The Art of Making Ceramics

As I promised in my last blog entry, I will be using this post to explain the process of how to make ceramics.  When people find out that I actually make and paint ceramics in my free time when I go home, they get all freaked out and think that I have some crazy and amazing skill that doesn’t exist else where in the world. However, making ceramics is actually very easy, even little kids (at the age of 4 and 5) can paint their own ceramics and have it look like a nice work of art to be displayed.  The process, however, does take time; I would say the least amount of time it would take to make your own ceramic and paint it would be about three days.  The reason it takes so long is quite a story, so if you keep reading you will find out :)

The first step in ceramics is actually making the piece.  This is done using what we call slip, which is actually a form of mud.  We take the mold of whatever we want to make, let’s say a clock, and we rubber band the two sides together to prevent leaking and then fill the mold with slip:

This is actually a picture of a clock mold (the same clock that I showed being broken in the previous blog) that has already been filled.  Before you can actually use the slip you have to add ammonia to the mixture. (I’m actually not entirely sure why but it has to do with the chemistry of it.)

After this is done you have to wait for the slip to start to dry and thus thicken to the thickness of the object.  You can also tailor this to your own preference, if you want something to be thinner you just don’t wait as long.  Usually the wait time is about 30 minutes.  Then you pour out the excess slip into the slip table. (The slip table is what holds the slip and when you turn it on, it churns so the slip doesn’t dry out.  If it does dry out you simply add water and churn it a while.)

The slip table is also where the slip comes from to pour into the mold.  There is a hose attached to the side that can be turned on and off for use.  As you can see from this picture, the beginnings of this process is a very messy one (but playing in mud is always worth the dirty that comes with it).

Once you pour out the mold of the extra slip, you get to play the waiting game again, except this time it takes longer.  You have to wait for the slip to dry enough so that you can take it out of the mold.  This will usually take a couple of hours.  Once it is dry you have to clear the edges of the mold of any excess dried slip so the piece comes out:

After this step you can now remove the rubber bands and take the mold off of your piece:

This is my grandpa taking the mold off of the clock.  As you can see the slip wasn’t all the way dry right in the middle so some of it came off.  When this happens you can fix it by “painting” on liquid slip to cover the disfigured area.  Now you have a piece that has gone from plain slip to what we call greenware.  This greenware now has to sit and dry completely.  Depending on the moisture in the air and the temperature outside (and in our basement), this drying period can take anywhere from 2 to 5 days, and if the air is really moist, it can take even longer than that.  Here are a couple of pictures of greenware:

This is the cookie jar being used in the show, before it was cooked and painted.

Once the greenware dries, it is time to cook it at extreme temperatures.  The “oven” we use is called a kiln, and it reaches temperatures into the thousands.  Depending on whether you are cooking greenware or glazed pieces will determine the temperature as they should not be cooked together (although it has been done).  I don’t fully understand how the kiln works other than it gets really, really hot, but I do know that there are things called cones (which are orange pieces of metal, at least that’s what they look like) that get placed in a certain location of the kiln and when these reach a certain temperature they bend and shut the kiln off.  There is also a backup system that will cut the kiln off after a certain number of hours.  Here is a picture of our kilns:

The one in the front is our largest kiln, and you can see our smaller one for smaller loads in the back with two dark brown mugs sitting on it.

Once the kiln is turned off you have to wait several hours for it to cool down before you can take the ceramic out of the oven.  If a ceramic is removed from the kiln too early it will crack, and it will be no more.  The last load we cooked was this past weekend, and we cooked two pitchers and a crock, which we should have used the small kiln for but didn’t because it is in the process of being fixed :(  We cooked them for 6 hours over night (turning the kiln on at about 10pm), and we were able to take the pieces out around noonish/1 pm the next day.  However, that was very fast because it was so cold outside that night and morning; we thought we wouldn’t be able to take them out until the following night.  Once you have taken the piece out of the kiln, it is now called bisque.  Bisque is the hard white version of the slippery mud that you started out with.  Now it is paintable.

And that folks is the art of making ceramics.

Coming soon:  Update on where we stand with props :)

Can you SMELL THE KILL?

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2 Comments

  1. WOW! Now I can see why Heidi put you in charge of props. I would think that very few prop managers actually MAKE their own items. I’m thinking most hit the local Goodwill or beg friends to loan them items.

    • I hit local Goodwills and borrow things as well but sometimes it is just easier (and not to mention cheaper) when you have grandparents who are willing to donate the majority of the stuff and help you make it :) Plus, I really enjoy making my props, it’s more involved and thus more work but it’s fun :)


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