Celebrating special occasions is something my family has always valued. During these times my mother would set the table with a fancy tablecloth, candles, and most notably, one of the many sets of specialty china reserved for an extravagant dinner. It’s this idea of using objects only for deserving occasions—as well as my interest in rock climbing—that has influenced my layered-clay shot set. Although very different than a set of special holiday dinnerware, the layered shot set is intended to be used when people are gathered together and enjoyed with company.
Shot Cup Prep
When setting out to make a layered shot set, I begin with the shot cups. The first step is to roll out coils of each type of clay body (I use four commercial clay bodies including: Aardvark Terra Red, Flint Hills Black, Aardvark Cassius Basaltic, and Laguna Electric Brown) (1). When rolling out the coils, make them different thicknesses to ensure variation in the finished cups. Next, roll out a thin slab and roll in a few coils and patches of other clay bodies to variegate the slab’s surface. Taking a circle cutter that matches the diameter of the inside of my press mold, I cut out several circles from the slab (2) and set them with the coils. These will become the bottoms of the shot cups.
Roll out several coils of each type of clay body, varying the width and length of the coils.
Roll out a thin slab and add a few coils to variegate the surface. Use a circle cutter to cut out the bottoms of the cups.
Add the circle and several coils to the dry press mold.
Smooth and compress the cup, then remove it from the mold.
Add organic materials and clay coils to another slab, which will form the top of the tray.
Sandwich the slab between tarpaper and a thick piece of foam, then roll it through the slab roller to compress it.
Press Molding the Shot Cups
Starting with a plaster mold of a short, tapered cylinder, take one of the circle slabs and place it in the bottom of the mold. Next, use your fingertips to compress the slab down, working from the center all the way around to the outside where the clay meets the wall of the mold.
Two things I consider when pressing the coils to form the wall of the shot cup: one is to ensure that the walls are a uniform thickness; second, I want to make the cups sturdy so they can stand up to the abuse that shot glasses sometimes endure. The composition of the coils is also very important, from size of coil, type of clay, to the direction that they are placed in the mold. It’s nice to have both horizontal and vertical lines to give the cup variation. Working the coils together with your thumb inside of the cup from bottom to top as you go creates a smooth interior. Once the clay walls reach the top of the mold place one final coil around the top of the glass to create the rim (3). This is the first thing your eyes see and your lips touch, so having a smooth, consistent rim is very important. Once this is completed it should only take a few minutes until the shot glass is ready to pop out of the mold (4). Repeat these four steps to make each cup. You may need to wait for the mold to dry in between pressings depending on the thickness of the mold and how wet the clay is.
Layered Slab Prep
Making the tray form is my favorite part of creating this set. There is a lot of freedom to experiment with different templates, clay compositions, and finishing techniques. To begin, roll out two slabs: one slab around ½ inch thick for the top of the tray, the other around ¼ inch thick for the bottom. Each slab needs to be around the same length and width, roughly 22×8 inches. Tip: I use tar paper instead of canvas to roll out my slabs so that it doesn’t leave canvas marks that need to be smoothed out later. The ¼-inch slab can be set aside and the top ½-inch slab can be decorated with the other clay bodies (5).
You can accentuate the length of the slab by placing coils on top of it that run long ways across the slab. I also add organic materials such as grasses, pine needles, small twigs, etc., that impress texture into the slab. Next, set tar paper on top of the slab, then place a piece of foam on top of the tar paper. I use 3-inch-thick foam that allows me to apply pressure to compress the decorative coils and organic materials, but not so much that I completely combine the two or overly stretch out the slab. In order to roll the slab, tar paper, and foam through the slab roller, I raise the roller up until it’s easy to feed all three through (6). It’s always a good idea to start with light pressure, then apply more pressure with the roller if needed. Roll the slab until you have a small seam all the way around the coils that’s pronounced enough to hold underglaze after being bisque fired (7). Set the slabs aside to stiffen up.
The slab, added coils of clay, and organic material have been compressed and the slab is now ready to stiffen up.
Roll out a third slab and mark it to fit as the top of the tray. Use the side of a ware board to slowly tear the edges along the marks.
Plot out circles where the shot glasses will sit, then use a circle cutter to cut out the top of the tray.
Score and slip the top and bottom tray pieces thoroughly, then compress the two slabs together.
Use your fingers to give the tray some visual lift by raising the edges of the slab.
Place the cups in the tray and make any final adjustments before letting the entire piece dry together.
Layered Tray Construction
Once the slabs are soft leather hard, place them face down and use a needle tool to cut a shallow line, only 1⁄8 inch deep, around the outside in the shape of a tray (comfortable enough to fit four shot cups), on each one. After you’ve traced the tray form on both slabs, place the slabs along the edge of a ware board and use the score line to slowly tear the clay until you have the entire tray shape torn out (8). This technique results in a rough edge that references the geological influences in my work.
Next, take the ½-inch-thick slab and, using the circle cutter, line up and cut out four circles for the shot glasses to sit in (9). Score and slip the top and bottom slabs and press them together (10). Once the slabs are attached, give the tray some personality and shape by lifting up the edges and working your way around the entire tray with your fingers (11). Finally, fit your four shot glasses into the circles and make any adjustments so they sit level in the tray (12). After the pieces are bone dry, bisque fire them.
Cover the tray and cup exteriors with a generous coat of underglaze to ensure that it gets into all of the cracks and creases.
Dip the exterior of the cup in a satin wash to give a warm look and smooth feel.
Line the interiors of the cups with a food-safe glaze and wipe away any drips.
Glazing and Finishing
Finally, I coat the tray and cups with AMACO Jet Black underglaze. Wipe away the excess with a sponge so the underglaze will stay in the texture and small creases around the coils on the tray and shot cups (13). Using four clay bodies combined with the underglaze accents, creates color shifts mimicking rock surfaces. Allow the pieces to dry overnight, then dip them in a satin wash (14). After letting them dry another day, line the interiors of the cups with black glossy glaze and glaze fire the set (15).
Once the set has been fired and unloaded they’re ready to be enjoyed with friends and family to celebrate a special occasion.
Brice Dyer received his BFA in ceramics and sculpture from the University of North Texas. After graduating, he was an Artist-in-Residence at the Morean Center for Clay in St. Petersburg, Florida, then moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to be a Foundation Resident at Red Star Studios, where he is currently working. To see more of his work, check out http://BriceDyerCeramics.com.