In the Potter’s Kitchen: Fun Challenges in Mixing Bowls

The impetus for my dough bowls came from boredom. I had been making large serving trays using drape molds, but the predictability of molded forms had started to feel lifeless. I needed to inject some fun challenges into my making process, so I combined the simple yet enlivening techniques of coil building and reductive carving to make these unique forms.

It’s All Been Done Before

Inspiration for the shape of these bowls came from historical American and African wooden bowls and troughs. Though the majority of these old forms are rectilinear, I was drawn to those in the less common oval form. My expertise as a woodworker allowed me to glean how the wooden forms were made. I saw the reductive actions of hollowing and scraping wood to be analogous to ribbing and compressing clay.

In graduate school, I researched coil building for making jars. I was looking for a construction technique that was fast, efficient, and effective in producing strong pots. I was blown away by the potters of Burma, Thailand, Korea, and Vietnam, who made amazingly large vessels by quickly stacking and connecting coils of clay. Through a combination of pinching, paddling, and ribbing, these potters created strong, functional clay vessels. Employing these forming techniques, I can get the majority of the shaping for a dough bowl done in under an hour.

Considerations

In this process, the clay should stick to itself easily. This may sound obvious, but thixotropic clays that are high in kaolin are not conducive to building in this way. A clay body formulated for wheel throwing with a decent amount of fireclay and ball clay and a bit of sand or grog should do nicely.

Beyond the clay, there are a few steps to take in the studio to facilitate success:

  • Taking the time to make a full-scale drawing of your intended bowl form is tremendously helpful. By establishing your size parameters, you can answer questions like, “will this thing fit on the shelves/in the kilns I have access to?”
  • Use a strong, directional work light to help you see the lines and shadows of your piece better.
  • I make these bowls with the aid of a kick wheel. With some adjustments, a sturdy banding wheel can also do the trick.

1 Use a tar-paper template to cut and form the base of the bowl out of a 1/2-inch-thick slab.

2 Use your fingers and a rib to shape and bring the sides of the form up slightly.

Coil Building the Base

Start by wedging soft clay to a uniform consistency. I used 14 pounds of clay to make this bowl. Work the clay into a block and divide the block into four parts. Reserve one quarter for the base and roll out the rest of the quarters into coils approximately 1¼–1½ inches thick. Set the coils aside under plastic until needed. Flatten out the clay for the base onto a bat. Start with ½ inch thickness, knowing that it will be refined and compressed down to about 3/8 inch. Using a tar-paper template made from the full-scale drawing (1), cut and form the base into shape, coaxing up a bit of clay around the outer perimeter (2).

3 With the base formed, begin adding coils by pinching and connecting them to the base.

4 Avoid having the ends of coils meet in the same place along the wall from one row to the next to prevent cracks and weak spots.

5 Using a metal rib, start blending and compressing the coils together while supporting the opposite side of the wall.

6 Compress and blend the coils until the walls are smooth and a consistent thickness.

Start adding coils (3). Pinch and attach them first onto the base, then to the preceding coils as you work on subsequent rows. Developing the dexterity and muscle memory to do this properly takes some practice. Tip: From a structural standpoint, avoid creating a seam where the ends of coils meet to prevent weak spots or vertical cracks. It’s also better to place these joins in long stretches of straighter wall sections rather than in tight bends (4). Keep blending and compressing the interior and exterior of the wall until it’s smooth and of a consistent thickness (5, 6).

7 Once the walls are smooth, start to bring the walls out by pinching, stretching, and additional ribbing.

8 As the walls are stretched, clean up any rough edges using a cheese cutter, wire tool, or rasp.

Start to lay the walls out. Open the form with a mixture of pinching, stretching, and ribbing the clay (7). Clean up ragged edges as you go (8). Remember to keep compressing the rim after each stretching pass (9). If at any point the clay wall seems like it has lost its strength or structure, set it aside to firm up a bit. If you want to thicken or accentuate the size and shape of your rim, build up clay slowly by smearing and compressing marble-sized wads of clay a little at a time.

When the forming is done, be sure to cut the piece off of the bat before letting it dry to prevent cracking in the base. Pay attention to the drying to achieve a consistent moisture content in the work. When unwrapped, rotate the piece 180° every now and again; then wrap it in plastic overnight and repeat the process the next working day. The time under plastic helps to equalize moisture, rehydrating spots that have dried faster.

9 Compress the rim, adding clay as needed to even out the thickness and to create a point on the narrow end of the oval.

10 Flip the bowl onto foam once it’s stiff leather hard. Begin trimming and compressing the piece, making sure to balance the weight.

11 If a crack or void forms in the base as it is being trimmed, fill it with a recently trimmed piece of clay and compress with a rib.

12 With the piece trimmed, flip the piece right side up and start the final drying process.

Once the piece has dried to a nice leather-hard consistency, place a section of foam or a thick towel on the piece, place a bat on top of that, then flip the piece over. Be sure to maintain a firm grip on the piece during the flip! The first few trimming passes of the exterior and bottom can be done quickly with an old cheese slicer. The rest of the passes can be done with a Surform rasp or standard trimming tool (10). If in the hand-trimming process a crack or an air bubble appears, take a recently trimmed bit of clay, smear it back in, and compress that area with a stiff rib (11). Keep reducing the thickness of the clay wall until you achieve a properly weighted piece with an appropriate feeling of balance.

Once the piece is trimmed, flip it right side up onto another bat and start the final drying process. The base can bow up in the drying. Counter this by placing a brick covered in sheet foam at the bottom (12). To help it dry evenly, cover the piece in thin fabric and rotate the piece 180° daily.

There is something compelling about accentuating the rim in some way. Try a variety of decorative techniques to give the rim visual interest (13a–d).

13a

13b

13c

13d

Bisque Firing

To avoid drastic differences in the temperature within the piece during the bisque firing, put the piece in the middle of the kiln on a bed of coarse sand. To account for the size of these pieces and the solid/thick rim, I use this bisque schedule:

  • Segment 1 200°F/hr to 200°F hold 1–8 hours
  • Segment 2 50°F/hr to 450°F hold 2 hours
  • Segment 3 100°F/hr to 1100°F no hold
  • Segment 4 250°F/hr to 1725°F hold 30 minutes

My Wood-Fired Approach

Inspired by a style of Japanese ceramics known as Nanban, I fire my pots unglazed in a wood kiln. I achieve the soft, vibrant, matte surfaces similar to Nanban ware by strategically loading the kiln, employing rice hulls and wadding to act as functional and decorative resists on the pieces. My firings are relatively short, as I’m looking for flashes of color as opposed to glass or glaze formation from the ash that deposits on the pieces. Upon the firing’s completion, I control the kiln’s environment and rate of cooling in a light reduction produced by light stokes of wood every 20 minutes to 1450°F (788°C).

All Photos: C.W. Powell.

Joshua Kuensting received his MFA in ceramics from Utah State University in Logan, Utah. He has been a long-term artist in residence at the Clay Studio of Missoula, Montana, and a Core Fellow at Penland School of Craft in Penland, North Carolina. For more information, visit www.jkuenstingpottery.com.

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