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deciding - learn pottery or just hire someone?

 
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In a few years, I want to replace our dishes with handmade plates (two sizes), bowls (two shapes), and mugs (various sizes - depending on how much we like the guest - guests we like get the big mug, guests we want gone, get the small).  We need six of each item, and probably more of the plates and bowls in case of breakage.   Maybe add in a couple of cooking pots because matching.

That's a lot of pottery.  

Why handmade? I can customize it to the style and size we use.  And the colours.  Support local - even use local-ish clay (there isn't much clay on our islands so it usually comes from the mainland)

But most of all, I like handmade pottery best.  

The decision to make: Do I learn how to make my own or do I hire someone to make it?

Moneywise, I suspect it's going to cost the same - expensive.  I'm going to have to save up.
Timewise, I don't know if I have enough time to learn these skills.  
Skillwise, I'll have a new skill if I make them myself.
But time... time seems to be my most limited resource these days.

There's a studio near my work where I can rent time and the owner does one on one coaching (basically hints for success).  I can also buy a lesson time by the hour.   Use her tools, it includes glaze, and clay is freaky cheap if I buy from her.


I don't know.  Just putting it out there as it's something I'm thinking about lately.  I figure our current plates and stuff have about 5 more years before they start cracking - cheap boxstore bowls have a very short lifespan.  

 
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r ranson wrote:In a few years, I want to replace our dishes with handmade plates (two sizes), bowls (two shapes), and mugs (various sizes - depending on how much we like the guest - guests we like get the big mug, guests we want gone, get the small).  We need six of each item, and probably more of the plates and bowls in case of breakage.   Maybe add in a couple of cooking pots because matching.

That's a lot of pottery.  

Why handmade? I can customize it to the style and size we use.  And the colours.  Support local - even use local-ish clay (there isn't much clay on our islands so it usually comes from the mainland)

But most of all, I like handmade pottery best.  

The decision to make: Do I learn how to make my own or do I hire someone to make it?

Moneywise, I suspect it's going to cost the same - expensive.  I'm going to have to save up.
Timewise, I don't know if I have enough time to learn these skills.  
Skillwise, I'll have a new skill if I make them myself.
But time... time seems to be my most limited resource these days.

There's a studio near my work where I can rent time and the owner does one on one coaching (basically hints for success).  I can also buy a lesson time by the hour.   Use her tools, it includes glaze, and clay is freaky cheap if I buy from her.

I don't know.  Just putting it out there as it's something I'm thinking about lately.  I figure our current plates and stuff have about 5 more years before they start cracking - cheap boxstore bowls have a very short lifespan.  



I majored in claymaking in college so here's some takeaways.  

If you don't have access to a clay studio, it is almost certainly more economical and less stressful to purchase.  You'd need a clay mixer, kiln, wheel, shelf space, a few glazes, etc etc. Plus, you're supporting an artist!  I have an entire suite of handmade stoneware I bought thirty years ago that is still in beautiful condition.

Except for the mugs.  Those all broke.

You do have studio access. So the next question is, do you want to learn claymaking?  If not, the answer is almost certainly to purchase.  Claymaking is a lengthy process.  Creating the clay in the muller takes an hour or two (unless some is already made.)  Shaping it takes hours.  That time is zenlike, but also can be extremely frustrating and you might have to start over.  Then you have to let the pieces try (a couple weeks of passive time) then do the bisque firing.  Then you glaze the pieces, then the high firing. High firing alone takes hours.  If the glazing didn't turn out, you need to start the whole process over.

If you do handbuilding for your china, such as square-ish bowls and mugs and stuff, handbuilding is pretty easy to learn.  You could be off to the races quickly.

If you want thrown forms, such as rounded bowls and mugs, you need to learn the wheel.  That can take weeks of wheel time to get the consistent results you want.

If you decide to go for it, take careful note of the glaze recipes you come up with, including manufacturers, colors, percentages, thickness of application, etc.  Glazes all look gray, and there's no way to remember what you did last time.

I spent countless hours in the clay studio and I can tell you is is both peaceful and irritating, and it takes time to get things right.  You have a very specific goal so your time curve might be shorter.
 
