The Twenty-Year Teapot: A Potter Discusses the Lengthy Process of Developing His Voice in Pottery, and Shares His Teapot Making Technique Too!

As ceramic artists and potters, one of the most important things to remember is that it takes time to develop your skills and voice. I confess that, after more than twelve years at this, I am still working on that voice of mine (and I think I will always be trying to perfect those skills). That’s why I was comforted by today’s post from Jeffrey Nichols. In this excerpt from the September/October 2009 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated, Jeffrey explains that his beautifully crafted, expertly decorated pottery was twenty years in the making. It is so important to expose ourselves to the myriad ways of working with clay and then put those experiences through our own filters to arrive at our own voices. And that, my friends, takes time. So be patient! And check out Jeffrey’s technique below. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

During a teapot demo, one of my students will inevitably ask about how
long it takes me to make a teapot, and I usually respond with a
dramatic, “20 years!” This is the answer I give because that’s how
long it’s taken me to develop all the skills I need to successfully
create the work I’m now making.

As clay artists and potters, we’re always striving to express ourselves
in our own voice. It often takes us years to find that voice because it
usually develops out of our experiences, our education, and our
exposure to as many different forming and decorating techniques as
possible. In addition, everything we read about ceramic art history and
keeping up with current trends in the art world also helps to form what
we do.

Here I demonstrate making a teapot in my own voice, and you
may find it inspiring for helping you to find your own way. Like many
contemporary studio potters, I make work that’s technically involved,
but while my approach is rather complicated, it can be broken down into
steps. And you can view part of
this process in the Ceramic Arts Daily Video Archives. Hopefully, you can take aspects of my approach and use it to further your own research.

For more great throwing and altering techniques, check out Three Great Pottery Wheel Throwing Techniques: Tips on Throwing Complex Pottery Forms Using Basic Throwing Skills, which is free to Ceramic Arts Daily subscribers.

Making the Teapot Body
Begin by throwing a simple boxy form
with 3/8-inch thick walls and a slightly smaller top than base. The
simple shape I make reminds me of a Shaker form. Make a fairly shallow
gallery in the rim for the lid. Using a heat gun or hair dryer, dry the
teapot body to a soft leather hard then cut it off the wheel. A heat
gun is an important tool for my process, but if you use one, remember
to handle it safely and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
Mark lines for the facets as shown at left.
Using a Surform (rasp) tool, create the facets. I use a Surform
instead of a wire faceting tool or a fettling knife because it gives me
more control over thickness and the development of line because you can
remove small amounts with each stroke.
Next, use a rounded rasp to bevel the bottom of the teapot.
This helps to visually lift the teapot off the table surface, as shown at left.
To create the handle, roll out a coil that’s slightly thicker in the middle and tapered on the ends.
Form it into a C or ear shape and place it on a plaster bat to dry to leather hard. Create facets by compressing the handle with a palette knife, then attach the handle to the teapot body when it is leather hard.
To form the spout, roll out a tapered coil that’s about 3/8-inch
at one end and 1-1/4 inches at the base. You may want to roll out
several spouts in the beginning to get the one that works best for your
teapot body. Form the tapered coil into an S shape and allow it to set
up to leather hard. Use a palette knife to form facets.
Once the spout is shaped, cut it in half laterally, then draw a line
about 3/16-inch from the edge and scoop out the interior of the spout.
Re-attach the halves and set the spout aside to set up. Trace the spout
opening onto the teapot. Create a series of holes in the teapot body
where the spout will attach. Slip, score, and attach the spout when it
is leather hard. (Note: Watch my video on this process in the Ceramic Arts Daily video archives!)

This article appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated
To purchase this back issue, call 1-800-340-6532.

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Make the lid in three stages. First, throw the knob on the wheel.
With a heat gun, dry the knob to leather hard and cut it off the
wheel. Use a palette knife to make the spiral facets. Throw the lid
right side up and attach the knob on the wheel as shown at left.
Use a 3/16-inch hole cutter to create the steam hole in the top of the lid.


Developing the Surface

After years of honing my skills, I finally realized that traditional
ceramic processes were getting in the way of my ideas. I wasn’t
achieving the results I wanted with my ceramic art. Don’t get me wrong.
I think it’s critically important for potters to have a comprehensive
knowledge of the material and possess strong craftsmanship skills, but
my true artistic voice didn’t develop until I started making work that
began with an idea first, not a process.

