Hollow Butter Dish

These Words Three, butter dish, 6½ in. (17 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and handbuilt white stoneware, high-fire wire, cone 6 electric, 2017.

I make intricately assembled and decorated tableware. My forms are often hollow or incorporate a tactile element that can only be experienced close up or while touching the piece. I’m inspired by words and how we use them to create idioms—and by extension, how we use those verbal/written structures to view the world around us. My hollow butter dish is part of a body of work called Cloud 9, an interpretation of cloud-related idioms and an attempt to understand the intricacies of relationships.

Handbuilt Slabs

Start with about 5 pounds of clay and roll out a ¼-inch-thick slab. Cut this into three pieces, all approximately 6×9 inches. Place two of these slabs on curved molds (or similar surfaces) to dry (1). One of the hump molds should be more curved to create the top part of the lid and the other should be less curved to become the bottom of the base. Depending on your desired shape, you can make and use different molds. Keep the third slab flat—for a base that the lid and butter will eventually sit on. Set these three pieces aside to set up while you throw the other parts.

1 Drape two slabs over molds to begin drying. Leave a third slab flat (not pictured).

2 Throw a ring with a 6 in. (15 cm) diameter for a base. Depending on the desired shape, the walls can be convex or concave.

Wheel-Thrown Base and Walls

Wedge two balls of clay, each between ½ and ¾ pound. Center the first ball, then create a ring (no bottom) that’s approximately 6 inches or more in diameter (2). Keep the size of a stick of butter and the shrinkage rate of your clay in mind while creating this ring. It would be unfortunate to spend a lot of time on a butter dish that ends up being too small.

Now throw the lid. Follow the same steps just outlined and be sure the walls are tall enough to cover a stick of butter. The diameter should be ½–¾ inches smaller than the base. Make sure there’s enough clay at the bottom of the lid to rest sturdily on a surface. I often use a small metal rib to shape the walls and create the illusion of a coil at the top and bottom (3). Set these pieces aside to stiffen up to a soft leather hard.

Now, the clay should still be malleable, but not wet. Cut the rings off the bats and use your fingers to elongate the forms (4). Tap the lid gently to make sure it will sit flat. Set the two rings and the three slabs aside until they’re leather hard.

3 Throw the lid. The diameter should be ½–¾ inch less than the diameter of the base.

4 Elongate the lid and base forms into slight ovals, then tap them each gently on the table to make sure they’re flat.

Forming the Lid

Take the more convex of your slabs (see 1, left) and mark an outline of where it will attach to the walls of your lid (5) forming a domed top. Cut along this line, score and slip the two pieces, then attach them together (6). Using a flexible rib, press down and smooth out the seams. Set this piece aside.

5 Draw a line where the top of the lid (see 1, left) will meet the walls of the lid on the curved slab. Cut along that line.

6 Score the attachment areas on the curved slab and walls of the lid, apply slip, then attach the pieces.


Position the walls of the base onto the slab bottom and draw a line around the outside of the wall. Score and slip both pieces then attach them (7). Make sure you press firmly to ensure a secure attachment with no cracking. Cut away the excess slab, then use a rasp and a serrated rib to take away any edges or lumps and round the form (8).

Next, roll out a small coil. This will be the rim that keeps your lid snugly in place. Use the outline of the base of your lid as a template for where to put the coil (on the flat slab you set aside earlier) (9). It’s extremely important that the coil isn’t too wet because it will shrink too much and either crack or the lid won’t fit. Either scenario will render your butter dish unsatisfactory or useless. Score and slip where the coil will attach to the flat slab and gently press the coil on, taking care to blend all seams (10). It’s a good idea to test the fit of the lid and make adjustments if necessary before moving on.

7 Draw a line where the bottom of the base (see 1, right) will be attached to the walls of the base. Score, slip, then attach the pieces.

8 Hone in on the desired shape by using a rasp and a serrated rib to shave away unnecessary material.

9 Take the leather-hard, flat slab of clay and trace the outline of the bottom of the lid.

10 Roll out a small coil and place it on the outside of the line. Score, add slip, then attach the coil.

Next, cut away the excess material, then score and slip the bottom of this slab and attach it to the base (11). Once it’s secured, you can shape and refine it however you like.

Creating a Custom Rim

This next step is optional. I often use a custom foam template to vary the rim a little (12). Using a template ensures the piece is symmetrical, but you could also create an interesting asymmetrical rim. Once you draw the pattern onto the piece, cut along that line (13) until you’ve achieved your desired shape.

11 Cut away unnecessary clay from the outside of the coil. Remove any sharp edges with a rasp.

12 Place the lid inside the coil to ensure a good fit. If desired, use foam templates as a guide to customize the shape of the coiled rim.

13 Use an X-Acto blade to trim the rim, then smooth the rim and shape it to fit.

14 Use a kitchen scouring pad and water to smooth out miscellaneous marks and dents. Finish the rim using a damp sponge.

Finishing Touches

Gently rub your piece with a wet green kitchen scrubby to get rid of any remaining lumps and dents. But be careful, at this stage, it’s important to use the least amount of water possible to avoid potential cracking. Finally, use a damp sponge to smooth your piece to its finished state (14). You’re now free to decorate the surface as you choose!

These Words Three, 6½ in. (17 cm) in length, wheel-thrown and handbuilt white stoneware, high-fire wire, fired to cone 6, 2017.

Vanessa Norris is a ceramic artist best known for her functional tableware. She has a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and currently resides in Boston. Follow her on Instagram: @vanessamnorris.


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