Handbuilding: Tricks of the Trade

Handbuilding: Tricks of the Trade – Five-Day Workshop (Click HERE for a PDF of Background, Description and Schedule)

Skill Level – Beginning through advanced – at whatever level you begin this workshop, you’ll advance significantly.

In our technological world of iPhones, cloud storage, video games, and autonomous vehicles, we are easily seduced by tools and machinery, assuming that the product of our endeavors will be improved by their use. In ceramics, that can be misleading.  The Potter’s wheel is appropriate for certain kinds of forms, while handbuilding offers unlimited possibilities.  The wheel tends to impose symmetry unless the potter purposefully introduces asymmetry.  Handbuilt form tends toward asymmetry unless the potter asserts the choice and has the skill to make the work symmetrical.  And no matter how symmetrical a handbuilt form might appear, it never has the mechanically-imposed symmetry of most wheel-thrown forms, and instead reveals an organic, human quality representing the hands, movements, and personality of the maker.  Slab-rollers and clay-extruders are handy devices and time-savers, but very effective handbuilding can be accomplished with nothing more than clay, hands, and a few easily-improvised tools. Many cultures through world history have always preferred handbuilding techniques, and today, handbuilt ceramics encompasses an extraordinary diversity of utilitarian and sculptural form.  Anyone devoted to the potter’s wheel will be a far better potter if they can also employ the broad range of handbuilding techniques.

Workshop Description
Our objective is to handbuild with a sense of adventure and discovery. We will explore different approaches to pinch, coil, and slab construction with the hope of fostering an adventurous inclination to use handbuilding in new ways, opening up the possibility of original invention inaccessible through more familiar methods.  Our primary concerns are design, construction, and decoration, but there may be the option to bisque-fire work to facilitate safe transport.  We will have a number of slide shows to introduce a range of important historical and contemporary handbuilt form and technique.

This schedule serves as a general guide, but must remain flexible. Every workshop group is different, and the schedule always evolves to suit the needs and productivity of the participants.

  • First Day Morning – Introduction to the workshop, general information about the studio, our work schedule, and safety considerations. Discussion/demo of coil construction. Begin large coil-built form. Slide show “Hallmarks of Handbuilding, Part One.”
  • First Day Afternoon – Discussion/demo of simple soft-slab construction including cups and boxes, demo of small pinch forms. Discussion of problems with clay-memory, especially when working with slabs and when combining different construction methods. Work on coil, slab, and pinch forms.
  • Second Day Morning – Discussion/demo of lid systems for soft-slab boxes, handles for soft-slab cups/mugs, making and using templates for soft-slab vessels. Work on coil, pinch, soft-slab forms. Slide show “Hallmarks of Handbuilding, Part Two.”
  • Second Day Afternoon – Discussion/demo of bisque-stamps and other ways of impressing pattern and texture; making pre-textured slabs; stiff-slab vessel and box-construction using templates.
  • Third Day Morning – Continued discussion/demo of stiff-slab construction, lid systems, raised feet. Work on projects.
  • Third Day Afternoon – Demo of assembly of soft-slab and stiff-slab component parts. Work on projects. Finish all work to be bisque-fired.
  • Third Day Afternoon or Evening – Slide lecture on Vince’s work.
  • Fourth Day Morning – Discussion/demo of making component parts for multi-piece pouring vessels, including tube components and spouts. Work on projects.
  • Fourth Day Afternoon – Discussion/demo of assembly of multi-piece soft/stiff-slab pouring vessel. Work on projects, load bisque-firings.
  • Fifth Day Morning – Finish demo of assembly of multi-piece soft/stiff-slab pouring vessels. Finish projects, unload bisque firings (if any), clean up our mess. Discuss work, outcomes, possibilities.  We sometimes have a potluck lunch on the final day and invite participants to bring samples of their own work for a show-and-tell.  That works well when the participants are mostly local.  The workshop generally concludes with lunch.

The following images are from my Handbuilding: Tricks of the Trade workshops.  Click on the thumbnails to see a larger image.

Materials Provided On-Site by Host (Click HERE for a PDF of Materials and Facilities List for Workshop Host)

  • Buff or white cone-6 or cone-10 clay containing fine sand or grog, 75# per participant and 150# for instructor plus some extra.  Don’t skimp on the clay, because few things are worse in a workshop than running out of clay.
  • One gallon white vinegar.
  • Two gallons of joining slurry made in advance from the claybody. Cut a full 25# block of clay into thin slices and dry completely. Break up the bone-dry clay into smaller pieces (not crushed) and immerse in water with several inches of water covering the clay and let sit overnight.  The clay will slake down to slurry by itself.  Next day, drain off all excess water, mix with drill impeller mixer or hand blender until completely smooth with no lumps, add one cup of vinegar, add water carefully, mixing frequently, until slurry will not pour if you tilt the bucket, but will if you shake it.
  • One dozen large sheets of poster board (get the cheap packages at Walmart, Office-Max, or Staples).
  • Four standard propane canisters for a standard hand-held propane torch.  I will bring several torches.

