Ever since I began to understand the basics of working with clay, I have been fascinated with creating complex geometric forms. The butter dish is one of the most challenging and unique handbuilt pieces I make. I use plaster press molds (1, 6) in combination with soft and leather-hard slabs to create the form, then glaze a geometric design on the surface using tape and wax resist.
To begin, roll out a few slabs that are about ¼ inch thick and approximately 12×18 inches in length and width. Keep two slabs soft for press molding and dry the remaining slabs to a leather-hard consistency. Constructing the majority of the butter dish at the leather-hard stage allows me to create a geometric form with pronounced planes and sharp edges.
Using the Press Molds
First, to press mold the deep oval lid, cut a slab using a template made to fit the mold’s interior (2). The darted shape requires scoring the areas where the slab overlaps (3), adding water or slip to get the joints to hold, and then smoothing the interior. When the clay begins to dry, it shrinks away from the plaster, making it easy to remove (4). Finally, smooth the exterior of the lid with stiff metal and soft rubber ribs.
A second press mold is used for the bottom of the butter dish (5). It has a butter-stick-sized indent that, when inverted, becomes a pedestal (6). Because the butter dish is designed as a hollow form about one inch in height, this pedestal raises the butter to make it more accessible for cutting. When pressing the slab into this mold, the sharp edges and corners can become quite thin, so it’s important to backfill the indent with extra clay to strengthen the corners and reduce the risk of cracking.
One of the things I love about this process is that these two molds can make a butter dish of any shape. When both molded pieces are leather hard, I place the lid on top of the bottom slab and trace around the edge to create a guideline for the interior wall of the butter dish (see 8). Then, I design the exterior geometric shape of the butter dish to any size I want and cut it out with an X-Acto knife—my tool of choice for a clean, precise edge. To build the walls of the butter dish, cut 1-inch-wide strips from the leather-hard slabs that were made at the beginning of the process. I really enjoy working with leather-hard slabs because the pieces are firm and hold their shape. When attaching pieces of this consistency, it’s very important to adequately score the edges to be joined, apply slip, and firmly press each piece together. I bevel every edge of the molded piece at a 45° angle as well as one long side of each 1-inch-wide strip (7). This creates a stronger joint and a clean, crisp edge that requires less cleanup after attaching. After scoring the beveled edges, attach the walls using water or slip (8).
Now that the outer walls are built, create the interior oval wall, which will keep the lid in place. Using slightly softer 1-inch-wide strips and following the outline of the lid that was traced earlier, build a curved interior wall (9). Note: This should be slightly wider than the traced outline. Once the pieces are properly placed, score and slip them together. Before going any further, it’s important to make sure all the joints are compressed and reinforced with coils if necessary.
Bringing the Dish Together
The next step makes the piece cohesive. Using small pieces of leather-hard slabs, create and attach a top over the outer wall and oval interior wall to close in the hollow form (10). To get the correct shape for each piece, gently press the slab down on the walls to create an outline. Again, take the time to bevel, score, and slip every edge that will be attached. Once all of the top slabs are adhered, use a Surform to begin refining the piece (11). This is the best tool for creating sharp edges and geometric forms. Once I’m satisfied with the precision of the edges, I turn my attention to the handles.
The handles for this piece are subtle undercuts on either end of the form. Draw the angle onto the sides of the dish (and across the bottom slab) and cut through each slab with an X-Acto knife at the appropriate angle (12). Using the Surform, refine the angle, then attach a slab to close up the hole.
The final and critically important step is to poke small holes in every hollow section of the butter dish to allow steam to escape during the firing and prevent an explosion.
Before allowing the piece to dry, I spend an extensive amount of time refining, ribbing, and smoothing the surfaces (13). I’m frequently asked about the surfaces of my work, particularly the exposed terra-cotta sections. I strive for a very smooth end product, which is achieved with smoothing in the greenware stage as well as through post-glaze-firing processes.
After the butter dish has been bisque fired, I design the glaze composition that will be added to the surface. I find it helpful to plan out my designs with drawings during multiple stages of the making process. To prepare for glazing, draw the glaze composition directly onto the bisqueware. Pencil lines burn off in the glaze firing, giving me the ability to play with different designs until I’m happy with the way that the composition complements the piece and, in this case, marries the two parts of the object. Glaze the lid and base of the butter dish with continuous lines (see 15), giving the user a visual key to orienting the lid onto the base.
The interior of the lid and the surface of the butter stand are glazed with a glossy white liner glaze (14). On the exterior, I outline the penciled design with tape. I use a 1/8-inch art tape that’s very similar to electrical tape. It’s stretchy and bends with the form without allowing the glaze to bleed through it. I typically use two to three glaze colors and leave areas of exposed terra-cotta clay on the outside. Before glazing, brush wax resist on any sections that should remain bare clay (15).
To apply the exterior glazes, use a measuring cup to pour on the glaze (16). I do a couple of passes when pouring in order to build up the thickness that I would achieve when dipping the piece into glaze. After glazing the first exterior color, use wax resist to shield that color from the next glaze color that’s applied. This is a lengthy process that usually requires a lot of drying time due to the application of multiple glaze colors and therefore multiple sections that need to be waxed.
Once the glaze application is complete and the glaze is very dry, the tape can be removed. To avoid chipping, I usually let the pieces dry overnight. There is usually a bit of clean-up to do, such as sharpening corners that may have come off with the tape, or removing any splashes of glaze resulting from the pouring process. This is one of the steps that really makes the pieces refined. I’m committed to taking the extra time to make sure the designs look as clean as possible before they go into the kiln. The butter dish and stand are fired together to cone 1 in an electric kiln.
After the glaze firing, sand the terra-cotta sections that were left bare to create a smoother surface. Using 400-grit wet/dry sandpaper, dip the pieces into water and sand them thoroughly. Finally, wash and dry the pieces. Now they are ready to hit the shelves!
Process Photos: Matthew Mancuso.
Finished Photos: Victoria DuBon.
Logan Wall is an artist and teacher living in White Plains, New York. She received her BFA from the University of North Florida and traveled to New York for an artist residency at the Clay Art Center in Port Chester. To learn more, visit her Instagram @loganwallceramics.