Salt and pepper shakers are found in almost everyone’s kitchen. Along with the utilitarian function, an interesting salt and pepper set can also serve as a focal point on a table. While these sets are fun to make, they take extra care to ensure success. My sets can be modified in innumerable ways to make them unique.
Tools and Materials
Thin-bladed, pointed knife (like a Dolan or an X-Acto knife). A fettling knife is too broad and thick to effectively and smoothly cut out the small pieces of clay needed.
- Hard plastic rib
- Objects to create textures.
- 1½-inch-diameter ball or a small dome form
- Metal tube with a ½-inch outer diameter
- Wooden ruler
- Pin tool
- Tiny drill bit (3∕32 inch) or clay drilling tool
- ½-inch-diameter plastic or rubber stopper
Preparing the Template and Clay
To make your own templates for the tops, bottoms, and sides of the shakers, use tag board, old file folders, or tar paper. They are stiff enough to guide your knife as you cut and their finish is not so shiny that they will stick to the clay. Simply cut out the templates from the material you prefer (1).
Roll out a slab of soft clay that is 3/16 inch thick and approximately 11×7 inches for one set of shakers. Because this process requires the clay to make a tight bend to create the cylindrical bodies of the shakers, using soft, thin clay creates less stress and strain. Compress the clay slab on both sides with a hard plastic rib, holding the rib at about a 30° angle. Compressing the clay lessens the chance of it cracking.
Next, using the template as your guide, cut out two rectangular pieces of clay for the shakers’ sides and four of the circles with nubs for the bases and tops (2). With your fingers, compress the edges of all the clay pieces to heal any micro tears created while cutting out the pieces. Save a bit of the slab if you want to add an optional decorative strip over the seams of the shakers. Work quickly so the clay remains soft.
Making the Shaker Tops and Texture Strips
Take two of the circles with nubs, and using either a ball or a small hump mold, round them over the ball/mold to create a slightly convex shape. These will become the tops of the shakers. Set them aside to firm up to soft leather hard (3). If you would like to add a decorative strip over the shakers’ seams, cut it out now but cover it with plastic to keep it soft.
Making the Bodies of the Shakers
If you plan to texture the sides of the shakers, now is the time to press objects and tools with compelling surface textures into the rectangular slabs that will become the sides (see 3). If this process distorts the rectangle, use a wooden ruler, preferably one without a finish, to straighten the edge by bumping it against the distorted side. Next, score all four edges of each rectangle.
Now you are ready to create the cylinders that will become the bodies of the shakers by bringing the two shorter scored edges of the rectangles together. Stand the rectangles on their long edges and gently curve them into cylinders. Add slip, tack the scored edges together to create a seam, and then tighten the seam (4).
Combining the Pieces
The two remaining circles with nubs form the shakers’ bases. Using the ½-inch hollow tube, cut a hole in the center of each base. Note: ½-inch stoppers seem to be most common, and I recommend using ½-inch tube for cutting bottom holes for them. Be sure that the outer dimension of the tube matches the measurement of the stoppers you plan to use. Score around the upper, outer edge of each base, add slip, and set the cylinder on the base with its seam facing the nub. Gently tap the joined pieces on the table a few times to assure a tight seam.
You can choose to add an extra strip over the seam both for decorative effect and to strengthen the join. If you did not do this earlier, cut whatever shapes you desire out of the soft clay you set aside, compress the edges, score the attachment areas, add slip, and adhere the slab shapes over each seam on the bodies of the shakers (5). These strips can be designed to differentiate the shakers from one another. Fit each strip so that it sits on the nub of the base and will fit under the nub of the shaker top.
Finally, add the tops of the shakers using the two convex pieces that you had set aside. Score around the outer edges of the underside of the domed pieces, add slip, and place them on top of the cylinders with the nubs facing the seams. Secure them in place and let the shakers set up to leather hard (see 5).
Adding Holes to the Bases and the Tops
Before the shakers get to full leather hardness and they can be handled without distorting them, use either a ball or your hand to slightly indent the base around the hole. This indentation creates space between the stopper and table so the shaker will sit firmly on the tabletop (6).
