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Hone Your Craft

How to Start Handbuilding Ceramics at Home

Hone Your Craft BY tess falotico 02/24/2017


You’ve had that pottery class bookmarked for months, but the idea of hunkering down over a wheel—and committing to another weekly engagement—stresses you the eff out. So, hey, how about this: Chloe May Brown, who makes dreamy, perfectly imperfect ceramics in Portland, Maine, is here to teach you how to create clay masterpieces at your kitchen table. “Handbuilding is a great place to start when you’re diving into the world of ceramics,” she explains. “You need very few tools, there’s very little mess, and there are tons of possibilities.” Here’s how to start getting your hands dirty, stat.



“The first thing you should figure out is where you’re going to fire your piece, which is the only thing you can’t do at your house. When I was getting started, I found a local community studio with a kiln just by searching online, so Google what’s available near you. Then, ask the studio what temperature they fire at. That will determine what type of clay and glazes you’ll use.”




“All you really need is clay, underglaze, clear glaze, and a few cheap paintbrushes. I rarely use any tools at all, but I occasionally use a rubber rib for smoothing surfaces. Sometimes I’ll also use random things I have around my house, like a knitting needle to poke holes in beads, for example. If you’re a true beginner, I really recommend going in-person to an art-supply store so you can ask what types of clay and glazes work with the temperature you’re firing at and what the glazes will look like once they’re fired, since they change color. Then, once you know what you like, you can re-order it.”




“Working with a manageable shape will teach you how the clay moves in your hands and how much control you have over it. Start with a little dish or plate, and then you can work your way up to larger pieces. Pinching—shaping the clay by squeezing it between your fingers—is a great entry point into ceramics because it gives you lots of control over the shape. Pinching also compresses the clay and prevents air bubbles, which could cause your piece to explode in the kiln.”




“I start all of my pieces with a ball of clay, no matter what shape they’re going to be in the end. Just break off a chunk of clay small enough to roll in your hands. Begin by pushing your thumb into the middle of the ball to warm the clay and start an opening. Then, think about whether you’re making something short and wide or tall and narrow. If you’re making a low bowl, start pulling and pinching opening wider slowing to avoid cracking. If you’re making something tall and thin, make your hole deeper, pinching and pulling the clay upward. Take it slow, which will give you more control over the final result.”


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“Keep pinching until you get a shape that you’re happy with, and then leave your piece to dry a little bit, maybe a couple of hours. Let it get firm enough so that touching it won’t alter the shape but soft enough so that you can work with the surface of the clay. This stage varies depending on the type of clay you’re using, how big your piece is, and humidity, so you might need a little trial-and-error to get it right. When the piece is ready, smooth out any areas where your fingerprints are showing too much. Using a rubber rib here will give you a more polished look, but I usually just use my fingers.”




“Now, let your piece dry entirely on a shelf where it won’t get bumped. You might need to rotate or flip it upside down when it’s sturdy enough to make sure it dries fully. You’ll notice that the clay will change color and be hard to the touch. Once it’s dry, carefully take your piece to the kiln for its first firing, which is called a bisque firing. You’ll fire your piece twice—once before you glaze it and once after.”




“The glazing process is when you get to have fun with color. It’s an endless world of possibility. I mix all of my own glazes—but that’s daunting for a beginner, and there are plenty of commercial options. They come with instructions, and they’ll either tell you to dip your entire piece in glaze or paint the glaze on. Follow what they say since they’re formulated to be used a certain way. If you’re painting the glaze on the whole piece, splurge on nice brushes with light bristles, which won’t leave brush marks. If you’re dipping your piece in glaze and just painting on small designs, which is what I do, there’s no need to use fancy brushes. Do not put glaze on the bottom of your piece or any surface that’s going to touch the shelf in the kiln. It will melt and stick to the kiln.”




“Once glazing is done, fire your piece a second time, and you’re done!”



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