This is an incredibly useful tool for the quick production of slabbed dishes. The potential to create unique and exciting shapes is endless, giving you an opportunity to develop your own signature range of wares
You will need:
Clay – any type will work as it will only be fired to a low bisque
Cutting tools – knife/scissors
10mm thick roller guides
Cut out the outline shape of your dish from a sheet of foam.
Try drawing some rough outlines on paper first, to create a shape you like, then draw half the outline on a folded sheet of paper. Cut around the drawn outline then open out the paper to reveal a mirror image of the shape. You can do this freehand or in a more measured and planned way – these details will make the shape unique to you.
Transfer the outline to the foam sheet and cut it out. Foam is harder-wearing than paper, so you’ll be able to use this outline template for years.
Using thick, 10mm roller guides, roll out a slab of clay on a sheet of plastic to the approximate shape of your template.
The slab needs to be thicker than normal because you’ll be applying considerable pressure when you use the template to make your dishes later, so it needs to be sturdy.
Smooth over the surface of the slab with a rib to compact the clay.
Place the template on the rolled slab and very carefully cut around it using a sharp knife.
Turn the template over onto an absorbent board and remove the plastic sheet.
Smooth over the surface of the template again with a rib to compact the clay – this is especially important if the clay’s heavily grogged.
Roll a thick coil of clay – 30mm diameter minimum. Keep the coil round by twisting it periodically as you roll it – this will also give it added strength.
Place the coil on the foam template so that it runs along the length at the centre, then cut it to size, 10mm short of each end.
Lift the coil off the foam then drop it onto the work surface so that it flattens along one side, as shown. You need to be careful to keep the coil straight as you do this.
The coil will form a handle for the template, but to make it easy to grip, make a long groove along the length of both sides. Wet your finger and thumb then, starting at one end, pinch the clay and hold the position as you draw along the length of the coil. You will need to repeat this several times, but you’ll know when it’s right because your fingers and thumbs will fit the grooves easily, for good purchase.
Place the coil on the clay slab along the length and mark the position with a pin.
Score the marked position on the template and the flat underside of the coil handle.
Apply slip to the scored surfaces then fix the handle in place.
When you’re sure the handle is secure, remove excess slip with a modelling tool or rib. Spend some time neatening up – even though this is just a tool, it is still a work of art and deserves to be finished off to the best standard possible. It will also last much longer if it’s well-made.
Cut the ends of the coil at an angle to improve the shape and remove sharp edges.
If you want to make the template your own, you can impress your maker’s stamp or a small detail in the angled end to finish, but this is purely optional.
The template is now finished. Allow it to dry very slowly, preferably on a wire rack to allow a free flow of air around the clay as it dries to prevent warping OR weight it down with blocks of wood, as shown here, with a heavier weight on top.
When dry, low bisque-fire the template to 960ºC. This will make it absorbent enough to prevent it sticking to the clay when you use it to make a dish.
Before using it, soften all sharp edges with sandpaper, remembering to wear a dust mask as you work.
Using your template
Having made and fired your bisque template, you can now move on to the really exciting job of making the dishes. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can make these, and will find that before you know it, you’ll have them lining up
You will need:
Foam sheets for secondary templates
A selection of textured papers
Your chosen clay
Plastic sheets for rolling
Large foam block (the type used for upholstery)
Using the template you made for the bisque template as the base outline, draw and cut out a second template 30mm wider all the way around.
Repeat for any more bisque templates you may have made.
Using both the templates as a guide, cut out a series of textured-paper templates to create decorative texture rims for your dishes. It’s good to have several alternative surface finishes.
Roll out a slab of clay using 5mm-thick roller guides. Make sure the slab is big enough to fit the larger template you have just cut out.
When rolled, smooth over the surface with a rib to compact the clay.
Turn the slab over onto an absorbent board and peel off the plastic sheet.
Smooth over the surface again to compact the clay. If you do this each time you roll a slab, it’ll become second nature.
Place the larger template on the slab and carefully cut around the shape with a sharp knife, making sure not to drag the clay as you cut.
Run your finger around the edge of the clay to soften and round it off slightly. Again, this is a useful thing to get into the habit of doing each time you work with slabs in this way.
Place a sheet of plastic over the cut-out slab and gently smooth your hand over the surface so that the sheet adheres to the clay, but be careful not to impress fingermarks on the surface. Turn it over and smooth the edges again.
Carefully lift the slab (in place, on the plastic) off the board and place it on the foam block as shown.
Peel away the plastic and smooth over the slab surface one more time.
Position the bisque template on the slab as centrally as possible. Take your time to get this right because even a few millimetres out will be noticeable when the dish is made.
Holding the template by the handle, firmly press down into the slab. As you do this, the clay will push into the foam, and the sides will rise to instantly make a dish. You can press a second time, if required, for a deeper dish.
Lift the template out of the dish then, before lifting it off the foam, firm the clay up a little with a hairdryer to make it easier to handle without distorting.
Transfer the dish to a board when you can handle it easily.
Dish with textured rim
Roll another slab of clay to the same thickness as the first.
Smooth over the surface as before, then place the texture template on the surface, making sure it fits flat so that it won’t wrinkle or distort when rolled.
Making sure the roller guides are still in position, carefully roll the template into the clay.
Using a sharp knife, cut around the template very carefully. When finished, peel away the paper to reveal the texture pattern underneath.
Very gently, run your finger around the edge of the clay to soften and round it off slightly, taking care not to spoil the pattern.
At this stage, the slab shape should still be on the plastic sheet it was first rolled out on. Lay a second sheet of plastic over the surface and very gently smooth it down so that it adheres to the clay, but doesn’t spoil the texture.
TIP: Using plastic sheets to lift and transport slabs in this way prevents the shape from distorting in handling
Turn the slab over and peel off the plastic from the underside.
Smooth over the surface with a rib.
Lift the slab, still in place on the second sheet of plastic and transfer it to the foam block, texture side up.
Peel away the plastic.
The textured rim makes placing the bisque template much easier for this style of dish, so position the template within the texture pattern.
As you did for the first dish, push the template down into the clay firmly until the sides rise to form the dish.
When you’re happy with the shape of the dish, lift the template out carefully.
Firm up the clay, as before, with a hairdryer, supporting the underside of the rim with your fingers if the shape seems vulnerable to collapse.
The key to getting this technique right is judging the correct state of the clay for optimum results. Too wet, and it won’t be able to hold its shape. Too dry, and the clay will crack as you press it down. Much will depend on the type of clay you use, so this is something you need to find out for yourself with practice.
Transfer the dish to a board and neaten the edges with a kidney, if required.
Allow to dry completely, ready for firing.
Alternatively, you could sand the edges after bisque-firing, when it’ll be much easier to handle the dish.
Make as many more dishes as you like. You’ll find they soon mount up, giving you a great feeling of satisfaction for your day’s work, and you will have had great fun making them.
The samples shown here have been glazed in a selection of Mayco stoneware brush-on glazes. The plain dishes have patterns built up with multiple colours of glaze. The textured dishes have been coated in just one glaze, which breaks over the texture to give depth to the surface.
This project first appeared in issue 14, on sale here
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