Cake stands are functional eye candy. Redolent of gatherings of friends and family, of celebrations and deepening connections . . . and of leftovers! I’ve integrated them into my life, covering them with my grandmother’s pearls, plant cuttings, and occasionally, cakes. I’ve even turned them upside down and filled their bases with flowers. Every inch of them—top, bottom, inside and out—is carefully considered and covered with details meant to delight and encourage a slow examination to discover their secrets. They give me joy and fill me with a sense of indulgence.
My process, too, relies on curiosity and exploration. I like to remain open to chance, listening to the clay and my instincts. This unscripted method often requires problem solving, leading to creative fixes. I encourage you to take breaks while working to let your ideas marinate. Come back with fresh eyes, reconsider your decisions and figure out where to go next. A nonlinear, unplanned approach can lead to delightful results.
Clay Body: My clay body of choice for this body of work is Laguna #10-T, a cone-04, grogless, white earthenware, which I bisque fire to cone 03 to give some additional strength.
Underglaze: Amaco Black Velvet applied to bisque
Dimensional glaze for dots: Duncan Pure White French Dimensions
Glaze: Duncan cone 05/06 Clear Glaze. Apply 3 coats. Fire in oxidation to cone 05.
Create your own bisque-fired clay stamps with unique textures. Make 1-inch lugs with stamping surfaces from ½–1½-inches. Consider making rolling stamps, ¼-inch thick and 2-inches in diameter. Carve your designs on leather-hard clay or slip trail to add dimension. Wipe the carvings with a damp sponge to soften them. Bisque fire to cone 04.
My stamp motifs are generally lines and geometric shapes inspired by my free-form needlework. I gravitate to square, circular, and floral shapes for my stamps, influenced by my new love of gardening!
Forming and Decorating the Parts
When I make cake stands, I like to work in multiples to encourage experimentation and risk taking. The added benefit: I have several combinations of tops and bases from which to choose.
To make one cake stand, prepare four fat coils to construct the base and one ball to form the top. Wrap the ball in plastic and set it aside. Shape three of the coils into arcs, and leave one straight. Flatten each to roughly ½ inch thickness. Compress the flattened coils with a metal rib (1). Compression, along with slow drying, helps prevent warping and cracking.
Form a cone with one of the flattened arc-shaped coils, then form a cylinder with the straight one. Layer the cylinder on top of the cone to begin building your base (2) When firmly attached, add another arc for the next layer, flaring it out slightly with your fingers (3). Accentuate the flare with a paddle, which will compress the clay further (4). Allow the form to set up to a soft leather hard.
Next, add texture and pattern, both incised and relief. Edges of relief will nicely catch underglaze later in the process. Add interest to the bottom edge by altering it with stamps or negative space (5). I don’t think it’s possible to pay too much attention to the details of every surface and edge! Dry to leather hard, then wrap it in plastic.
Flatten the ball of clay you set aside into a disk, pounding with your fist to protect your wrists. When it’s roughly ¾ inch thick, compress both sides with a metal rib. The top should end up roughly ⅜ inch thick, a little thinner for a small top (less than 5 inches in diameter), thicker for a large one (larger than 9 inches). Air dry the disk to soft leather hard, then add texture and pattern with your bisque-fired stamps (6).
Do you want a straight or a skirted top? If you decide on a straight top, this is the time to add interest to its edges—with stamps, scallops, and texture, which could be made with textiles or found objects. Note: If you decide to make a skirted top, leave the rim untouched so you can slip, score, and attach the skirt later. Sandwich the top between layers of drywall boards to prevent warping, and firm up to leather hard.
When your top and base are leather hard, add some decorative carvings. I carve with a pen (7). I love the line it creates and appreciate how familiar and fluid it feels to draw with one. Draw flowers, geometric shapes, squiggles, dots, dashes, and doodles. Make some lines gestural, others more controlled. Have fun with it. Dry to a firm leather hard.
The Skirted Top
Now that your stamped top is leather hard and you’ve added visual interest with stamps and carvings, it’s time to create a skirt. Take your remaining coil, which was flattened into an arc, and attach it to the outside edge of the top. Reinforce the inside seam with a coil. Use your fingers to gently flare the skirt out (8).
Now it’s time to play. Cut out scallops and add negative spaces from the skirt (9). Use your fingers to smooth each opening, creating a slightly raised edge around each cutout (10). Continue playing with the skirt, altering it, adding sprigs, and stamping it (11). Wrap the top well and slowly dry it upside down to firm leather hard. Tip: I put sand weights on the upside-down top. Enclose the sand in plastic so it doesn’t spill, then wrap it in absorbent cotton. This will prevent warping while drying.
The Completed Form
If you’ve made multiple tops and bases, choose which combination works best. I love this part. Since all elements are now firm leather hard, they can be handled without distorting, and you can try different tops on the various bases. To properly support the top, you may need to add a coil to widen the top edge of your chosen base. Ensure that it covers ⅔ to ¾ of the top’s surface, particularly for large, skirted tops.
Use a bubble level to ensure that the top is level. (12). To avoid putting pressure on the top while attaching it to the base, flip the top over so it is upside down, place it on your work surface, and lower the base onto it (13). Slip, score, and attach the base to the top.
Wrap and dry slowly. When it is nearly bone dry, soften all the carvings, stamped surfaces, and edges by wiping with a damp sponge. Bisque fire the form to cone 03.
The Decorated Surface
Brush black underglaze over the entire piece, then wipe with a damp cotton cloth, leaving underglaze in all the incised areas and around the relief edges, which will echo the look of tarnished silver (14). Use a cotton swab to remove excess underglaze around the relief and any hard-to-reach areas. Some underglaze will remain on all surfaces, given the absorbent nature of bisque-fired earthenware. This results in an appealing, aged look, which I prefer to the crisp look of mishima or sgraffito.
My favorite part of finishing the cake stand is decorating its many surfaces. Use a very fine brush to apply tiny brushstrokes with the black underglaze, incorporating lines, dots, shapes, and patterns (15). For contrast, vary the line thickness, line quality, and the opacity of the underglaze. This can be done by using a variety of brushes, and adding water to thin the underglaze to create varying shades of gray. If some areas need shading for balance, vary your shading methods: try using overlapping squiggles or lines to add depth and interest (16). Decorate the underside of the top and inside of the base: consider every inch (17).
Consider adding dots of dimensional white glaze in select areas around the perimeter and underside of the top surface, as well as on the inside and outside of your base. Avoid placing it on the surface of the cake stand. Consider adding an accent dot or two of color with underglaze—I’m partial to chartreuse. Use your finest brush to draw a black or dark gray circle around each dot to make it pop.
Finally, coat the entire piece with clear glaze to keep the focus on the form, texture, and brushwork. Fire in oxidation to cone 05, and then start baking!
Elizabeth Ruskin is a studio potter in Portland, Maine, and lives with her pup, Lou. She is largely self taught in ceramics, with the benefit of several fabulous workshops. She has an MA in international relations. To learn more about Elizabeth’s inspirations, work, and upcoming shows, check out her Instagram @elizabethruskin and website elizabethruskin.com.