Everyday tasks are more enjoyable when using tools that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also excellently perform the tasks for which they were designed. This versatile bottle was designed for pouring and storing anything from sake to salad dressing. The form fits the hand comfortably and the texture provides visual interest as well as a more secure grip. It’s easy to fill and delivers a smooth, controlled pour. The decorative topper protects the contents when not in use. For more airtight storage, a cork may be substituted.
Making the Bottle
Select a fairly smooth clay body. Center 2–2½ pounds of clay on the potter’s wheel. Open the interior to 2–2¼ inches with a curved wall at the base. Raise a narrow cylinder that is 3–3½ inches in diameter and 7–8 inches tall (1). The thickness of the walls should be approximately ¼ inch to resist collapse when the piece is dipped in slip later in the process. Use inward and outward pressure on the side walls to create the curvy silhouette (2). Finish the top by tapering the walls to form a spout that is 1 inch in diameter at the rim (3). Pinch the rim to create a bevel in the interior of the spout approximately 3∕8 inch down from the top edge, creating a ledge where the ball topper will sit. A line detail can be added to the exterior neck using the edge of a metal rib (4). Smooth the bottle with a soft rubber rib. When the bottle is leather hard, throw a clay chuck and drape it with thin plastic. Invert the bottle onto the chuck (5), level and center it, and trim the base (6). When trimming is completed, smooth the surface with a rubber rib.
Constructing the Topper
Use calipers to take a measurement just below the rim (7). Throw a solid ball that’s slightly smaller than that measurement. Add an extra knob of clay to the ball (8). This will act as a counterweight to the top flourish, which will help the topper remain upright in the bottle. When the topper ball reaches the leather-hard stage, trim away the excess clay with a knife. Finish shaping with a Surform and smooth with a rubber rib. Make an indentation in the top of the ball to receive the flourish. In your dampened palm, create the flourish by rolling a small ball of clay to the desired shape and cut the base flat. Score the indentation on the ball and the base of the flourish. Add a little water to the indentation and join the two pieces (9). Make several toppers so you can select the one that fits best. Set the toppers aside in an upright position to dry.
Applying the Slip or Terra Sigillata
Texture can be applied directly onto the bottle or etched through a thin layer of slip. The slip should be smooth, fine grained, deflocculated, suitable for application to early stage leather-hard ware, and fit your clay body with no cracking or flaking during drying or firing. The consistency of the finished slip should be similar to heavy cream. I use terra sigillata. After making the terra sigillata, I allow it to settle and remove much of the water to achieve a specific gravity of approximately 1.52, then apply it to cone 7–10 stoneware and fire the piece to cone 8 in an electric kiln. Test your thickened terra sigillata through a glaze firing, and when you’re satisfied it works with your clay body and any overglazes you might be planning to use, mix a batch large enough for dipping.
When the bottle is at the early leather-hard stage, apply the slip. Begin by tracing the bottom contour onto sturdy paper to make a resist (10). Cut out the traced shape slightly inside the lines so the resist mask fits within the outer edge of the base. Dampen the paper mask, place it in position, and press to seal around the edges (11). The mask prevents the slip from adhering to the foot and also protects it from damage during the texturing process. Stir the slip or terra sigillata and pass it through a fine-mesh sieve to remove all lumps and debris. Pour the slip into a container deep enough for dipping and wide enough to allow space for both hands (see 11). Pop any air bubbles and remove any froth on the surface of the slip. Hold the bottle securely at the top with one hand and support the base with the other. Push the piece down into the slip to the desired level (12), and hold steady for several seconds. Remove carefully when a slight build up of slip can be seen forming along the top edge. Hold the bottle upright and allow the excess slip to run off (13). Use a small sponge to wipe the bottom and set the piece aside until the body and the slip firm up.
Creating the Texture
When the sheen disappears from the slip surface, touch it lightly in an inconspicuous place. If the surface feels firm and is undisturbed, texturing can begin. Areas of slip that are too dry may be misted lightly with water. Allow the water to be absorbed before proceeding.
Hold the bottle cradled in a piece of thin foam padding. Begin at the bottom edge, position the pin tool at a steep angle against the bottle, and draw the pin tool vertically through the slip using a slow, steady stroke (14). Place one line next to the previous as you move around the bottle, turning it carefully on the foam cushion to avoid distorting the pattern. Make slight adjustments to the line spacing from top to bottom and use partial lines to ease the lines to fit the form and keep the lines perpendicular to the base. When you have finished applying the texture, lift the edge of the paper resist applied to the bottom of the foot with a pin tool and remove.
Adding the Sprigs
Sprigs should be applied immediately after texturing is completed. These decorative additions can be hand formed or plaster or bisque molds can be used to create them. Press clay into the mold and level off. Use a pin tool to score the back of the sprig and remove the sprig from the mold. Be certain where the sprig is to be placed and score the surface. With a small brush and a drop of water, dampen the scored back of the sprig. Use the pin tool to assist with placement and press the sprig gently onto the surface of the bottle (15). When the sprigs are in place, they may be decorated with colored slip applied with a brush or finger tips (16).
After bisque firing, apply a food-safe liner glaze to the interior and if you wish, any exterior glazes you plan to use. With some practice, a good eye, and a steady hand, you’ll achieve successful results.
Debra Oliva earned a BFA from Northern Illinois University. Currently residing in Michigan, she has been a full-time ceramic artist for nearly 30 years.