Stacked Place Settings

A stacked place setting is one of my favorite things to make and fire in wood or soda kilns. I enjoy throwing the plates, bowls, and cups that complete each set and I’m absolutely drawn to the varied atmospheric surface results.

I throw my place settings one set at a time and make them  in the following order: the plate, then the bowl, and the cup last. This order is important because the size of the previously thrown piece informs the size of each successive piece: such as the plate framing the bowl, and the bowl framing the cup.

To begin, wedge 7 pounds of clay. This is just over the amount needed to complete one set. From the wedged clay, weigh out 3 pounds for the plate, 2¼ pounds for the bowl, and 1½ pounds for the cup, and form the clay into balls.

1 To shape the rim, cup your left hand, place the index finger on the outside wall, and create a groove underneath. Press the right hand down on the top of the rim with the curved edge of the rib.

2 For a more textured and floral rim shape, hold the rib steadily until it chatters. Release gently from chattering as the desired effect is achieved.

The Plate

Center the 3-pound ball into a wide, frisbee-like disk. The height of the centered clay should be about 1 inch. Open the centered clay as wide as possible and leave ¼–½ inch of clay on the bottom.

These next steps of making the plate instruct a throwing technique that I call chatter ribbing. The technique uses the chatter of a potters rib to shape the clay as it’s being thrown. For its pliability and smooth edges, I use a curved #5 yellow Mudtools rib to remove excess throwing slip and to shape the rim of the plate. To shape the rim, openly cup your left hand, placing the index finger on the outside clay wall, and create a groove underneath the opened clay ring. The right hand presses down on the top of the rim with the curved edge of the rib. It’s best to think of this as a squeezing action; as pressure is applied on top by the right hand, the left index finger counteracts pressure and supports from underneath (1). A couple things happen at this stage: the rim flares outward as well as inward, an inside edge begins to form, the rim takes a slight upward curve, and the rib begins to chatter. The more this technique is used on the plate’s rim; the more variations in texture, lines, and rim shape will develop (2).

3 To shape a bowl with the chatter ribbing technique, first create a finger groove at the bottom of the exterior clay wall to prep the clay for a pull.

4 As the rib chatters on the clay, begin to pull with the right hand positioned in the interior of the bowl with the rib above the left index finger.

5 With each successive pull, the curve of the rib and chatter will shape the clay into a bowl.

The Bowl

Center the 2¼-pound clay ball into a mound that is 2 inches in height and open the clay, leaving about 34–1 inch of clay on the bottom. Leaving this amount of clay helps to not thin the bottom from the chatter ribbing. Next, pull up the clay walls once, making sure to leave them thick. Create a finger groove at the bottom of the clay wall to ready a pull with the chatter ribbing technique and position your hands as explained prior in the making of the plate’s rim (3). With the rib in your right hand, remove the inside throwing slip, then hold the rib in place until the chatter begins (this may take a minute). As the rib chatters, steadily make your first pull. The right hand should be positioned inside the bowl with the rib slightly above the left index finger (4). From the curve of the rib and chatter ribbing, the clay will shape nicely into a bowl with each pull (5).

The Cup

The cup is the most basic piece to throw of the stacked place setting and the chatter ribbing is used more as a decorative effect rather than as a means to shape it while throwing. Center the 1½-pound ball and open it while leaving about a ¼ inch thickness on the bottom. Pull the clay to a height that’s in proportion with your previously thrown bowl and trim off any excess clay from the bottom edge with a wood knife to form a straight cylinder.

To finish the cup with chatter ribbing, use a #4 blue Mudtools rib because of the straight stiff edges. With your right hand, hold the flat edge of the rib against the cylinder and support the inside with your left hand and fingers (6). Press evenly along the clay walls with the rib until chatter begins and hold until you reach the desired result. Finish the rim by smoothing with a chamois or a cut and folded strip of plastic from any readily available bag of clay (7). 

6 Shape the cup by holding the rib to the exterior and support the inside with the left hand.

7 Smooth the rim with a cut and folded strip of plastic.

Trimming a Set

I suggest trimming as you are accustomed. I trim to have a curved transition from foot to rim with a wide and slightly raised foot. The wide foot makes for a strong foundation so the place setting sturdily stacks together.

Glazing

To unify the design and color palette of these place settings, I choose to use one specific glaze along with a specific wadding pattern. I use Simon Levin’s Shino Slip recipe, which has both the qualities of a glaze and slip that appeal to me. The shino slip ranges from dry white-to-orange shino glaze tones with the added option to place wads on it, like a clay slip. I primarily use it as a liner on those dry, pesky, hard-to-reach atmospheric spots such as the inside of a bowl or surface of a plate.

Glazing the inside of the bowl and cup is rather straightforward: pour the glaze in and roll it around to fully coat prior to pouring it out (8). The plate takes more finesse because I pour and roll the glaze without pouring off any excess at the end. To glaze the plate, pour an amount of glaze that covers one quarter of the plate’s center (9), and then gently roll around the surface using the inside edge of the rim as a guide (10). When the glaze begins to dry, hold the plate level and allow the glaze to settle in the center.

8 Glaze the bowl in one layer by pouring and rolling along the inside.

9 Pour enough glaze to cover ¼ of the plate's center, then roll it round the inside edge.

10 Hold the plate level and allow the glaze to settle in the center.

 

Wadding and Stacking

The wadding recipe I use is equal parts (by volume) alumina hydrate, kaolin, and fire clay. The alumina and kaolin prevent the wadding from fusing to the shino slip and the fire clay strengthens the wadding for stacking work. In an effort to wad for attractive marks, I take cues from other wood firers like Sam Hoffman who intently design their wadding pattern to create a flame path and capture a variety of atmospheric effects. I like to form wads into tall cylinders with rounded points (see 11, 12) because the height of the wads allows for more atmospheric flame to travel between the stacked set and the points leave small, easy to clean marks.

11 In a pattern of your choosing, wad and stack the set evenly from the bottom plate to the top cup for stability.

12 A sturdy wad pattern with multiple wad points ensures a high success rate through atmospheric firings with minimal warping.

 

Concerning stacking the set for firing (11, 12), having the correct support in wadding is important. Make sure the base plate has enough wadding beneath the foot and center to counter warping. As the set is being stacked, the work should always be centered and level, and lastly the wadding pattern needs to be the same from the bottom of the stack to the top.

I’ve shared several processes that may take some time to apply with your own work, or even feel like an uncomfortable struggle. My final suggestion, as quoted to me from Hiroshi Ogawa, “Embrace the struggle!”

Zachary Wollert has kept his hands dirty with clay for 20 years. His career as a professional ceramic artist began upon his commitment to earn an MFA from Kent State University in 2013. Wollert is currently the lead studio technician at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. To see more, visit www.zacharywollert.com.

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