Get a Handle On It

When I switched to handbuilding from wheel throwing, I had to rethink how to make handles that best reflected the feel of my handbuilt work, so I began exploring. A few times a year, I set aside a play day in the studio that I devote to non-productivity, making different types of knobs or handles, and manipulating clay to see what forms or textures result. So far, something new, unexpected, and applicable to my work has always been the outcome. The four different handles I now make are the result of a studio play day.

The Basic Rolled Handle

Using a slab roller or a rolling pin, create a ½-inch-thick slab that is approximately 5 inches long and about 8 inches wide. The slab’s width depends on how many handles you plan to make. A 5×8-inch slab will yield 6 to 8 handles for cups. For larger items such as pitchers or baskets, make the slab proportionally bigger. Smooth and compress the slab on both sides with a hard rib. Using a ruler, cut an elongated triangle 5 inches long and ¾ inch wide at the top (1A). You can modify these measurements as you determine the proportion of the handle you want for a given vessel.

1A Using a ruler, cut an elongated triangle 5 in. long and ¾ in. wide at the top.

2A Use a rolling pin to thin the handle in gradation, making it thinner at the bottom and thicker at the top.

With your fingers, round and compress the edges of the triangle. Flip the piece over and repeat on the other side.

Starting at the wide end of the triangle, apply light pressure with a rolling pin and increase the pressure as you roll down the triangle to its tip (2A). Flip the triangle over and repeat. Do this a few times until the tapered triangle feels as thin as you would like the handle to be. This maneuver may require a few practice rolls to get the knack of increasing the pressure evenly. The goal is to have the handle thicker at the wide end and thinner at the narrow end (3A). As you roll the triangle, it will both elongate and widen. If the handle becomes too wide, either use a ruler as a guide to cut off the edges or start with a thinner triangle when you cut it from the slab. If you trim it, be sure to smooth and round the edges or they will be sharp when fired.

3A The handle profile. Note the squared top edge.

4A Add in some grooves or a similar design for decoration.

Adding Detail

I like to add two grooves on my handles so glaze will pool into the recessed areas. I use the back of the handle of a wooden throwing tool to make them (4A). To individualize your handles, you can add any texture or pattern you like.

When I learned to pull handles, one of the key goals was to create a handle that visually integrated with the cup or pitcher to which it was attached. The analogy was to have it resemble the organic transition of a branch growing from the trunk of a tree. Assuming you will be attaching the handle to a rounded form like a cup or a pitcher, use a sharp, pointed knife to cut a U-shaped arc at the top of the handle in a curve that is complementary to the rounded body of the vessel. Tip: When making handles for a series of cups, I determine the length of the handle needed and then draw a line that length on a piece of paper or the board on which I’m working (5A). When cutting the curve, I lay the clay next to the line and cut the curve to the designated length. Smooth the cut with your finger to remove any sharp edges.

5A Cut the handle down to size to best fit your form.

6A Use a ½-inch dowel to create an organic-looking attachment point.

Next, take a ¼-inch dowel and, starting at the center of the arc, gently roll it back and forth. Start with small rolls and slowly roll it wider and wider toward the edges of the clay (6A). This may take 4–6 rolls. This stretches and compresses the clay so that it takes on an organic look.

The final step is to give the handle a gentle curve. This maneuver is akin to pulling a handle, but without water. Holding the wide part of the handle in one hand, run the thumb of your other hand gently down the inner part of the handle, so that the handle begins to curve (7A). This curve helps resist the tendency for the clay to straighten and pull away from the cup during drying. You can modify the handle’s curve further once it’s adhered to the vessel.

At this point, I deeply score the cup and the handle and attach the two with slip. You can change the curvature of the handle to complement the vessel at this point (8A).

7A Use your thumb to preliminarily round the form.

8A Two bisque-fired cups with variations of the basic rolled handle.

The Cut Handle

The basic rolled handle technique can be used to create many variations. The following pages describe two of the variations I’m currently using: the cut handle and the overlaid handle. There are three benefits to a cut handle. The first is that it gives a vessel a unique look; the second is that it provides excellent leverage, especially for larger cups or pitchers, and lastly; it eliminates the tension that can pull the handle’s tail away from the vessel during drying.

1B First 45°-angle cut on a cut handle.

2B The second 45°-angle cut creates a small wedge. Discard the wedge.

