About two weeks ago I was at the Hawaii Potters Guild trying to throw Coleman porcelain and had four pieces in a row slip off of my masonite bats. I'd done everything I thought I should do to get the porcelain to stick to the bat: slightly wet the bat, roll the base of the clay into a point, slam it onto the bat, give the top of the clay a few good wacks on top to secure it, etc., but nothing seemed to work. I usually don't have a problem like this with other clays, but I've had an ongoing problem with porcelain coming off of the bat. It's maddening when I'm doing something like shaping the neck and suddenly the clay detaches from the bat. I've tried to put the clay back on center, but it's never worked. So after four pieces in a row had detached, and I'd voiced my frustrations four times in a row, an older gentleman sitting across from me wiped off one of his plastic bats and handed it across to me. "You wanna try one of my plastic bats?" "Uhhhhh, no," I thought, "I don't want to try one of your plastic bats." I had a prejudice against plastic bats because I assumed they would be more slippery, not less slippery. That would only make my problems worse. But I reluctantly reached across and accepted his kind offer just to make him feel better. And then I placed it on the wheelhead. It slipped on smoothly and felt solid, not the slightest jiggle back and forth on the pins. It also sat flat without any wobble. And what surprised me most of all is that my porcelain stuck to the bat and didn't come off. I tried a few other plastic bats from other potters but none worked as well as the first one I'd tried. They're made by Amaco, and I ordered four of them (14 in.) from Blick (www.dickblick.com). I've used several different types of clay on them, both stoneware and porcelain, and all have worked perfectly well. I suppose there are a few negatives to report. The plastic won't absorb moisture, so you have to cut pieces off the bat fairly quickly (I was told this by one of my instructors), and the textured side can be rough on the hands. I also had trouble centering clay on the textured side. Now I use the smooth side exclusively and have no problems with centering. The older gentleman told me he'd had his plastic bats for many years. Compare that to my less expensive masonite bats. After a year and a half my masonite bats are getting warped, the holes are getting loose, and the surface is getting worn. They're almost shot after a year and a half. And they're harder to clean! So if you haven't tried plastic bats, give the Amaco bats a try. I'm sure glad I did.
It's been tough the last few days. Maybe some of you have had periods like this where you've made plenty of pots and were excited about them and then something happened and you had to scrap them. It's been especially frustrating the last few days because I've had to scrap three pots that I really liked. I'm also frustrated because I'm trying to make a few really good pots that I can submit to a show at the Honolulu Museum of Art that's sponsored by the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce. It's a juried show, it's hard to get in, and the deadline is August 7. I used about 10 pounds of Death Valley for one of the pots, and I'd taken about two and a half hours to carve it. The carving turned out well, but I felt the base was too heavy so I took out some excess clay using a trimming tool. Guess what I forgot to do? Compress my clay again. So what happened when it dried? A nice big "S" crack. I've only had one other piece with an "S" crack, and this had to be the second one. Had to break the whole pot down. The second was a closed form I had made with Black Mountain. I really liked the way it had turned out, but when I looked at it this morning it had formed an "S" crack at the top, not the bottom. Aaaargh! I still have so much to learn!! The worst was the third piece. I had thrown a large bowl with Coleman Porcelain and was getting ready to carve waves around the top edge when I remembered that my daughter Jenny had borrowed my Exacto knife and hadn't returned it yet. Curses! So I did some fluting on the side which I didn't like at all. Then I decided to take another approach and carve out the fluting and thin out the walls. I really liked what I was seeing and was almost done after two hours when I reached up like a clumsy oaf and knocked a big chunk out of the very thin wall. I was stunned. I just sat there looking at the gaping hole I'd made in the side of the pot. "You have got to be kidding me," was all I could say. I couldn't knock the whole thing down all at once. Instead, I just broke off one chip after another until it was lying there in a heap. I picked up a few of the chips and looked at them. "I like the carving on this one," I said to myself. When I was done, all of it went into the recycled clay bucket so I can try, try again. There's my sad tale of woe. Why don't you share some of your sad clay stories? It'll help to get it off your chest. See, I feel better already!
Lately I've seen several posts on blogs that discuss the issue of how thick or thin to make a pot. Related to this is the question of how heavy or light a pot should be. I think the answer is "it depends." It depends on what type of pot you're making. In general, larger pots need thicker walls, so the walls of a larger pot might be just as thin in proportion to the rest of the pot as the walls of a much smaller pot. Also, I like to carve some of my pots, so I leave the walls thicker to accomodate that. In other words, thinness isn't an absolute goal that we must strive for in every pot.
When we consider the weight of the pot, we also have to consider things like the appropriateness of the weight for the type of pot that it is. A mug, for instance, can be excessively heavy and is unpleasant to hold in the hand. This is accentuated because of the way mugs are designed with a handle on one side. Maybe some of you are like me and when I have an overly heavy mug, I find myself holding it by the body and not by the handle. On the other hand, I've found that when tumblers have thinner walls they conduct heat more rapidly making the tumbler too hot to handle. If the walls are just a little thicker, especially toward the bottom, it keeps the heat from being unbearable.
Besides our own perceptions of a pot's appropriate thinness and weight, we should always remember that people who inspect our pots for purchase are making their own judgments about whether or not a pot's weight is appropriate. Their judgment is based on broad experience with vessels of all shapes and sizes, made of materials like plastic and glass that are much lighter than clay. So no matter how light I make my pitchers, they always seem "too heavy" to buyers. Why? Because they're comparing them to the extremely light glass and plastic pitchers they're used to using. So each pitcher I sell is going to be used as a display piece, another vase with a spout and handle.
Speaking of vases... a vase that's just sitting on top of a piano or on a coffee table doesn't need to be light because stability is paramount. About a year ago I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine who helps put up ikebana displays at the Honolulu Museum of Art. I asked him to look at one of my pots and tell me if it would be good for ikebana. He picked it up, put it back down and said, "No, it's too light." He went on to explain that in ikebana, you need a pot that has a relatively heavy base because so many of the arrangements have elements that jut out assymetrically from the pot. If the pot doesn't have enough weight, the branch would tip the pot over.
So how thin or light should a pot be? As thin and as light as it needs to be!