It all starts with a lump. A little hard work and a whole lotta magic transform that lump into a smiling, colorful monster, ready to dish out your morning brew.
This is how it’s done.
I usually use about a pound to a pound and half of clay for a mug. After cutting it from the giant clay brick, I wedge it vigorously. Wedging is the act of kneading the clay to rid it of air pockets and to be sure it has uniform consistency. Wedging forms the lump into a tiny little cone, which is brought over the the pottery wheel.
The clay gets thrown rather aggressively onto the middle of the wheel. The clay must be smacked. If it isn’t smacked, it won’t stick to the bat properly. This is how I get out my aggression. Smacking clay keeps me calm and good natured. After the clay has been smacked, I turn on the wheel and dip my hands in the water. I pull it up and push it down a few times to get it properly moist and centered.
Then I press it flat with my hand and make a hole with my finger, almost to the bottom but not quite. I open it up into a cylinder. Next I pull the clay into a tall cylinder and flatten the sides with a wooden tool. These are just basic throwing techniques. I start almost all of my pieces with a basic cylinder, it’s easy to form into any shape you need from there.
Next I use my hands to pinch the cylinder round the bottom and the top. This forms the basic body shape of a monster. If I’m going to make a robot, I take the wooden tool and flatten the middle and top portions to make a boxy shape.
That’s it for the wheel portion. The piece is cut from the wheel and set to dry for a day. I use assembly style construction for this part of monster making. Since the mug is too wet to work with, I use this time to throw all of the pieces for this batch, so that tomorrow they can all move to the next step together.
Now that the clay has stiffened sufficiently, I use a fettling knife to cut the shape of individual feet on the bottom. I do this to all of the mugs at the same time. I then roll out long coils of clay and cut them to the appropriate length to form arms. Each piece gets ‘Slipped and scored’ which is just scratching the hell out of it with a sharp tool, and applying watered down clay which acts as glue. The corresponding spot on the mug gets slipped and scored as well and the arm gets stuck on.
Repeat repeat repeat on every mug.
This is the least fascinating part of mug making and I’m sorry for dragging you through this.
Now onto the most fascinating part of mug making!
Each piece gets its own individual face. I always start with the eyes, it sets the mood for the whole piece. I slip and score little blobs of clay onto the mug then form eyelids around them. The eyelids tend to reflect whatever mood I’m currently in. Sometimes they’re mad, sometimes quizzical, sometimes SUPER UNBELIEVABLY EXCITED, sometimes bored. You’d be surprised how many different moods a person can go through in a day when they lock themselves in a clay dungeon and stare at monsters for hours on end.
It’s enough to make a person go mad!
Not me, someone else. I’m sane.
Mouths, noses, eyebrows, ears, horns, hearts, and other doodads are added next. Noses are my current favorite thing to make. Who knew they could be so varied!? To make the teeth I carve into the surface of the mug with a curved metal tool. It looks just like that thing dental hygienists use to poke and prod your teeth while they ask you what your hobbies are and where you went to school.
I tell them that my hobby is making monsters and I use that same tool to poke and prod THEIR teeth. It comes out more like,
‘muah hohhy iyh muhgig mosthers un ah uth thagh thame hool tuh phogh un progh HEIGHR heegh!’
There’s no way anyone could understand that language. Dental hygienists have to do a lot of smiling and nodding.
Eyeballs get scraped and scooped to form the iris and pupil.
Mouths get their definition with the needle tool. Individual toes are cut out with the fettling knife. Each little dude gets his own fitting name and a MereWare stamp on the bottom of his foot. Sometimes it takes me forever to decide on a name and sometimes it hits me like lightening. There’s no telling what’s going to happen in the wacky world of MereWare!
After all of the detail work is done, I use a sponge and some water to give each piece a nice little bath. This smooths out the clay and makes everything nice and neat.
Next each little guy is thoroughly dried over the course of a few days then carefully placed in the kiln. By the way, I am the ultimate master of kiln loading. I’m a black belt in kiln.
No one can fit more pieces into a kiln than me.
I wish there was an ultimate kiln loading championship so that I could prove myself to the world. For now, I’ll just continue to impress my robot and monster friends.
Look at how happy they all are to be sent to their firey doom!
They will all burn alive in the kiln for the course of the next twelve hours. This first firing is called a bisque firing in which the clay is hardened and cured. In England they call it a biscuit firing, which is so adorable. Somehow, all of my little robot and monster friends all come out with their smiles still intact. Such troopers.
When the kiln is cool enough to unload, each piece is taken to the sink and washed off with water. A lot of dust accumulates on the wares in the bisque firing and glazes won’t adhere properly to dusty pieces, so baths it is!
From here, each little guy gets glazed. I start with the details. Each and every eye, tooth, mouth, button, screw, and heart get three coats of the correct color of glaze, then a top coat of liquid wax to seal them. The insides are glazed next with three coats of a bright color.
Finally, the outsides get glazed, they are completely coated three times over in my chosen color. The glaze doesn’t stick to any detail work that was waxed. This makes it much easier to glaze quickly, as I don’t have to go around each tiny little bit with a tiny little brush three times over.
I used to do it that way. It was hell. That’s why I don’t do it anymore.
When the glazing is finished, it’s powdery and pastel. It looks nothing like it will when it comes out of the kiln. Colors that go on brown can come out bright red, some that go on black come out brilliant gold.
This stage is fun but always a big gamble.
If you miss only a tiny little speck of the mug, it will come out looking like crap. I like to experiment a lot at this stage and mix glazes together in layers. Sometimes it works out great and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s fun in the studio!
The pieces go back in the kiln for their glaze firing. During this process the glaze will melt and become glassy. The kiln reaches almost 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A lot can go wrong during the glaze firing. If a piece was coated too heavily, it will bubble and crackle, if it was coated too lightly it will look like it was painted with watercolors.
Properly glazing a piece takes tons of practice and a lot of luck.
I have to wait for almost 24 hours before I can see what happened in there. The anticipation gets to me every time!
When I’m finally able to open the kiln it’s like Christmas morning! Presents! Presents!
Every piece is a surprise, sometimes glazes do crazy things that you’d never expect, sometimes mixing two colors together turns into a new amazing color. It’s exciting and it’s wonderful and it’s a great way to end a four week work period.
These are two recently finished pieces. I did a lot of experimentation with glazing in this batch. Both glazes are the result of mixing two different colors. I loved the little toothbrush buddy so much that I kept him. He keeps our toothbrushes safe from the bathroom floor. As you can guess, our house is over run with MereWare!
And that’s it! The finished monsters are photographed and sent off to their new loving homes.
I hope you enjoyed the Making of a Monster!