The pots I make are an exploration of how sculptural form, function, and simplicity can exist in the everyday, utilitarian object. The soft-slab handbuilding process is a direct reference to the construction of old-timey, worn tin ware (think coffee pots, watering cans, and tin cups with overlapping metal seams and hammered, angular walls). The surface created through wood firing helps evoke a sense of nostalgia and creates a dialog of memory between user and maker.
My pots are handbuilt using soft slabs of clay. I use a half dozen or so commercially made clay bodies ranging from fine porcelain to heavily grogged stoneware, depending on what kind of surface I’m looking for. To prevent drying, I roll each slab only when I need it. I think the success of a slab-built pot is dependent on the slab it started with; compression is key. Compressing the clay aligns the particles and brings them closer together, creating a stronger surface that’s less likely to crack during drying.
Start with a medium-sized slab rolled approximately 1/8 inch thick (or whatever thickness you are comfortable with). Compress both sides with a stiff metal rib. Measure and cut a rectangle approximately 16 inches long by 3 inches high for the teapot body, score the top, bottom, and the beveled ends.
Wrap the slab for the teapot body around a support form (I use a 10-inch length of PVC pipe covered in panty hose). Apply slip and compress the seam to create a cylinder (1). Wipe away any excess slip, but leave the seam visible.
Use the support form to stand the soft slab cylinder up on a small bat. Tip: Create bats, ware boards, and work surfaces from discarded drywall by cutting it to size and sealing the edges with masking tape. Once the cylinder has stiffened up to hold its shape, remove the support form and alter the body to your desired shape (2). Pay attention to the placement of flat planes. These are where your handle and spout can attach. Think about how the weight and volume of liquid inside the pot will affect the balance of the pot in use.
Using the footprint of the teapot as a guide, cut out slabs for the bottom and top of the teapot. Cut pieces 1/8 inch larger than the body itself. Transfer the bottom piece to a bat, score the outer perimeter, and apply slip. Score the outer edge of the top slab and slump it into a shallow bisque-fired bowl. Let the form stiffen to soft leather hard (3). Place the body on top of the slipped bottom and gently turn it over. Compress the teapot floor to the body using a pony roller (4).
Pinch four equally sized lug feet and let them dry to a soft leather hard. Score, slip, and attach the lugs to the outer edge of the teapot. To avoid slumping, attach the feet close to the outer edge of the teapot floor, directly under the wall (5). Gently turn the teapot over and place it on a small bat for ease of handling.
Making and then adding lids and spouts are my favorite parts of constructing a teapot. I love the trial-and-error process of template making, and that ah-ha moment when all of the pieces fit together.
Remove the top slab from the bisque-fired slump mold and attach it to the body. Compress and smooth the form with a soft red rib (6). Use newspaper to measure and create a lid assembly template based on the size and shape of the teapot top. Cut the template from newspaper and roll it onto a soft slab. This will become your collar and lid. Cut away the excess clay, leaving the newsprint intact. Tip: Leaving the newspaper attached allows the lid assembly to be manipulated without distortion. Turn the lid assembly over, newspaper side down. Cut a frame into the slab, which will designate the lid from the collar (7). Remove the lid section from the collar and newspaper. Be careful not to stretch or distort it. Leaving the newspaper intact, score then add slip to the collar. Dust the newspaper side of the lid with cornstarch (8) and place it back into the collar frame. I add cornstarch to prevent it from sticking while I’m working on it. Score and add slip to the top of the teapot to receive the lid and collar (9). Keeping the newsprint attached during application prevents distortion and ensures a tight fit upon completion. Compress the collar attachment against the scored top, then peel away the newsprint (10). Gently remove the lid from the collar and set aside. Leaving a narrow gallery for the lid to sit on, cut away an interior opening in the top and discard (11). Replace the lid and set aside.
Handle and Spout
I use a variety of different templates to create handles and spouts, each with a slight variation. I love the slow process of making patterns and templates: the cutting, the measuring, the re-measuring, and the head scratching. My father was a sewer in the canvas trade; I grew up watching him take an idea, scribble a pattern onto a sheet of newspaper, cut out a template, and stitch together what would become backpacks, duffle bags, life jackets, tents—whatever we needed. This introduction to pattern and template making trained my eye to see how three-dimensional objects can unfold onto a flat plane. With that, I find myself visually breaking down everyday objects into cones and cylinders. The handle for this teapot is a cone. The spout is a cone stretched into a narrow cylinder. I mock up new templates with newsprint; when I’ve tested them with clay and know they work, I transfer them to thin recycled box board.
Using the handle and spout templates, cut out the shapes the same way you cut out the teapot body, then bevel and score both ends (12). Place the handle onto a piece of soft foam that’s a couple of inches thick. Place a tapered wooden spout maker on top of the spout cutout. Starting in the center, press the spout gently into the foam and roll it back and forth (13). The clay will roll up onto the tool. Slide the clay off the tool, apply slip, and compress the seam. Do the same with the spout. Because the spout is narrow at one end, you will have to pinch and manipulate the seam to bring it closer together at the tip (14). Pinch the open belly end of the spout to adjust the roundness. Place the thumb of your dominant hand inside the spout for support and wet your other hand. With a gentle repetitive motion, pull the end of the spout over to elongate and stretch out the curve. Think about how water will flow through and where it will exit from the mouth of the spout. Set the spout aside until it has reached soft leather hard. Use this time to refine the shape of your handle.
I like my teapot handle to mimic the shape of the teapot body. Add sharp corners to the conical handle by placing the handle onto soft foam, placing a narrow straight edge (I like to use the flat tapered handle of a wide slip brush) inside the cone, and pressing down into the foam. Move the straight edge over and repeat. This will produce a soft corner that you can sharpen from the outside with a hard rib. When both the handle and spout have reached soft leather hard, dry-fit and trim the end that will attach to the teapot body. I use a small pair of scissors for this step to avoid altering the shape and volume of the handle and spout (15).
Putting It All Together
Assemble the teapot in a shallow, foam-lined bowl. Cone-box foam is great for this. Keeping the lid intact during this process will protect the opening from distortion. Mark the attachment location for the spout. Score the perimeter, then cut one big hole or multiple ¼-inch-diameter holes within the outline of the spout attachment for water flow. Apply slip and attach the spout. Place the teapot on its side in the foam-lined bowl. Score, apply slip, and attach the handle. Compress the interior attachment with a dry brush (16). Finish the hollow handle by adding a slab to close the end (17), and don’t forget to add a pin hole to the underside. Finish the teapot lid by adding a short flange, knob, and vent hole. Support the handle with a dry sponge and set aside for slow drying (18).
Heather Smit is a Toronto-area ceramic artist. She has participated in residencies, given workshops and lectures, and has exhibited her work across Canada and the US. Heather studied at Kootenay School of the Arts in Nelson, British Colombia, Canada. Find more of her work at www.thehandbuilder.com or on Instagram @heathersmit.