A Better Butter Dish

Teal Victorian butter dish, 7 in. (18 cm) in length, glaze-trailed stoneware, fired to cone 6 in an electric kiln, 2020.

I’ve always loved the butter dish form, perhaps because of what’s hidden inside it. Throughout the years, I have occasionally tried to make butter dishes, but there was always something wrong with the results; some were clunky, some were too time consuming, others didn’t function very well. After working through many ideas, I finally hit upon this extruded version and I have been making them ever since. The dishes are classic in form, slender and elegant, while still being handmade and functional.

Extrude a Tube

Before beginning, leave your clay out to stiffen up for a few hours. If the clay is too soft, it is difficult to cut off the extruded tube without denting or damaging it, though it should be noted that if it is too stiff, it becomes difficult to press through the extruder. Extrude the tube slowly, gently guiding it with your hand as it emerges so that it doesn’t curl. When the tube is just under a foot long, cut it off and place it on a ware board. I like to cut mine off using a taut piece of fishing line tied to the two ends of a bamboo teapot handle (1). This homemade tool can be used one handed so that you can catch the tube with your other hand. Be careful not to crush or damage your tube as you transfer it to the board. Let it stiffen to leather hard.

Cobalt Tessellation butter dish, 7 in. (18 cm) in length, glaze-trailed stoneware, fired to cone 6 in an electric kiln, 2020.

1 Use a bamboo teapot handle with a piece of fishing line or wire tied onto it to cut the tube off the extruder.

2 Place the stiffened tube in a miter box and make a cut at the 6-inch mark.

Building a Box

Once the tube is stiff, roll out a slab of clay and get out the miter box and saw. My clay has a shrinkage rate of 14% and through trial and error, I have determined that I need to cut the tube into a 6-inch-long section in order to get it to fit a stick of butter. Your clay may have a different shrinkage rate so you’ll need to experiment to find what length works best for you. A stick of butter is 4¾ inches long, so using a 6-inch-long tube is generally a safe bet. Extrude the tube longer than it needs to be because you will cut one end of the tube to make a clean, straight edge from which to measure the 6-inch length.

To cut the tube, set it in the miter box and cut it a few inches from the end. Measure 6 inches from the new edge and cut at the 6-inch mark with your saw (2).

Place one of the open ends of the measured, cut tube on the slab and trace generously around it, allowing for some excess. Remove the tube and cut along the traced lines then repeat the process once more; these pieces will cap the ends of the tube. Score and slip both ends of the tube as well as the edges of the cap slabs (3). Firmly press the tube onto the cap slab while the slab is still on the table. Cut off any excess clay around the connection. Attach the other end of the tube, then smooth and compress the joint with a flexible rib. At this point, I often cover the capped tube, which is now a closed, rectangular box, and let it sit overnight so that the components become evenly dry, though this step can be skipped.

3 Place the cut tube on a slab, trace around it, and cut two squares to enclose the tube. Connect the squares to the tube.

4 Clean and smooth the outside of your hollow box with a flexible metal or rubber rib.

The next step is to open the box up, so that it can fit over a stick of butter. Though the box will be cut, it is important to clean and smooth the outside of it before cutting it open. If you try to clean it up afterward, the walls will bend and flex too much, causing warping and cracking. Use a flexible rib and a rasp to smooth and shape the box (4). Once the box is clean and smooth, use a ruler and an X-Acto blade to cut a straight line ¼ inch above the bottom of the box lengthwise (5). Continue to use the blade and ruler on all four sides until the entire bottom of the box has been cut off (6). Clean the inside edges of the capped ends and smooth the cut lines with a sponge. Place the cut dish on a board, cover it with plastic, and set it aside.

Press the Plate

Now that you’ve opened up the box, you’ll need to make a plate for it to sit on. When I was first experimenting with this form, I skipped this step and used the cut-off bottom of the box to form the bottom of the butter dish instead. While this looked nice, it rarely worked well because the two pieces, even if dried and fired together, usually warped and didn’t fit perfectly. Making a separate, larger base solves that problem because it allows room for error.

To form an indent in the base plate, sandwich a precut rectangular slab of clay between a wooden block and a foam mat (see 7). To create the block, measure the width and length of the extruded clay box and add ¼ inch to those dimensions. This allows the box to fit into the indented area on the plate with a little room to spare. Trace the measurements onto a piece of unsealed, 1-inch-thick wood, cut it out, then lightly sand the rough edges.

5 Using an X-Acto blade and a ruler cut a straight line at ¼ inch up all along the bottom of your box.

6 Remove the cut-off bottom of the box to create the lid of the butter dish.

7 Sandwich the plastic-covered clay between foam and the wooden block template. Press down to create the plate.

8 Once the plate is firm enough to hold its shape, use a flexible rubber rib to smooth the bottom.

After you have made a wooden block, cut a slab of clay into a rectangle ¼–½ inch wider and longer than the width and length of the block. The extra ¼–½ inch will become the raised edges of the plate. Use the same dimensions to cut a piece of thin plastic sheeting into a small rectangle. The plastic will be sandwiched between the clay and the wooden block to prevent them from sticking together.

Once the slab is cut, place it on a thick foam mat. Place the plastic directly on top of the clay and gently smooth it in place. Place the block on top of the plastic in the center of the slab and firmly and evenly press the block and clay deep into the foam. The extra ¼–½ inch of clay should raise up around the block forming a shallow, rectangular plate (7). Lift the entire piece of foam without disturbing the block and clay. Place one hand on the block and then with the other hand under the foam, in one swift motion, flip the foam over, transferring the plate and block into your hand. Without removing the block, use a rib to smooth and compress the bottom of the plate (8), then gently turn it onto a ware board and remove the block.

Throw a Knob

The last step is to make a knob. I used to handbuild knobs and strap handles, but I always thought it looked a little messy next to the clean form of the butter dish. Now I throw all my knobs off the hump and I think it creates a much cleaner look.

On the wheel, center a piece of clay much larger than what you will need for the knob. Form a knob using just the tip of the centered hump of clay (9). Although it’s not necessary, I like to make mine hollow to cut down on weight. Cut the knob off the hump, let it stiffen to leather hard, then score and slip both the knob and the top of the box and attach the two pieces (10).

9 Throw a knob for the lid of the butter dish on the wheel by throwing off the hump.

10 Score and slip the area where the knob will be attached to the lid, then join the two pieces together.

Drying the Forms

As you dry the pieces in preparation to put them in the bisque firing, make sure to place the box on top of the plate and keep them covered so that the pieces dry together slowly. Placing the box on top of the plate as it dries helps to prevent the plate from warping. I always bisque fire them together too, again, to prevent any further warping.

Hannah Graeper Carver is a full-time 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 and a teacher at the Ithaca Clay School in Ithaca, New York. To see more of her work, visit www.hannahgraeperpottery.com, Etsy www.etsy.com/shop/HannahGraeperPottery, or on Instagram @hannahgraeperpottery.

Comments
  • Deborah B G.

    Just a note: US East coast butter is longer and narrower. West coast is shorter and wider. Measure for the maximum size of both coasts and you can’t go wrong! Your butter dishes are beautifully done! Love the finish work!

  • Nancy J.

    Thank you! That’s brilliant. Having no extruder I’ll try making this with a thrown cylinder, for European size butter. Lovely decoration!!

  • Robert M.

    Thanks for the great detail in construction but I was so disappointed there was no description of the finish using slip. They were clean and crisp.

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