Behind the Goods: How to Work with Clay

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At BRIKA, we’re all about celebrating the talent, time and thought behind every well-crafted good. With this new weekly series, we’re taking a closer look at an individual piece in a Maker’s collection—often their personal favorite—from idea to implementation.

Heather Dahl, Dahlhaus Art Studios

Favorite item: The Medium Striped Cylinder Vase Why: "It's the perfect size for a nice bunch of flowers.”

Heather is a Vancouver-based ceramic artist, known for her collection of vases, trays, cups and teapots. She loves to come up with a simple form, then use her glazing method to create different patterns over time. Here’s a look at her step-by-step process (be sure to watch the video below).

1. Each original design starts on a potter’s wheel.

Heather spent a few years throwing cylinders on the wheel, varying the height and width in order to create a perfect medium vase.

2. Heather chooses a form to carve into a prototype.

She then created a master mould along with production moulds. She does this whenever she’s excited about creating “a wider body of work with multiple glaze patterns using the same form.” The form becomes a blank canvas, where Heather can experiment with patterns and colors.

3. She pours slip (liquid clay) into the mould.

For the medium vase, this process takes about 40 minutes, with the plaster absorbing the water in the slip before she pours more.

[caption id="attachment_3816" align="aligncenter" width="480"]The Finished Product: Heather's Medium Cylinder Striped Vase The Finished Product: Heather's Medium Striped Cylinder Vase[/caption]

4. She’s very, very patient while the pieces dry.

It’s another 90 minutes before she can remove the piece from the mould (then the mould needs time to dry before she can start another vase!). Once the piece is removed from the mould, she cleans up the seams and lets it dry out for another—wait for it—three days!

5. It’s time for the kiln!

Heather needs a kiln full of work in order to bisque fire. “I usually make a series of pieces to go in the kiln and am often handling about 40 pieces at a time,” she says.

6. Heather glazes & designs each piece.

Once they’ve been bisque-fired, she glazes the interior and waxes the bottom. She then works on creating the design! Each of the curved stripes on the Medium Striped Vase is created using individually cut stickers, that mask off the stripes while the white glaze is applied. She then paints a wax resist, removes the stickers, cleans up any loose bits of glaze, and dips the piece into one of her colored glazes!

7. Just another 10-12 hours to go…

The vases need time to dry once more before going back to the kiln for 10-12 hours of firing. “This is where the magic happens,” Heather says, “Or the misery, depending on my glazes fitting, the clay body shrinking, and my application being bang on.”

The process is intense! But worth it when you take a look at Heather’s work. Watch the video below to see her studio and process.

[vimeo 41939109 w=500&h=280]

What’s the biggest misconception about working with clay?

I think people assume it’s easy and quick to make. However, it takes years of practice to re-create designs and shapes for production. Each piece takes at least 3 weeks from start to finish, and there are no shortcuts to speed up this process (e.g. drying clay quickly will result in cracking). So it’s a demanding medium, for sure!

And the best part of working with clay?

The best part of working with clay is the transformation of material that starts out as a liquid or a blob of earth (basically) that becomes formed and then fired into a beautiful piece that can be used! It’s an incredibly challenging medium and it feels like there is always more to learn in clay—I never get tired of gaining new skills.

Who inspires you to do the work that you do?

I think the people that have inspired me are the many Makers who have gone on before me. My great-aunt was a potter who gave me my first wheel, tools and books back when I was a student in ceramics. She passed away last year, but her encouragement was significant in inspiring me to keep at it.

Learn more about Heather’s background, and shop her collection of colorful vases, trays, cups, and teapots (hint: they make incredible gifts!). 

Did you like this story? You’ll probably like these as well!
  1. Maker Match: The First Edition!
  2. Face to Face: Meeting Makers in NYC
  3. Q&A with Illustrator Jacqueline Schmidt
P.S. Sign up for BRIKA’s newsletter to hear about our latest Makers and their well-crafted goods.


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