For as long as I can remember, I have been a collector of all manner of things. To me, the smaller the object, the more appeal it has. As a little girl, one of my most loved collections featured miniature scent bottles. I vividly recall how excited I was each time I got a new one. Precious and exquisite in every detail, I could explore its tiny beauty for hours. A few years ago, I realized that I had no idea where those little treasures are now. I imagine that they are stored somewhere safe, just waiting to be found. Remembering the joy they brought me was more than enough inspiration to begin making a new bottle collection out of porcelain.
Using Soft Slabs
Most of my work starts as thin, hand-rolled slabs. Slabs for these bottles are about ⅛ inch (3 mm) thick. I use a mid-range commercial porcelain that fires to a warm, translucent white in an electric kiln. It can be finicky to work with, prone to cracking, and at times, has a mind of its own, but I have come to respect its temperamental nature and am motivated with every success. I use the clay straight from the bag without wedging and roll slabs onto a piece of tightly woven cotton. Keeping the slabs consistent is important when working thin, so I use metal rulers as guide sticks to keep the slabs even in thickness (1). Slabs are then smoothed and compressed on both sides, using a stiff metal scraper (I use a flour scraper) or metal rib.
Forming the Body
Starting with the prepared slab, use a 2×6-inch (5×15 cm) paper template to cut out a rectangle (2). Next, apply a texture to the slab. For this bottle, I used a sheet of embossed plastic. Lay the plastic onto the slab and use a wooden brayer to transfer the pattern (3). Flip the plastic sheet over and carefully peel the slab away. Tip: If the slab tends to stick to the plastic sheet, lightly dust the clay with cornstarch before texturing it. Lay the slab flat, bevel the two short edges at parallel 45º angles, and then score these edges well. Stand the slab upright, and using gentle, direct pressure, curve the slab into an oval or another chosen shape. Brush a little water onto the scored edges, slightly overlap the seam, and compress with your fingers (4). Use a soft brush to wipe away the excess slip, but leave the join visible.
Next, cut two ovals for the shoulder and bottom using cookie cutters that are slightly larger than the opening of the body (5). To form the shoulder, place one of the ovals onto a piece of foam. Use a wooden ball to press down on the slab until it curls and domes (6). Next, score the top of the body and the edge of the shoulder, brush the scored surfaces with water, and join. Use a wooden brayer to compress and secure the join (7), then clean up any excess slip with a clean, damp brush.
Finally, apply a texture to the bottom oval slab (8). A decorated bottom can be an unexpected surprise. Score and slip both surfaces, place the body onto the bottom slab, and then smooth and secure the join.
Rolling out the Neck
The neck is a seamless, hollow cylinder that is made using a modified version of the broomstick technique. This method uses dowels of increasing thickness to hollow and stretch a coil into a tube, growing it in diameter, but not in length.
Start by rolling a coil that is slightly thinner in diameter than you want when it is finished. Tip: I roll coils on a piece of craft foam that is lightly misted with water to keep them from drying out too quickly. Mark the center at each end of the coil with the thinnest dowel (9), then using one hand, gently push the dowel through the center of the coil while rolling with the other hand. Keep the dowel parallel to the table to make sure that it runs right through the middle of the coil. Pull the dowel all the way out, turn the coil and roll with the dowel from the other side. Carefully repeat this rolling/pushing with increasingly thicker dowels until the walls of the neck are the same thickness as the body (10). While it is still on the dowel, cut the cylinder into various lengths. Remove the pieces from the dowel and set them aside to firm up.
Making the Coil Handle
A handle adds both function and visual interest to the bottle. Using soft clay, roll a thin coil. Cut the coil into different lengths and immediately curve them into arched shapes, by either wrapping them around a cylinder or curving them freehand (11). Vary the length and curve to make a selection of handles to choose from. Lay them on their sides and allow them to stiffen up so that they can be handled without distorting.
Putting It All Together
At this point, all the components should be stiff enough to handle and the bottle can be assembled. First, hold up the different lengths of necks to see which one works the best (12). Mark the outline of the neck on the top of the bottle, then cut a round hole inside this outline. Score, apply slip, and attach the neck, compressing and smoothing the join with gentle downward pressure (13), then clean with a damp brush.
Next, try the different handles to see which best fits the form (14). Cut the ends to match the joining angle, then carefully score the surfaces. Look at the handle placement from all sides to make sure that it is at the right angle, and then attach securely. Clean up any extra slip or score marks, then smooth and define all the joins.
Making the Stopper
The stopper is made last, so that it fits the bottle well. There are endless options for playing with proportion, scale, and character; you can have a lot of fun making this part!
First roll a tapered coil that is as long as half the height of the bottle. The thickest end should be just wide enough to snugly fit inside the diameter of the neck. Then attach a round, flat disk to the thick end of the stopper (15). Next, make a bunch of knobs of different sizes and shapes, then choose the one you like best. Attach the knob to the stopper on top of the flat disk, clean and smooth the join, and check that it fits (16).
Adding Decorative Details
The final step is to add small, decorative details that really develop the individual personality of the bottle. Piping tips, often used for cake decorating, along with slip-trailing tips are handy tools for this. Cut out different sized disks from a slab that is rolled paper thin (about 1 mm thick). Look at the bottle and consider how the details can produce balance, harmony, and visual interest. When you decide where the details look best, score the area, apply slip, and use a wet brush to pick up and place the thin decoration, press firmly with a dry finger to secure, and impress with a slip-trailing tip or other mark making tool (17). Clean up any slip or unwanted marks, and replace the stopper.
Drying, Firing, and Glazing
Place the bottle in a damp box for a day or so, to equalize the moisture levels of all the components and to prevent cracking. Then, move the bottle to a draft-free space to slowly dry. When the bottle is completely bone dry, bisque fire it. Next, use a 20cc syringe to coat the interior of the bottle with a food-safe clear glaze (18), then pour out the excess. I like to leave the exteriors of my bottles unglazed, so I use a sponge to wipe away any drips of the clear glaze.
The final step is to brush a mixture of wax and alumina hydrate where the stopper and the neck touch, to prevent the two surfaces from fusing together. I combine 1 heaping teaspoon of alumina hydrate to 1 cup of wax. After the glaze firing, wet sand the entire bottle and stopper using 400- to 800-grit sandpaper or sanding blocks to achieve a smooth, satiny, all-over finish.
Leilani Trinka was born and raised in Hawaii, has traveled to many far-flung places, and now lives and works in Singapore. She is a maker, a teacher, a wife, and a mom. Find more of her work at www.leilanitrinka.com, or follow her on Instagram at @leilanitrinka.