How do you hold your coffee mug on a cold day? Do you hold it by the handle, fingers safely at a distance from the hot surface of the mug? Or, do you slip your hand under the handle to keep your fingers warm, maybe even hugging the warm mug to your chest? If you’re the latter type—or you know someone who is—perhaps you need to make some pocket mugs. When done right, the pocket mug is comfortable to hold, fits your hand like a mitten, and allows you to securely grasp your warm mug on a cold day.
Size of the Mug
I make pocket mugs three at a time, using slightly more clay for each than I use for a standard mug. I weigh out three pieces of clay at 1¾ pounds each, and one that’s 1½ pounds. From the three larger lumps of clay I throw three cylinders, pulling them up taller and thinner than I do for a regular mug. I try to make them narrow enough in diameter that I can wrap my index finger and thumb about halfway around—knowing that after shrinkage my hand will wrap more than halfway around so I can hold it securely. I also make sure the cylinder is more than two hands high. If you’re familiar with how horses are measured in hands, that’s how I measure the cylinder. I stack my hands, not including the thumb, and hold them up next to the cylinder. When measuring a horse, a hand is 4 inches in length—my own hand is slightly smaller, so a cylinder roughly 8 inches high is about right. This height allows you to attach a pocket that your hand will fit loosely into, with room for the mug to shrink. There is no harm having it taller, it will work for bigger hands. My standard pocket mugs won’t fit any hand much bigger than mine.
Forming the Mugs
When you open up the clay to make the cylinder, go deep enough that trimming the bottom is unnecessary. There is no need for a foot on these mugs. Make the floor of the cylinder about 3 inches in diameter and flat, so the bottom of the mug is an even thickness. One way to accomplish both goals is to make yourself a ball-opener tool (1) (see sidebar), which is designed to open up the ball of clay to the right depth and pull the floor out flat. Center your ball of clay and push the middle leg of a ball opener into it to open it up. Once the ball opener touches the bat on either side of the lump of clay, move it to the side to create the floor, increasing the opening to about 3 inches wide.
When pulling up the cylinder, be aggressive about getting the clay up from the bottom (2) so you can get the height you need and don’t leave excess weight at the base. The addition of the pocket means that these mugs will tend to be a little heavy, so do your best to pull the weight up into the walls so that you can cut the top off if the cylinder is taller than it needs to be (3). Make the walls a little thinner than with regular mugs to compensate for the weight that’s going to be added with the pocket. My last step is to use a pointed wood or metal tool to remove excess clay from the bottom inch. Don’t wire under them yet.
The fourth lump of clay will become the pockets. Throw a wide, barrel-shaped cylinder a little shorter than the mugs, with no floor. It’s about 7 inches tall and at its widest point, about halfway up, it’s about 4 inches in diameter. If your mugs are taller than mine, make this piece taller, too. This piece should also be thrown thin, taking care not to leave too much thickness at the base. When you are done throwing, trim what you can from the base (4), but don’t wire under it.
Adding the Grip and the Pocket
Once all four pieces have stiffened up just to where they can be handled without distorting them, trim a bit more from the bases while they are still attached to the bats. Use a decorating disk to make three equally spaced marks around the rim of the fourth piece (5). Make vertical cuts down from each mark, dividing the piece into three equal sections (6). Now you can cut under these pieces, using a needle tool instead of a wire tool. Be careful they don’t all fall down as you finish up—go slow and be prepared to stop and catch them, or just run the needle under one at a time. Cover two of the sections and hold one up against one of the mugs, still attached to the bat. Wrap your hand around the mug, under the pocket, and fold the pocket loosely around your fingers to see how it fits (7). Now press your fingers into the side of the mug to cave it in a bit and give your fingers more room inside the pocket. Remove the pocket and press harder, wrapping your thumb around and pressing with it, too (8). Remember the mug will shrink, so space these dents farther apart than is comfortable now. They should end up just over halfway around the circumference of the mug from each other, which will give you a secure grip. Tip: Don’t depend on the pocket to keep you from dropping a full mug; gently grip it with your fingers inside the pocket and your thumb comfortably in the indentation.
Once you’ve made the indentations, put the pocket back in place and mark around it with a needle tool. Use a sponge to smooth and thin the edge of the pocket that will be left open. Scrub both surfaces to be joined with magic water and a toothbrush, or score the surface and add slip. Put the pocket in place and smooth all the way around. It should still be soft enough, barely stiffer than fresh clay, so you can really smooth the surfaces together (9). I like to leave the edges showing, but you can hide them if you like. I may add a coil to the back edge of the pocket if it’s not soft enough to move the clay with a fingertip, but not usually on the top or bottom edge. However, I do add an extra pinch of clay at the top and bottom corners of the pocket opening, where a separation is most likely to occur.
At this stage, if the pocket isn’t roomy enough you can use a finger to stretch the open edge thinner, even getting inside and stretching the belly of the pocket a bit. I have knobby, arthritic knuckles so I figure if my hand fits loosely inside the pocket, it will be comfortable for most people whose hands aren’t a lot bigger than mine. I find it’s easiest to do much of this work while the mug is still attached to the bat, but feel free to wire under it any time the bat starts to get in the way. Once you’ve cut the mug loose, check the bottom edge of the pocket and smooth it more if you need to.
Repeat with the other two cups and pocket sections. Note: you can make these right- or left-handed. I always make two right-handed mugs and one left-handed mug in each batch (10). Lefties like to be remembered—and people with left-handed friends appreciate finding an appropriate gift item for them, too. Dry the mugs slowly to prevent tragic separations of vulnerable joints. Before firing, check inside the pockets one last time and make sure you didn’t leave any uncomfortable burrs. Bisque fire and glaze with a stable, easy to clean, food-safe glaze.
Making a Ball Opener
This is a simple tool shared on YouTube by potter Tom Whitaker (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ot_OZBh54-k) that perfectly executes the opening of a centered ball of clay. The materials cost about $3 and the tool takes approximately 20 minutes to make.
- 24-inch piece of ½ inch PVC pipe
- 2 PVC elbows, ½ inch
- 1 PVC T connector, ½ inch
- Optional: 6-inch piece of ½-inch dowel
- Super glue or epoxy
Cut the PVC pipe into five sections: two 6 3/8 inch; one 6 inch; and two about 2½ inches long (A). Cut the longer pieces first, then cut whatever is left in half for the shoulders.
Assemble the tool by making a trident shape with the 6-inch section in the center between the two longer sections (B). The exact dimensions aren’t critical as long as the center vertical section is 3/8 inches shorter than the side pieces. If you don’t cut the pieces perfectly straight, grind them down on a bench grinder. Secure the sections together with super glue or epoxy.
Optional: Cut a length of dowel rod to fit inside the center section so it doesn’t fill with clay when you plunge it into a centered ball of clay. Secure it with super glue or epoxy (see B).
Sumi von Dassow is an artist, instructor, and regular contributor to Pottery Making Illustrated. She lives in Golden, Colorado. Check out Sumi’s book, In the Potter’s Kitchen, available in the Ceramic Arts Network Shop, http://ceramicartsnetwork.org/store/in-the-potters-kitchen.