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A week in the life of a potter

In the July issue of Period Living magazine, our featured Artisan is potter Louise Darby, who makes carefully thrown and decorated stoneware and porcelain ceramics from her converted home barn studio in the beautiful Warwickshire countryside.

Each piece is handled many times in the making. Here Louise explains how her work is created:

Preparing the clay

1 I first prepare the clay – known as ‘wedging’ – to create an even consistency free on air bubbles. The better the condition of the clay the better the throwing session will go. I then weigh the amounts needed for each piece.

2 I ‘throw’ the first ball of clay onto the wheel head or bat and ‘centre’ the clay on the wheel until it runs true – to draw the clay up into the required form.

Throwing and centering the clay on the wheel Throwing and centering the clay on the wheel

3 Once I have finished the throwing, I will put the day's making to one side to start the drying process, which must be done steadily and evenly.

Beginning the drying process
'Wiring' the pots

4 Once the pots have dried enough to handle they are ‘wired’ free at the base using a cheese wire and carefully turned over – to dry the base.

Trimming and smoothing the base and other areas Trimming and smoothing the base and other areas

5 Once each piece is of an even, ‘leather-hard’ consistency, it is stored in polythene until the batch of throwing is completed.

6 I then begin the ‘turning’ - trimming and smoothing the base and other areas where a design will be added. Selecting a ‘chuck’ - which acts as a support for the pot so as not to distort or damage it while being turned - this is centred on the wheel head. Having the clay of the right consistency is an advantage: too soft, turnings will not shave off cleanly; too hard, you will struggle to achieve a smooth finish.

Decorating the piece
Decorating the piece Decorating the piece

7 Each piece to be decorated (incised and carved or pierced) at the leather-hard stage is then individually worked on from two to ten hours, depending on the complexity of the design and size of the piece.

8 The ‘biscuit’ kiln is packed and fired – a 12-hour steady firing to 1,000 degrees centigrade. This changes the clay chemically and all chemically combined water is burnt off; it can no longer be returned to workable clay.

The ‘biscuit’ kiln is packed and fired
The ‘biscuit’ kiln is packed and fired The ‘biscuit’ kiln is packed and fired
Each piece is then ‘fettled’

9 ‘Glazing’ is done by pouring and dipping. If it is an open form, I can dip the entire piece at once; if a vase, I do it in two parts: inside first, allow it to dry overnight, and then the outside.

10 Each piece is then ‘fettled’ – to clean off the glaze drips and the inevitable finger marks touched up. In the case of the incised pieces, each area of the design must have the raw glaze carefully scraped off and sponged clean, leaving the glaze inlayed in the design. If it is a brush decorated piece, this happens after fettling, and is created by brushing on oxide colours and scratching details - called ‘sgraffito’.

11 'Gloss’ firing takes another 12 hours, rising faster to 1,280ºC, with half hourly checks.

12 The pieces are finally completed. The whole process taking about a week.

The pieces are finally completed’
The pieces are finally completed The pieces are finally completed

 

Louise offers a few words of advice to anyone considering trying their hand at pottery:

  • Everyone immediately thinks of ‘throwing’ – making pots on a potter's wheel – but all you need is a bag of clay. You can even get craft clay that doesn’t need ‘firing’ (baking) in a ‘kiln’ (oven). Good artists' shops should supply this.
  • The internet has a wealth of hand-building guidance – there are all sorts of suggestions from basic tile making and decorating, to pinch pots, slabbing and coiling.
  • If a local college does evening classes, sign up for a term. You then have all the materials and facilities for glazing and firing your creations, as well as the technical guidance.
  • You can ‘smoke fire’ work, or ‘Raku’ – without buying a kiln. Make your own in the back garden – so long as you don’t live in a smoke free zone.