Incised and Inlaid Tumblers

I’m interested in creating surfaces that are rich in pattern, but also subtly beautiful in their simplicity. I work with a limited color palette, choosing to emphasize form through carving. This juxtaposition between simple, yet elegant forms and complex patterns creates a dynamic that’s utilitarian, but still visually stimulating.

I originally started making these tumblers to fill a void of large drinking vessels that were lacking in my home. I also found them to be a great test of my throwing abilities. They are tall, thin, and narrow; three characteristics that, when combined, proved to be more than just a simple cylinder. Through the challenge, I found some techniques that greatly helped improve my success rate.

Set Up and Clay Body Choice

Clay consistency is very important in order to achieve height when throwing. I often wedge my clay the night before I intend to throw these pieces, even leaving them unwrapped to stiffen up the clay a bit if needed. Because they are tall and thin, collapsing or folding of the walls is common if the clay is too wet.

Start with 1½ pounds of wedged clay. I use Continental Clay’s B-Clay Stoneware, which is a porcelain-stoneware blend. It fires relatively white, can be polished to a smooth and glossy finish like porcelain, but has the throwing consistency of stoneware. It also has a firing range from cone 5–10. I typically fire to cone 6 in oxidation, but have also successfully wood fired it to cone 10 with beautiful results.

1 Hold a sponge in the right hand while pulling up the walls with your left hand.

2 For added feel and control, switch to a finger pull.

Throwing

Center the clay using whichever technique works well for you. As always, centering is extremely important to ensure that your walls are even throughout the throwing process. After centering the mound, I have noticed that opening the clay fairly wide then collaring back in helps to create a nice square edge between the interior walls and the floor of the pot.

Make sure to maintain a conical shape (a wider base than rim) as you throw. This will help to create the height and strength that’s necessary for making a tall cylinder.

As with centering, there are many techniques for pulling that work well. I typically make my pulls with a sponge in my right hand (1), as it evenly distributes the pressure being applied to the clay and I can add water to the piece if needed. As the walls get thinner though, I switch to a finger pull, which allows me to better feel the thickness of the clay. Using your thumb, index, and middle finger pinched together creates a small gallery that makes lifting the clay easier (2).

Once you have achieved about ⅔ of the height you’re aiming for, begin to focus on thinning the middle and top section of the cylinder. Keep the bottom thicker to provide extra strength, because there’s a good amount of torque applied to the piece as you’re pulling up the walls.

3 Use a torch to stiffen the walls of the pot and speed up your throwing time.

4 Compress the rim of the piece each time you pull up the walls.

5 Remove excess water from the interior with a sponge attached to a stick.

6 To achieve a smooth finish, rib the exterior of the tumbler with a metal rib.

This is the point in my process when I know if my clay is the right consistency or not. If my walls begin to slump, I use a torch to stiffen up the clay (3). Once the middle and top are adequately pulled, go back and do a final pull or two all the way from the bottom, tapering off pressure as you approach the middle (4).

Now, change your focus to narrowing the piece to its desired final diameter. Start collaring at the bottom so that it’s slightly narrower than the rim. This creates an elegant and dramatic shape. Use a sponge-on-a-stick to remove any excess water from the interior (5). Any water left inside the vessel will cause the piece to dry unevenly and most likely crack.

Now for the final touches. Finish and refine the surface of the tumbler with a flexible metal rib (6, 7). This creates the canvas for my patterns so I want the surface to be as smooth as possible. The final thrown tumbler measures roughly 8 inches tall by 3 inches wide, and roughly 3mm thick at the rim. Cut the tumbler off the wheel and allow it to dry until leather hard. I prefer to trim and carve on the harder side of leather hard to avoid warping while handling the piece.

7 To finished the rim, use the rib to smooth and compress it.

8 After the foot has been trimmed, establish the horizontal bands.

Carving

After I have trimmed and refined the bottom, I begin to lay out my grid for carving using a needle tool. I always start by centering the piece on the wheel and defining the top and bottom lines that I will carve between. Then, I measure the space between those two lines to determine the mid-point where I create a band of horizontal lines (8). After all of the horizontal lines have been carved, I move to a banding wheel to divide the piece vertically using the grid on the wheel’s surface (9).

Now, find a comfortable chair and a soft surface to cradle the piece and begin the carved pattern. I use a pillow, although a soft foam block works well, too. Using the vertical guides I created on the banding wheel, I divide the piece into 6 sections. The section dividers are comprised of 5 vertical lines, which relate back to the horizontal dividing band (10). I use a small, flexible, plastic ruler and a needle tool to establish each set of 5 lines. I start by carving a line on each side of the ruler, then I create 3 evenly spaced marks between those 2 lines that will be my guides for the remaining middle lines. Next, I add diagonal lines in varying directions within the negative space created by the vertical and horizontal lines (11).

9 Using a banding wheel, divide the cup into six equal vertical sections.

10 With your piece set on foam or a pillow, draw vertical lines into the sections.

As difficult as it may be, avoid cleaning up the rough carved edges until the piece is bone-dry. I use a blue kitchen scrubby and gently wipe the surface down until it’s smooth (12). Be sure to work in a well-ventilated area and wear a dust mask. You can also sand the piece after it has been bisque fired, but I prefer the ease of clean up in the greenware state.

Lastly, I use compressed air to clear clay dust out of the carved lines. If you don’t have an air compressor, bisque fire your piece, then clean it with a sponge and water.

11 The most useful tools for carving these patterns are a ruler and a needle tool.

12 Use a kitchen scouring pad to remove rough edges on the bone-dry clay.

Glazing

I prefer the look of celadon glazes so I strive to achieve a surface that mimics some of those effects in an oxidation atmosphere. I typically work with a simple, monochromatic color palette. In this case, a dark cobalt blue is used to inlay the carved lines and a lighter blue for the topcoat.

Start by giving the piece a quick dip in a bucket of water. Since I will be inlaying glaze and wiping off the excess, the water helps distribute the glaze evenly without excessive build up and waste. Using a brush, dab glaze into all of the carved lines (13), then use a wet sponge to wipe away the excess (14). It’s important to let the bisque-fired piece thoroughly dry before applying the next layer of glaze. Next, apply the liner glaze to the interior. Wipe off any excess glaze that spills down the exterior of the piece as it’s poured out.

13 For the inlay pattern, brush on a darker colored glaze.

14 Once the glaze has dried, gently wipe off the excess.

15 The first exterior dip in the light blue glaze goes to the bottom horizontal line.

16 The second exterior dip in the light blue glaze goes to the top horizontal line.

I do a double dip in the areas that are carved to achieve the runny effects that I desire without having a mess of glaze on the shelves after the firing. This is accomplished by holding the piece upside down and dipping to the bottom horizontal line (15), then flipping the piece over and dipping to the top horizontal line (16). The result is a cup that has a double dip in the carved area, but only a single dip at the top and bottom. The horizontal carving lines hide the seam between the double and single dip as the glaze runs.

I fire to cone 6 in an electric kiln with a two-minute hold, which I have found provides just the right amount of glaze movement without running all over the shelves.

Andy Bissonnette holds a BFA in graphic design from Minnesota State University Moorhead. He began making pottery at the age of 17 and has melded his two passions into a style that emphasizes form, shape, texture, and pattern. To see more, check out http://andybissonnette.com/pottery and @andybissonnettepottery on Instagram.

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