Jan 26 2011

Throwing and the Wheel

Most of the pots I make are done on the wheel. I remember taking my first pottery class where we wheelexplored the different ways of working with clay. First we made pinch pots, then moved on to coil and slab construction, all over a period of three or four classes. Then, it was time to put us on the potters wheel. After we had been introduced to the wheel, he let us choose what we wanted to do. Some people preferred hand building and some throwing.

I know why he left the wheel for last. He knew there were people like me who would be hooked and obsessed with getting back on the wheel. I remember 3 hr classes just whizzing by, leaving me hungry for more. It wasn’t long before I was ready for my own wheel, but, unfortunately, the timing wasn’t great as I was living in an apartment in downtown Toronto. So.. I continued to sign up for sessions, just to get on the wheel. Luckily, John gave us quite a bit of freedom with what we made and his classes, and once you reached a certain point, it was more like an open studio time with guidance along the way.

Thomas Stewart kickwheel without motorOnce we moved out of the city, we insulated the garage, and I finally got my first wheel. It was a motorized Thomas Stewart and it had a huge concrete flywheel and a fixed seat. (Here’s a picture of a current Thomas Stewart/Scutt wheel, but mine had a big metal splashpan, which I didn’t much like, instead of the rectangular table pictured here). When the motor pedal was depressed and the rubber ring came in contact with the flywheel, the whole wheel vibrated like it was going to take off, as it built up speed. At first I really liked it, but over time I found myself avoiding throwing, which was totally unlike me. I came to the realization that the problem wasn’t me, but the wheel.

Now when I first got my wheel, I thought every wheel was about the same. I didn’t realize that each type/brand/kind had its own subtleties and that one should probably try a wheel out in advance to see if its the right one for you. Its like any tool: if you’re going to use it more than just occasionally, choose one that works well and makes using it a more pleasant experience. There’s not much point in investing a fair amount of money for a tool that is irritating to use.

Shimpo M400I soon realized that what suited me better, was not a kickwheel at all. I ended up getting a Shimpo Master Series because it had lots of torque, it worked smoothly at lower speeds and with no jerky movements, it was quiet, it had a pedal i could move around and place where I wanted it, and I could move my chair to a position that was most comfortable for me to throw. I don’t think they make that particular model anymore, but it sure served me well.

Now I use primarily an old Soldner wheel, one made back in the 70s by Paul Soldner himself. It has some of the same qualities as my first Shimpo, only moreso! heheh Its really nice to use but what’s really nice about it is when its time to repair it, the parts are ones from off the shelf and it was really simply assembled. In comparison, we had a problem with an old Creative Industries wheel we had and was a pain to fix. There was only so much we could do on our own before the company requested that we send all the parts in to them so they could test them.. what a hassle. I don’t know why equipment manufacturers can’t just keep things simple. Anyone knows, making something more complicated, doesn’t necessarily mean it will work any better. Its not like we’re talking about upgrading what a potter’s wheel will do..

(I’ll post some of the info I gathered about the Soldner in one of my next posts, including the schematic I drew up. Might be useful for someone with the same wheel to have on hand, just in case.)


Jun 8 2009

Welcome Back, Tried & True: Bisque Tile Bats

dragonfly landingI’m afraid its been another long while since I’ve been able to post here.  The end of school year means a whole lot more demands at home and an adjustment period for everyone until we all settle into the new summer routine.  That compounded by a week of being laid up with an intestinal bug (moms are the last to get these things it seems), I am more than ready to get back to the clay.   Well!  Where shall I start?

When I first learned to pot, I learned to throw right on the wheelhead. I remember struggling after running the cutting wire under freshly thrown pots and trying to slide the pot off the wheelhead without distorting it. I wasn’t always successful, I believe partially because I didn’t seem to have the coordination at the time,  I didn’t know the material (clay) that well,  and my newbie pots were usually full to saturation with throwing water, making them particularly easy to smoosh.

Needless to say, I was very excited when my teacher finally let me try throwing using a bat.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, a bat is simply a rigid piece of wood, plastic, plaster, tile, etc., that becomes a throwing surface placed over top of the wheel head.  Once a pot is completed, the bat and pot are removed together and the pot can remain undisturbed on the bat until its leatherhard and ready to trim.

Yes, I know, bats aren’t absolutely necessary.  I find it useful to  throw some things off the hump  and other times, I just pick pots directly off the wheel and put them onto a ware board.  No biggie.  I do still like to use bats for some things.  It just works for me.

For the last 9 or so years, I’ve been using, for the most part, plastic bats made by Creative Industries, as well as some amazingly rigid Plasti-bats from Amaco.  Don’t get me wrong, both are great, but if you look at any of the pricelists out there, you’ll notice they are not cheap  ..nor is any commercially manufactured bat it seems, for that matter.  I was noticing just today that the price of some bats out there on the market were more expensive than a kiln shelf!  Hello.   Is it just me or is there something wrong with this picture?  ..regardless

Tile-Batt pottery throwing bat systemIn my last studio,  however, I used less expensive pressed-wood/MDF bats from my local supplier,  as well as a bat system (which I made out of marine plywood and masonite, modelled after one my teacher had ) , with a recessed area cut out in the center to accomodate a bisque 6×6 commercial tile.  I remember being pleased with both at the time.

