( Originally Published 1932 )
No definite record concerning the beginning of pottery has ever been found. Some say it dates back to the earliest days of the race. Can you picture a prehistoric man roaming the plains looking for food? He carries a crude club as his only defense. Can you see him stop to dig up a bit of moist earth—with his toes, possibly?
He stalks off with a disapproving grunt as he finds nothing beneath it. Can you imagine his surprise the following day, when he returns to find that the heat of the sun has hardened the mass? He lifts the lump to find it as hard as the stone he knows so well. Then he starts experimenting.' Crude, wide-mouthed bowls and pots are molded by hand, and left in the sun to dry. He finds they hold water, fruit, and berries. Picture his pride as he tells the story of his great discovery to others! He may have been our first inventor.
Some claim that the discovery of fire brought about our first pottery, and that it was not made until fire brought man out of the age of barbarism into the first dawn of semi-civilization. Possibly this is true, but whatever its origin, we may be sure that pottery belongs among the first examples of man's creative work on earth.
As early as 3000 B.C., the Chinese produced pottery. Even at that time, we find that a crude necessity had developed into a thing of beauty, and pottery making was an art. It was during the T'ang, Sung, and Ming dynasties that the art reached its greatest heights, and it is to examples of these periods that the student of today must turn to find the most perfect pottery known to man. Such perfection in shape, color, and glaze was reached as to defy imitation even today.
Did you ever make mud pies and leave them in the sun to harden? If you have, you are a potter at heart. While doing so, you were working at the first steps of pottery making, which runs the whole gamut from simple, ungainly objects of clay to the priceless and exquisite porcelains of China.
Step-by-step instructions are given here for the completion of one object. These embrace all principles of the work which are possible to complete within the home. Instructions covering expensive apparatus, such as the potter's wheel and the firing kiln, as well as costly tools and glazes, are not given, although their use is discussed. Even the novice can turn out attractive objects without the use of such apparatus and tools, as will be shown. However, a knowledge of them will be helpful to any who are spurred on to more ambitious undertakings. An appreciation and basic understanding of form and decoration may be gained through mastering the simple steps of pottery making as given here.
Before actual work is started, we must have the implements necessary to complete our project. Let us see what tools are needed, and how we may obtain or make them. Any art store can supply full potter's kits containing every possible tool needed in the work, but none of them is essential for the type of work given here.
A length of common wire may be used to cut the required amount of clay from the original lump. An ordinary rolling-pin, or a broom handle cut to convenient length, serves splendidly for rolling out a clay base. A doll's clothes-pin from any five-and-ten-cent store makes a useful instrument for smoothing surfaces, while an orange stick or nail file may be used for engraving, marking, or cutting designs.
An ordinary kitchen knife is necessary for cutting the clay coils, and two half-inch brushes come in handy for applying glaze and "slip." A teaspoon can be used for rounding corners, and a small jar is needed for "slip," while a larger one holds the glaze. The terms "glaze" and "slip" are fully explained later in the chapter.
Work can be done on any smooth surface, such as marble, glass, or even a board, but clay is best handled on a plaster-of-Paris surface. This may be round or square, and should be about two inches thick. By pouring a thick mixture of water and plaster-of-Paris into a deep pie tin, allowing it to harden, and then removing the tin, a first-class modeling board is easily made. This is called the "bat." This completes the list of tools needed for ordinary pottery work, and our next concern is the clay we use for our project.
The basic substance of all pottery is clay. There are many kinds of clay. Some make splendid material for pottery, while others are utterly useless. Any clay to be of use for pottery must have three essential qualities. It must be plastic, porous, and vitrifying. The first allows it to be easily molded, and its porousness is necessary so that the water used with it can es-cape freely. To vitrify means that it will become hard and durable when subjected to beat, and of course finished pottery would be of little use if not hardened properly.
While common clay dug from any field might contain one or two of these qualities, it seldom contains all, and so it is best to purchase your clay from some reliable supply house. When ordering clay, be sure to specify "pottery clay." After delivery, it should be stored in a stoneware jar, so that it will retain its moisture.
