Raiding the Kitchen

Zigzag Vessel, 8¼ in. (21 cm) in height, wheel-thrown stoneware, slip, liner glaze, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, 2019.

The first kitchen gadget to migrate to my studio was a lemon zester. I acquired one after seeing a video of potter Lucy Fagella using a zester to carve decorative lines into the rim of a leather-hard teapot. Around the same time, I was practicing throwing tall, narrow cylinders. Leather hard, these cylinders provided handy surfaces to test out the zester, and I carved a lot of satisfyingly long, parallel lines from rim to foot.

It was a short leap to go from zesting leather-hard cylinders to zesting freshly thrown ones, and another short leap to start browsing yard sales and cooking-supply stores for other kitchen gadgets that could create interesting textures on clay. The texturing tools I now use most often are fluted pastry wheels (assorted brands) and an aluminum cake-decorating comb (Ateco).

Stratum Seed Pots, to 9½ in. (24 cm) in height, wheel-thrown stonewares (various types), slips, sodium silicate, liner glaze, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, 2017.

I use these tools to texture slipped cylinders that I then stretch from the inside with ribs. As the wheel spins, the ribs drag against the clay, torquing the pot: vertical cuts expand into spirals, and parallel swipes drift apart or scrunch together depending on their angle and the directional spin of the wheel.

I leave the exteriors of these vessels unglazed to show off the colors and varied textures of the clay and slip. The clay bodies I use most frequently are Standard 266 Dark Brown Clay and Highwater Earthen Red, which turn a dark brown-black and a rich brick red, respectively, when fired to cone 6 in oxidation.

Throw a Tall, Narrow Cylinder

Begin by throwing a tall, narrow cylinder (1–3). I use 4 pounds of stiff clay to yield cylinders that are about 3¾ inches wide, 10 inches tall, and just under ½ inch thick. If you have difficulty fitting your hand and forearm into this form, extend your reach with a throwing stick.

Aim for a wall that is as evenly thick as possible. Trial and error will teach you the best wall thicknesses for the forms you want to make. If the cylinder wall is too thick, especially toward the bottom, your pot will feel heavy; if the wall is too thin, the cylinder cannot be stretched as far before ripping.

You can achieve more height and even walls in a cylinder by:

  • Starting with clay that is on the stiffer side of wedgeable.
  • Focusing on pulling up any excess clay at the base of the cylinder wall.
  • Minimizing the amount of water you add during pulls. In place of adding water, reduce friction by minimizing the surface area with which you come into contact with the pot. Keep hands and tools dry and free of slip to prevent them from sticking to the clay. Minimizing water also makes the wall less likely to sag later when you stretch it.

1 Center and open 4 pounds of stiff clay, then pull up the walls to create a tall, narrow cylinder.

2 Use your fingertips or a knuckle to provide pressure when pulling up the wall without adding water.

3 Continue using a knuckle to provide sufficient pressure as you pull up the wall. Avoid using excess water.

4 Compress the exterior with a rib to remove any throwing slip and to ensure the wall is smooth and flat.

Apply Slip and Texture

Compress the exterior of the cylinder with a rib to remove any remaining water or throwing slip, and to ensure the wall is flat  and smooth (4). With the wheel spinning, apply a thin layer of contrasting slip to the cylinder, using your fingers or a wide paintbrush (5). The slip should be viscous enough not to slide down the wall. Leave the top inch of the cylinder unslipped; later, you will shape this section into the neck.

If you use a cake-decorating comb: Let the wheel spin slowly. Starting near the base of the cylinder, hold the edge of the comb vertically and swipe it through the slip in a relaxed up-and-down motion for one full rotation of the wheel (6). Clean the comb and make a second swipe, if needed, just above the first, following the same up-and-down contour (7).

If you use a pastry wheel: Stop the pottery wheel. Starting at the base of the cylinder, roll the pastry wheel vertically up the wall of the pot, stopping where the slip ends. With minimal pressure, the pastry wheel should cut through the slip into the clay. Repeat this process, creating vertical lines around the entire cylinder (8). Pause as needed to clean accumulated slip off the pastry wheel using a toothbrush. Tip: Do this away from the pottery wheel to avoid splattering the pot (although splatters can be gently scraped off later with a loop tool or utility blade once the vessel is bone dry). Dry off the pastry wheel and check that it spins freely before continuing to texture the cylinder.