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That's another thing I'm thinking about - how long would it take to learn to make high enough quality items to satisfy me?  I'm very fussy about quality and am expecting these to last 50+ years barring accidents.

And then I'm thinking about replacements.  I don't need everything to be identical (or I would go with Denby Ware) but matching a theme is the goal.  So they all 'go together' as a set, but are each unique with variations of colour and stuff.

I also want stacking (one goes easily on top of another without falling over) as opposed to nesting (one fits inside the other).

I'm wondering if I'm just too fussy for a pottery artist.  
 
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I would want thrown pieces.  I like the feel of these better when using.

The studio mistress mixes her own glazes.  She has standard recipes (about 15) that she uses and can do special ones for an extra fee.  But she makes them in huge batches.  She also has a bucket of leftover-mix where all the last little bits of glaze go.  For some reason no matter what she puts in it, it always comes out some sort of green.  
 
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I think Rob makes excellent points.

And as a craftspeson myself who has practically grown up in a craft community I would expect to spend a decade learning to be truly reliably skilled in a brand new area, especially a potter able to make the items you describe.  I think it would take some years of dedication.

Our fun things, pottery included, came from trades with others...they got our expert weaving and woodworking while we reaped the benefits of their years of study in baskets, pottery, leather, etc.
 
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I just took a class recently and it was great fun.  It was pretty cheap.  I think it was $20 for two hours and you got to keep two of the items you made.  You could keep more for extra cost, but I don't remember how much it was.  I picked it up fast and as I said, I really enjoyed it.  I think I have a picture...

I'm not terribly happy with the finish.  At the class I took, you made the pieces, picked the colors, and they painted and fired them later.  It looks like they weren't overly concerned with doing a great job on the glaze.  Overall, I'm very happy with the way my things turned out for a first timer.
pottery.jpeg
[Thumbnail for pottery.jpeg]
 
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r ranson wrote:That's another thing I'm thinking about - how long would it take to learn to make high enough quality items to satisfy me?  I'm very fussy about quality and am expecting these to last 50+ years barring accidents.

And then I'm thinking about replacements.  I don't need everything to be identical (or I would go with Denby Ware) but matching a theme is the goal.  So they all 'go together' as a set, but are each unique with variations of colour and stuff.

I also want stacking (one goes easily on top of another without falling over) as opposed to nesting (one fits inside the other).

I'm wondering if I'm just too fussy for a pottery artist.  



Yeah, how long would it take... that's why the central question is: do you want to learn claymaking?  Because you're gonna be putting in some hours to learn the art.  I did four weeks of wheel throwing and was able to make a couple 4" high vases.

Claymaking rewards precision and detail so your fussiness could be a strength.

It also means more time.  You want to have half a century of use, which means you need to be an expert on structure, clay uniformity, glaze adherence, etc etc. You also want a precise, repeatable shape.  That means throwing 8 bowls for each keeper.  Also if you want a dozen good plates, make 18 in case there is a firing or glazing incident.

Thinking about replacements.... that's where the glaze recipes come in.  I don't know how long glaze keeps but maybe get extra of the right ratios of powder and store them.

The glazes coming out as green might have to do with the clay, if there are any trace elements of copper.  Stoneware has impurities whereas porcelain generally doesn't.  That's why it commands a higher price and its glazes are more vibrant.  Porcelain is white and reflects some of the light back through the glaze.

If all you are interested in is obtaining a set of dinnerwear that will stack, find an artist you love and support them. If you want to have control over the whole process, make a vase and see if you like claymaking.  

 
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I also spent some time apprenticed in pottery and while I love using the things I and my mentor made, 5 years seems like a pretty short time to attain the level of quality you're going to want and not just settle for the things you were able to whoop together. You not only have to master claymaking, you also have to master firing and glazing. Nothing more upsetting than making that gorgeous piece only to have it blow up in the kiln while you are tweaking process.
Thinking from that angle, it may indeed be more sustainable (if that is a factor) to purchase pottery from an artisan than to spend lots of fuel firing things until you can reach the level of quality you want-- while an artisan is already doing that at volume.
You might get lucky from the start, I made some teacups initially that I loved and used for years, but it might take a while. The teacher/kiln may also not provide the "look" you want in terms of style, texture, finish. I was really, really lucky to work with someone who made things I loved. I didn't realize until I spent time with other potters that I had hit the lottery with my teacher.
I would still take the pottery lessons, but maybe consider bartering your own (by no means modest) skills and talents for your dishes/cups. Keep the claywork fun, and replace your pieces one by one, with no pressure.
 
