Slab-Built Tableware

Five-Day Workshop – Outside the Wheel: Slab-Built Tableware (Click HERE for a PDF of Background, Description, and Schedule)

Skill Level – Previous experience in handbuilding and/or throwing recommended

Who said that plates have to be round?  In our industrialized society, people often assume that the potter’s wheel is the logical choice for efficient production of handmade tableware.  The potter’s wheel is one logical choice, but certainly not the only one.  The wheel inevitably defines ways of working that determine much of the design and aesthetic of wares produced.  That is not a bad thing, but no potter should be restricted any more than necessary by the studio equipment used.   Today, many potters simply use the wheel as a device to make components that are extensively altered and assembled to produce the finished product.  Others have discovered a world of possibility through handbuilding tableware with slabs.

Flat planes can be manipulated and formed in many ways, and clay slabs are especially resilient and flexible (literally and figuratively).  The early Industrial Revolution itinerant tinsmith, with rolls of sheet metal, simple shears, forming tools, and soldering iron, could form an infinite range of discs, cylinders, cones, and shallow domes, and from those could fabricate any sort of utilitarian vessel for the kitchen or workshop.  The same can be done with clay slabs, with the added advantages of clay’s natural plasticity, allowing slabs to be stretched and/or slumped to create deeper dome or bowl shapes or organic forms.

Workshop Description
This workshop explores soft-slab forming and slumping methods suitable for dinnerware forms such as trays, plates, platters, and bowls, plus soft- and stiff-slab methods appropriate to volumetric drinking, pouring, serving, and storage vessels.  Slab construction offers diverse possibilities for a wide range of utilitarian tableware.  The results can be loosely gestural and anthropomorphic or tight and rigidly geometric.  Plate and bowl forms can be round, triangular, square, polygonal, or asymmetrical.

Much of the potential of slab construction lies in the jigs, fixtures, templates, and molds.  You will learn to work with rigid construction foam-board, PVC pipe, and various other materials, allowing easy construction of slump molds and forming fixtures.

We will explore surface decoration options appropriate to soft- and stiff-slab construction, with special consideration of hygienic, low-maintenance utilitarian surfaces.  Although our primary concerns are design and construction, we will bisque-fire as much work as possible so that it can be transported safely.

This workshop will help develop a different mindset, enhancing your sense of “spatial thinking” as applied to tableware forms.  Western traditions of utilitarian tableware reveal a limited range of precedent, and the potter should never feel restricted to those forms.  We want you to visualize and realize new possibilities beyond the common or expected solutions.

You are encouraged to bring samples, slides, or photos of your work to share with the group.

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 and our work schedule. Discussion/demo of slab forming and simple slumping.  Discussion of problems with clay-memory in slabs.
  • First Day Afternoon – Discussion-demo of slab-texturing and impressing techniques for soft-slab and stiff-slab methods.  Work on slab-texturing and slumped-slab forms.
  • Second Day Morning – Discussion/demo of slumped trays, plates and bowls, how to make slump/hump molds from rigid foam construction board.  Work on textured slabs, slump/hump molds, and slumped trays, plates and bowls.
  • Second Day Afternoon – Discussion/demo of handles and feet for slumped trays, plates and bowls.  Work on projects.
  • Third Day Morning – Discussion/demo of making slab components for assembled cups, pitchers, and storage vessels, using soft and stiff-slab methods and posterboard templates.  Work on projects.
  • Third Day Afternoon – Discussion/demo of tube components for handles and spouts, and other ways of making handles and pour spouts.  Work on projects.
  • Fourth Day Morning – Discussion/demo of assembly of slab components for cups, pitchers, and storage vessels.  Work on projects.  Slide show about Vince’s work.
  • Fourth Day Afternoon – Continued work on assembled forms.  Load bisque-firings.
  • Fifth Day Morning – Finish any final assembly/demo work.  Given time, demo of inflated pillow forms as storage or pouring vessels.  Unload bisque firings, clean up studio. Discuss work, outcomes, possibilities.  Look at slides, photos, and/or samples of work brought by participants.  The workshop generally concludes at lunchtime.

