In the Potter’s Kitchen: Easy and Elegant Butter Dish

Butter is an essential ingredient in cooking and having it ready available and stiffened enough for use requires a good butter dish. This butter dish is long and wide enough for ½ cup (one stick) of Elgin-style butter.

Forming the Dish

Similar to the way I make my salt and pepper shakers (see PMI July/August 2017), to create at template for the lid, cut two Styrofoam balls to have flat surfaces measuring 2½ inches in diameter. Rub the flat section with coarse sandpaper to refine the surface if needed.

For the butter dish base construction, make a template. Place the flat parts of the Styrofoam balls side by side on top of a sturdy surface such as foam insulation from your local homestore or scrap plywood, so that there is a 1-inch gap between the two balls. Add ½ inch around the outline of the two ball halves to form an oval shape that is ½ inch larger than the silhouette of the Styrofoam balls. Mark and cut out the wood or foam template. The total measurement from end to end should be 7½ inches. The total measurement from side to side should be 3½ inches. I added a small handle to my template, but this is optional (1).

1 The cutout should measure 7½ in. across and 3½ in. wide. Place the 2½ in. Styrofoam balls on top to give reference.

2 Place the 2 in. piece of foam on a sturdy surface. Place the cut slab on the foam. Push down on the to impress the slab.

Next, roll out a clay slab about 38-inch thick and rib it smooth on both sides. Place your base template over the slab and measure about a ½ inch oval outline beyond the template. Cut the clay out along that line. Soften and round the edges.

Place the cut clay slab on top of a large piece of soft foam. Position the thick rigid insulating foam template in the center of the slab. Use both hands to press firmly down on top of the template (2). The pressure will be enough to cause the excess clay to curl up around the template.

To make the top of the butter dish, roll out a ¼-inch thick slab and rib it smooth.

Place the two Styrofoam balls side by side with a 1-inch gap between them. Place a sheet of plastic wrap over the top of them. Gently drape the slab over the plastic-wrapped Styrofoam balls. Work the clay around the form. Remember to work the clay up against the rim of the form, trying not to stretch it too thin. Now carefully cut around the rim, leaving a little extra clay around at the bottom in case the clay has become thin (3).

Let the clay dry so that it stiffens up a bit, then turn the butter dish top over and remove the foam balls (4). Smooth the inside. Compress the rim for strength, remove any excess clay, and soften the rim.

Place the butter dish on top of the rigid insulating foam template and adjust the edges so that it fits snugly. Once the top and the base are dry enough so that the clay is not sticky, place the top down on the base, add a knob to the top if desired, and dry slowly (5).

3 Stretch the slab over the Styrofoam balls to naturally form an oval shape. Cut the excess clay away.

4 Turn the lid over and take out the Styrofoam balls. Then gently peel the plastic wrap away from the interior.

5 Put the slightly stiffened top onto the base. Create a knob for the top and attach it. Put some plastic on and let it dry slowly.

Decorating Process

I begin to decorate my butter dish when the clay is a stiff leather hard to bone dry. Before any decorating is done on my pottery, I begin by planning my designs as much as possible in advance. I start by dividing up the space into grid patterns. Then I design imagery into those open spaces. You can choose to sketch out drawings, freehand abstract line work, or even use found images to be transferred onto your piece.

Some images work better for this technique than others. I suggest that if you’re a beginner, choose blocky images with little detail such as silhouettes and outlined images like ones found in children’s coloring books. As you progress and get better at making thin, clean lines, more detailed images can be used.

6 Print an image on paper and cut the excess paper from around the image.

7 Use a graphite pencil to blacken the back of the paper that the image is printed on.

Transferring Images

If you choose to draw imagery yourself, you can transfer the image to the dry clay using a print out. To do so, choose your image and print it out onto a sheet of paper (6). Use a sharp #2 pencil to blacken the back of the paper so that you have a heavy layer of graphite (7). Position the paper on the clay piece, graphite-side down. Hold the paper in place with your fingers. Before doing any tracing, be mindful that you don’t want to press down too hard. Now take either a sharp pencil or a rolling ball point pen and gently but firmly trace over the lines of your design (8, 9).

8 Position the image to the clay and use a pen to trace over the lines so the graphite transfers to the clay.

9 Results of the graphite image transference on the clay surface.

Freehand Drawing

If you choose to draw your designs directly onto the clay, use a sharp pencil to make your lines. Make your first pass with your pencil very light so that if you change your mind, you can easily rub the pencil marks from the leather-hard clay. Once you are sure of your design, you can make stronger pencil lines into the clay. Be careful not to push down too hard with your pencil tip. This will gouge into the clay, causing unwanted deep slits and burrs. The idea is to make shallow indented lines so that underglaze will flow easier into the crevices. Then, when you glaze the piece, the indented lines create a barrier for the glaze so it won’t drip from its intended area.