The substance known as "slip" is merely clay diluted with water to the consistency of cream. It is used as a paste to bind various portions of an article, such as the wall and base of a jug or the handle to a pitcher. A small quantity of "slip" should be mixed before work is started. Keep it in the small jug provided for this purpose, with its brush handy.
The most simple way of molding pottery projects is by the "coil" method, and for this reason the writer has chosen it for instruction purposes. It is by far the most popular method today for hand molding, and comes from our American Indians.
We now have our tools, clay, and "slip" ready, so here we go on our first adventure into the land of the potter !
We first prepare our clay. Many think that clay in its original state can be molded into any form, and good pottery will result. However, this is a costly mistake. Any clay must be carefully prepared before use. This preparation is called "wedging." It is done by slapping the clay on a board, kneading it like bread, and throwing it against the board again and again, until its texture becomes smooth and pliable.
When this has been done, cut the piece of clay with your wire. Examine the cut sides. If they contain small air holes, it has not been "wedged" properly, and the process should be repeated. Knead and throw it. Treat it roughly, and it will soon be in proper condition for working. Again cut, and examine it for air holes. If the finished article is to be fired, these dangerous air holes act as an explosive, expanding and blowing the article to bits when subjected to the heat of the kiln. Clay is much like pie crust, and must be kept slightly moist, or it will be too "short," which makes it crumble and break when worked.
For instruction purposes, a small cream pitcher has been chosen. While it is of simple lines with no decoration, it nevertheless embraces all important steps in molding.
Cut from your prepared lump of clay a piece about the size of a golf ball. Roll this between the palms of the hands into a ball. Lay it on your plaster bat, or whatever surface you have chosen to work on, and press it down with the thumbs into a flattened, circular piece of about a quarter-inch thickness. If you prefer, this can be done with a rolling-pin or broom handle. Note this step being done.
As the ball is pressed or rolled out flat, remove all signs of cracks or creases as they appear by rubbing them out with the finger. When finished, examine the work closely to see that it is round, free from creases, and that both sides are perfectly flat. This piece forms the base or bottom of the jug. If it appears smaller than desired, it can be rolled a little larger.
If too large, it may be cut down with your knife.
Slightly nick the top surface of your base piece around its edge with your orange stick or nail file, which aids the "slip" in cementing the side walls of the jug to the base. This is shown in Figure 26.
The "coil" method gets its name from the coils of clay used to build up a project, and we are now ready to roll our first one. From your prepared lump of clay, cut a piece about half as large as the one used for the base. Place this on your bat, and roll it under the fingers of one hand. As the length increases, employ both hands to it, until the roll is about the size of a lead pencil. (Figure 27.) As these coils form the walls of your finished jug, their diameter will be the same as the thickness of your walls. If you wish your walls thicker or thinner, the roll must be finished accordingly.
Roll the coil until it is smooth, free from all creases, and the size you desire. A quick, deft touch is needed, as the heat of the hands absorbs much of the moisture in the clay. However, if the clay becomes too dry it may be dampened with a moist sponge, although care should be taken not to apply too much water. While it will make the clay smooth, it also tends to soften the structure when in place, resulting in sloppy work.
To finish the coil, one end of it should be sliced off diagonally. "Slip" is now applied to the small nicks around the edge of the base piece. Paint it on with your brush, so that it will penetrate the nicks, and form an adhesive foundation for the coil. While the "slip" is still wet, the coil is applied.
Starting with the cut end, place the coil around the top edge of the base over the nicks. Bring the coil around the base, and cut it off diagonally at the point where it meets its other end. This cut should match the first diagonal cut, so that a smooth miter joint is made without forming a lump.
The coil is now smoothed into the base piece, so that both form a single unit. This is done by gently massaging them, until all telltale marks showing the joint between them disappear. Note how this is done in Figure 28. Either the finger or the doll's clothes-pin can be used for this purpose.
