At the beginning of each pottery class, I like to introduce one or two fresh projects for my students. Coming up with new ideas can be challenging. Recently, I found inspiration for a new project in the Styrofoam section of my local craft store. Using stacked Styrofoam rings and a couple of clay slabs, I created a small plate fitted with an altered dome lid. When a fresh-baked cookie is placed under the lid and a hot mug of tea is placed on the top of the dome, the cookie stays warm.
Construction of the Dome
The first step is to build a mold used to form the dome. To do this, stack the Styrofoam rings, then tape them together. Next, compress the top edges of the Styrofoam with your fingers, so that they’re less sharp. Softening the edges at this stage protects the clay slabs from being cut into during the construction process. Cut a sheet of plastic wrap so that it covers the top and sides of the Styrofoam rings. The goal is to cut the plastic so that you don’t have any excess plastic wrap tucked under the rings and the rings sit flat on the work surface (1). Place the plastic over the mold.
Roll out a ¼-inch-thick slab that’s large enough to drape completely over the rings. Rib the clay until it’s smooth on both sides. Place the clay slab over top of the rings, allowing the clay to slump a bit over the inner hole. Make sure the clay is covering the mold completely and that there’s excess clay beyond the base of the mold (2). Gently push the outer edges of the slab against the bottom of the mold. You will start to see an edge appear in the clay between the rings and the worktable. Use a knife or a needle tool to cut along that edge and remove the excess clay from around the dome. Next, wet your finger and run it around the foot of the dome to compress the clay around the mold (3). Take a sharpened, beveled wooden stick and run it just underneath the edge of the dome to help release the clay from the work surface and further round off the foot of the dome.
Gently move the clay-covered mold to your pottery wheel, and center it on a bat secured to your wheel head. Run a beveled wooden tool around the foot of the clay dome to compress and finish off the edge. Sometimes, this action alone secures the dome to the bat. If the dome still slides, place lugs or short, thick coils of clay against the foot of the dome to hold it in place (see 4).
Next, slowly turn the wheel while running a wet finger around the inner ring edge on top of the dome and gently pushing the clay downward (4). Continue this downward pressure on the clay, slowly moving your finger toward the wheel head and flat against the inner wall of the Styrofoam ring. This will stretch the clay to form a flat depression in the dome. Don’t push the clay down farther than ⅜ inch, or you risk tearing the clay. This depression will become the indented area of the dome where the mug or teacup will sit. Take the bat supporting the dome off of the wheel head and set it aside.
Construction of the Saucer
Roll out another slab about ⅜ to ½ inch thick and about 8 inches in diameter. Rib the slab on both sides, then place it on a bat on the wheel head.
Cut a piece of plastic wrap slightly wider than the clay dome. Lay the plastic over top of the 8-inch round slab. Then move the clay dome—still draped over the ring mold—on top of the plastic-covered slab. Slowly turn your wheel and center the dome on top of the slab. Using scissors, trim the excess plastic wrap from the slab surface, leaving enough to prevent the dome and plate from sticking together (5).
With the wheel slowly turning, use a needle tool to cut the clay slab into a circle. Be careful to leave ½ inch of excess clay beyond the bottom edge of the clay dome. Remove the excess clay (6). While the wheel is spinning, wedge a wet finger underneath the edge of the flat slab. Slide your finger slightly toward the center of the wheel so that the clay border of the plate begins to lift upward around the dome. Be careful not to get too close to the dome, otherwise you may trap the dome and be unable to remove it. The trick is to get the clay close enough so that the dome fits nicely onto the plate without a lot of excess play. Once the size of the plate has been established and the lip is created, you can then gently lift the mold, dome, and plastic wrap off of the plate and set them aside.
Now you can complete the plate. If it fits a little too closely to the dome, stretch the rim outward a bit. To finish the lip of the saucer, wet your finger and run it around the edge to soften and round it or fold a piece of wet chamois cloth over the lip and run that around the rim (7). I like to create a swirl in the center of the plate. To create this optional effect, wet your finger and spin the wheel slowly. Starting from the very center, indent the clay while at the same time pulling your finger toward you to create a nice swirl pattern. Finally, take a beveled wooden knife and run it around the base of the plate to create a nice foot.
Replace the plastic over the plate and put the dome back on top to make sure that it fits without a lot of extra play between the dome’s sides and the rim of the plate.
Once the clay dome has dried a bit to the point where it holds its shape without sagging but is still somewhat plastic, turn over the dome and remove the mold (8). Note: If you let the dome dry too long, there’s a chance that the clay may shrink too much and could split or crack.
Now, you will have a fairly straight, cylindrical dome. You can leave it like this if you like, or create a more rounded dome. To achieve a more rounded form, position the dome back over the plastic and the saucer. Slowly spin the wheel and press a rubber rib firmly against the squared-off portion at the top of the dome so that the clay will round over.
When the dome is the shape you desire, hold it upside down and smooth the inside where it might have picked up the texture of the Styrofoam. Use wet fingers to compress the foot of the dome and round off the edge. Let the saucer and the dome stiffen together.
Teacup or Mug
To throw a teacup or mug for the dome, use the end of a set of calipers with the prongs pointing outward to measure the diameter of the dome’s depressed foot ring in order to make sure that the cup’s foot fits snugly into the indentation (9). Save this measurement by tightening the wing nut on the calipers.
Throw your teacup or mug and trim the bottom. Measure the foot of your vessel with the other end of your calipers, with the prongs pointing inward (10), and alter the cup if needed before cutting it off the bat.
Place a piece of plastic wrap over the dome’s inset ring and gently place the cup onto the ring to make sure it fits (11).
Creating Spiral Handles
To make a spiral handle for the dome, roll a thin coil and wrap it around a dowel as tightly and evenly as possible. Cut the coil when the spiral reaches about 1¼–2 inches long. To even out the clay spiral, gently roll the coil-wrapped dowel on your work table. Slowly remove the coil from the dowel rod (12). Use a needle tool to cut the clay spiral in half. Position each half on either side of the dome. Slip, score, and attach the spiral handles in place (13). Be sure to soften the edges of your handles and make them large enough to give fingers a secure place to hold while lifting the dome. Once your cup has stiffened up, attach a handle (14). Slowly dry all the pieces together (15).
Ann Ruel owns and operates her studio, Little Street Pottery, in Ocala, Florida. She offers a series of video workshops through her website, www.littlestreetpottery.fineartstudioonline.com. To watch a how-to video of the cookie warmer project, visit https://youtu.be/DEtQCQ7W64g. To see her newest ceramic works, look at her business page on Facebook, Little Street Pottery.