Adding Color

For the underglaze, I get the best results using Amaco Velvet Jet Black underglaze, but I suggest experimenting with underglazes and slips to determine your own preference. Before brushing on your underglaze or slip, make sure that they are mixed to the correct consistency. You want them to be wet enough to not drip from the brush or they will drip down your pot. If they are too stiff when you’re brushing them onto the pot, they will dry so fast that you’re dipping your brush into your underglaze every half stroke. If they’re too soupy, leave the jar open to dry up a bit. If the underglaze or slip is too dry, add a little water and try again.

Use a watercolor liner paint brush (size 0 round) with a nice sharp point on the end for best results. I’ve also found that a sharp-pointed fingernail painting brush from the drug store also works great for this process. Begin the process of tracing over all your design lines (10). With practice, it becomes easier to go right over your lines without much problem. You’ll find that at times, you’ll make mistakes or the underglaze will overflow on a line. At the greenware stage, it’s easy to scrape off any excess, either with the side of a needle tool or a small carving tool.

After decorating, dry the lid and base slowly with a piece of a paper separating them and then bisque fire them together.

10 Brush on underglaze over the hand-drawn images.

11 Use different sizes of brushes to apply various colors of glazes to the images.

12 Apply glaze to the background, working around the foreground imagery. Create patterns by layering glazes on the ends of the dish.

To glaze the piece, use the White Liner Glaze recipe or any glaze that doesn’t run when fired and works well with added colorants for making colored glazes. I have a wonderfully forgiving liner glaze recipe that results in a nice satin surface that I use for detailed glazing. People often ask if I wax the bisque-fired underglaze outlines before applying glazes—I don’t because I find that it’s a step that just makes the process longer, plus if the wax goes outside of its boundaries, it’s very difficult and time consuming to clean up. With practice, I find that I work better without any wax applied.

Always glaze the inside of the piece first. Use either the White Liner Glaze recipe below or a creamy white, food-safe glaze to add more warmth to the inside of the piece.

To begin the decoration process on the outside of the piece, start with White Liner Glaze mixed to a consistency that is thicker than a typical dipping glaze—thinner than yogurt but thicker than cream. If the project requires the use of any colored glazes, I work from the lightest to the darkest. The glaze is strategically brushed onto the piece, again like you were coloring in a coloring book (11). It’s important to make sure the glaze is not too stiff, resulting in a more lumpy surface, or too runny as it will run over your outlines. Fortunately this particular glaze is friendly to brushing, but care must still be taken to achieve the smoothest surface possible. To do this, I use a bigger brush first and dab a generous amount of glaze in the largest areas using the least amount of brush marks possible. The key is to dab the glaze as opposed to brushing and to get enough glaze applied without having to brush over it numerous times. The more you brush over glaze that’s drying, the rougher and bumpier the glaze surface will be.

I then use a series of smaller brushes, dabbing a generous amount of glaze until the glaze spreads up to your incised lines. If the glaze goes over the lines where it’s not intended, use a moist sponge and gently wipe away the glaze.

At times, I like to add accents using colored glazes that I can’t make in my studio. I also like to experiment with the look of a glossy commercial glaze to add variety to the satin white and bits of unglazed clay (12). I use the same dabbing brush technique described above to apply the glaze. This results in a glossier look to that area and results in much more variety around the piece.

I don’t glaze over my already bisque-fired lines and carved surfaces, they remain naked. I like the touch of the piece as a result of pairing glazed unglazed areas all around the surface. When you’re satisfied with the glaze, sponge the excess glaze off of the bottom, then fire the top and bottom of the butter dish separately to the specified glaze temperature.

Ann Ruel owns and operates Little Street Pottery in Suffolk, Virginia. She is a frequent contributor to Pottery Making Illustrated. She teaches handbuilding and wheel-throwing classes and workshops. Her work has been exhibited and sold locally and around the country.

  • Geoff K.

    This is a technique which has lasted through generations. I was taught it at primary school 60 year’s ago, for use on paper. A word of caution. Pencil “lead” is not lead but a mix of graphite and wax and often clay! When my students have used this technique it usually works out fine but if too much of the “lead” gets onto the ware then the colourant and or glaze may move due to the “restist” properties of wax. The solution is to use a graphite “stick” essentially a pencil made of solid graphite. These are quite cheap as used by artists. I have also seen charcoal used effectively.

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