Another coil, about half the diameter of your first one, is now rolled. This is placed on the inside of the first coil to cover the joint made by it and the base piece. Finish by smoothing it out so that no joint marks show. All this work must be done quickly with a light, deft touch, so that the clay will not become stiff and dry before it is cemented in place.
The second coil is now rolled and applied. Start each coil on the opposite side of the wall from the joint of the preceding one, as a safeguard against weakness. Press it firmly on the one beneath it. Each coil should be smoothed into the preceding one before the next coil is started.
Remember that these rolls of clay must be fitted perfectly on each other, and so blended together by smoothing as to leave no signs of the joints between them on either side. If the coils are placed irregularly, the wall of the jug will be irregular, and the result will be an ungainly and unattractive object.
As the jug we are molding is smaller at the top than at the base, we must keep in mind that each roll must slightly overlap its preceding one toward the inner side. In this way, the slant of the wall is obtained, but great care must be taken to see that this slant is uniform at all points around the wall. Students may cut a template from cardboard for the purpose of checking this slant. Such a template can be easily made. Make a full-size drawing or tracing of the jug on a piece of cardboard. It must be exactly the size and shape you wish your jug to have when finished. With your scissors, cut out the jug so that a stencil of it is left. Draw a line through its exact center from top to bottom. The stencil is now cut in half along this line, which results in two duplicate templates.
By holding one against the wall of the project, you can tell at a glance if your work is following your de-sired form correctly. By moving it around the jug, you can check on all sides for uniformity. Note how the jug is built up in Figure 29, which also shows the diagonal cut on one end of the coil.
When the jug has reached the desired height, and after the last coil has been smoothed down, the spout is made. This is done by pulling the last coil out slightly, and molding it into the form of a lip. It can best be formed and smoothed by massaging the clay with the finger.
The handle of the jug is now formed and attached to the side. This is done by rolling a coil about twice the diameter of those used for the wall. It is shaped to form the handle and its sides are flattened. Note that the lower end of the handle gradually reduces in size to give the effect of tapering into the jug.
When an appendage of any kind, such as this handle, is added to any part of a clay project, the clay of both should be of the same consistency. Clay with the same amount of moisture in it adheres best. Cut small nicks at points on the jug where the handle is to be attached, and also on the ends of the handle itself. Paint "slip" on these roughened surfaces and press the handle in place. All marks of the joints should be smoothed out with a finger or spoon. It will be found that the latter is best for reaching the inner crevices of these joints. Remove the jug from the bat. If it sticks, hold a length of fine wire taut, and draw it under the base to cut it off.
The jug is now inverted, and the center of the base slightly lowered. This may be accomplished by scraping it with a knife, so that the bottom forms a very shallow dish with a flat border about a half-inch wide around it. Smooth the surface by brushing it with a wet brush. Your name or initials may be incised on the lowered portion of the base with a nut pick or a nail file. Make your strokes about an eighth of an inch deep. It is best to work out your initials or name on paper before cutting either into the jug. This insures proper spacing before the cutting is started in the clay.
The work is now given its finishing touches. Place a piece of glass or a flat board on the top of the jug to make sure that its rim is level. As glaze will not adhere to sharp edges, these must be carefully rounded.
When the molding of a project has been completed up to this point, it is called "green" ware. If it is to be decorated by embossing, inlaying, or incising, the work should be done at this time. As our jug has no such work on it, it is set aside to dry.
Sudden changes of temperature often crack pottery when in this "green" stage, so it is essential that the work dries naturally, although a little heat may be used for forced drying. If this is done, the project should be exposed to it gradually. A gas range or radiator may be utilized for this purpose if care is taken to guard the piece from the direct heat. ,It should be frequently turned to prevent uneven drying.
Aside from certain types of decorating, this completes the work possible to carry on within the home. For those who mold clay only for the pleasure of the craft, and have no desire to create useful objects, the instructions given up to this point cover the essential steps of the work. The decorating of "green," or dried ware, will be discussed later in the chapter. However, it must be understood that dried pottery is not serviceable, will easily crumble, and should not be confused with "fired" clay.