When the shakers are leather hard, use a small drill bit or a clay drilling tool to make the pouring holes for the salt and pepper in the tops of the shakers (7). Normally there are more holes for salt than for pepper, so consider this as you decide how many holes to drill in each shaker. I recommend fewer and larger holes, so there is less opportunity for glaze to plug a hole and ruin the shaker. Tip: Drilling will create clay crumbs. Do not brush them away until the shaker is thoroughly dried. If you do this while the clay is still wet, the crumbs will stick, making removing them a nuisance.
Dry the shakers slowly, as the tight curve of the cylinder puts a lot of pressure on the clay and fast drying can encourage cracking.
Variation 1: Three-Part Shakers
Once you have prepared the clay, cut out the pieces from the template, and compressed their edges, lay the two rectangular slab pieces side by side. Using a ruler, cut the rectangles into three pieces, along their long axes. Cut across both rectangles, so that the shakers will match.
On a board, slightly separate the three pieces of each shaker so that you can work on each piece individually. If you want to put a design or texture on one part or another, do it now (8). Run your finger along the edge to create an angle of about 45°. This creates a bevel. Bevel both long edges of the center piece of clay and score the bevels. Add slip and lay the other two pieces over the scored bevels of the center piece. There will be approximately a ¼-inch overlap (9). Then using your finger pressed at a 45° angle and positioned ¼ inch away from the overlap, press the pieces together (10). This will leave decorative ridges on either side of the center strip.
Turn the re-attached rectangle over and smooth and tighten the backs of the seams. If any edges have become distorted, bump the ruler against the edge to straighten it, then score all the edges of the newly formed cylinder. The rest of the construction is as described in the directions for the basic set (11).
In this variation, I do not cover the seam with a decorative strip, although you might choose to do this. If you do, you will need to cut the strip to fit the differing surface depths in this variation.
Variation 2: The Diagonal Cut
As in variation 1, set the two prepared rectangular pieces side by side, but cut them diagonally. Start and end the cut about ½ inch away from each corner. You can texture one of the cut pieces to add interest (12). Then, using a finger, bevel one cut side along the diagonal, and score it. Add slip and lay the other piece ¼ inch over the bevel. As in the previous variation, run your finger at a 45° angle and held ¼ inch beneath the seam to seal it, then turn the piece over and again gently seal the back of the seam. Beyond this, all the steps to build the shakers are identical to the previous ones (13).
Glazing is an interesting challenge with salt and pepper shakers because it so easy to ruin them if a hole gets blocked. Following are two tips I have found to significantly increase the success rate.
Needless to say, glazing is done after the work has been bisque fired. Shake the bisque ware and you will likely hear bisque crumbs that fell inside the shaker when you drilled the holes. Shake the piece until all the crumbs fall out of the hole in the base.
Select a glaze that is on the thinner side and that does not run. Depending on the size of the holes you have made, use either round toothpicks for smaller holes, or the pointed ends of round bamboo skewers (used for kebabs) for larger holes. Firmly put one in each hole in the shaker (14). Also, plug the hole in the base of the shaker with a stopper (15). This keeps the glaze from getting inside and filling the shaker holes. Dip the shaker into the glaze, holding it upside down until the glaze stops dripping off the toothpicks/skewers. Let the glaze dry thoroughly for a full day before removing the toothpicks/skewers or stopper (16).
Gently twist the toothpicks/skewers to remove them. Twisting helps avoid having the glaze pull or chip off around the holes. There is likely to be a little raised area of glaze around each hole after the toothpicks/skewers are removed. Carefully smooth these and then wiggle a pin tool in each hole to be sure that they are clear of any glaze that might have fallen into them. Remember to remove the stopper and clean the bottoms of the shakers before firing.
There are dozens of interesting variations you can make using this basic design. Handles or other decorative elements can be added. The height can be changed by changing the length of the shorter side of the rectangular template piece. Salt shakers are affordable, fun, and ubiquitous. Since fewer potters seem to make shakers, galleries are often interested in carrying them. Have fun and let your imaginations run wild.
Marion Angelica is a studio artist and a teacher at the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. To see more, visit www.marion-angelica.com.