“So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.”
From raw clay to finished product, steps have been established over the centuries by potters on every continent. Every piece of pottery is hand crafted. There are no shortcut methods of press moulding, buying bisque ware from outside suppliers, or using mechanical devices to make the pots. The wheel throwing on an electric potter’s wheel and all the slab pottery is crafted by hand.
Working with different clay bodies depends on what is being crafted and for obtaining a bisqued product with which glazes will fit well. For wheel thrown pottery the red and brown clays are first “pugged” in a pug mill to thoroughly blend them. White clay is simply wedged straight from the box. A good pug mill forces almost all the air out of the clay. The clay is then briefly “wedged” by hand to set up a consistency in the raw materials and align the clay particles and remove any air left over from the pugging process. For slab building pottery, the clay is worked directly from the pug mill. The pugged clay is flattened by throwing it at an angle on a canvas-covered table. It is then placed on a piece of canvas, a second piece of canvas is placed on top of it, and then the canvas and clay “sandwich” is run between the rollers of the slab roller to give a uniform thickness to the clay. The slab is then carried to a table where pieces are cut from it to be hand formed into pottery platters or sushi sets, for example. Once the cut pieces have set for awhile they are easier to form. Sometimes they may be dropped onto or into a form to give them a particular shape. This is called slump moulding. Once the piece has dried to “leather hardness” it is trimmed and sponged and is then ready to completely dry in preparation for the bisque firing.
For wheel throwing, once the clay is pugged and wedged, it is centered on the wheel. This is a very critical step as it is the foundation of the pot. The pot is only as true and as strong as the centering. The next step is opening the centered clay so the potter’s hands can begin to pull the clay up vertically from both inside and out. Every wheel thrown pot comes from a cylinder. The cylinder is drawn to the desired height and then shaping begins. Excess water is removed from the bowl with a sponge which also smooths the surface and contributes to the strength of the finished bowl. The freshly thrown bowl is then removed from the wheel and allowed to dry to a “leather hard” state at which point it can be trimmed to remove excess clay from the bottom and to fashion a foot. Once the pot is trimmed it is again set on the shelf to dry. This will take several days for a bowl this size as the drying rate must be carefully controlled to prevent cracking. After the pot is completely dry it is ready to be bisque fired. This first firing removes the physical and chemical water so that the piece can be glazed without returning to mud and breaking. Bisquing follows at approximately 1700 degrees Fahrenheit. Many potters prefer to bisque at a higher temperature as more impurities are forced from the clay.
The next stage in the creation of the pot is the application of glaze. Every potter has his or her own formulation for glazes and many of these are a closely guarded secret as the unique properties imparted by a particular glaze fired on a particular clay body, combined with the characteristics of the design of the piece are what identifies the pot as belonging to a certain potter. However, before the glaze is applied, the piece must be made ready.
First the pot is checked, removing any bumps or imperfections. Sandpaper 100 grit or a kitchen paring knife edge may be used to smooth surfaces. The entire surface of the pot to remove any dust left from sanding is then sponged to offer a clean surface for the glaze to adhere to.
Once the pot is glazed, it is returned to the kiln for a second firing, in which the clay and the glaze are matured, meaning stoneware is brought to a temperature at which it is no longer porous and the glaze achieves a glass like finish. In the case of pots which are fired in an oxidation environment in computer controlled electric kilns, this temperature is over 2100 degrees Fahrenheit. This final temperature is decided by trial and error and is again influenced by the nature of your clay body and the glazes you use. Kilns can be fired to cone or temperature.
After achieving the desired temperature the pots are allowed to slowly cool over the next 24 hours before the kiln is opened and the finished pot is seen for the first time. In some ways every time is like the first time as the “kiln gods” can sometimes really surprise you. The finished pot is then given a final sanding and dusting before being packed for shipping.
Like clay in the hand of the Potter, life is a process of developing and maturing. The purpose of our lives defines the method of development and the time needed for maturing. Unique properties imparted by a particular development, combined with the characteristics of the design of who we become are what identifies the pot as belonging to the Potter.
So the Potter forms us, shaping us as seems best to Him. The process is lengthy. The process is arduous and messy. The process is not without fire. When we stay responsive to the Potter, He can make us an instrument of His choosing, an instrument of service to that which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.The source of how to make pottery can be read here.