Friday, September 30, 2016

Making a large plant stand, one kilogram at a time!

In the past I would regularly make pots from 3, 4 or even 5 kilograms (5.6 - 11 lbs) of clay on the potter's wheel without any worries of straining something. Centring was not a problem, and I enjoyed the physicality of working large. After a shoulder injury the "landscape" changed dramatically, and I found new enjoyment and satisfaction in learning what could be done with 750 grams or so. That left me with a problem, how could I complete larger commissioned work? Some commissions I let go, but I was determined to find a way of making some plant stands that had been ordered, these were to be quite large, and each would require several kilograms of clay.

One day I happened to see a Youtube video of a Korean potter throwing a large bowl of around 16 inches (40 cm) in diameter on a traditional wooden wheel. The wheel looked a bit like a two tier wedding cake with the wooden wheel head supported on four wooden posts above a lower wheel of a similar size that was designed to be directly powered by the potter's foot. The wheel would have had very little power or momentum, but this skilful potter was able to make large work by a combination of coiling and throwing clay. I was fascinated and impressed.
I have used throwing and adding coils and throwing some more myself for large work, but would usually start with 5 or 6 kilograms (11 - 13 lbs) of clay, throw as far as I could with it, then complete the pot with 2 or 3 coils of clay that were added and thrown. The Korean potter started coiling almost straight away.... and this got me thinking!

A few days later I tried making a plant stand, one kilogram at a time.

I had to make several plant stands, so I thought I would take some photos as I made one of them.

I begin by throwing a 1 kilogram lump of clay onto a bat on my slowly revolving wheel and flattening it with my right fist.

 Once the first lump of clay is flat, I add another and flatten that one.

 And another...

 And another.....

 And another....

I check the thickness of the clay with a wooden needle.

It is about 3/4 of an inch thick, just right!

With the wheel turning slowly I use a damp sponge to compress and even out the clay, moving clay from the centre to the outside.

In the photo I am using one hand, but that is because I am holding a camera. In reality I assisted and steaded this hand with my other one.

I repeat this several times, until the clay is nice and even, and there is surplus past the edge of the wheel head.

 I trim off the surplus clay with a wire to tidy it up.

Then I smooth and compress the clay with a wooden rib.

 Around the rim of the clay I roughen it with a serrated scraper.

I make several coils of clay by squeezing the clay in my hands, then giving it a light roll on my work table.

With the wheel turning slowly I add a coil of clay to the roughened outer edge of the clay that is on the wheel. When working with fresh, soft clay it is not always necessary to add any water or slip to a join like this. In fact you really need to avoid adding much water, because it may cause the join to slide when you later throw the wall that you are making.
Make a good long scarf join where the clay merges with the other piece at a shallow angle. Wiggle the clay surfaces around as you press them together. You should feel the clay "grab" as the pieces join. Thumb off the excess clay.

I steadily work round the coil pressing the edges down inside and out with my fingers and thumb. It is important to make a good job of this, and to avoid trapping any air in the join.

Then I add a second coil of clay to the first. No water is needed for this because the clay is fresh and moist.

 I scarf in another length of clay to fill in the gap.

 I thumb the second coil down over the first.

Then I use a damp sponge and finger pressure outside the wall, and finger pressure from my other hand inside the wall to smooth out the coils and to grow the wall higher. I wasn't able to show the inside hand as it was holding the camera for this photo, but normally it would be in contact with the outside hand when doing an operation like this!

 The wall has risen to where I want it, and is now fairly even in thickness.

With the wheel turning slowly I trim off the uneven clay from the top with a wire.
I am working on this pot stand with it upside down, so this edge with form the "foot" of the pot stand.

I thicken the "foot" by bending it out, and carefully folding it down. You have to be very careful not to trap a pocket of air when you do this, so do it progressively expelling the air as you go.

I finish this decoratively by forming a ridge.

Two days later, when leather hard, I was able to cut out areas with a wire, and  add decoration with clay stamps. Then I turned it over, added a coil of clay around the edge, and pulled that to form a rim.

Here are 4 plant stands shortly after finishing. Making each one was a slow process, but I was very pleased to be able to make at all. In fact they gave my confidence a great boost! The largest pot stand uses more than 6 kilograms of clay.

Coming up in my next post will be a sequence of photos that show the making of a large owl that I completed last week.

Soon I will be having an extended break from making pottery, because I will be having an operation on my troublesome shoulder. ACC finally approved my claim and everything has happened with considerable speed since then. The operation is scheduled for 10th October.


Anna said...

Hi Peter you certainly made good use of this technique... something for me to keep in mind next time I want to make a larger piece. Good luck with the operation.

Silky Shapes Studio said...

Hi Peter. This seems to be a very useful technique for making larger pieces. I cant wait to try it. Thank you very much for sharing and good luck with the surgery! Yegana.

Melissa Rohrer said...

Great information! Wishing you the best with your upcoming surgery.

gz said...


I met Michael Cardew when he was 77, giving a throwing demo. He made a jug in 3 parts where he used to make it in he said "Why make life hard for yourself?" !

Peter's Dad said...

Well done Peter!

Anonymous said...

Great approach! I have seen some examples of Southern US potters centering with a wooden arm attached to a pivot point. They can brace the arm to the body and apply a lot of pressure with the leverage. is a commercial version.

Full disclosure: I have never used one and have no connection to this business, I just found it in a google search for the topic.

Peter said...

Hi Anna,
Good to hear from you thank you for your encouragement. Do let me know if you give this method a try, I would be interested to hear how you get on with it.

Hi Yegana,
Welcome to the blog, good to hear from you. I popped over to your website and am most impressed with your work and with what you are achieving with the classes. Lovely to see that you are getting others started with potting.

Hi Melissa,
Very nice to hear from you, thank you for your good wishes!

Hi Gwynneth,
How wonderful to have seen Michael Cardew demonstrate. He visited New Zealand many years ago and I was interested to see on wiki that his first western pupil was Peter Stichbury, a New Zealand potter (who died last year). A few years ago when I visited a collector of African pots I was fortunate to be able to hold a lovely pot that was made by Ladi Kwali,the first female potter at the training centre that Cardew ran in Abuja, Africa.

Hello Dad!
Thank you!

Hi Anonymous,
Thank you so much for writing in with such helpful information. I had not seen this way of centring clay before and it may well prove to be a great help to me in future months as I come back to potting with a repaired shoulder. I had a good look at the videos on the marcspotterytools site, and am very interested.

mikeintonbridge said...

Typical of so many potters: never say "can't", just find another way. Ruthanne Tudball had to completely change the way she worked after an injury too too. I think she centres by slapping the clay into place and learned to work with the wheel rotating the other way. Good on yer mate, and excellent results:)

Peter said...

Hello Mike,
Good to hear from you. Ruthanne Tudball is one of my heroes. I remember reading an article about her a few years ago and was really impressed by her way of adapting technique and flourishing instead of giving up when faced with very real difficulties in life. I love what I have seen of her work in photographs, it has a joy and freedom about it that makes it look like it is still being created on the wheel! I understand that she does most of the assembly and finishing of things on the wheel too, so a teapot (for instance) might have the spout put on before the body of the teapot is lifted from the wheel. Wonderful stuff!