In the Potter’s Kitchen: Flameware: The Heirloom Clay

Around four years ago, I took a sabbatical from my teaching job at Collin College in Plano, Texas. I wanted to improve my teaching methods for my beginning and intermediate ceramics students. I traveled around the western part of the US, visiting several university ceramic programs to observe the methodologies they were using to teach students at similar levels. But, I was also on a quest to find my place in the functional ceramics world. I was unhappy with my then current work. I was making nice, but not great, functional porcelain pottery. It just didn’t satisfy me anymore. I had already been researching, ad nauseam, for ways to combine my love of functional pots and my love of cooking. After many hours of thought, research, and discussion with several of my trusted pottery friends, I finally found my material and a reason to keep making pots. That reason was, and still is, flameware clay.

So, I began studying and testing, and testing, and reading, and more testing. Luckily for me, and the rest of us, some wonderful potters have already tread this ground, which can be fraught with peril. I began researching everything I could find from potters such as Ron Probst, Val Cushing, Karen Karnes and, of course, Robbie Lobell. It was Lobell on whom I would lean the heaviest. She was kind enough to share her recipes and thoughts in several publications; I decided to try out her clay body, and it worked really well for me. Over the years and with this flameware clay, I have developed a form called the charcoal chimney cooktop.

1 Start by centering around 8 pounds of clay and opening for a wide base.

2 Create and measure a gallery to accept the top part later.

Making the Parts

When I’m throwing parts for my charcoal cooktop, I usually weigh my clay so I can repeat a form later if I end up liking the size of the finished piece. I always throw on plaster bats, so I never need to worry about cutting  pots off with a wire, because they release on their own. The first piece I make for the charcoal chimney cooktop is the flat-bottomed, wide cylindrical base of the charcoal chamber. Centering the 8-pound clay ball, use the heel of your right hand and flatten the clay (1) while moving it outward, to roughly 9 o’clock on the wheel head. Trust me, try it if you don’t make plates and platters this way. Check the bottom thickness, which should be roughly ⅜ inch, then compress it extremely well. Begin to bring up the wall, making sure to maintain a cone shape. After you gain the height and thickness you desire, create a gallery like you would on a lidded vessel to accept the top part later. Measure the gallery diameter with calipers (2) to use when throwing the top section.

3 Center and throw around 6 pounds of clay into a bottomless cone.

4 Throw off of the hump to make several cones, all close to the same size.

Next, begin to throw a large, bottomless cone shape (3) for the top part of the charcoal chamber. Use roughly 6 pounds of clay for this and make the top opening match the caliper measurement. After both parts are thrown, set them aside to stiffen up to a nice soft leather hard. The stickiness should just be gone from the surface. Next, begin to make the conical cooktop riser additions (4) by throwing them off of the hump. This is precisely like making a spout, except the form is closed at the top. Use a metal rib to clean, shape, and compress each riser. Measure, then cut them off the wheel (5), and set them aside to dry slightly.

5 Let the cones dry only slightly, so they can be flattened later.

6 Center around 6 pounds of clay for the cooktop pan.

7 After the cooktop pan is made, add a black slip to the interior.

8 Throw several parts at a time to explore variation in size and form of the top (left) and base (right) sections of the charcoal chamber.

Now begin making the cooktop pan using around 6 pounds of clay and the same technique as earlier (6). After you’ve made your pan shape of choice, line the inside surface with a black slip (7) made from the same flameware body, using 10% 6600 black Mason stain. I don’t deflocculate the slip. Set the cook top aside to dry until it pops off of the plaster bat, then trim it, focusing on a uniform thickness all over.

9 Set the top piece into the gallery after scoring and slipping.

10 Join the 2 halves by pinching and throwing them together.

11 After refining the final shape, flatten and add the 3 cooktop riser pieces.

12 Mark the main opening size using a template as a guide and cut it out.

Assembling the Parts

After the separate parts (8) have stiffened up enough to be joined together, score and slip the gallery area (9) to accept the top half. Quickly flip the bat with the top half upside down and line it up with the bottom part. Loosely join them together. Once secured together, use the wire to cut off the top part from the bat, and use a needle tool to remove the excess clay from what is now the top of the cylinder. Next, pinch the top and bottom sections together at the attachment point to loosely join them. Now you have to throw the two parts together (10) using a damp sponge and a rib to even out the walls and strengthen the join. If this form is going to fail, now is the time it will happen—slow and steady wins the race here.

13 Use a 1-inch paddle drill bit to make 2 more air holes.

Finished, fired flameware charcoal chimney cooktop ready for use.

Once you get the shape and thickness you like, it’s time to add the cooktop riser pieces (11), which raise the cooking pan and allow enough air into the charcoal chamber to produce great combustion and searing heat. Coat the risers in the same black slip as the pan. Next, you need to make both the opening used to light the charcoal (12) and the air holes in the bottom of the cooker (13). After it reaches a true leather hard, clean up the entire piece using a variety of ribs and a damp sponge.

Chris Gray is a professor of art and ceramics at Collins College in Plano, Texas. To learn more about his work, visit Instagram @claymfa.

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