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How to Make a Pottery Vase

Well, this is how I do it anyway.


When I used to open the studio to the public, I would be asked a lot of questions, most of them about my processes. Whilst I don’t want to give ALL my secrets away, I do want to share with you how to make a pottery vase, Ridge & Furrow style. It can be messy, sweaty and downright frustrating but the toil is forgotten the second you pull a piece out of the kiln that literally makes you cry. (Because it’s not just Keith Brymer Jones who get emotional over bloody good pottery.)

 

So, first we need to decide what to make. What are the shelves running low on? Do I want to experiment today? Is it for an order? Hm, I think I want to push myself and make a big vase to decorate. This requires some sketching of shapes and planning of decoration. So often the first step in the process is opening my sketchbook and playing with ideas for shapes and new designs.

 




 

Next, I will begin prepping my clay. The clay straight from the bag is often too firm to throw with as is so I will mix it with softer recycled clay. This bit is a proper workout, dealing with up to 25 kilos of clay for a big production run.





I use a technique called spiral wedging when I have large amounts of clay, this creates an interesting spiral pattern, a bit like a giant seashell.



When the fresh and recycled clay are homogenised and de-aired, I will weigh out the lumps of clay. Knowing how much to use takes a whole lot of trial and error, I’m looking at you tiny mugs and giant egg cups. After this I will knead the clay again and form it into a uniform-ish ball and wrap them up to stop them drying out and all my hard work going to waste.

 

Now, I don my apron, this is going to get messy.


I have never been one of those potters with a pristine apron. Throwing in a clean white shirt? Not for me. With a jug of water by my wheel it is time for the magic bit. (Spoiler alert: There’s no magic just a whole lot of practice). Yes, I throw the pot. Sometimes first time, sometimes not if it is a new shape or it’s just not a good throwing day. The throwing process alone could take up a whole blog post so instead I am going to link a video of me throwing a small bowl on the wheel to give you an idea. Leave your oohs and ahhs in the comments below please.





Now we employ our skills in patience. After taking the pot off the wheel it needs to firm up enough for the next stage. Sometimes this is overnight and sometimes it takes a whole week (especially if your studio is in an old, draughty, and damp barn like my first one). Many potters will have lots of things on the go at the same time for this reason.


Look at that beauty, she is a little rough around the edges though so next is trimming (or turning). The pot gets carefully placed upside down on the wheel, positioned in the very centre and secured with some clay sausages. Then with a variety of tools the base is trimmed down to create a foot and finesse the form. To keep my throwing lines, I only trim the bottom of my pots, this is why I taught myself to throw thinly. This process can generate beautiful spirals of clay which break your heart as they dry too brittle to do anything with and must be sacrificed to the reclaim bucket gods. I don't have a video of me trimming this vase but I do have a slo-mo spiral clip to keep you happy.





It is at this stage I can start to add the intricate decoration to the pot. I use my trusty needle tool and begin to mark out and draw in my illustrations. I might also add some white slip here and there to emphasise the design.



a vase that is at the greenware stage and has been decorated with banded illustrations. It is dark grey at this stage.

 

Once again, we find ourselves waiting. This time the pot needs to be bone dry.

Moisture + kilns = exploded pots and sad kiln elements.

This length of drying time also varies greatly. On a nice summer day, a small pot could dry in a day or two. In a damp, yucky winter a big, thick-walled pot could take weeks.


*Holds pot to cheek*


Hmm yes, I think we are dry. So carefully and with much anguish the pots are loaded into the kiln. I like to fire full, to ease just a little bit of the eco guilt.


Photograph of a kiln loaded with biscuit ware including seven vases and two tealight trees


Ah, more waiting. A good 8 hours of firing followed by 24 hours of cooling and we can unload and see what we are working with now. The bisque or biscuit ware stage allows for more decorative opportunities. At this stage I will add oxide to some of the etched decoration if it needs to stand out more.



photo of vase at the biscuit stage of the process, it has bands of decoration and it a pale pink colour at this stage.


Now, I need to decide if I am going to glaze this pot in just one colour or multiple. I think this design needs multiple glazes to set it off so this involves a complicated layering of glazes and wax resist, cue some mental gymnastics to decide what order to do this in.


Bear with me, we are nearly there…




Photo of a vase at the biscuit stage of production. some parts have been glazed


I glaze rest of the batch, then when dry and with bases cleaned, into the kiln they go once again. Except this time, it is more stressful because if the pots touch each other during the firing, they will be fused together forever more.


10 Hours of firing and a long, long, loooong 24 hours of cooling (I didn’t peep, honest) and now we can crack open the kiln lid and see if the kiln gods have been kind.



A handmade vase with bands of decoration that show rays of sunshine, clouds on a blue sky, falling rain, oak leaves and rain drop ripples.



With the bulk of the work done all that is left to do is sand the bottom smooth and get it photographed and added to my website. Did you notice the yellow glaze was actually pale blue before it was fired?! This definitely feels like magic, it is just chemistry.


It is important not to forget that a whole load more work goes into running a small creative business. I am the maker, the marketer, the administrator and the cleaner. I wish I could sit and make pots all day but alas, we need to make more room on the shelves first.

 

Is there anything else you would like to know about being a potter? Did this help you understand why my vases and other work costs more than the ones in the supermarket? And why they are a little more special too?

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