To make a cut handle, follow all the steps for the basic rolled handle but stop after using the dowel to make the connection point look organic (see image 6). Lay the handle on the table with the tail end toward you. Then using a long, sharp blade, cut straight across the handle with the blade held at approximately a 45° angle toward the wide end of the handle (that will be away from you) (1B). For a cup, make the cut 1 to 1¼ inch from the wide end of the handle. For a pitcher, make the cut between 1½ to 2 inches from the wide end. Next, place your blade in the same location as the first cut, angle the blade edge 45° toward the narrow end and cut again. Gently separate the two parts of the handle. A small 90° wedge will be left on the table (2B). Discard this small wedge.

3B Assembled cut handle.

4B Cut handle on a pitcher.

Carefully score each cut and, with a little slip, gently pinch the two pieces back together (3B), being careful not to distort the clay. Lay the handle on its side until it firms up to soft leather hard. You can shape the two parts with curves while it’s on its side. I tend to put a light concave curve into the short (top) piece to fit a person’s thumb comfortably. Then score and add slip to attach the handle to your vessel (4B). If you choose to blend the seam, do this using your finger or a tool when the handle has set up to leather hard.


The Overlaid Handle

As you did before, cut a long triangular piece from a ½-inch-thick slab. Make this triangle wider than you want the handle to be. Compress the sides and edges of the triangle and use the rolling pin to shape the handle from thick at the top to thin at the tail. These are the same steps you followed with the basic rolled and cut handles. The difference comes at the next steps.

Using a sharp knife and a ruler, cut the triangle down its length and separate the two long pieces. I often make this cut uneven so that one piece is wider than the other (1C).

1C Lengthwise cut for overlaid handle.

2C Re-attaching the cut length with pressure at 30—45°.

Compress the cut edges of the two pieces with your fingers by sliding them along the length of each piece. Decide which piece you would like to overlay the other. In general, I select the wider length to go underneath. Run your finger along the inner edge to create a softly beveled angle on this piece. Lightly score this bevel.

Brush the scored area with a little thin slip or water (you don’t want it to ooze out) and lay the second length over the scored area. Then, using mild pressure, slide a finger along the top piece at a 30–45° angle facing the center of the handle to adhere the two pieces (2C). This will leave a decorative ridge along the handle. Once the two lengths are reconnected, follow the same steps used in making the rolled handle (3C).

3C Two-part overlaid handle setting up.

4C Three-part overlaid handle re-attached.

An attractive variation of the overlaid handle for larger vessels is to cut an even wider triangle into 3 lengths. After putting a texture on the center length and beveling and scoring both its edges, overlay the two outer pieces and again press them together, running a finger at a 30–45° angle to make them adhere (4C). This creates a unique handle for a basket.

5C Two- and three-part overlaid handles setting up.


The Indented Coil Handle

The three handles described previously are designed to fit on the sides of vessels, although the overlaid handle is also effective over the top of a teapot or a basket. Another effective handle for the tops of forms is the indented coil handle.

Using soft clay, roll a coil that’s fat in the middle and narrow at each end. The length depends on the size of the handle you need. For a teapot, I generally roll a coil 10 to 12 inches in length.

1D Use a one-inch rod to make an indentation in a 10–12-inch coil.

2D Indentation in the coil in which glaze will pool.

Lay the coil straight on a hard, absorbent surface. Place a 1-inch diameter dowel along the coil’s length (1D) and gently press and rock the dowel to create an indentation in the coil (2D).

Cut off the tips of the coil so that the thickness is at least ½ inch wide. Then roll the ¼-inch dowel against each cut end, gently rolling and compressing the two attachment points on the handle, creating an organic-looking point of connection between the handle and the vessel.

Lay the coil on its side and curve it into the shape you want then set it upright to stiffen (3D). When it’s leather hard, score and slip both the vessel body and ends of the coil and attach them together (4D).

3D Set the indented coil upright to stiffen after curving it into the desired shape.

4D Teapot with indented coil handle.

I hope you will take these basic ideas and modify them to create your own unique handles. Since cups, bowls, and many pouring vessels actually have very similar shapes in order for them to work effectively, handles and knobs are the elements that can make them interesting and unique. Instead of viewing handles as the last thing one adds to a vessel, think of them as the key to making each vessel special.

Marion Angelica is a studio artist and teacher at the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. To see more of her work, visit www.marionangelica.com.

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