Ever wondered how that mug you’re drinking from is made? Well if it’s a mass produced one it will have been made without much human contact or content. However a handmade mug has been worked on for hours by a potter trying to create something perfect for your coffee or tea.
Let’s start with the clay. Stoneware clay is best for mugs as it’s fired higher so is more robust for daily use. The clay is weighed out (around 1lb depending on size of mug) and then it’s wedged(kneaded) to remove any air pockets. The ball of clay is then centred on the potter’s wheel and transformed into it’s desired shape before carefully removing it with a wire and setting aside. Throwing on the wheel (as us pottery heads like to call it), is a skill that needs lots of practice, patience and perseverance!
At this stage the clay is too wet to add a handle so it has to be let to dry out a bit. Drying is the bane of a potter’s life as it slows down the whole process. Some use heat guns to speed up the process. Also the climate changes drying time so in winter if you are in a cold environment it will take longer (this is why in winter my house is filled with pots at various stages of drying!)
Once it’s dried a bit it’s at the leatherhard stage so can be turned upside down and gently attached to a clean wheel to be trimmed. It’s then removed and time for a handle. The most common type of handle is pulled. This is basically a piece of clay that’s wet and pulled and pulled until the right length and thickness. Next the surface of the mug where the handle is attached is scratched and wet so the handle attaches securely. Handles are time consuming and fiddly but can make or break a mug (not literally thankfully!).
Decorating with underglazes can be done at this stage or left plain to be decorated with glazes. Careful drying is needed now as the attached handle could crack and split if dried too fast so some air time and covered with plastic bag over a couple of days should suffice. Then the mug is left until it is COMPLETELY DRY. This is crucial as putting a piece of pottery in the kiln that still has moisture in it will result in broken mugs and anything else it’s beside!
Once you have enough pieces to fill your kiln you can start to load it. It’s too expensive to fire a kiln so make sure you fill it! Different clays have different firings but stoneware clay is fired to a top temperature of 1200C-1300C over a 12hr period. Once fired you then have an agonizing 24hr wait before you can open the kiln! Apart from the danger of heat, it’s also to avoid thermal shock with the hot pottery entering a cooler environment and cracking.
Once cooled the mug can be glazed. Glazes come in many colours and can transform a piece into something very special. As glaze is basically liquid glass it has to be used carefully (wear a mask) to minimize health & safety risks. It’s import to keep the base of pots clear of glaze as it would fuse onto the shelf and be ruined (and the shelf!). When filling the kiln with glazed pieces they can’t touch each other or kiln sides as the same thing would happen. DISASTER!
Time for the 2nd firing to roughly the same temperature for 6-7hrs with the same 24hr cooling time. This is the longest wait as your finished products are inside and you’re desperate to see them! patience…………. Opening a glaze firing is a mixture of excitement and fear as even with experienced potters, the results aren’t always guaranteed. So if you ever see handmade mugs now you know why they are far more special and why they aren’t £1.99 like the supermarkets mass produced ones. I know which I’d rather drink from. Time to put the kettle on!