Inspired by the concept of
wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic where beauty is found in things that
are imperfect, I began looking for inspiration in non-ceramic surfaces.
I found it in surfaces like weathered, painted wood and brick, as well
as in nature, within fall leaves and spring flowers. I wanted to create
works that evoke the same kind of impact that a Rothko painting does.
following is the process I developed to replicate these kinds of
surfaces. After making a teapot, bowl or vase from earthenware, I
bisque it to cone 02 and begin spraying the vessel with multiple layers
of Amaco Velvet underglazes. Essentially, I use the Velvets as a
high-frit engobe. You can also layer the underglazes by sponging them
on if you do not have access to a spray booth. I recommend wearing
gloves if you take this approach

After the underglazes have dried, I begin sanding through the
different layers exposing the other colors, as well as the earthenware
clay body underneath. Again, remember to wear a respirator! I start
with 320-grit sandpaper working to a 600-grit surface. I then fire the
piece to cone 04, holding it at maturation for ten minutes to create a
strong bond between the clay body and the underglazes.

Safety with Spray Guns
It is important to maintain a safe
and clean working environment while doing this process. Always wear a
respirator with a P-100 rating and, if spraying the underglazes, use a
spray booth with at least 1000 cfm. I also have a second ventilation
system in my studio.

Nichols uses a respirator and a hooded exhaust vent to manage the
dust created when sanding his dry surfaces. Below is a surface detail
revealing the layers of colors.

It is important to apply this surface only to the outside of vessels
or in areas that do not come in contact with food or drink. When fired,
the Velvets and other underglazes have the durability of a matt glaze,
but are not food safe. I then apply a food-safe liner glaze to the
parts that will come in contact with food and fire the vessel again.
After this firing, I coat the underglaze surface with a food-safe oil
sealant (like Salad Bowl Finish, available from home centers) and wax
used by woodworkers. This seals the outside surface and makes it fairly
durable, but check the instructions on the containers for care and use
of these products.
Faceted tea bowl with four layers of underglazes sprayed on then sanded off to reveal the layers, giving the piece a weathered look. A black was applied first followed by red, light blue then medium blue.Jeffrey Nichols is a studio artist and educator working and
living in Kentucky. He exhibits his studio pottery nationally and
internationally, and you can view more of his work at


  • Hello Jeffrey,
    Your directions include “Begin by throwing a simple boxy form with 3/8-inch thick walls and a slightly smaller top than base.” Is this boxy base, the top and the gallery all done at once, or is this a composite piece. I am a new potter, and I think I would find it difficult to throw the entire sides, flat base top and gallery in one fell swoop. Is this what you have done? How much clay did you use? Thank you.

  • Thanks for the answer, Jeffrey. I really appreciate your taking time to post this video–It’s given me several exciting new ideas. I used to make a stem and a gallery as you’ve done here, but I hate throwing hollow upside-down lids with an included stem. Of course, it’s also a pain to always have to hold the lid on when you’re pouring tea. At first I thought, “why make the lid in three pieces when it could be two,” but the more I consider it, the more I realize that this really will be easier and more accurate.

  • Jeffrey N.

    Hello Everybody,

    To answer the question – the lid is not solid. I first throw a knob (solid), cut it off the wheel, and allow it to become leather hard. Using a palette knife, I than compress the knob to create the facets. View the video to see how I create the facets on the spout. It is the same technique. The lid is thrown right-side up. I attach the faceted knob while the lid is still on the wheel. After drying the lid to leather hard using a heat gun or hair dryer – remember safety first – I cut it off the wheel. I trim the bottom of the lid by hand. I then throw a hollow stem and allow it to dry to leather hard and cut it off the wheel. It is attached to the bottom of the lid. The hollow stem helps keep the lid well seated and assists in the steeping process. I hope that helps! Best, Jeffrey Nichols

  • Why not use a clear glaze over the underglazes? Wouldn’t that make it more durable than the oil finish?

  • Corito C.

    Ye, I will like to know if the bottom of the lid is solid, thank you

  • Sometimes you will want to use a glaze on the outside of a food pot (such as a teapot, mug, bowl, etc.) that is not safe to use with food. Or you may just not want to test this glaze to see if it is food safe. To give themselves more freedom esthetically in decorating the outer surface of a food vessel, many potters will use a different glaze on the inside and sometimes the rim–one that is proven to be food safe. Such a glaze will normally contain no potentially toxic metals such as cobalt, copper, manganese, etc. They will typically be clear, white, or tan to brown because of having no colorants, or having only iron as a colorant.

  • H.

    Anne – The spout is covered in this video in the CAD archives: /daily/features/how-to-make-a-properly-functioning-handbuilt-spout-for-a-teapot/

    It is also explained in Step 7 above.

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