A Pain in the Neck

I love throwing bulbous bottle forms with elegant, narrow necks all in one piece. However, when teaching some of my students, many of them find this form too challenging. I devised this simplified, step-by-step plan to help them throw bottles.

This approach breaks the process down into three steps: throwing the neck, throwing the body, and assembling the two pieces to create a seamless bottle form. Each of these steps comes with valuable learning opportunities:

First, throwing the neck gives the student experience in throwing forms off the hump, such as spouts for teapots. Focusing on the neck individually enables the student to explore more interesting shapes and styles.

Second, throwing the body separately enables the student to see the inside of the body so they can be more aware of where excess clay may be hiding—this awareness is important during trimming. The outside is trimmed to mirror the inside.

Third, it teaches the student how to create pieces that transition seamlessly by designing and creating necks and body forms intended for assembly.

1 Throw a wide cylinder that is about 2–3 inches tall off the hump.

2 Angle the top inch of the cylinder in until it’s almost flat.

Throwing the Neck

Most students can throw the body, but they run into difficulty in making the neck. Understanding this, I decided to eliminate the first part and start out by having them throw the neck separately off the hump.

Center 4–5 pounds of clay, cone the clay, and use the top portion to throw a short cylinder between 2–3 inches tall (1). Next, angle the top inch of the cylinder in to prepare for collaring (2). Angling the top in makes it easier to collar and compresses the rim so it doesn’t ripple. Leave the base of the neck wide to help create a seamless transition from the body when attaching the two pieces later.

As you collar the cylinder to create the neck (3), the walls become thicker, providing the clay needed for additional height. Alternate between collaring in and pulling up the clay wall to gain height. Once the neck becomes narrow, use a stick instead of your finger to continue thinning and shaping the neck (4). The stick will help make sure the neck remains open.

3 Gradually collar the cylinder to create an opening the diameter of your finger.

4 Use a bamboo skewer to thin the neck once it’s too narrow to fit your finger.

5 Use a flexible metal rib to refine the shape and remove any excess slip.

6 Use a pin tool to make a 45° angle cut at the base of the neck.

I use a flexible rib to refine the shape and remove slip. I make sure the base of the neck will transition easily from body to neck. I then use a torch to dry this part to leather hard. Once the base of the neck has been stabilized, it’s easy to work on the rest of the neck. Continue to collar, thin, and finalize the neck shape (5). Dry the rest of the neck when finished shaping.

Using a pin tool, cut the neck off at a 45° angle, leaving the base wide (6). This cut enables the neck to nest neatly into the top of the body, which will also be cut at an angle to receive the neck. With this method, gravity works with you as the two perfectly angled pieces join to create a stronger, more stable wall. If you simply stack the two pieces, the weight of the neck may cause the shoulder to slump during glaze firing.

Throw as many necks as possible from the hump—even if it exceeds the number of necks you intend to use. Mastering this technique enables you to experiment with various shapes and styles (7).

Designing and Throwing the Body

Spend a little time sketching a few shapes that complement the series of necks you’ve just made. This will pay off and help you make a smooth transition from the shoulder to the neck during assembly.

7 Throw more necks than needed and set aside to pair up with a body later.

8 The form is similar to two bowls stacked rim to rim. Form the bottom bowl first.

I use about 2–3 pounds of clay for the body; the amount of clay used here is determined by the size and style body you designed for the neck. Throw a cylinder, keeping the mouth narrow and the rim slightly thicker (8). As you begin to push the cylinder into shape, imagine the form you’re attempting to achieve as two bowls stacked rim to rim. Together, these two bowls will create the perfect sphere for the base of your bottle. Fine tune the bottom bowl form and then use a torch to dry that part to stabilize the base (9). Drying this part makes it easier to form the rest of the body without the bottom part slumping. I use a wooden rib on the inside to blend the two bowl forms together. Use the rib to focus on the inside shape, creating a smooth continuous line on the inside. It’s easier to trim the piece with confidence when you remember the inside form. Shaping from the inside pushes unwanted clay to the outside surface, which may become misshapen. You will trim this misshapen surface away later to achieve better weight and uniform wall thickness. To avoid bottom-heavy pots, trim the outside form to match the inside. At this point, the extra clay can add stability and trimming the body is reserved for just before you cut the bottle off the bat.

Now that you have the body formed, you’re ready to finish the opening. This is the part designed to receive the bottle neck you’ve created with a 45°-angle cut. Using calipers, measure the outside edge of the base of the neck that looks best with that body (10). Support the rim of the opening with your thumb and index finger, compress the rim with your other index finger to create a 45° angle, and adjust the opening to match the measurement you took from the neck (11). This way, the neck neatly nests into this opening. Make the 45° edge a bit thicker for a more secure join where the neck and body come together. Use a torch to dry the opening to leather hard. Now you’re ready to assemble (12).

9 Use a torch or heat gun to stabilize the bottom before finishing the top portion.

10 Find the neck that complements the body and measure the base of the neck.

11 Create a 45°-angle opening to receive one of the necks you threw.

12 Adjust the opening for a perfect fit, then dry the opening.

Assembly

Match up the necks to the bodies, score and slip where the two pieces come together, and then place the neck into the 45° opening on the body—wiggle it a bit for a solid join. Turn the wheel on slowly, and steady the neck while you compress the join. Make slight adjustments until the neck becomes perfectly centered (13). Using a flexible rib, compress the join until it’s seamless (14). I use a metal rib to shave a little clay away if the transition point needs to be adjusted.

13 Score and slip the base opening and the neck bottom, then position neck in place.

14 Use a flexible metal rib to compress the seam, making it undetectable.

The Final Trim

Fine tune the form, removing as much clay as you can before cutting it off the bat (15). Trimming right side up gives you a better sense of form. Burnish the entire surface with a rubber rib to smooth any trimming marks. When you cut this piece off, I think you will be surprised at how light it is. Now all you have left to do is trim the foot ring while supporting the vase with a chuck.

15 Trim the excess clay away at the base and sides, then burnish surface.

Now you can see that throwing a nice bottle form isn’t as much of a pain in the neck as you might have thought. It just takes practice and a little planning.

Glenn Woods and his husband, Keith Herbrand (AKA Pottery Boys Clay Studios), make their home and studio in Palm Harbor, Florida, and Blue Island, Illinois. Woods also teaches at the Dunedin Fine Art Center in Dunedin, Florida. Learn more at www.PotteryBoys.com.

Comments
  • John S.

    I tried your process with good results. Thank you for the article. I had a couple of trimming casualties with the long neck bottles slipping. I’ve started putting a foam soda can cooler over the neck as it’s inverted on a griffin grip and then secure the neck with a few pieces of clay. The foam keeps the moisture out of the clay neck and I don’t get the bottle slipping. I trim the cooler if the neck is narrow.

  • Carol E.

    What a great idea and well written article. I can never get a thin, tall neck but I think this may be the answer in doing so.

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