As a mostly self-taught potter, I was originally drawn to early American moonshine jugs as inspirational pieces. I collected and studied the jugs, then adapted the shape by altering the basic circular forms and elongating the necks onto which I incorporated a mechanical bail closure, and ultimately transforming it from a corked jug into a functioning ceramic growler.
To create a great growler—one that is functional, i.e. marketable to breweries, home brewers, collectors, etc.—there are many details one must work into the design. Unlike most every other functional ceramic vessel, the growler needs to carry carbonated beer. The design concerns that must be accounted for include clay body shrinkage, clay body strength, specific wall thickness, food-safe glazing, and appropriate decorating techniques. The actual, post-firing volume has to be given the most consideration—remember, breweries make their money by the ounce and drinkers expect it to hold 64 ounces. If any of these areas are neglected, the form will fall short and could quite literally fail under pressure.
Creating the Growler Body
I sketch about 10 designs in 3–4 minutes, then decide which ideas capture my attention for the day. Weigh and wedge a 4¼ pound ball of clay (I use the M340 Buff Stoneware body from Archie Bray Clay (www.archiebrayclay.com)). Begin by centering and pulling a cylinder that is approximately 12–14 inches tall on a bat (1), then collar in the neck and refine the cylinder (2). To refine the shape, first remove any extra surface water. Next use a variety of metal ribs and cake decorating tools to finish the exterior surfaces. Removing any sign of throwing, such as finger marks or throwing rings gives you the option to add decals later. The rings created on the neck are made with a metal, three-pronged punch tool normally used in leather working. Many great unorthodox tools can be found in various departments in hobby and craft stores (3).
Each individual clay body will have its own shrinkage rate that must be accounted for accordingly.
Once the basic form is complete, the growler, still connected to the bat, is removed from the wheel and placed on a rack to set up. I use a metal rolling ware cart wrapped in a plastic drop sheet with the plastic clamped in such a way as to completely seal it off.
After the growlers have air dried to a semi-firm, leather-hard state, use a fondant tool to punch out two grommets, then dry fit the bail and mark where it will be attached (4). Add the grommets to both sides of the neck. Create a hole in the center of each grommet using a knitting needle with a blunted tip, but don’t pierce all the way through the neck (5).
My handles emulate the historical strap handles I’ve seen on so many antique pots. Beginning with a pugged piece of clay, gently roll one end to a taper, then pull a strap handle directly from it using a downward pulling motion. Place it on the table and cut the ends parallel to make a seamless transition with the shoulder of the growler (6). Score the side of the growler where you would like to place the handle. Smooth the bottom of the handle into the form while also keeping the handle vertical and straight. Bend the handle in one smooth motion to create a perfectly curved strap handle (7). At this connection I add another small button of clay, which I press with a wooden tool creating my chop—a star-in-a-circle relief design (8). This particular mark was a symbol used by US forces in WWII and is my nod to those who have and continue to serve in the Armed Services.
Now, the rest of the clay accoutrements are added. These can include but are not limited to, various size screw heads, bolts, rivets, hoses, and tubing. Use a chop stick with one end hollowed out to create decorative rivets around the form (9). Make hose shapes from various homemade sprig molds and from commercially available rollers (10). I like to make my hoses look like old automobile or airplane engine exhaust tubing, giving the growler a real steampunk feel. Gently curve the hose to the desired shape and cut it accordingly with contour curves on either end to fit snugly between the neck and strap handle (11). Score, slip, and attach it. Clean up any extra slip with a very fine paintbrush.
Now the growler is allowed to dry in a controlled, damp-box environment for approximately one week. Once completely dry, the bottom edge is sanded with a green kitchen scrubbing pad and smoothed with a damp sponge, then bisque fired to cone 04. After firing, the growler is washed thoroughly and allowed to dry for a day or two before decorating.
Decorating the Growler
I try to create one-of-a-kind growlers each time, so the process of how they’re specifically finished and completed is always evolving. To add to the mechanical and steampunk concept, I create finishes that play against each other, often times in a trompe-l’oeil fashion. The inspiration for these finishes comes from the weathered surfaces of antique gas cans, tin cans, grain silos, farm tractors, and the contrasting look of the bright shiny chrome of old cars.
