Peace & Pleasure for Potters
7 tips to improve your flow
I have a thing about efficiency. Perhaps, more accurately, I have a thing about getting a veritable sh*t-ton done in a day and efficiency helps that happen. (Note: sh*t-ton is a Canadian technical term to mean lots and lots. It can also be written sh*t-tonne, depending on how much influence the Francophone community has had in your area. :P Of course I wouldn't swear on my website, I'm a professional, after all).
I also have a thing about flow. I like being in flow. Flow is better than any drug I've tried (I'd like to say I've tried them all, but that'd simply be a lie, and although apparently I might swear on my website, I draw the line at lying). For me, flow is the feeling of peace and pleasure that comes from uninterrupted making. And efficiency is all about reducing interruptions as well. So that's nice.
Recently, I spent 3 months (winter 2018) at a ceramics residency that meant I spent 12 hours a day, almost every day, at the potter's wheel**. And I became obsessed with the flow of throwing - or throwing pots efficiently, with a minimum of interruptions. Thanks to Heidi, one of my fellow residents - who wanted to know how I got so much done - I've decided to share my obsession packaged into 7 tidy tips! May they help you find peace and pleasure in your throwing too.
Keep your cookie, dum dum!
This first one's for Heidi herself (she gave me the idea, and title for this tip, after all).
When you throw your cookie, or biscuit, or whatever you call that disk of clay that keeps your bats in place, throw it a little thicker than usual, and don't score all the way through to the wheel head. In fact, don't score it at all. Just make the outside edge higher than the centre. It'll work perfectly.
Then at the end of the day, or when you're done needing your cookie, use your wire tool to cut it off the wheel head. Slip it into a plastic bag and keep it for next time.
When you need it again, place it gently down on the wheel head, using the rings on the wheel head as a guideline for centring it. When you've got it about right, starting from the centre with a wet sponge or hand, and reseal the cookie onto the already spinning wheel head by pushing down.
From there, make sure it's level - just like you would when switching between bats!
The best part about this practice is that once it is a habit, it radically changes your willingness to use a bat - it's so much quicker to pop the cookie on for a couple of pieces, and pop it back off at the end!!
As Heidi says, "Keep your cookie, dum dum!"
Make your Mark
Consciously choose and create a maker's mark - a bisqued stamp that you use instead of a signature. Don't worry. This one wasn't easy for me either. I had lots of reasons not to: I thought my signature was good enough. I thought it would take so long to make a stamp. I couldn’t decide what I wanted. I’d have to wait until it was bisque fired. Etcetera, etcetera. So I'd leave it till next time, again. And again. Instead, each time I made a pot, I'd scratch my signature onto the bottom. Often I'd have to clean it up after bisque. Sometimes, it would still be raised enough after glaze firing that I'd have to get out the sandpaper and give it some elbow grease before the standards committee would let it pass. Yet somehow, the thought of committing to a mark still seemed too big.
Now that I’ve made my mark, there’s none of that. Like so many things in life, I wish I'd done it years ago. A maker’s mark is so much more elegant than scratching your name into the bottom of a piece. It’s much quicker. And it can add a decorative element to your work. Are you convinced yet?
When making your mark, try a variety of different ideas. Your initials, your favourite animal, a random geometric shape. Make square ones and round ones and ones that are the shape of the thing itself. Don't be too precious at this point. Fire them all, and then test them out on a lump of fresh clay. See which ones work for you. Refine them if you'd like. Then try them on different parts of your pot. The foot, the shoulder, inside the foot ring, anywhere and everywhere!
You'll love the result. And you won’t spend all that time scratching, scraping, and sanding, like I did.
Here are half a dozen on pots around the studio to give you a quick idea.
Stop using wax for glazinG
Here’s another one that I resisted, and resisted (yes, pun intended). Don't bother with waxing your feet - not your own feet, silly! Your pot's feet! It's a time waster, and often leaves unintentional marks elsewhere!
For flat bottomed pieces, press the bottom against a wet sponge immediately before dipping, dip in glaze, and then wipe the bottom again against the sponge immediately after taking the piece out of the glaze. Then place the piece down and let the glaze firm up. Once firm, use a sponge to remove the remaining glaze from the bottom. This method provides a lovely soft transition to the foot. So quick!
If you have a glaze that is prone to moving, you can dip the bottom into a flat bottomed bowl of water that reaches the level you’d like the foot to be. The initial dip will act as a partial resist, and the bulk of the glaze that gets onto the pot will wipe off quickly.
For pots that have feet, follow the above suggestion, by dipping just the foot in the water. Once the glaze has become dry to the touch, use a knife to scrape away the glaze. If you’ve established a decent foot, the knife tip follows the transition easily.
The beauty of this process is that scraping the glaze takes approximately the same amount of time in the beginning as waxing does. And if you miss with the knife, it’s easy enough to reapply some glaze. Whereas if you slip with the wax, you’ve either got a permanent problem, or you have to bisque again. As you get good with this, it ends out being quicker than waxing. You learn what has to be scraped away, and what can be left for the sponging. Note: Don’t just sponge. The sponge takes a lot longer than the knife to remove a good layer of glaze.
Waxing? That's a whole step you no longer have to do. You're welcome!