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Something I'd LOVE to learn! Gorgeous work, Trace!
 
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Rob Lineberger wrote: You also want a precise, repeatable shape.



For me (with no experience at all except that 2 hours I mentioned), I think this would be the hard part.  Especially something like that bowl I made, I can't imagine how long it would take to make several that matched it.  I found it pretty easy to make things.  I would just start playing with it and kind of let it go in the direction and shape it wanted until I was happy with whatever it was.  Trying to create two pieces that were the same would be very hard I think.  I did it for the experience and really enjoyed it, but I understand how different that is from being able to create two pieces the same, let alone a set.  It also removes all the stress if you do it like we did, just for the experience and the idea that if something turned out, cool, and if not, it didn't really matter.  The class was a friend of my mom's, my mom, my lady, and myself.  My mother and her friend are both in their 70s, but I think they really enjoyed themselves as well.
wheel_1.jpg
Friend of the family, mom, my lady, and me.
Friend of the family, mom, my lady, and me.
 
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I took a couple ceramics classes in high school. To me, the (relevant) techniques with the toughest learning curves are wheel throwing and coil forming. (Coiling? Not sure of the name, but making a coil pot.) Wheel throwing is a marketable skill, if you have the time, infrastructure and live where there's demand. I don't get the impression that you're looking for work, so wheel throwing yourself may not be the answer, unless you take it from your entertainment or relaxation time. That still leaves slab forming and slip casting. Slip casting is great for factory-like precision and uniformity, but tends to feel like the artist was the guy who made the form and the person doing the casting is more of a technitian. If the dishes you want to make haven't already been made by someone else, there won't be a form unless you make that too. That's a different skillset. I'd be surprised if your potter does that or teaches it. So that, to me, makes slab forming possibly the best candidate for making these yourself. You roll out the wet clay like a pie crust, then shape it into what you want. Needless to say, you can't build it up too high (free-standing) or it'll slump. You could shape it over or inside of some kind of form, and let it dry before removing. With slab forming, I think you can evaluate the usefulness of the method at home. Could you form the shape(s) you want with pie crust? Keeping in mind that your item will be rigid and fragile after drying, will it release from your form, neither trapping the form in the clay or the clay in the form? If both answers are yes, I think you could slab form your own dishes, without spending too much time learning.

Also, I suggest knowing what's in your glaze. I'm told there can be heavy metals, including lead. (At least 25ish years ago, in non-food-grade glaze.) In theory that's all bound up behind a layer of non-porous glass or silica. In practice, does it leach into your food? I never looked into it. I'd ask about food safe glazing.
 
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I came late to this thread...  

I would say it really depends on what you hope to get out of it.  If you want a good high quality product, then I would go with someone that has the training and experience.  If you want to have something that you will enjoy every day you use it because you remember everything it took to make it happen, then make it yourself.  I disagree with some of the folks that posted before that it takes LOTS of equipment and infrastructure -- I know traditional southwestern native american potters that still pit fire to this day.  I do not have any really good links handy showing the different techniques, but I can tall you from experience you can dig your own local clay (or purchase it from a local ceramics supply shop), fire it in a pit with little more than wood, coal or dried dung, and build a makeshift kiln out of broken pieces of pottery, a metal coffee can, or roofing tin, and the end spend a couple of dollars AND A WHOLE LOT OF TIME.  Heck, I once even used an old metal milk carton and a busted ceramic fireplace flue liner to build a firepit kiln.  Another time I fired a piece in a friends fireplace...  You just have to understand what the materials need to cure and process, and what they cannot withstand.  All clays I have ever worked with are fragile -- you first have to slowly dry all the moisture out, or when you heat it up in the kiln it will form a steam bubble and spall or explode in the kiln.  Once it is dried you have to slowly ramp the temperature up or the pieces will warp.  You cannot get it to hot or the clay can literally flow into a puddle (we only had that happen once in my families comercial kiln, and god that was a mess).  You also have to cool it down slowly, or it will warp and crack...  My message here is that it does NOT lots of expensive equipment and years of experience.  You too can do this at home in your back yard like people have been doing it for 10,000+ years.  Learning to do that will take time, experimentation, and the willingness to make mistakes.