The first thing to do is refer back to the original sketch and mark the actual growler very lightly with a pencil; assigning colors, glazes, finishes, etc., for each specific area.
Next, mask off any areas where you wish to keep the surface free of glaze. Brush underglazes into the rivets and the hose (see 12). Once the underglaze on the rivets is dry, coat each one carefully with wax resist. Paint glaze into the center corrugated portion of the growler (12). Mask the handle with tape and use a pointed tool to work the tape into and smooth against the handle (13). Mask the neck portion of the growler and then, just below the neck portion, trim the tape with an X-Acto knife. Finally, mask the top of the neck near the rim.
Sponge a thin layer of jet-black underglaze on top of the glazed corrugated surface to create a weathered-looking surface (14).
Brush a layer of glaze on the neck, then finish with a very fine brush to get thin, clean lines along the edge of the hose. Wipe the edges of the neck ring with a small wedge sponge to create a weathered, distressed finish (15). Using the round-handled sponge, add black underglaze on top of the glaze on the rim of the neck, its curves, and as well as on the hose (16).
Now, apply a thick layer of wax resist to the glazed center portion of the growler. Only the edge portions are waxed all the way around and the tape is removed immediately before the wax dries—this keeps the wax from pulling off the glaze but still gives a very hard, clean edge. The top portion of the neck is also waxed then the masking tape is removed completely from the base of the neck and from the handle. Once the wax has dried, apply another layer of masking tape to the body just below the second shoulder.
Pour a liner glaze into the growler, spin it around to coat the entire interior, then pour it out. Turn the growler upside down and dip it into a bucket of glaze, going just past the edge of the shoulder (17). Allow the glaze to dry completely, then apply wax about one inch from the edge of the shoulder. While the wax is still wet, remove the tape. Dip the bottom half of the growler into another glaze bucket (18). Using a large sponge, wipe off the entire bottom, making sure that it is free of glaze. I finish off the bottom with a second maker’s mark using a wood-block rubber stamp that has had black underglaze applied to it (19).
Firing and Adding the Bail
The growler is fired one final time in an electric kiln to cone 6. Some of my growlers also have in-house created ceramic decals applied to them after the cone 6 firing. If decals are applied, I will fire the piece for a third time to approximately cone 011.
Attach the bail by gently inserting one side of the bail arm into the grommet hole (see 5) and pulling the other arm slightly outward until it pops into the other hole on the opposite side. The bail should move freely inside the grommet holes (20). Be sure to clean out any glaze from those holes prior to firing. The top of the bail shouldn’t wiggle or rock once the lever portion has been fully seated. Fine adjustments can be made simply by pulling the two parts of the bail apart and either slightly lengthening or shortening the vertical arms with a needle nose pliers. I purchase the bails from Saxco International (www.saxco.com), but they’re also available at home brew stores. The bails will be listed as Swingtops, Bail closures, Flip tops, etc. The standard size I use for my growlers is the 34-mm size.
One aspect that remains constant in my designs, regardless of the style of the growler, is that the bottom and some areas of the body are intentionally left bare and undecorated in any way. After the final firing, sand these areas smooth with 220-grit wet/dry sandpaper. As the growler is used, it will take on a patina from the oil and dirt of your hands, and even staining from certain amber and dark beers. These signs of wear add yet another level of decoration, a living and ever-changing record of how it has served and played a role in the life of the owner.
Tim Carlburg is a self-taught, full-time studio potter, inventor, and US Army veteran living and working in northwestern Montana. He is a certified Montana Arts Council Artpreneur and has a BS in K-12 Art Education. His work has been exhibited locally and nationally. To see more of his work, check out www.handmadegrowlers.com, www.facebook.com/Handmade-Growlers, and @Handmadegrowlers on Instagram. Carlburg also invented the SwitchLift to help potters throw in a more healthful standing position, www.switchlift.com.