Frequently asked questions – pottery
Ever wondered how long it takes to make something in clay? It is the most popular question asked but such a hard question to answer. First thing is of course that you get quicker as you get more practiced. The first time you make a piece, you are experimenting and trying and fiddling and sitting staring into space. Once you have created something you like you get quicker. But you don’t want to devalue what you are doing when someone asks that question by saying, “Oh, not long!”
Planning and designing
The reality is that a lot of the work is done in the thinking, sketching, experimenting and making mistakes. And photographing. I so love the lines in the shore. After our house move too I find myself drawn to the beauty of the oak trees in our garden and the glimpses of water through them and the expanses of sky above them. Watch this space…
Getting the clay ready
Practically… clay comes in many different forms and even the same clay (in my case white earthenware) can be sometimes very sticky and sometimes a bit drier. So the first thing is to get some out of the bag and knead and pummel it to get it smooth and free of air bubbles. This is crucial.
Clay scraps, the bits I haven’t used or the bits that went wrong, all get thrown into the bucket of doom and soaked in water. At some point it can all be messily taken out of the bucket and onto a board to dry out, be put back into a bag then used again. Magic. No waste. This clay needs even more kneading and wedging and work to ensure it is free of lumps and bubbles.
I can then roll it out thickly to dry off a little. These are called slabs. Sometimes I can start work on a slab straightaway but more often than not I have slabs drying. You have to watch that they don’t dry too much so at some point they need wrapping in plastic ready for use.
Making a vase
For a poetry piece, like the vase above, once the slab is ready, it needs rolling some more so it is the right thickness. Sometimes I use guides so that it is a particular thickness, such as when I make tiles, but more often I do it by feel and look. I can then add my lines and dots and words and designs. Each letter is put in individually. Sometimes I aim for straight lines, sometimes rolling lines of words; it depends on the poem and the mood really.
Once the individual pieces are made they need fixing together – sometimes that means waiting again until the clay is much drier, maybe leather-hard. The edges are scored and sticky slip is added as a kind of glue. Slip is watered down clay. The pieces can then be joined and then more work is done to make the edges and joins look smooth and finished. The top edge then needs to be worked on so it looks neat and fine and any inside joins need to be worked on to make sure there aren’t any gaps where water could escape or any rough edges. Glaze hides a lot but not everything.
Almost there? The piece is made and now needs to dry out completely If there is moisture int he clay still, it can explode in the kiln. that’s a messy business. It might take a day to dry, or less if it’s really warm weather. You can’t dry it too quickly though as it might crack. If I have the log burner on I might wrap my pieces in plastic and let them dry slowly to protect them. Left alone, it still might take a week or longer if the piece is very heavy and the weather is damp and cold.
Once dry the pieces can go in the kiln for their bisque firing – the first one, that turns clay into ceramic – not yet waterproof but certainly hard. Until that point the clay is very fragile. I once spent two hours making a bowl the picked it up by the top edge to put it in the kiln to find one bit still in my hand and the rest on the floor. The bisque firing might take eight to ten hours, depending on the clay. It then will be the next day before the kiln is cool enough to open.
The kiln is opened with great trepidation – any air bubbles will mean there was an explosion and that often takes other pieces with it. Sad days. But usually all is well, and the pieces can be taken out ready for glazing…
Glazing and firing pots
Glazing – once you have decided on the colour, you can reach for a pot of the shelf that is ready mixed, you can reach for the bag of powder, add water and start glazing, or you can make your own – the most fun bu the most time-consuming. I love it though – it’s like chemistry at school but you are making colour and art…
How long the actual glazing takes will depend on how big your piece is and how complex the design is. Usually each glaze needs to be applied to two or three coats, even the transparent glazes.
The pieces then get stacked very, very carefully in the kiln – no glazed side can touch the kiln shelf or another piece or they will be welded forever. Another day in the kiln and another overnight wait and then… ta da.. that piece that didn’t take very long at all!