A little over ten years ago, I was trimming cups and cut through the bottom of one. I must have been feeling particularly lazy that day. Instead of trying to pull out or extrude a handle—I thought why not just cut up the cup into straps and use those as handles? Like most experiments, it failed miserably. These handles were too dry, causing them to separate from the cup during the drying or bisque firing process, the sections were too narrow, and they had sharp edges. Over the years I have refined this technique to create thrown handles that function well.
If you have the throwing skills to make a cup (1), you have the skill to throw a handle for it. The only thing that’s really different in the process is that the handles are thrown off the hump.
Place a 1-pound ball of clay on the wheel and center the top inch, then open it at the center. Insert your finger about half an inch and bring it out. Pull your finger to roughly the diameter that you want the handle to be. Then pull up a wall that’s about an inch high (2).
1 Throw a cup, then compress and smooth the surface with rubber ribs.
2 Throw a handle off the hump. Pull up a small section to form a cylinder.
3 Put a curve into the handle form using pressure from your fingers.
After throwing this short ring, use your fingers or a rib to put a curve in the form (3). This step is important for two reasons. First, most clays get as soft near vitrification as they are when they’re thrown. A flat handle warps in the firing, while a curved form has more structural integrity, making it less likely to warp during the firing. Second, the curved surface adds considerably to the handle’s functionality, because it’s much easier to grasp than a flat surface.
Now that you have the basic shape, clean up the form using a semi-damp sponge, then round off and smooth the top edge (4). This is one of the most crucial elements of the process. Cutting the handle off can create sharp ridges. These edges are uncomfortable and hard to use after the firing. Allow the ring to stiffen up a little bit—it’s important that the ring have some moisture to allow for a better flexibility when you attach it. Next, use a finger, rib, or wooden tool to make an indentation at the bottom of the handle as the clay is spinning (see 4). Now you’re ready to cut the handle from the hump using a needle tool or a knife. Slow down the wheel to only a few rotations a minute so the clay does not fly off of the wheel head when cut.
One of the advantages of this process is it lends itself to variation, which is good since different cups require different handles. Here are three cup and handle combinations that I like making.
Square, funky, asymmetric cup with a small round handle:
For this handle, form the cup by throwing a cylinder that flares out to a wide mouth. After pulling it a little taller than you may typically like, shape the cup by pushing the clay out just above the base. Next, move your fingers up the wall to create decorative throwing rings.
I like to pair this shape with a full circle, small handle. When in the green state, this handle has about a one-inch opening and after firing, it shrinks just wide enough for one finger. Maintaining the full circle keeps the handle as a separate structure to the cup. As two separate design elements the piece works well.
4 Smooth the rim with your fingers or a sponge, then mark the bottom edge.
5 Indent the side of the cup with a ball, then smooth the surface with a rib.
6 Cut the thrown ring so it fits the outer edge of the indentation, then attach.
Round, semi-spherical cup with a partially cut circle:
This shape is far more symmetrical. It’s basically a little more than a half-sphere shape or a half-sphere shape with a slight shoulder and neck. I like to use a slightly larger handle that’s around 2 inches in diameter. After firing, the cup can be picked up with two fingers in the handle. This kind of handle is the most robust thrown handle I make.
A tapered curved wall cup with indentation and a half handle:
These were the first types of cups that I used for my thrown handle experiments. Throw a 6-inch-tall, slightly curved, cup that flares out, create an indentation in the side of the cup using a racquet ball, clean the surface using a rib (5), then cut one of your larger handles in half and attach it on the perimeter of the indentation (6). I like the design of this cup because it makes it easy for people with larger fingers to use without having their fingers bump into the side of the cup.
These are a few solutions that reflect my own personal tastes. Like any process, this one has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s not any more or less functional than pulling or extruding a handle.
Functionality has far more to do with the design and maker than the process. The main advantage of this process is that it allows you to make completely round handles much easier than the other two methods.
Tony Merino is a writer and artist working in Adams, Massachusetts. Read more about him at independent.academia.edu/TonyMerino/Papers.