Designing and making pitchers is both exciting and challenging. There are considerations such as leverage, balance, and the movement of liquids as well as aesthetic concerns. Making a pitcher perfect is an exercise in both engineering and artistry.
The pitcher described in this article is handbuilt using the soft-slab method, which retains a sense of the clay’s pliability and fluidity in the finished product. Working with soft slabs has a few unique advantages—it requires only gentle scoring and slipping to adhere seams, and the slabs can be shaped and stretched in the process of building.
Tag board and old file folders work well to make templates. These firm paper products give enough resistance that the knife follows the shape readily when cutting the clay, and they absorb little moisture from the clay. Tag board has a shiny and a dull side. Face the dull side to the clay because the shiny side is more likely to stick to the clay. Other materials used for templates are tarpaper, which is strong and long lasting (but smells like tar), and foam sheets, which are also long lasting, but don’t resist the knife blade as well as tag board. Templates are needed for the sides of the pitcher, an inset strip, the base, the guard, and the spout. You may create your templates by using the shapes and dimensions in image 1. Once you have made your templates, you’re ready to begin working with the clay.).
Roll a slab between 3⁄16 and ¼ inch thick. Building the pitcher to be as lightweight as possible is important because the liquid it carries will be heavy and it’s best to add as little extra weight as possible. A quart of water weighs 2.09 pounds and generally a pitcher holds two or more quarts. With thick clay, the weight of a full pitcher can make it cumbersome to use.
Using a hard plastic rib held at a 30° angle to the clay, firmly compress the slab using horizontal, vertical, and diagonal strokes. Do this on both sides of the slab.
Using the templates, cut two side pieces, two inset strips, and one base from the clay slab. Don’t cut out the spout or guard yet. Keep a small clay slab moist for this step later in the process, and set these template pieces aside.
Run your finger perpendicular to the edge of each cut piece to compress the clay in order to heal any micro-tears created in the cutting process. Flip each piece over and repeat this compression process. Score around the upper edge of the base where the sides will attach.
Layering and Texturing the Sides
Lay out the two side pieces next to one another, measure down 2½ to 3 inches from the top of each piece, and make a tick mark on the edge of both sides of each piece. Cut horizontally across each piece starting at one tick and ending at the other. This cut can be straight or curved (2). Avoid cutting a wiggly line; this makes the sides much harder to reassemble.
Move the two cut sections apart and compress the freshly cut edges. Then with your finger, create a beveled edge on the cut line of the upper halves. If you’re planning to add texture, this is the time to do it (3).
Score the beveled edge, add slip, then lay the bottom half of each side piece on the scored beveled edge with an overlap of about ¼ inch. Place a finger ¼–⅜ inch below the overlapped edge, hold it at a 45° angle, and press the joint to firmly reattach the two sections of each side piece, which creates a decorative raised ridge (4). Turn the reattached sides over and smooth the joint on this side to strengthen it and avoid sharp edges inside the pitcher (5). With the two side pieces still facing with the decorative outer side down, use a 1-inch diameter dowel to roll over just the two long edges of each side piece to create bevels for the seam (6), then score the bevels.
Lastly, if the bottom edge of the side piece has distorted, place a wooden ruler against it to straighten it. Score this edge in preparation for attaching it to the base. Set these pieces aside to firm up slightly.
Creating More Depth with Insets
The two long inset strips can be textured to create interest. I use narrow rollers to add texture, which tend to stretch the clay, so the lengths of the inset strips need to be adjusted when they are added to the body of the pitcher.
Using the 1-inch-thick dowel, roll a bevel on the two long edges on the textured side of each strip and score these (7). Lay the textured/beveled inset face up on top of the length of the dowel and gently form it along the surface (8). Set the curved insets aside.
Assembling the Body of the Pitcher
Now, place the oval base on a board or piece of cloth or paper that can be easily turned. Align the oval base with its length moving away from you. Add slip to the scored area on the base.
