Variations on a theme: Liquor bottles in different shapes and sizes call for stoppers that echo the forms.
I began making liquor bottles in my first year of graduate school. The idea of making a decanter for wine or spirits is personally meaningful and I have always been drawn to glass decanters. My husband and I are both connoisseurs of fine food and beverage as well as long-time veterans of the service industry. These bottles work well for any liquid, but I imagine them holding whiskey or wine.
The form is made up of three thrown pieces, which are then assembled to become a tall bottle.
Throwing the Bottle
Start by using 3 pounds of clay to throw a tall cylinder on a bat and shaping it into a bottle form. The cylinder should be about 9–10 inches in height (1). Next, belly out the body, then flare out and shape the top section using your fingers and a small red flexible rib. I make the opening of the bottle by eye and take measurements only when forming the stopper. Let the piece set up on the bat, but don’t cut it off. Use a metal rib to clear water from the surface to help the piece firm up enough to be altered.
Altering the Bottle
Next, use a wooden stick with a rounded end to push out four corners of the belly (2). Symmetry isn’t extremely important to me, so I simply use my eye to make a soft square. I’m not touching the piece anywhere else except for the interior with the stick while pushing it out, and I’m pushing out just enough to see the clay start to give and slightly fracture. I’m more cautious in creating these when using porcelain versus stoneware. Once you create a square, refine the rim to keep it round. Leave the bottle to rest until it gets to a soft leather-hard stage.
At this point, refine the bottle upright, keeping it on the bat and create the profile of the foot. Use a wooden rib to impress four vertical lines (3). The corners made in the previous step determine the placement of the lines. These lines are purely aesthetic, but can also help to define the squared form of the lower part of the bottle. Allow the bottle to firm up.
1 Use 3 pounds of clay to throw a cylinder that’s 9–10 inches (23–25 cm) in height, then shape it into a bottle form.
2 Use a wooden stick with a rounded end on the inside of the form to push out four corners of the belly.
3 After the bottle reaches a soft leather-hard stage, use a wooden rib to impress four vertical lines.
4 Throwing off the hump, create a closed, hollow form approximately 1 inches tall.
Throwing the Stopper Parts
Next, begin to throw the stopper. For the bottom part of the stopper that extends into the bottle, throw a few pounds of clay off the hump (4), into a closed hollow form approximately 1 inches tall and eye the width of your bottle opening. Imagine the top of a baby’s bottle for the form. I close the form by pulling up until my finger no longer fits inside and then shape and close using my metal rib and fingers. At this point measurements are all by eye. The surface on this portion is either smooth or sometimes textured with a descending spiral (5). Addressing the surface can help it aesthetically relate back to all the other elements of the piece. Cut it off the hump.
I like to throw multiple stoppers, so I’ll have different proportions to choose from when pairing them with the bottle form. Set these aside until they are ready for assembly.
To create the bulbus top of the stopper that will be seen above the rim of the bottle, throw a bottomless dome form using a little less than 1 pound of clay on a bat. This will be a closed dome that is tapered at the base of the form (6, 7). Let the top firm to a little less than leather hard.
In order to create corners on the stopper that will relate to those on the bottle, while the wheel is spinning, use an X-Acto knife to make a circular cut through the top, wide enough to fit the end of a wooden trimming tool. Tip: It’s helpful to make a registration mark between the two pieces before removing the cut segment, so it fits perfectly when it comes time to replace the cap. Trim the topper right side up while it’s still connected to the bat. Using calipers as a guide, measure the opening of the bottle and the base of the trimmed topper.
5 Continue to address the hollow form until it aesthetically relates to the bottle.
6 Using less than 1 pound of clay, throw a bottomless dome for the top of the stopper.
7 Use a rib to close the dome form and taper in the bottom. Let the stopper top firm to a little less than leather hard.
8 Cut a hole in the top that is wide enough for a wooden stick to fit into and use the stick on the inside to push out 4 corners.
Using the same wooden tool as you did for the bottle, push out four corners that will relate to those on the bottle (8). Score, slip, and reattach the top, then use a soft rubber rib to blend in the cut line. Set this form aside.
Finishing the Stopper
Next, use the neck of the leather-hard bottle to do a dry fit of where the stopper bottom needs to be cut (9). Decide where to make the cut according to how the stopper fits into the neck. Avoid having the bottom portion of the stopper extend above the line of the rim. Mark the line, then use an X-Acto knife to make a level cut all the way around the stopper.
Next, use a wooden rib to impress lines on the soft leather-hard topper (10)—these lines will coincide with those already impressed on the bottle. When both pieces are at soft leather hard, score, slip, then attach the two parts together (11).
Note: When fitting the topper and the stopper together, make a beveled edge on each piece to create a nice transition.
9 Use the neck of the leather-hard bottle to do a dry fit of where the stopper bottom needs to be cut.
10 Reattach the top of the stopper and use a wooden rib to create vertical lines in the stopper’s top that relate to the bottle.
11 Attach the top and bottom parts of the stopper together once they are both leather hard.
12 Make multiple handles and attach the one that best fits the form. Add a small amount of clay where the handle meets the body.
Adding a Handle
To make a handle, first form a small carrot-shaped piece of clay, then pull the clay using wet fingers in long, even strokes until you have a length and shape that will fit your bottle. Make multiple handles so you have options when it comes time to attach one. Let the handles dry flat until they’re still flexible but not tacky.
Use the neck of the bottle to determine the size and shape of your handle—I determine the handle size based on how my middle finger might fit through it when grasping the neck of the bottle to drink from it. Use a flexible rib to smooth the handle and an X-Acto knife to cut it to the desired length. Score and slip the areas where the handle will be joined, then attach it (12). Add a small lozenge of clay in between the negative space where the handle meets bottle. Impress a line into this piece of clay in order to keep with the aesthetic cohesion of the whole piece.
Surface Considerations and Firing
After the piece is bone dry, I apply a flashing slip that typically includes Helmer kaolin or a #6 Tile kaolin—both encourage flashing, allow that to dry, then bisque fire the piece. Before glazing, I mask off the front and back larger sections of the piece. I glaze the interior by pouring, then I dip the exterior. Finally the piece is fired in a wood/salt kiln. The surface of the pieces without glaze (the masked areas) develop a skin-like quality from flashing and fly ash that resonates with the inherent relationship that the pieces have to the body. Wood firing has become and important part of my work not only for this surface effect, but also because of the process and community involvement that this type of firing lends itself to.
Tabatha Trolli-DiLoreto is an artist working primarily in the medium of ceramics and is pursuing her MFA at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. She has exhibited in galleries and craft shows nationally since 2010.
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