions. Finally I took a slab of clay about 1/2″ thick, made an impression, and then bisque fired. I now use that tile as my texture. Saves me having to sneak in the bathroom all the time.

  • Myra S.

    Thank you David Gamble for sharing your work & ideas. I too build large pieces and designing a good safe way to hang the larger pieces has been a real learning experience. Your idea looks like it will work very well ! I would guess that the Cider Vinegar is more organic and I know it works well, it is worth the price !
    Sharing ones art work & ideas is great but could folks leave their religion for their church, this place is to share the love of art.

  • Marion L.

    I think the hanger idea is great. It is sometimes difficult to decide how to prepare some pieces for safe hanging.
    Thanks for the information, inspiration and dedication to continuing creation.
    Some ideas are not even worth discussing, especially when tainted by religious bias.

  • Deborah E.

    Dirk, did you just wake up one morning and decide to irritate artists who just want to learn something new and be inspired by another artist’s generous sharing of his techniques? I thank God for these artists( oops, sorry Dirk, but I can’t seem to thank Darwin for them). I think most of us want to go onto these websites to focus on our art- don’t we get enough anger and hostility from life in general? Please take your anger and your atheist propaganda to another kind of website, and leave us to enjoy and learn from these. It’s a waste of precious time for most of us to have to deal with your petty complaints and engage in your philosophical pet peeves. The idea of the article was to teach a new technique, your focus is way off.

  • Am G.

    Wow, fantastic discussion! I might never have seen Alechinsky’s work if Dirk hadn’t somehow seen a similarity in today’s post to what is probably one of his favorite artists. There are some compositional similarities, but I would in no way say that these manhole cover impressions are directly stolen images/ideas from Alechinsky! Both very nice, original ideas which happen to have some similarities.

  • Dirk V.

    Of course Janice, the link IS the virus. But with God on your site, it will not be a problem.

  • Dirk V.

    Why should I try to convince lady Colleen.In the end it always comes to that kind of statements. But: Was’nt it God who said in one of his commandments not to steal?
    My dearest friend mr. Darwin, I think we better chill somewhere else.Just for the curious ones: for those who like to use their eyes you can see the difference between simply stealing and transforming inspiration into very personal work.

  • Colleen F.

    The very first artist (God) lets us be inspired and steal his ideas.If you thought of it first…convince me.

  • Janet W.

    I love the hanging idea – is there anything special done, such as positioning, in the firing to keep it from slumping?

  • Martha P.

    “No artist is any more original than his source is obscure”

    Don’t know who said it, but it’s my favorite.

  • Janice W.

    Thanks for sharing. I agree with alot of what was said. As artists we are always seeing things that others may look past as a source of creative inspiration. Whether it comes from nature or manmade.
    Dirk did you ever think that perhaps ‘Alechinsky’ was probably inspirated by the similar things that others artists see today. I don’t think this should be called stealing. Also, all artists admire the work of others artists and whether consciously or subconsciously we are then driven creatively by what we have seen and admired. Dirk you need to chill.

  • Deborah E.

    I can’t believe how petty you guys are. Keep your crankiness out of this comment section. If I want to hear whining, I’ll watch MSNBC.
    Does one use twisted cable/ picture hanging wire to hang these pieces? When doing heavy mix media collage with clay pieces in them, I use a 4 point configuration for the “wire”. It keeps the pressure even on all sides of the frame. Would this work with the clay edges, or if not, why not?

  • Joan S.

    I also feel that nothing is new. Everything has been done before. And will be done again.

  • A man hole cover is a man hole cover. A star is a MUCH USED SYMBOL! I can’t imagine anyone being upset because someone used something so very simple. I think the work is original, as I have never seen anything like it! And… its in reverse so its not “exactly” the same. Lol Isn’t there also a saying that copying something is the biggest form of flattery? Do you mind if I do this project with the man hole in front of my house? Please let me know soon. Lololol

  • Linda S.

    Or as my history teacher in art school said: “There’s nothing new since the Greeks.”

  • Emily W.

    I’d never heard of Alechinsky so I looked him up. None of the websites I looked at showed anything that looked even remotely similar to what I see above. But maybe if I kept digging I’d find a Alechinsky work depicting a starred man hole cover. If so, I wonder if the person who designed the man hole cover accused Alechinsky of ripping HIM off.

    It’s like my Mama used to say (something her art teacher said to her…)
    “There is nothing new under the sun.”

    Shame on you for being cranky, Dirk!

  • Dirk V.

    It is not very nice to steal completely the ideas ànd the complete way of working of a great artist (Alechinsky), who made those things years ago in charcoal and paintings.
    Inspiration is one thing, copying things is like inspiration without the soul.

  • I have enjoyed making fine art wall pieces, but because of the struggle of adding some unsave hanging contraption on the back, I have given up on that time consuming endeavor. I can’t wait to get started again applying your hanging method.
    Thank you for sharing!

  • Kay E.

    Our summer “ART KAMP FOR KIDS” always has a tile project for the kids. This year, we’ve already prepared 5×7 tiles (currently layered with tarpaper and wrapped in plastic). The kids will impress and applique to make individual works of art. Did I mention that our KIDS are second to fifth grade? No advanced students and they always come up with creations that knock our socks off!!!
    They amaze us.

  • cecil d.

    This website inspires no end,I am very thankful for the postings for I am learning more each day…I am presently working on a wall mosaic project and this one is very inspiring…finding beauty in the most ordinary things around us that people usually take for granted…Thank God for those people like you with the EYES for SEEING beauty in simple things and transcend it to WORKS of ART! Thank you…

  • Jody J.

    Making hand made tiles and selling them at a parent night/open house/ fund raiser is a great way to promote your art program at school as well as raise much need money!

  • Jody J.

    Individual clay tiles a good clay project for all grade levels in school. Have the students look around their house for something to bring to stamp the clay. Put slabs on the tables and let the students try using the items each has brought in single and multiple impressions to create a pattern/design first.

  • Grep A.

    Is there any reason to prefer apple cider vinegar to white vinegar for this? It strikes me as unnecessarily expensive.

  • Tina H.

    I can’t thank you enough for your postings…thank and rethank the potters who share their ideas. It’s like I have a little classroom in my office. I too see art in the bark of a tree, a kitchen utensil, an earring,a screw, a button, a basket, a snail, a shell, a rock, a dog print, the bottom of tennis shoes, a leaf, a dish the list goes on and on. “Take a look around at the beauty God provides” Isn’t this the most fun anyone can have!

  • Subscriber T.

    I just love this. I work in the sewer industry and have seen some beautiful manhole covers. It has inspired me to look at some other textures around me too. Thanks!

  • Carol T.

    I have just finished a new series of work called Future Fossils: the story in sculpture currently installed in the New Brunswick Museum, NB, Canada. ( east of Maine ) For pieces the size shown by David I found the hanger needed to be a little thicker and the hole closer to the wall for safety. His looks wonderfully thin and the his hanger probably works for them without any trouble. For my larger pieces I used a professional Premium adhesive for hangers.

  • BETH W.

    This is the best website for potters EVER!!! Daily inspiration by golly! Gonna go out and find some manhole covers. In older towns they should be amazing….

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