Spicing Things Up

The genesis of my spice jars goes back to my time as a graduate student at West Virginia University. It was a simple thought experiment of designing items that were first, specific to containment; second, of the kitchen landscape; and third, ubiquitous. I tested a number of items ranging from traditional flour and sugar canisters to noodle jars (vermicelli and rotini) and everything in between. The spice jars were by far one of the more interesting items formally and conceptually for me given that spices come in small amounts, but contain powerful flavors. I settled on the form with a Chinese meiping vase for the body of the jar, altered by dramatically reducing the scale, incorporating cut or notched tripod feet, and the addition of an overhanging lid that’s sometimes triangular, but often square. I’ve played with the proportions over the years; big feet with a small lid, a square notch versus a V notch and so on, but this is where I am as of now with my little friend, the spice jar.

Throwing the Body and the Lid

Start with 1¼ pounds of clay for the body of the jar. This is a generous lump given the size of the piece, but I leave a significant amount of clay at the base to later trim and notch tall feet. Since the item is quite small, I throw it to the profile desired and other than the base, I don’t trim the exterior at all. Use either metal or rubber ribs to aid in establishing the right curvature of the shoulder (1). Once the form is complete, use calipers to measure the inside opening to determine the diameter needed for the lid’s flange. I incorporate a pointed tip at the base of the form that was previously thrown into the piece, which I trim to reveal as seen in the cross section in image 2.

1 Refine the exterior of the thrown form using a metal rib.

2 Cross section of the trimmed jar showing its tall foot and pointed bottom.

For the lid, use an equal amount of clay and throw it larger than its final size to facilitate squaring off later. After centering and the beginning stages of opening up the mass of clay, quickly set the location, size, and shape of the lid’s flange. I prefer to have a generous and precise flange from which to work with instead of creating it out of whatever is leftover from the forming process. Once the flange is created, continue to define the rest of the form with ribs, paying special attention to maintaining an ample thickness at the lip (3).

Tip: I almost exclusively throw on plaster bats that I make myself and I would accredit much of my success to even drying (top to bottom) from using the bats, especially when thick bases need to dry at the same rate as finely thrown and measured tops.

Once the leather-hard stage is reached, trim the body using a bone-dry chuck and a plastic bottle top to disperse downward pressure (4). Trim the lid using a foam-covered bat and aided by the bottle top (5).

3 Using a metal rib to compress and define the overhang of the lid and its rim.

4 I use a bone-dry chuck and a bottle top when trimming the jar.

5 Use a foam-covered bat and a bottle top to secure the lid as you trim.

6 The spice jar with its lid in place after both pieces are trimmed and refined.

Out of Round

Once the trimming process is complete (6), alter both the body and the lid by cutting and grating away excess clay. Use a compass to map out four corners or thirds for the feet (7). Once the four corners of the lid are marked, align the marks on the edge of a banding wheel and use a small wire harp to both cut and trace the curvature of the banding wheel turned impromptu template (8). With the four corners of the lid revealed, use a rasp to grate and soften the wire-cut edge, creating thick corners connected by a thin edge (9).

Use cutting calipers and a knife to create tall tripod feet (10, 11). Bevel only the interior edge cuts and smooth all ridges to prevent sharp edges.

Lastly, impress lines, faux holes, and a maker’s mark into the surface of the piece to create visual interest not unlike architectural details. Not only does this surface treatment serve to visually tie the body and the lid together, but they are also functioning loci for glaze to accumulate, run, and shift (12).

7 Use a compass to mark equal distance in thirds to establish the feet locations.

8 Use a wire harp and the edge of the banding wheel to create a square lid.

9 Use a Surform to grate the cut edge down further.

10 Mark the foot width with cutting calipers, then cut the notches out of the foot ring.

Bisque, Glaze, Fire, and Clean

Once bone dry, bisque fire the pieces together to cone 06. Before glazing, wax the feet and all elements of the flange with an alumina wax, a 50/50 mixture of Forbes and Mobil wax with the addition of alumina hydrate. The alumina hydrate keeps the lid from sticking to the body as well as preventing the feet from sticking to the kiln shelf. This is a holdover from when I was salt firing, but is also a must if using a porcelaneous clay body, regardless of kiln conditions. I use the 50/50 wax mixture without alumina hydrate for resist decoration on clay and with glaze layering.

When glazing lids that overhang the body with tight margins between the two pieces, keep in mind that some glazes that bubble or swell during firing may join the two pieces.

11 Bevel the hard edge cuts of the feet with a fettling knife or similar tool. Add impressions and markings to accentuate the bottom.

12 Add impressions and markings to accentuate the form and surface of the spice jar.

I fire my work in a gas car kiln in reduction to cone 10.  After firing, use 200-grit wet sandpaper to smooth the feet. On the off chance that the lid is too tight, I’ve found that mixing a little water and half a teaspoon of 300-mesh silicone carbide, applying it to the flange, then placing the lid back on the jar and rotating it slowly will remedy minor issues quickly and create a lid that spins freely.

The square-lidded spice jar (detail), wheel-thrown and altered porcelain, glaze, fired to cone 10 in a gas kiln in reduction, 2019.

Josh Manning is a studio potter living in Copper Hill, Virginia, and an assistant professor of art at Ferrum College, Ferrum, Virginia. He received his MFA from West Virginia University in 2009 and is a member of 16 Hands studio artist collective in Floyd, Virginia. To see more of his work, visit Instagram: @parlourpottery, www.parlourpottery.com, and www.16hands.com.

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