Last spring, in an online discussion about pottery bat systems, someone had mentioned they had seen one using bisque tiles.  I was curious, so I followed the link.  Sure enough, there was the one I used years ago, only the price was less than if I were to try to make one myself.

Tile-Batt with 6 inch Dal-tile bisque tile insertI went ahead and called Pottery Supply House and ordered one (they have it listed as a “Tile-Batt“) and am so pleased I did.

It only came with one tile, but I decided I would forego the shipping from Canada, and try and get more tiles locally.  I went online and found a Dal-tile distributor right in Foley, not 10 miles away.  Since the bisque tiles aren’t a stock item, they had to be special ordered and it took about a week to come in, but that was okay.

There are lots of reasons why I like this particular bat system. I think the chuck cost me all of $11 USD plus shipping, and a box of 25 Dal-tile bisque tiles worked out to be around $0.75 a tile or so from my local flooring distributor (vs $1.10 a tile from the ceramics supplier over in Gulfport, which is actually an hour and a half away from here).  I really didn’t think that was such a bad deal, especially considering the CI plastic bats around the same size were about $7+ a piece.

I also like using the bisque tiles because they stay rigid and are porous (whereas the plastic bats can bend and it takes considerably longer for the clay to come away from them).  Using these tiles, I can throw mugs in the afternoon and by evening they detach nicely from the tile and are ready to flip over. The mug is a nice even consistency from top to bottom and ready to trim and handle a lot sooner, which translates in less chance of joins cracking and faster production.  The tiles also take less room on my ware boards, and if they break, they are easy and inexpensive to replace.

Modified PSH Tile-Batt with additional pin holesYou may notice here in this photo  that I made a couple of changes to the chuck when it arrived. I had to drill an additional set holes  to accomodate the bat pins for all our wheels in addition to the Soldner (Bat pins on a Soldner wheel are set a bit wider than on other wheels), plus I added a little additional notch to help remove the tiles a little easier, but that’s about it.

Even Lowell seemed impressed,  so  I just ordered a second Tile Batt, only this time for him, and picked up 2 more boxes of bisque tiles.


Mar 13 2009

A New Workspace!

For the last 2 yrs or so, the studio has been in a state of absolute chaos. It has been part construction zone and part dumping ground for all sorts of non-clay related stuff… well, yes,, there was some clay in there somewhere too.

Eventually I got to the point where I threw up my hands, moved my wheel into the house, and set up a little work area in there. Not the ideal situation either, what with clay dust, etc, not to mention the challenges of proximity and navigation to the kiln with pots (doors, stairs, etc). After a while I would only venture to the studio when it was time to glaze a kiln load.  Each and every time, I had to spend valuable time reorganizing, clearing surfaces, finding tools, etc., which was frustrating, before I could even get started. It kind of takes a toll on you after a while and doesn’t do a thing for your productivity or state of mind.

work spaceWell this week I have finally moved my wheel back into the studio. I now have my own dedicated  section of the studio to throw, where all my tools are within reach and laid out so they’re easy to see and find. The addition of shelving and some pegboard makes it so much easier to keep organized and my work surfaces clear and instantly usable.

Behind my chair I have a bookshelf that holds bats as well as other small tools that I occasionally use.

work table and slab roller

Here in another section of the studio, is a waist high handbuilding station/table, right beside the slab roller.  Again a pegboard mounted above gives a place to hang related tools instead of cluttering up the surface .  (I haven’t tried it yet, but the table is  also the perfect height for throwing on that little tabletop Aspire wheel as well.)  Buckets of glaze sit under the table and out of the way.

I was surprised at how much more productive I have been this week and how much calmer I feel overall.  Its so much nicer to walk in in the morning and cuz I know I can start working right away and I’ll be able to find what I’m looking for.


Oct 7 2008

Throwing a simple bowl

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Aug 14 2008

Mugs, Throwing, and the Birdie

This spring I took one of Alyson Stanfield’s latest art marketing workshops based on her recently published book I’d Rather be in the Studio. I’ve been following her blog on and off for a few years now and it is great, but its nothing like having her right in front of you to interact with and ask questions of, not to mention feed off some of her positive energy.

I regret that this summer has been crazy with both kids home and increasingly demanding as they get older. In preparation for the upcoming time with *both* of them in school and a fairly regular daily schedule of uninterrupted time in the studio (its been so long), I’ve spent the last few weeks cleaning, sorting, organizing, and FINALLY going through bits of Alyson’s book, hoping to start this fall show season off some good footing. With several bags of trash and reclaim removed and the wheel moved to a different spot to allow a better work flow, my work area is so much more inviting and I actually really like being there. The girls went back to school this past Monday and its been really good.

Late last week, in my cleaning frenzy, I finally came across my little tabletop camera tripod which I thought would be really helpful in shooting some pottery videos unassisted. I’ve posted a few videos on Youtube in the past 2 yrs, but my intention all along was to post some demos online as well. Youtube is another great free resource available to get our work and names out there! Making a demo tape is a lot harder than it looks and most certainly different throwing for a camera than for someone in front of you.

