Ever wondered what it takes to make handmade ceramics from scratch? As a potter, there is a lot of care and effort that goes into creating each piece of pottery from coming up with each design to executing it down to the last detail. Each piece that goes through our shop is a labor of love and it’s a process that can take days, even weeks to complete. Let's talk a little bit about that process and walk you through what goes into each pottery piece from start to finish.
Step One: Design
Every beautiful piece starts with a good idea. Sometimes inspiration comes when we’re least expecting it, while other times we mull over an idea for weeks before the design takes its shape.
Step Two: Build
Now it’s time to create the general product shape. We start with wet clay, a product used by many potters to produce their work. The clay usually comes in 25lb plastic bags from a pottery supplier. Our clay is locally sourced from Seattle Pottery Supply who make the clay using different combinations of rocks and minerals. After it has been made, the clay must be kept wrapped in plastic to keep it in a usable state.
Wet clay can be used to make an infinite array of pieces using many different techniques. It can be used to throw pots on the wheel, roll out flat slabs, pull handles, hand build sculptures, or make clay shapes cut out with cookie cutters.
In our studio we mainly construct our pieces one of two ways: from rolled slabs or on the potters wheel, a step which typically takes a full day to complete.
Step Three: Finish
Now that the piece is essentially constructed we need to wait 1-2 days until the clay is leather-hard, a term meaning that the clay has dried slightly but is not yet fully dry. Leather-hard is a useful clay state, because the clay is strong but still wet enough to be shaped.
Pots thrown on the wheel are now strong enough to have their bases ‘turned’ so that the pot is upside-down and the foot ring is carved whilst on the wheel.
At this point, the pieces now have their final shapes!
Step Four: Sanding
A little more patience is needed before the pieces are ready to be fired. It can take about 1-3 more days in order for the clay ceramics to completely dry out. Dry clay, also known as ‘greenware’, is when clay is in its most fragile state. It needs to be carefully handled in order to prevent breakages prior to being fired in the kiln. Any sharp edges that are not smoothed at this stage will become solid in the bisque firing so we utilize this stage to carefully sand our pieces smooth to the touch. The pottery pieces are now ready for their first firing!
Step Five: Fire
It’s time to carefully load the ceramics into the kiln. Loading a kiln is kind of like a puzzle and truly an art in itself. Here, we can stack and space items accordingly to help influence their final shapes. The high temperature in the kiln will permanently change the chemical and physical nature of the clay. This first firing is called the bisque firing, a process which takes about 2 days.
Once the kiln cools down we can open it and unload. We now have Bisqueware. (‘Bisque’ refers to clay which has been fired once.)
Step Six: Glaze
It’s time to glaze or coat the ceramic pieces. Clay at this stage, though hard, is still porous enough to absorb the coating.
Glaze can be applied to pottery in a few different ways: pieces can be dipped into glaze, glaze can be brushed on, or it can be poured over the bisque pot. Water is absorbed into the clay making the glaze stick to the surface of the pot.
The glazing process typically takes a whole day and here at Pottery by Eleni, we favor brushing on our glaze in 5 luxurious coats. We then wipe the bottoms so they are free of glaze before sending them back to the kiln for another round of firing.
Step Seven: Fire Again
We load the kiln again this time being careful NOT to stack or have any pieces touching each other. If they do, when the glaze melts the pieces will be fused together.
After a second firing, the clay and glaze have fused making a non porous surface. Hopefully, the firing has resulted in an evenly melted glaze which has not run too much (sticking the pot to the kiln shelf.)
This is often the final, finished stage. Ideally there should be no glaze faults such as ‘crazing’ when the glaze cracks or ‘shivering’ when the glaze flakes and peels away from the clay. Just a glassy smooth finish! This second firing load takes about 1 1/2 days to finish in the kiln.
Step Eight: Brush
We take our perfectly finished pieces and carefully brush on designs and details with our 22k gold overglaze. The pottery pieces are then loaded into the kiln for a final time.
Step Nine: Fire, Yet Again
We load the kiln like we did for our glaze load, being careful no pieces are touching. This load is our fastest load, firing up and cooling down in about 24 hours.
Step Ten: Final Touches
We did it! We have a beautifully finished, gold-edged piece! We add the final touches by carefully sanding the bottom of the piece so it is smooth to the touch and won’t scratch your table top!
The pieces are now ready to be stored until it’s time to pack them up and ship them off to their new homes.
Making handmade ceramics is not a quick or easy process, but it’s one that is well worth the effort. The entire pottery process takes roughly two and a half weeks from start to finish. Each piece is made with so much love and care, something we hope our customers see and experience when using the pieces in their home.
What did you think of this behind-the-scenes look? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!