Disasters are common place in the world of ceramics. Weather it’s an explosion in a kiln, runny glaze from too many layers, or a casual trip that sends our work crashing to the floor, we must roll with the punches and learn from the causality. My biggest lessons in ceramics come from something turning out horribly wrong! In this article I’ll discuss several disasters that have taught me valuable lessons in my making process, why and how they happen, and what can be done to prevent them. The last 5 years of pottery making, and one intense glaze and clay calculous class have taught me that disasters most often can be avoided with knowledge and science!
I learned early on not to attach myself too much to anything I create because I could do everything right just to trip over my own two feet as I take a pot out of the kiln and destroy it with clumsiness (this one can’t be avoided with science).
Let’s talk about cracking and breaking in a kiln. Though it may seem random and frustrating, it’s because of something that was done during the making process. Beginning to work with clay can be frustrating and when you finally create a piece that looks just right, you want it to survive, but will it? Don’t get frustrated if it cracks! This is something that happens to many intro pots because it takes experience to wedge, compress and dry the clay properly.
Wedging is the first step to avoiding breakage. It is important to wedge your clay to squeeze all the air out, if an air bubble manages to stay in there, it can cause all kinds of problems! I was once told to ensure you squeeze all the air out, you should wedge your piece of clay 100 times (I don’t usually count though). If a bubble makes it through the wedging, or air becomes trapped in the clay during the making process, it can cause an explosion in the kiln or crack in your work while drying. This happens because the air inside the clay is expanding while the clay is shrinking, so the trapped air breaks the pot while it’s expanding.
Glaze Drips! They’re not an accident, this one’s science! If there is one thing I learned, it’s test, test,test! Test your clay bodies and glazes! (Please note all the exclamation marks!!! This is key!) Glaze is made of chemicals that react together in a kiln to form a layer of glass on the outside of the pot. Layering glaze, especially two different types, causes the chemicals to react with each other usually resulting in lower melting point, thus causing runniness and drips. I’ve made hundreds of test tiles in my short ceramic career, and I’m sure I’ll be making hundreds more! Test tiles are a great way to see the effects of glazes from color and transparency to runniness and fit.
On my tiles, I make sure to have a wide base to stop any potential drips from running onto the kiln shelf. I attach a vertical strip of clay to the base and I’m ready to go. One layer of glaze is added to the vertical piece by dipping or brushing it on, and then I add a second layer to the top half to test how the glaze reacts when it is applied thick. If there are drips and runs, I know when I put the glaze on my pot I must leave extra space at the base of the pot that is glaze free to allow the glaze space to run without touching the shelf.
Once a pot is out of the kiln, it isn’t necessarily out of the woods. A pot can break while being moved, carried or transported somewhere. For example, I was carting around a box full of pots to bring to an exhibition recently, and just from the vibrations of the car, half of my work broke. I just sighed and displayed what was still intact. I recommend lots of foam when transporting work! As for general studio accidents, I’ve dropped or accidentally knocked work off a shelf after it was fired and complete. All I can recommend for this is good sneakers and spatial awareness. Stuff always happens, it’s part of the process, but take the casualties as they come, don’t get frustrated! Check out @ceramic_casualties on Instagram to know you’re not alone!