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Baby Mockingbird

On a sadder note, I haven’t posted much about my little baby mockingbird lately. After his first week of successfully being spoonfed, he/she jumped up one day and bunged up his/her leg. I guess their little legs and bones are pretty fragile because that one never came back. He was lame in the one leg, then a few days later he stopped using his other. Last Saturday morning we found him/her motionless in his little box. I’ll miss the little guy. I was really rooting for him.


Oct 29 2007

Favourite tools to have at the wheel

When you first start learning how to make pottery, you follow your teacher’s lead. You follow the same techniques, use the same tools, and emulate your teacher as best as you can. You take what you learn with you throughout your potting career. Lowell’s favourite thing to say to students as they start out is “First you learn the rules, then you learn there are no rules”. Sure, there are other ways to do the same thing, but as with learning a language, getting a good foundation in the fundamentals is important.

Over time and with experience, we all come to find techniques, tricks, or tools that work better for each of us. Its always fun visiting other peoples’ studios. I’ve noticed over the years that no 2 potters work in exactly the same manner. And potters, while for the most part a kind and friendly lot, are pretty quirky. The longer they work alone in their studio, it seems, the quirkier they get too. …but that’s another post for another day!

Right now I am throwing on an old Creative Industries wheel. I had been throwing on an even older Soldner wheel, up until August when, unfortunately, the 35 yr old motor finally bit the dust (hoping to repair it after this next show).

The chair I use to sit at it is actually an old stool from a yard sale, cut to height. The front legs are cut 2 or so inches shorter than the back legs which makes it less of a strain on my back when leaning over to throw. A low-tech and inexpensive way to work smarter and save your back.

There are a few things I like to have around the wheel:
– A straight sided 2 or 3 gallon water bucket – rim ideal for scraping excess slip off of my hands; clay particles settle nicely in bottom and don’t get stirred up each time I moisten my sponge.
– an old cup to hold my main throwing tools – pin tool, sponge, wooden knife
– a plastic rectangular container for ribs – not pictured, but is an recycled old baby wipes container . The size and shape is just right as was the price
bats – on the left side of the wheel table there is usually a stack of 7″ Creative Industries square bats that I use for smaller items. They have 2 sets of notches molded on the underside to fit different bat pin spacings for both this wheel and the Soldner. Also have 12″ & 14″ round CI bats, and a few Plastibats (which are actually superior, very sturdy and don’t bend, but are unfortunately more expensive). Nice thing about these plastic molded bats is they never rot and seem to last forever. The drawback is they are more expensive, limited in sizes (nothing more than 14″ in diameter). The Creative Industries ones have a tendency to bend when pots being taken off the wheel, so you have to be extra careful.
– a kitchen scale – for weighing pieces of clay out for throwing
– a mirror – (not pictured) helps with seeing the contour of pots while both throwing and trimming. I threw for 2 weeks without one, bending to the side to see the profile, and not only did it kind of slow me down and make my neck/back hurt, but my pots looks different too.
– big table – (the one pictured here is an old door on sawhorses with canvas stretched over it). I will throw a series and when the table is full, get up and move the pots to ware racks.

There was one time I had bins of tools. (Can you have too many tools??) Well, I still have them, but I have narrowed it down to a few that I actually use regularly at the wheel:
– a pin tool;
– a wooden knife;
– a sponge (a medium sized natural sponge; cellulose sponges also work great in a pinch);
wooden ribs (a small kidney shaped and larger one, both Kemper);
2 Sherrill Mudtools – soft/red & hard/green (I like these because unlike a rubber rib they don’t break down and have so far kept their smooth edge; rubber ribs tend to break down within a few months in this climate);
a long metal rib;
– a chamois on a fishing bobber – stays floating in bucket so I don’t ever lose it and its easy to see; cutoff wires of different thicknesses;
– a metal scraper from hardware store;
– a Bison trimming tool
– a Giffin Grip
– a Grabber pad attached to one of my plastic bats mentioned above
– a 16″ square piece of plywood (very low tech) for trimming larger bowls and platters on.
– many sets of metal calipers for fitting lids


May 24 2007

Michael Cardew pottery clip from the archives


The other day, after a chat with my friend in Manitoba, I went to searching the CBC broadcast archives and this one on Michael Cardew came up. Michael Cardew, in case the name doesn’t ring a bell, is an internationally well-known and well-respected British potter who, as I discovered after watching this clip, was actually the first student of Bernard Leach. Nicely presented on this video.

The description from the CBC site about this video:

“After a lifetime at the potter’s wheel, making a bowl is second nature for Michael Cardew. He starts by kneading a hunk of brown clay to remove air bubbles, then positions it on the spinning wheel. He drives his thumbs into the clay, creating a depression in the centre. With intense concentration, Cardew pulls the sides up and out to create a bowl shape. The process, known as throwing, is the focus of this clip from the CBC series Hand and Eye.”

Video link: “How to throw a pot” with Michael Cardew