After all these years making pottery, mugs are still my favorite things to create. Like small sculptural exercises, they offer a relatively quick way to explore form and surface. Although most of my studio work involves wheel throwing and not much texture, I occasionally work on a small batch (4–6) of handbuilt, textured slab mugs while waiting for wheel-thrown pieces to set up. The different elements involved with these mugs provide for a good work flow and allow ample drying time between the stages of assembly; while the bodies are setting up, I’ll work on the bases, then move on to the handles. By the time I’ve prepared these, had lunch, and walked the dog, the bodies are leather hard and ready for the next step.
There are many ways to texture clay. Sometimes taking a soft slab of clay directly to the source is the way to go—that worn fence, eroded concrete, or old log—once you begin thinking about texture and the plastic nature of clay, you’ll start seeing possibilities everywhere. You can also get interesting results using commercially available texture/pattern rollers or stamps, or experimenting with making your own out of wood or bisque-fired clay. I prefer taking an imprint off of something using a slab of soft clay and then making a plaster mold from it (1). This results in a clean, consistent texture mold for making multiples and eliminates the need to drive across town to that awesome, gnarled tree trunk when it’s February and 20°F below zero.
Begin by pressing and pounding 3–4 pounds of clay to compress it, then finish thinning it out with a rolling pin and sticks that are ¼ inch thick placed on either side as thickness gauges for a consistent slab. After smoothing and compressing the surface with a metal rib, drape it over the texture mold. Using your fingertips, tap the clay as if playing the bongo drums with a bit too much enthusiasm, deliberately forcing the clay into the nooks and crannies of the texture (2). When you think you’ve tapped enough, do it some more! This tapping method works better than rolling as it forces clay into the small detailed areas without thinning out the slab as a rolling pin would. As an added bonus, fingertips leave an interesting subtle texture on the cup’s interior wall.
Creating the Body
After the slab is peeled away from the mold and placed onto a smooth board, use a rectangular cardboard template and cut what will become the main cup body from the soft slab (I can get two mugs per slab). Cut the ends that will be joined together at a roughly 45° angle to increase the surface area of the joint (3). More surface area and good compression reduces the likelihood of cracks developing during the drying and firing. Cut the bottom edge at an angle to match the convex slope of the base (which will be formed and attached later without requiring any back fill). Draping the soft slab over a suspended rolling pin, gently press it around the curve, being careful not to damage the texture (4). As we’ve all heard or learned the hard way, clay has memory and likes to return to its previous shape (in this case, a flat slab) as it dries and is fired. To ensure that these maintain a cylindrical shape, exaggerate the curve at the ends that will be joined by pressing an inch or so of each edge around a smaller cylinder (5). This helps to counteract the warping that occurs later as it dries.
Like many of you, I say bad words when I find cracks on pieces that I’ve spent hours working on. To avoid this, spend a little extra time prepping and compressing the joints on all of your attachments.
I sometimes choose to overlap the edges, featuring the seam as part of the design, while increasing its structural integrity. This is a good option if you’re using a particularly fickle clay body and experience a lot of cracking or warping. Most of the textures I’m currently working with are attached edge to edge, which results in a seam that’s sometimes hard to find once it’s been compressed and sponged.
Rough up the smooth cut surface with a wet toothbrush then paint it with slip. Score the areas in two or three directions and apply more slip before carefully pushing the edges together, flipping the cylinder over once to gain access to the seam on the opposite end. Then, place it on a ware board, forming each end into a circular shape before setting it aside and repeating the process on the other slabs. I typically leave the walls as straight-edged cylinders, as if they were material core samples in a geology lab. But, while the clay is still soft and pliable, it’s a good time in the process to play with form, pressing, stretching, and altering the wall from either side. The seam is vulnerable at this stage, so work this area carefully.
Adding a Base
There are several to ways make the base. Throwing and trimming small, shallow footed bowls will work, but I found a more immediate solution by cutting disks from rolled slabs and pressing them into a plaster mold (6), allowing them to set up a bit before additional drying time on a ware board. I use an old, two-part plaster mold of a ball, but you could experiment using shallow bowls from the cupboard covered with plastic wrap, a cotton sheet, or powdered cornstarch as a release. The disk size depends on whether or not you want them to be flush with the cylinder walls, or to extend beyond them. I choose the latter both as a visual element and as a shelf to catch those extra runny glazes. While the disk sets up, I extrude a little coil (7), that’s wrapped around a template to form a ring, sliced, and joined at a 45° angle to form the foot. As this sets up, I attach the disk base to the body, making sure they are both at a similar stage of leather hard. Using a plastic syringe, I apply a bead of thick slip that will fill in any gaps between the base and body (8). This gap is minimal because, as mentioned earlier, the bottom edge of the slab was cut at an angle to fit into the curve of the base. Use a brush to smooth out any excess slip at the interior bottom. Once you’ve attached the disk, repeat the process to attach the foot ring. If working on multiple cups at once, by the time you’ve finished the attachments on the fourth cup, the first one has set up enough to flip over and cut the undulating lip. These are then detailed by additional trimming and smoothing out with a sponge to provide a more natural finished look, and a lip that feels good to drink from (9).
I get quite a few questions on Instagram (@vepottery) about making my handles. Unlike my other handles that are press molded, these ring-like handles begin as slip-cast tubes, which are sliced into 7/8-inch-wide rings (10), then sized to accommodate average-sized fingers using a tubular rasp (11). The edges are rounded using a leather-working tool and a knife, then sponged smooth. The connection brackets are cut from a leather-hard, 1/2-inch-thick slab (12) and attached to the body at the seam. After smoothing out the handle rings, clay is removed from each ring to make a flat area for attachment and joined together, forming a comfortable two-finger handle (13). Once the handle is attached to the bracket, the very last step is to carefully form the lip into a slight oval, squeezing the seam toward the opposing lip (14). I’ve discovered through trial and error that as the pieces dry, the clay memory kicks in and pulls the cylinder into a funky looking oval, sometimes resulting in a crack at the seam. By squeezing the cups into a reverse oval, they will straighten out as they dry, resulting in a fairly uniform circular lip.
Loosely cover the finished pieces in plastic for a day or two, allowing the moisture content in all of the different elements and joints to equalize, reducing the likelihood of cracking as they dry (15). I enjoy playing with different ways to finish these cups. Some textures do really well with slips and glazes, others look best when left unglazed.
Cups and mugs are the most intimate forms of functional pottery. Held in our hands and brought to our lips, there needs to be careful consideration given to every detail. They should be well balanced and comfortable to hold and drink from, but also fun and interesting objects to look at. This sounds easy enough, but after 30-plus years of studio pottery, I still find making a good cup to be as fun and challenging as ever. Cheers!
Eric Van Eimeren received an MFA from Alfred University in 1990, then moved to Montana for a residency at the Archie Bray Foundation and has been living and making pots in Helena ever since. You can learn more at www.vepottery.com and on Instagram @vepottery.