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Pulling Handles

I spent most of today at Eastnor Pottery, working on a set of jugs and matching saucers. Last time I was there, about two months ago, I threw a number of jug bodies and saucers, more than I actually need, to allow for wastage. Jon the Potter let them dry out overnight to a “leather-hard” consistency, then wrapped them in plastic bags. They can stay in that state pretty much indefinitely, if they’re well-wrapped, waiting until the next time I go back.

The first job of the day was to make some handles for the jugs, and leave them to dry out for a few hours in front of the fire until they too were of the same leather-hard consistency as the jug bodies. Clay shrinks as it dries, so if you attach a wet handle to a half-dry jug, the ensemble will tear itself apart as it dries. The two components have to be of the same consistency to avoid disaster. There are lots of ways to make handles, such as rolling out a ribbon of clay with a rolling-pin, or making a twisted coil or a plain sausage. But I’m a traditionalist and prefer the look of a proper pulled handle. Unfortunately, pulling the handles is an activity quite unsuited to being done in a mixed group! It is very nearly obscene, with obvious and completely unavoidable connotations! If I say that one holds a knob of clay in one hand, and uses the other to stroke and pull it gradually into an elongated shape, I’m sure you’ll get the picture……. I sat in the corner and tried to avoid catching anyone’s eye, as I knew I would get a very juvenile fit of the giggles if anyone clocked what I was doing! Fortunately the other people were beginners and were avidly watching Jon’s tutorial on throwing, so I got away with it.

While a dozen or so handles were drying out in front of the fire, I “turned” all the jug bodies and the saucers. This involves putting the pot upside-down on the potter’s wheel, positioning it so that it is perfectly centred (difficult with a jug, which is deliberately not circularly symmetric in the first place; easier with a plate or saucer which one hopes is circular), fixing it to the wheel head with coils of soft clay (while avoiding knocking it off-centre as you do so) and then using a loop of wire to pare away excess clay from the bottom of the pot. It’s not dissimilar to wood-turning or metal-turning, and when you get it right long ribbons of clay come peeling off the pot, which is very satisfying. I pay for my finished pots by weight, so it’s worth getting rid of as much excess clay as I can. Not only does the finished pot look and feel better for being less bottom-heavy, it costs me less too. I did go too far though on two of the jugs today, and made the bases so thin that when I signed my name on the bottom I poked holes right the way through! Those two went into the wastes bin, along with all the parings from the turning. Jon will subsequently reclaim all that clay, add water to break it down, and recycle it into material which can be thrown with again. The clay is in fact infinitely recyclable up until it is fired, when it changes state chemically and cannot be subsequently reused.

After lunch I set about matching handles to jugs, picking the best size and shape handles from the dozen I’d made by holding each in turn against a jug body and seeing which fitted best. I then attached the handles to the jug bodies as neatly as I could. Then it was a case of decorating the pots. This is some people’s favourite part, and you can really spend ages painting and decorating the finished shape. However, I’m not at all artistic, and try to keep my decorating as simple as possible. I like to let the underlying shape of the pot dominate the finished effect, rather than have a complex painted design. So today I simply painted the outside of the jugs in a light greeny-turquoise colour, accentuated with a rather wobbly row of white dots, and decorated the saucers to match. Jon will now allow them to dry out completely before firing, then glazing and re-firing them. If they are not totally dry, the remaining water will turn to steam in the kiln and the pot will explode, potentially taking others with it!

After finishing four jug-and-saucer sets, it was 15:30 and I was exhausted. Although turning and decorating is nowhere near as physically-demanding as throwing, I had been concentrating hard since 10am. I decided to call it a day, wrapped up the remaining unfinished pots, and asked Jon to store them until I go back next time. It’s odd how, whether it’s for work or a hobby, I still can’t easily manage a full day of concentration yet, but crash out after 5-6 hours. I’ll know I’m finally better when I can manage a full week at work and a full day at the pottery. But I’m not there yet.