I was inspired to make this cheeseboard by Kate Symonds, my friend and colleague at Coach Street Clay. We were both selling pots at a craft fair in Buffalo, New York, several years ago, and as often happens at craft fairs, we ended up trading pots. She made a beautiful, round hors d’oeuvres tray decorated with flowering dogwood blossoms, my favorite! After taking her platter home with me, I decided to make an appetizer tray and after a few tries, I came up with this paddle-shaped cheeseboard. I like that the handle has a leather cord on it so that it can double as a piece of wall art when not in use. The tray is very simple, but there are a few tricks that will help you as you experiment with your own forms.
Creating a Template
The first step in creating your cheeseboard is deciding what size and shape to make it. I decided to make mine small and paddle shaped. I wanted it to be small because it’s easier to fire and keep flat, but this technique also works for larger pieces. Once you’ve decided what you would like your cheeseboard to look like, you need to cut out a template. I use newspaper because it is readily accessible, easy to work with, and layered, which makes it easy to quickly cut out several templates at once. Take several pieces of layered newspaper, fold it in half, and draw half of your design on the folded side of the newspaper (1). Cut along your line, then unfold the newspaper to reveal your templates (2).
Preparing a Slab
The cheeseboard is essentially just a slab of clay cut into a shape; however, there are some helpful tricks to creating a flat slab. To begin, quickly wedge a piece of clay. My clay body is Laguna 80, which is a cone-6 clay. I use reclaimed clay when doing slab work because it doesn’t matter if the clay has some air bubbles in it. A lot more wedging is required to prepare reclaimed clay for throwing, which can be tough on your wrists. If you use your reclaimed clay for slab work instead, it can help ease wrist pain because far less wedging is needed.
Once the clay has been wedged, pat it with the heel of your palm or a wooden mallet to flatten it out into a roughly rectangular shape. Move your wedging board (or a spare ware board) onto the ground. Pick up your slab and in an arcing motion, smoothly slam it down and draw it back onto the board (3). This action stretches the clay out and helps prepare it for the slab roller by making it thinner and giving it the proper proportions for your project. Continue to slam the clay down and back onto the wedging board until it is slightly longer than your template, ensuring that your slab will be big enough for your template.
Move your wedging board back to a table and carefully lift your prepared slab, trying not to bend or stretch it. Gently lift one side, supporting the clay from below with an open palm, facing up. As you continue to lift the slab, place your other hand, palm up, under the slab so that you are carrying it with both hands, palms up (4). This is the easiest way to transport your slab to the slab roller without bending it. It is very important to treat your slab with care from this point forward because clay has memory. I like to think of it like a piece of paper; if you are careful with a piece of paper, it will remain flat but if your crumple or roll it, it’s almost impossible to get it to be flat again. Clay is much the same, if you twist or bend it, even if it looks flat when it’s wet, it may begin to warp as it dries.
Place your slab on the slab roller, set it to ¼–⅜ inch thick, depending on your preference, and roll it through. The last step in preparing your slab is to clean it up. I use a stiff rubber rib first, followed by a soft rubber rib. Smooth the clay by thoroughly going over it with the two ribs (5). Work in many different directions to compress the particles, which will additionally help prevent cracking and warping. As you smooth the clay, any small air bubbles will be revealed. Use a pin tool to pierce the bubbles, then go over them again with your rib.
Moving the Slab
After prepping the slab, it is time to move it onto a ware board. This is a very important step, and once your slab has been transferred to the ware board, you will not move it again. Lift the canvas and the slab carefully off the roller to a flat working surface, using the canvas to support the clay like a sling. Keep the canvas taut and try to minimize any curving or bending of the slab. Open the canvas and place a ware board on top of the slab (6). Wrap the board with the excess canvas. This will sandwich the clay and ware board between two pieces of canvas. In one quick, smooth motion, flip the sandwiched clay and board. Pull the excess canvas from under the ware board and then lift the canvas off the clay (7). Now the smooth side of the slab is on the ware board, and the rough side is visible. Repeat the process of smoothing and compressing the clay with ribs and pierce any air bubbles.
Trace Your Template
Bring your templates to the slab and loosely arrange them on the surface, leaving at least ¼ inch in between templates. Once you have fit as many templates as possible on the slab without any overlap, gently smooth the templates onto the surface using your fingers or a soft rubber rib (8). Newspaper works well because it doesn’t leave many marks or wrinkles on the surface. With a fettling knife or pin tool, carefully cut around the template, keeping your tool upright so that you don’t undercut your board. Once you have cut all around the templates, remove the excess clay and peel off the paper (9).
Tip: When all the extra clay has been removed, loosely drape plastic over the cheeseboards and use your finger to smooth and round out the edges (10). This step can be skipped, but it results in a cleaner looking board.
Remove the plastic and cover your boards with a piece of prepared Sheetrock (see sidebar). Depending on your climate, the cheeseboards should be allowed to set up for anywhere between a few days to a week. They should dry very slowly under the Sheetrock. Check the cheeseboards regularly, and once they have stiffened to the point that they are not bending at all when you touch them, flip them over and, using a hole punch, make a small hole in the handle (11). I wait to punch a hole until after the clay is stiff because there are fewer clay burrs at that stage, and since the clay can be lifted and really cut all the way through, it also makes a cleaner hole. Next, take a rasp and gently smooth the edges (12). Then, use a sponge and a rib to smooth the bottom of the cheeseboards. Put them back under the Sheetrock (also flipping the Sheetrock over for more even drying) for at least another day or two, if not longer.
Using Sheetrock to Dry Flat Pieces
I use Sheetrock (also called drywall) regularly in my studio as a way to promote even drying and prevent warping for flat items. Trays, tiles, plates, and platters are all excellent candidates for this treatment. Because Sheetrock is made mostly of gypsum (the main ingredient in plaster), it is very important that it does not accidentally contaminate your clay. To prevent contamination, carefully cover all the raw edges of a Sheetrock board in duct tape immediately after cutting them to usable sizes. Although I often cover my work with Sheetrock, I never create work on it because the moisture in wet clay can swell the Sheetrock and cause the paper coating to rip. When using Sheetrock boards as a drying aid, flip them regularly to promote even drying.
Firing Your Cheeseboards
Once the cheeseboards are completely bone dry, they are ready to bisque fire. They can be stacked on top of each other, three or four in a stack. After they are bisque fired, they are ready to glaze and decorate!
Hannah Graeper Carver is a potter and mother based in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. She is one of the founding members of the Finger Lakes Pottery Tour. See more at www.hannahgraeperpottery.com, Instagram @hannahgraeperpottery, or Esty @HannahGraeperPottery.