5 Apply slip with your fingers or a wide brush. The slip should be stiff enough not to run down the side of the pot.

6 With the wheel spinning slowly, hold the cake-decorating comb vertically against the cylinder and swipe it through the slip.

7 If needed, make a second swipe with the cake-decorating comb above the first to cover the slip area.

8 With the wheel stopped, roll the fluted pastry wheel vertically up the cylinder in repeated rows.

Stretch the Pot

Use a sponge to remove any lines that were cut into the unslipped portions of the wall (9). With the wheel spinning at a moderate speed, use the curved edge of a rib (any curved rib that fits into the pot will work for this, just avoid ones with pointy tips) to gradually stretch the wall outward from the inside; this will require several passes (10–12). Take advantage of the curves of different ribs to shape the curve of the pot.

I usually begin stretching my pots from the top down rather than the bottom up; I find it easier to keep the top centered this way, and I’m less likely to stretch the bottom farther out than intended. (Once the clay has been pushed out, it cannot be pushed back in without damaging the exterior design.)

To keep the pot from collapsing as it is stretched, use your outside hand to aim the heat gun at the clay, continuously moving the tip up and down to avoid over drying any particular portion of the wall (13). Use the heat gun only as needed to stiffen the wall: over drying makes the clay harder to stretch and can lead to rips, cracks, or bulges. Stretch until you are satisfied with the form (14).

9 Use a lightly damp sponge to smooth out any cuts in the unslipped portions of the cylinder.

10 With the wheel spinning at a moderate speed, use ribs to make a first stretch of the wall from the inside.

11 On the next stretch, continue to rib the cylinder from the inside, gradually moving downward and expanding the form.

12 On your next stretch, continue to expand the interior until you reach the bottom of the cylinder.

Refine the Neck

Once satisfied with the contour of the wall, refine the neck (15). Wet the neck with a damp sponge if the clay is stiff from drying with the heat gun, but avoid adding a lot of water: water that dribbles down into the stretched portions of the pot can disrupt the surface design and create weak spots as it soaks into the clay, making the wall more likely to rip or torque as the neck is pulled.

Trim the Base

Trim the base while the pot is still attached to the wheel head. Select a trimming tool with a curve that tucks under the wall and complements the contour of the pot. As you trim, stiffen the base with the heat gun to prevent the thinning wall from sagging (16).

13 Stiffen the clay with a heat gun, as needed, to prevent the pot from collapsing while continuing to stretch.

14 Use the curves of different ribs to shape the contour of the pot. Stretch until you are satisfied with the form and surface.

15 Refine the neck with your fingers, a sponge, or various ribs to create the shape you desire.

16 Trim the base with a loop tool. Prevent sagging at the base by stiffening the clay with a heat gun as you trim.

Dry and Fire the Vessel

At this point, the floor of the vessel has more moisture than the thinly stretched, heated walls. Cut the pot from the wheel head with a wire tool (17), then gently lift it with your hands and place it on a flat surface that can absorb some moisture. If the slip is still wet, dry it with the heat gun before lifting the pot. If the air in your studio is especially dry, lightly cover the pot with plastic, so the moisture difference between floor and wall can equalize.

Once the pot is completely dry, bisque fire the vessel before adding a liner glaze, then fire again to temperature (18).

17 Cut the pot off the wheel head using a wire tool. Lift the pot from the wheel and set it aside to dry.

18 Blue on Black Zigzag Vessel, 8½ in. (22 cm) in height, wheel-thrown stoneware, slip, liner glaze, fired to cone 6, 2021.

Frayed 2020, 7½ in. (18 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and altered stoneware, slip, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, 2020.

Swoosh Jar, 8½ in. (22 cm) in height, wheel-thrown stoneware, slip, liner glaze, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, 2017.

Elizabeth Paley is a ceramic artist based in Durham, North Carolina. She teaches pottery classes at the community studio Claymakers (claymakers.org), was the founder and curator of The Potters’ Penguin Project (facebook.com/potterspenguinproject), and is a collaborating artist with the math-art installation Mathemalchemy (mathemalchemy.org). To see more of her work, visit geekpots.com or Instagram @geekpots.

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