Take one of the side pieces, and while holding it in both hands with the design-side toward your palms, twist your wrists from side to side to gently bend the side into a U-shape (9). Do this several times to bend the side piece gradually; don’t force the clay to bend quickly. Bend the side piece into a tighter U-shape than it ultimately needs to be. It’s easiest to add the side piece to the end of the oval base farther from you, so you’re looking into the interior of the U-shape. Place the side piece so the lowest part of the U-shape sits on the scoring at the narrow end of the oval base and place the rest of the side piece along the scoring on the base (10). If the side piece is floppy, use cardboard tubing or sponges to support it.
Take one of the inset strips, hold it against the standing side piece and, if necessary, adjust the length of the strip by cutting off some clay at the bottom, then score the bottom. Add slip to both pieces. Set the inset strip on the base and tack it lightly to the side piece so the bevels overlap. Once it’s fitted well, compress the seam (11). Repeat this with the second inset strip on the alternate side.
Now, turn the partially made body 180° and add the second side piece after bending it into a U-shape. Add slip to the beveled edges of the inset strips and the beveled seams on the side piece. Tack the second side piece to the inset strips so the bevels overlap, then compress all the seams. This side piece may overlap the inset strip a little at the base. Once all the seams are tight, belly out the pitcher body by using a soft rib to stretch the clay, giving it a sense of fullness (12). I like to belly out the lower half of the pitcher body more than the upper portion.
Adding a Spout
Using the pliable clay slab you set aside, cut out the spout using the template. Compress the edges of the clay and then, holding the spout piece in the palm of your hand with the narrow end (spout tip) toward your fingers (13) and the larger end (attachment end) toward your wrist, gently compress it in the center to begin to make it curve and belly out slightly. Repeat this several times until the clay easily bends into the shape you desire. If stress cracks form on the outside of the spout, compress these along the length of the crack. When the spout is finished, hold it against the pitcher’s body where you would like it attached, and using a pin tool, lightly draw an outline of the spout onto the pitcher. Set the spout aside and cut an opening in the body ¼ inch inside the outline. Compress this cut edge and score the area ¼ inch around the opening. Score the base of the spout, add slip to both scored areas, and adhere the spout to the body. Smooth the ledge of clay inside the pitcher at the attachment point (14), so that the liquid flows smoothly over this area and there are no sharp edges.
While the spout is attached but still soft, place a finger or tool in the spout and lightly pull some clay to the spout edge several times to create a narrow and sharp edge at the tip to cut off poured liquid to avoid dripping. Let the pitcher set up to soft leather hard.
Adding the Handle
There are many handles to choose from, but an important consideration is that you select one that provides leverage. Either a cut handle or one that has a thumb rest can provide good leverage for the user when pouring the pitcher. My article in the November/December 2018 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated covers several different rolled handles. Make the handle you prefer and let it set up firm enough to hold its shape, but still flexible, so you can adjust it slightly.
To align the handle with the spout, place a ruler across the opening of the pitcher body and in the center of the spout (15). Make a tick mark on the opposite top edge of the pitcher body to guide the handle placement. Use the tick mark, which can be erased later, to center the handle when you attach it to the back of the pitcher. While much of the assembly of this piece only required light scoring, the attachment of the handle should be deeply scored to assure a very strong attachment.
Attaching the Pouring Guard
Adding the guard, is the last step and is optional. The guard keeps ice cubes from falling out of the pitcher. Cut the shape out of a slab using the template and compress the edges (16). Fit the guard on the front rim of the pitcher, giving it an arc. With a pin tool, make a tick where the ends of the guard sit on rim. Remove the guard and score the rim edges in front of the tick mark. Score the edges of the guard that attach to the rim. Add slip and adhere the guard (17).
Because this piece has many seams, I recommend slow drying. Put it in a damp box for a few days to allow all the parts to equalize in moisture content and then place the piece under plastic to dry slowly. Lately I have had success drying work under several layers of gauze or cheesecloth, which allows work to dry more quickly and without condensation.
After you have tried making this version of a pitcher, modify the shapes of the body and spout and it then will be your own pitcher perfect.
Marion Angelica is a studio artist and teacher at Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. To see more of her work, visit www.marionangelica.com.