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

  • Cone-6 or cone-10 clay containing fine sand or grog (80-mesh or finer), 75# per participant, 150# for instructor.
  • Decorating slips (white, black, and a few colors) – see STA slip recipe handout on the “Syllabi and Handouts” page of my website.
  • 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.
  • Approximately three dozen large sheets of poster board – get the cheap packages at Wal-Mart, Office-Max, or Staples.
  • Two 4’x8’x1″ (or four 2’x8’x1″) and one 4’x8’x2″ (or two 2’x8’x2″) sheets of rigid construction foamboard to make slump molds. Make sure that it is the closed-cell pink or blue construction foamboard, not the small sheets of white Styrofoam or the crumbly white stuff. Check into pricing on the foamboard at Lowe’s, Home Depot, or a good professional builder’s supply to find the best price, and be sure to include the cost in the workshop fee, because the participants will each make a selection of foam slump molds and keep them.
  • Several sheets of coarse sandpaper for shaping the foamboard.

Facilities and Equipment Provided by Host

  • Digital projector, appropriately dark room with large screen or a large 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 instructor.
  • 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.
  • Two clear plastic lidded storage boxes (approx. 12x24x12″ high for me to use as damp boxes.
  • One plastic spray-bottle for vinegar water
  • Several sturdy banding wheels (unless I bring my own).
  • Two standard propane canisters for a hand-held propane torch (I’ll bring the torch).
  • At least eight approximately 24×36″ pieces of 1/2″ plywood for handling and flipping textured slabs.  If you have 24×24″ pieces they will work, but 24×36″ pieces are better.
  • A generous assortment of wareboards and bats for handling and flipping slab-built plates and bowls.
  • Wood dowels – one 48″ length each of 1/4″, 5/16″, 3/8″, 7/16″, 1/2″, 5/8″ and 3/4″ – cut each one in half so you have a pair of 24″ lengths of each size.

Supplies for Participants to Bring (Click HERE for a PDF of the Supply List for Participants)
Clay is generally purchased on-site. Colored slips, 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 time we have if you bring all of these supplies. For those flying in to take this workshop, check with the workshop host to see if some of these tools and supplies might be available onsite.

Note: 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.

  • Four square yards of unprimed 10 oz. canvas cut into 24″ by 36″ pieces – “10-ounce” is a trade reference to the weight per yard, and that’s how canvas is sold in art supply stores. If you buy from an awning, sail, or house painting supply business they might not use the ounce per yard reference, in which case you just need to look for good heavy-duty canvas, but make sure it is not primed or sealed.
  • 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.)
  • Metal fork.
  • A few soft brushes at least 1/2″ diameter or 1″ wide suitable for applying slip – East-Asian hakeme brushes are perfect.
  • X-Acto knife (pencil-thin model with 1″ tapered blade – no substitutions – for a superior knife, get one with the adjustment handle at the opposite end from the blade, like the X-Acto “Gripster.”
  • Scissors
  • 18″ or 24″ ruler
  • Pencils and eraser.
  • Compass (for drawing circles).
  • Good rolling pin with bearing-mounted handles. If you want to get a really good one that will serve you well, go to amazon and enter “Medium Commercial Rolling Pin by Thorpe” in the search box. This one’s a beauty, and it’s a waste of money to to get a cheaper or smaller one for working on slabs.
  • Wood dowels – one 48″ length each of 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. If you have access to a bench grinder, grind the ends to a slight point.
  • Stanley Surform Shaver (short curved blade) and Stanley Surform Pocket Plane (5″ flat blade). Get both – these are made to be woodworking tools, but are excellent for shaving leather-hard clay.
  • Small, sturdy banding wheel. The 8″ CSI turntable available from most ceramics suppliers for around $16 is fine for our needs, but any sort of good-quality metal or plastic banding wheel will work.  Kitchen lazy-susan plastic turntables will NOT work.
  • Spray bottle for vinegar water.
  • Small plastic bucket for water.
  • Small snap-lid plastic container for slurry.
  • 6 manila folders for small templates.
  • A selection of bisque stamps, assorted rope/cord, and/or other textured objects or materials to impress texture into clay slabs.
  • Several 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 clear snap-lid storage bin, approximately 12x24x12″ deep to serve as a personal damp box. Transport your supplies in a separate box so that the plastic bin will be available for the intended use.

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