The following steps of the work, therefore, are for those who desire to use their projects. While the student may add glaze and decorations at home, the firing must be done outside. When "green" ware has become dry, it is ready for firing. This first firing results in what is known as "biscuit" ware. Water is present even when the clay is dry, and only firing will totally expel it and give the clay a hard finish. This is done in a furnace, or kiln, which bakes, or "fires," the project.
As these furnaces require considerable room, are difficult to operate, and expensive to purchase, the firing must be done outside. The writer recommends that the piece be carefully packed and sent to the nearest pottery for firing. It is often found that a nearby school has a kiln, and will fire pottery for a nominal charge. If such a kiln cannot be located, your art teacher can usually give the address of the nearest one, or any of the concerns given in the back of the book under "Dealers List" will gladly supply the information. As various clays require different temperatures for proper results, inquiry should be made of the manufacturer supplying it as to the correct firing heat of your particular clay. This information should accompany your piece at the time it is sent to the kiln.
When the piece has been returned in "biscuit" state, it is ready for painting or underglazing. If neither of these is used, as in the case of our jug, the glaze is applied.
Entire books have been written on the chemistry of glazes, and anything beyond an explanatory suggestion on the subject is impossible for such a chapter as this. Indeed, it is not the aim of the writer to do more than point out a few facts on glazes and glazing which may prove of guidance and help to the reader.
The expert potter takes great pride in mixing and producing his own glazes, but the novice must be satisfied with the purchased article. Glazes can be bought in most colors or clear transparent finish. The latter is called "Majolica." They are composed of silica sand or glass, borax, and metal oxides, from which their colors are obtained. Glazing is the application of such compositions on pottery, which when fired give to the surface a glass-like, or "glazed," appearance.
The manufacturer supplies them in powdered form. To prepare them for use, they are mixed with water. For a pound of glaze, a pint of water is used. Allow the powder to stand in the water for several hours, and then stir the mixture thoroughly. It is now forced through a 120-mesh sieve. Store your glaze in a small crock, on which is noted its color and firing temperature. Glaze is similar to clay in that every glaze has its own particular temperature at which it matures.
Stir the solution frequently while it is being used. With your glaze brush, the mixture is painted on the inside and outside of the jug, while it is inverted, as a guard against the excess glaze gathering in the bottom of the jug. (Figure 31.) When the glaze has dried, any lumps forming around the rim of the jug can be scraped off with a knife. It is not necessary to glaze the bottom of the piece.
Glazing may also be applied to a project by dip-ping or spraying, but the painting method is used and recommended by the writer as the most simple and cleanest process.
The jug is now ready for its final firing and should be returned to the kiln for this purpose. A note informing the potters of the maturing temperature of the glaze used on it should accompany the piece.
When returned, it is completed and ready for use. What a thrill awaits you when it appears filled with cream on your table for the first time ! The fact that you made it—that it is your creation—well repays you for the labor expended. Nothing money may buy can bring the satisfaction of something made by your own hands, and especially when that thing is made well. You taste the pride of the true craftsman in the perfection of his craft.
While this completes the jug, a word on the subject of decoration may prove of assistance to those interested enough to look with longing toward that distant but not impossible field of perfection. When in the form of "green" ware, pottery may be decorated by incising, inlaying, or embossing. After its first firing, when it has been turned to "biscuit," the clay may be painted with underglaze. Such decorations are called "underglaze" because they are applied before the final glaze, or appear from "under the glaze." Paints of this nature may be obtained from supply houses, and as they often change color during firing or present other complications, it is best to take your problem to such a house and obtain advice.
Many good books can be had on the subject of pottery decorating, and those interested should avail themselves of this knowledge. Such a subject is far too great and complicated to be treated here. Only continued experiments, patience, constant repetition, and untiring effort will bring rewards in this branch of the work. But when they come, they bring with them that joy known only to the craftsman whose path has led him to the summit of his craft!