I recently received the large, formal set of Noritake china that my grandparents purchased in the 1960s while stationed at a military base in Guam. The set was reserved for special occasions and holiday meals shared with family. While I am not currently hosting expansive family dinners, I do hope to make use of the full set one day. In the meantime, I want to incorporate a few of the plates into my own smaller holiday meals. Thinking about their significance, as well as the notion of setting a formal table, I gave myself the challenge of creating charger plates to complement the delicate, bright-white porcelain plates. Charger plates are most often seen at weddings or formal dinners. Their function is primarily decorative, as they peek out from underneath dinner plates, but they can also catch spills and provide a heat buffer. My interest in making chargers to pair with the Noritake dinner plates is to create a dialog between the pieces—inherited and new, matching set and unique.
Start from a Slab
Making a wide, flat plate form in clay poses a few technical challenges, especially when handbuilt and without a slab roller. The Noritake dinner plates measure 10½ inches across, so my finished chargers needed to be about 13 inches in diameter, and 14 inches at the greenware stage to account for shrinkage. To begin, I used 6 pounds of a grogged commercial low-fire terra cotta. This clay doesn’t shrink too much, is fairly forgiving, and matures at a lower temperature, all of which I hoped would minimize warping in the kiln.
With the clay on the table, I began by pounding it from a block shape to a square slab. To avoid warping and cracking, it’s important to work evenly at every step of the forming process. Use the heel of your hand to press into the block, working from the area closest to your body to the opposite edge and across its width. Flip the clay and rotate it so that the end that was last to be pressed is now the first. Repeat this process, firmly compressing, but without thinning any one area too much or too quickly. Be careful to keep the slab in a rounded square shape. Once the slab is about an inch thick, use a rolling pin with light pressure to compress and even it out. Lift, flip, and throw to stretch the slab, then roll with the rolling pin again. When flipping the slab from this point on, be careful to do so with as little movement as possible—don’t bend or pinch the slab. Those creases, marks, and wobbles in the clay may reappear after firing.
When the slab is ⅝ inch thick, use a metal rib to smooth and compress it. Again, rotate the direction that you pull the rib over the surface so that the slab is worked on from all angles. Lift the slab by two corners and flip it onto a 16×16-inch cement board. Use a metal rib to compress this side of the slab, then a red rubber rib. The final thickness of the slab should be about ⅜ inch.
Make a circular template in paper, then spray it lightly with water to help it stick to the slab (1). Use a needle tool to cut around the template. Make light guide marks 2 inches from the perimeter to delineate the border of the charger.
Create a Border
With about 2 pounds of clay, roll a long coil about ¾ inch in diameter and long enough to go around the circumference of the slab (2). Score and then add water or vinegar to both the border of the charger and the coil. Place the coil onto the charger, about a half inch from the edge, forming a circle, then use the heel of your hand with medium pressure to tamp it down. Be sure to join the ends where the coil meets carefully by cutting each at a diagonal, scoring, slipping, and blending the seam.
Once the coil is roughly attached around the border of the charger, use a thumb to further compress it down, using medium pressure and moving slowly and evenly around the coil. Direct this compression to thin and spread the coil just to the edge of the charger. With a brush, apply some water just under the inner lip of the coil. With a slight movement from center to edge, press around the inner edge with your thumb to fully laminate the lip of the coil to the slab (3). You should see the water being pushed from under the coil as you work. Use a sponge to wipe up any excess water. Repeat this for the exterior lip of the coil (4), then smooth the top of the coil with a rubber rib.
Use your thumb, index, and middle fingers to create repeating patterns of texture along the coil border (5–7). I started by pressing the outermost edge with my index finger, repeating the same motion all the way around. I then used those repeating depressions to guide placement of other repeated movements like pulling clay from the center of the coil to the inner edge and using my thumb to drag clay to the side to create ridges. Once satisfied with the texture and decorative pattern created, use your palm to slightly mute any sharp spots by gently patting all the way around the border. Use a rubber rib to smooth the center of the charger (8).
When the charger has stiffened up slightly, use an X-Acto knife to cut at an angle around the edge of the charger to create a slight undercut (9). This will make the charger easier to pick up and also strengthens the edge.
Drying and Finishing
Drying plates is tricky. After some trial and error, I found that the best way to dry these chargers is to do it slowly and without flipping. The cement board draws moisture from the bottoms, so I shift the plates around the large boards to prevent the bottom from sticking and expose the clay to a dry area of the board. I draped plastic over the pieces for the first 24 hours to allow the coil and slab to fully homogenize in moisture level. Over the following three days, I removed the plastic and allowed them to dry slowly, and eventually fully uncovered them.
While bisque firing the chargers, I used a ⅛-inch layer of silica sand on the kiln shelves to lift the pieces above any irregularities in the shelves and allow them to move freely as they shrank. To finish, I applied 3 brush coats of Amaco’s Satin Black glaze and fired the chargers again to cone 03. I used silica sand in the glaze firing as well, but paid careful attention to keeping any sand from touching the glazed areas. I also left several chargers unglazed but fired to vitrification for a warm, terra-cotta finish that contrasts differently with the dinner plates.
Layered under the dinner plates, the chargers’ textured borders reinforce the gold bands and scroll designs of the Noritake plates, adding a touch of looseness and warmth to the formal dishes. Making these chargers to compliment my grandparents’ set feels like an intergenerational conversation I look forward to expanding and celebrating with good food and family.
Katie Sleyman is the acquisitions and content editor for Ceramics Monthly, Pottery Making Illustrated, and CeramicRecipes.org as well as the books manager for the Ceramic Arts Network.