All that said, there are some safety things that you might not know.  Different clays have different amounts of porosity. One of the functions of a glaze is to seal up the pores of the ceramic so that potentially harmful bacteria do not have a place to hide.  So if you are going to use whatever you make for food, you may want to glaze them for safety -- and use non-toxic glazes (I remember reading about someone that got lead poisoning from a red leaded glaze that was not properly cured).  If you do not glaze them, make sure that you clean them regularly, and it is best that you do not use say a porous tea cup for milk...

All in all, you can do it yourself for a lot less money spent than hiring a professional or artisan, BUT you will end up spending a LOT of time figuring out the details and you will probably have to make 10x what you want until you get the technique down.  That said, if you equate time with money, then this is a loosing proposition...  For myself, I enjoy wielding hammers I have forged, storing seeds in pots I have made, and the extra effort is with that joy.
 
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I need to learn how to make old-fashioned salt-glazed crocks. Anything over two gallons size sells for a fortune here at auction. 5-6 gallon ones I've seen go for as much as $500. I'd like some TO USE, not collect. Having the ability to make natural storage containers would be nice. I'd really like to make stuff from clay here on the farm, especially with primitive techniques.
 
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Stoneware is a very dense, non-porous, and high fired clay.  By all means play with the clay you have around your place, but it is very unlikely that you will have a natural claybed with all the proper properties (look at the Wikipedia entry on Stoneware .<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoneware>; and find that it is typically made of of, and their firing temperatures).  Stoneware is typically made from mixing several different clays to get the desired properties.

There are some very simple techniques to make shapes like this.  Here are a couple of the easiest you can do on your kitchen table:

Slab Roll and Join:
 Probably the easiest to make at home with no tools is to roll slabs and then join them similar to this lady making a square bottomed cup <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g70mEl-z7us>.  What she is doing is a LOT more complicated than what you need to do for your project, but is really nice in that you get to see how to join the edges of slabs and pieces using slip (water downed clay), feathering the edges, and using a scraper to smooth the joins down.

Slip Casting:
 You can make a one or two piece mold and slip-cast them.  A slip is a very watery clay.  You can purchase it gallons at a time from a supplier, or mix your own (which can be a bit complicated, but imagine mixing a cement wash in a tub or mixer).  This will give you an idea of how to make them <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7IXhgQdRkc>;

Press Fit Molding:
 Similar  to the two above, you make a slipcast mold, and instead of running slip in it you press in slabs and other pieces into the inner surfaces to make the forms.  This is likely to give you what you want most reliably starting out.

Throwing on a Wheel:
 This would probably take you the longest to master, and is one of the traditional techniques used for many thousands of years.

Other than that you will have to look at firing.  If you go with traditional firing and glazes, you can just hire out the bisk and glaze firing at any locka shop (or find some old nackered kiln that someone is giving away that you have to fix or rebuild, but heck it was free...  If you REALLY want to stick with a salt firing you will probably need to build yourself a propane raku style kiln -- the salt glazing process is *very* hard on kilns, and unless you find someone that does salt firings on a regular basis you may have to do it yourself.  BTW, there is some folks in the experimental ceramics community which took a brand new electric kiln, coated the heating elements with ITC-213 and the bricks with ITC-100.  That kiln lived through 30+ salt firings with no appreciable damage.  So, that is a possibility BUT -- and i need you to really listen here if you are thinking for firing your own salt glazes -- they are deadly poisonous.  When the salt goes into the kiln it disassociates the chlorine from the sodium.  The chlorine gas that exits the kiln is deadly toxic, and you need to make sure that you do not breath it in and that it is dispersed well away from where people and animals can breath it in.  So, if you decide to work with this as a media, please research it and pay careful attention to safety.

One last thing.  Search around.  You might just find something suitable for a lot less than you originally thought.  Check out here for example: https://www.pressurecooker-outlet.com/Fermentation-Crock.htm#ohio-stoneware-crock-kits

 Hope that helps...
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