Watch a beginner potter. Count how many times they lose their sponge, or their wire, or their trimming tool. It’s amazing how much time potters spend just trying to find their tools regularly. Instead, establish 'mise-en-place'. That's the fancy french term for a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place (yes, the french is much more succinct).
When throwing, you really only need a sponge, a rib, a bamboo cutter, and a wire. Put all the rest of your tools away. Lay your throwing tools out in a logical order. I keep my wire draped over my left leg. I put my rib and cutter on the shelf in front of me. And my sponge lives in my hand or in my water bucket. Logical might look completely different to you. But whatever the logic is, establish it.
Be really conscious of this placement for three sessions at your wheel. By your fourth session, it will come automatically.
Do the same thing for your trimming tools. For trimming, put away your throwing tools and get out your trimming ones. Organize them logically. I only use two tools for trimming wet, and two tools for trimming dry. So at most, I'll have four tools out when trimming.
If you stick with your mise-en-place for the first couple of sessions, you'll be amazed how quickly your body learns this layout, and how much more in the flow you feel when you can find your sponge without looking.
And you’ll snicker gently up your sleeve when your fellow potters are yet again cursing their missing tools.
This tip isn't new. If you haven't already heard it a thousand times, you haven't been listening.
My addition to this is: make a decision about what you will throw next and work in batches. Once you’ve made a decision you know how to proceed. Wedge up five balls of the same weight, put those balls into a bucket or bag within easy reach, sit down at your wheel, and throw those pieces.
I keep a towel over one knee to clean my hands between pots. That way I have clean(ish) hands to lift a pot off the wheel, and clean(ish) hands to pop the next ball into place. I keep what I've just thrown in front of me, preferably at eye level, so I can look at it as I throw the next one(s). I try not to get up until I have done the batch of five.
Why? There is huge economy of time to be found in making at least 5 of the same basic form. It takes the first two to establish how to get that particular form. If you move on to another form, you lose that learning, that economy. Throw five, and by the third, you'll have picked up considerable speed - and fluidity!
Personally, I like to work in groups of five also because things sell in pairs or sets of four. The fifth one helps me cull - perhaps I’ll lose it in the process; accidentally poke it with a tool while it’s wet, spin it off the wheel when trimming, drop it, or mess up the glazing. If all of them make it all the way through, I consider it a bonus, and then choose the one that fits least, making the remaining four all the more similar.
This tip has the added bonus, for me, of increasing flow. I love how by pot #2 my mind stops working so hard. I get meditative and let my hands do the work. Usually, pots #4 & 5 are the best.
Try it and see for yourself!
Plan ahead and Make Batches
Wait to trim. Trimming your pieces when they are too wet is just not worth it. Everything sticks to the pot. The rim collapses. The slightest accidental shift, and you've cut a huge swath out of your pot. Wait.
If a piece gets just that bit too far past perfect trimming softness, dip it in water, wrap in plastic and wait 10 minutes. It'll be perfect.
The same can be said for other moments that require patience. Wait to clean up marks until the clay is almost dry. When you put a slab piece together, wait until it has really set up before tidying it up. When you attach a handle, just before you pull it, let it sit for a couple of minutes until the pot has absorbed much of the water from the slip. Don’t attach a handle when the pot is too damp - you’ll fight with the shape.
Patience, my young padawan. All good things come in time. And usually, I can find another three things to do while I'm 'waiting'.
Hurry Up and Wait
Ah, the glories of tap centring. This tip takes between an hour and an hour and a half to learn but will not only save you tons (or tonnes) of time later, it will also make you look like one kick-ass potter (that's a technical term too).
Take a well trimmed bisqued bowl and put it rim down on your wheel. Put your thumb and baby finger on the outside of the foot. Gently touch the flat of the bowl bottom with your three remaining finger tips. Hit the gas pedal on your wheel so that the piece is going at about the speed that you'd usually trim at. Get used to tracking the pot with your left hand (letting your hand move with the pot) - your hand is just there to provide you with information and instant feedback.
Make a fist with your right hand. Turn it up so that the back of your hand is faced away from you and is parallel to the wheel head. Gently tap the belly of the bowl with the soft side of your fist, so that it shifts each time you hit it. Continue tracking it with your left hand so you can feel the impact of each tap.
At first, don’t really work on timing your taps. Just tap it gently several times in a row. If you’re anything like me, for a while, it will all seem random. Occasionally it will magically happen that your bowl pops into the centre! But for a while, it will seem like all you're doing is chasing the bowl around the wheel. Do not despair!
If you do this for 15 minutes each time you sit at the wheel, by the end of 5-6 sessions, you’ll discover that your body has figured out the timing to make your pots magically pop into the centre.
I use tap centring to centre a pot for trimming, to centre a bat for sticking onto a cookie, to centre a pot on a banding wheel for decorating, and for radically impressing an unsuspecting audience. :P
Learn to tap centre
If you have tips that help you improve your flow - share them! I'd certainly like to hear them, and I'm sure so would others!!
**The residency was at La Meridiana, a well equipped ceramics school nestled in the stunning Tuscan hills of Italy. I was able to attend this residency in part because of a Chalmers Professional Development Grant from the Ontario Arts Council.