When planning the shape of the bottle, I often look to historical pots for inspiration while layering in my own personal interests onto the composition. Over time I’ve gravitated toward incorporating architectural elements into round, thrown bottles. I worked through various approaches to construction, finding a comfortable solution by throwing thick cylinders, then altering, paddling, and eventually carving the leather-hard form. I keep returning to this process because of the versatility it allows for designing and planning ideas. My forms are kept simple, understanding that the firing process will invite the vessel walls to slightly twist and move due to clay memory from the process of throwing the original cylinder.
Throwing a Round Bottle
The first step is to wedge and throw a basic cylinder. You can use any amount of clay, just plan for a clay wall with a minimum thickness of 3⁄8 inch. I use 8–10 pounds of a buff stoneware with fine grog. You will carve some clay away so don’t worry too much about weight. When pushing out the cylinder, I simultaneously use a small round wood rib on the inside with a metal rib on the outside to remove the throwing rings. The round cylinder takes shape in a series of 4 to 5 passes from bottom to top. Leave the neck wide enough for a hand to fit inside and with enough clay to compress and pull up into a narrow neck. Before narrowing the neck, strike six light finger marks vertically up the inside wall. The marks suggest to the clay where to bend, much like a crease in paper. Resume narrowing and throwing the neck into the desired shape (1) leaving enough room for a throwing stick. Following the line of the six finger marks on the inside, continue them up through to the lip of the cylinder (2). I use a custom-made throwing stick with round corners for this step (3).
Altering the Vessel
The clay’s moisture content determines whether you begin altering the form now or wait a few hours for the clay to dry just a little. You want the clay to be malleable enough to shape, but not too tacky that it sticks to your fingers or the bats. Using a pair of wooden bats or plywood squares, start at the bottom of the vessel and press the bats against the cylinder on each side to create faces and corners (4). Align the corners with the finger marks you made in the neck of the vessel. Go slow, working the bottom, then the middle (5), then the top (staying below the neck) and shape the form by making a series of small alterations. Flatten from both sides of a corner so the form is not pushed off-center. Be careful not to crush the bottom or over flatten the sides. Tip: If the sides start to fall in, blow into the top and they will push back out. Use your hands to move the corners of the neck into shape. Let the piece rest, usually overnight, until it dries to a moveable leather hard. A small plastic bag placed just over the bottle’s neck evens out the drying.
Using a wooden paddle, slowly flatten the planes and start to refine the edges (6). This step involves several passes with light paddling to move the clay. I tend to work with the vessel upright starting in the middle, moving up, then back down. Be conscious of the piece as a whole rotating it on a wheel for a view from all angles. When addressing the neck, brace your hand on one side while paddling on the other. Use a brayer or pony roller to flatten the concave neck and further refine the edges (7). Let the piece dry to a firm leather hard.
Use a Surform carving tool to remove some of the clay wall thickness (8). The clay should be just dry enough to fall away from the Surform and not so dry as to make carving difficult. Carving away a 1/8-inch layer of clay sharpens the edges, removes paddle marks, and refines the foot. Again, I start with the vessel upright carving from the middle up to the top of the neck. I tend to remove most of the clay in the flat areas while removing just enough at the corners to sharpen them. I prefer the corners stay thicker than the flat areas if possible. Resting the bottle on its side on a thick piece of foam, I carve from bottom to middle (9). Be careful not to over carve and weaken the clay wall.
The rough-carved piece looks interesting, though a little busy for my intended finished concept. Use a flat metal rib to scrape and remove all the carving marks. Drawing the rib up from the middle and down to the foot shaves away the Surform carving marks. This focuses the eye to the sharp lines moving through the piece. For a final smoothing of the surface I use a flexible silicone rib over the surface. Cover the bottle with a sheet to slow dry overnight. Uncover the following day and allow the bottle to dry completely.
Tips for Using Surform Rasps
- Surform rasps can be purchased at most clay and hardware stores or in bulk through www.amazon.com.
- If the rasps have sharp edges, use a bench grinder to remove them if desired.
- Sometimes I need a sharper bend in the Surform to accentuate the curves in a bottle neck. With the right tools, a Surform is easy to alter. Using two pairs of pliers and a propane torch, I heat the Surform, carefully bend it once it’s red-hot, then dip it quickly in water to cool. Always wear protective gloves and eye protection.
Once dry, bisque fire the piece to 1900°F (1038°C), sand it with 225-grit sandpaper in a well ventilated area, then remove the dust. Glaze the inside by pouring in a cup of glaze, shaking the bottle around, then pouring out the remaining glaze. I spray Orange Crush glaze onto the exterior using a HVLP (high-volume low-pressure) spray gun. I keep the glaze mixed to a thin dipping consistency for spraying. When spraying, it’s easy to create a powdery surface and lose track of glaze thickness. Note that the glaze rubs off with handling. I tend to spray letting the glaze wet the surface and moving the sprayer as the glaze just starts to run, creating a dried surface much like dipping. I then go back and spay more glaze on areas for surface movement. The bottle is then fired to 2250°F (1232°C) in an electric kiln.
Ernest Miller is a ceramic artist in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He shows his work in various regional and national art fairs and currently is preparing for the 2019 Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, DC, and the 26th annual St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour and Sale. You can find a selection of his work at The Grand Hand Gallery in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Schaller Gallery in Saint Joseph, Michigan. He also teaches classes at local art centers. He received an associates degree from Olney Central College in Olney, Illinois and a BA degree from Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. To see more, visit www.ernestmiller.com.