Facilities and Equipment Provided by Host

  • Digital projector and appropriately dark room with a screen or white wall.
  • Large sturdy work tables for handbuilding and decorating. Heavy plywood-covered tables are best, but sturdy 3×6′ folding tables will work, with no more than four participants per 4×8′ table and two per folding table.
  • 24″ stool for the instructor to use.  This is important.
  • Slab roller
  • Twelve 36″ by 24″ (or whatever width fits the slab roller) sheets of unprimed 10 oz. canvas duck. “10-ounce” is a trade reference to the weight per yard for canvas sold in art supply stores. If you buy canvas from a fabric, sail or house painting supplier they might not that reference, but just get sturdy uncoated canvas while avoiding stuff that is excessively heavy – it should still be very flexible.
  • Heavy-duty rolling pin with 12″ by 3″ body and bearing-mounted handles (unless I bring my own). If you are buying one, go to amazon and enter “Medium Commercial Rolling Pin by Thorpe” in the search box. This one’s a beauty, and it isn’t worth it to get a cheaper or smaller one.
  • Several sturdy banding wheels (unless I bring my own).
  • Several snap-lid plastic storage bins approximately 12x24x12″ deep for me to use as damp boxes.
  • Wood dowels – one 48″ length each of 3/16″, 1/4″, 5/16″, 3/8″, 7/16″, 1/2″, 5/8″ and 3/4″ – cut each in half so we will have two 24″ lengths of each size (If I am driving I’ll bring my own).

Supplies for Participants to Bring (Click HERE for a PDF of Participant Supply List)
Clay will be available for purchase on-site.  Joining slurry, vinegar, and posterboard (for templates) will be provided. The following is a lengthy list of supplies for a workshop, but these are the things you will need in order to continue doing this work on your own, and we will be able to make better use of the available time and onsite facilities if you bring all of these supplies. The Kemper tools are available online or at almost any art supply store.  The Stanley Surform tools are available at Amazon – enter “Stanley Surform” in the search box.

  • Six 36″ by 24″ (or whatever width fits the slab roller) sheets of unprimed 10 oz. canvas duck. “10-ounce” is a trade reference to the weight per yard for canvas sold in art supply stores. If you buy canvas from a fabric, sail or house painting supplier they might not that reference, but just get sturdy uncoated canvas while avoiding stuff that is excessively heavy – it should still be very flexible.
  • Standard clay tools (the packaged Kemper kit contains a wood rib, stainless-steel scraper-rib, wood knife, needle tool, cutoff wire, small sponge, and trimming tools).
  • Kemper S-10 flexible stainless steel serrated rib – no substitutes.
  • Kemper RB-4 wood rib – no substitutes.
  • Metal fork
  • X-Acto knife – pencil-thin model with 1″ tapered blade.  For a superior knife, get one with the adjustment knob at the opposite end from the blade, such as the X-Acto “Gripster.”
  • Scissors
  • 18″ ruler
  • Pencil
  • Compass for drawing circles.
  • Wood rolling pin with bearing-mounted handles (not one-piece rolling pin).  If you are serious about handbuilding, click here, or go to Amazon.com and enter “Medium Commercial Rolling Pin by Thorpe” in the search box.  It costs $60 but is so worth it.
  • Wood dowels – one 48″ length each of 3/16″, 1/4″, 5/16″, 3/8″, 7/16″, 1/2″, 5/8″ and 3/4″ – available from any home improvement center – cut them all in half and bring both halves.
  • Stanley Surform Shaver (short curved blade) and Stanley Surform Pocket Plane (5″ flat blade). Get both types – these are made to be woodworking tools, but are excellent for shaving clay.  Available from any home improvement center or from amazon.
  • Small, sturdy banding wheel. The 8″ CSI turntable available from most ceramics suppliers for around $13 is fine for our needs, but any sort of good-quality banding wheel will work.  No cheap spice-cabinet turntables!
  • Spray bottle for vinegar water
  • 6 manila folders
  • A selection of bisque stamps and/or other textured objects or materials to impress texture into clay.
  • 6 dry-cleaner bags or large plastic garbage bags to cover your work.
  • Small towel or other sturdy rag
  • Apron (optional)
  • If you are driving, bring a large snap-lid plastic storage bin approximately 12x24x12″ deep, to serve as a personal damp box.  Bring your supplies in a separate box or bin so you’ll have this one to use without dumping your supplies on the floor.

If you have any questions or are interested in hosting one of my workshops, please email me.