Mug Makin' - Behind The Scenes
It’s hard to explain the amount of work that it takes to create a single mug. Most people simply do not have a context for the process of pottery, because we usually don't have the exposure to it that we do with other art mediums. Most people can tell you the basic steps of painting; paintbrush + paint + canvas = a painting.
But what about ceramics?
It’s a process that many see the start of, but usually don’t see the full process. So, this March I decided to take our social media followers on a journey through our studio in the eyes of a mug, from start to finish. I updated each day that I worked on the mug, with a video of the process and an explanation of what I was doing. It ended up being a 16-day process, which is average for our studio turnover timeline.
I’ve included all the steps here in this blog, with more in-depth explanations of each step as well as a few behind-the-scenes stories.
Wedging: We (currently) use 1lb of English porcelain clay to make our mugs, and the first step is to weigh out and wedge the clay. This process makes the clay an even consistency throughout the ball of clay and removes any air bubbles. It’s important to spend a few minutes wedging up each ball so that it is easier to work with while on the wheel.
Day 1, Step 2: From there, we head to the wheel. It varies on how long each mug takes to throw, but for this form it’s usually 3-5 minutes on each. I have made several hundred (if not a few thousand) of these mugs by this point, so this is a form that comes very easy to me. I will make batches of 20-30 mugs at a time, which takes a couple hours to throw. My record for the most mugs made and completed in a single day is 40, but that was an extremely long work day that I do not prefer to repeat any time soon.
Our mug forms were covered in plastic for the overnight hours to prevent them from drying out. Once firm enough to hold their shape, we flip them over so that the bottoms can dry better. From there I create the handle forms from a wedge of clay, and let them sit to dry for a few hours.
After the mug form and the handles are about the same level of dryness, I attach the handle to the side of the mug! From there, I use a rubber stamp with our trademarked saying ‘this might be bourbon’ to press into the clay. We also brand each mug with our name or logo, usually on the bottom of the piece. A few swipes from wheel tool creates the border, and we are finished for the day. I’ll cover the batch of finished mugs overnight to help slow down the drying and prevent cracking.
The mugs have dried a bit overnight, and now I survey them individually and check to see if any cracks have developed around the handle. This will happen for a few reasons, but this time of a year with the weather being very back-and-forth (thanks, Kentucky!) it usually happens due to inconsistent drying.
I use a rubber tip tool that I dip in vinegar to compress the seams of the handle, and then set them up to dry more. By the end of the day, I will flip them upside-down to encourage even drying on the bottom as well. This will be the last update on the mugs for a few days while they dry out completely and are ready to clean up.
It’s safety first for this video! The mugs have dried completely, so all the physical water is now gone. They are now in the Greenware state, which is when we clean up the rough edges and smooth down any imperfections. This is when pottery is the most fragile, so everything must be handled with care. I am using a soft grade abrasive pad to sand down any bumps, fingerprints, or rough patches that was created while handling the mugs wet. Some potters wait until the work has been fired once to do this, but we prefer to do it first. Respirators must be worn to protect our lungs from a clay coating. After this, we carry them back to our kiln room where they will wait to be loaded into their first firing.
Time for the first firing! This is called a bisque firing, and its purpose is to strengthen the pottery enough to be handled during the glazing process. For this firing, the pieces are allowed to touch and be stacked into each other. Clay does not stick or melt when heated to this temperature, so there is no risk of the pieces fusing together. That is a different story than the next firing that they go through.
The pottery will get up past 1800 degrees F, which takes roughly 12-13 hours in our kiln with a preheat. After that, it takes another 20+ hours to cool down. We’ve loaded this on a Sunday, so we plan on unloading it on Tuesday. Til then, we wait!
On Tuesday we spent a few minutes unloading the bisque kiln, stacking the items together on a shelf in order to be glazed this week. Then on Wednesday I did the work in the final leg of the mug makin’ process.
First I use an air compressor to clear the mugs of any debris or dust. After, I grab a brush and coat the stamped lettering with our blue glaze, being mindful to fill the letters entirely. The glaze must be completely dry before moving on to the next step, so they will sit off to the side over the course of the day while I glaze the rest of the work (not shown). After everything else is finished, I will use a soft abrasive pad to carefully remove the extra glaze, revealing the words. From there I scoop up some glaze, swirl it around the inside for a good coating and dump the excess. A simple dunk to the rim, and then a dunk to the handle complete the process. I will check for drips/splashes and then place them over on the shelf with the other completed work.
Not so fun fact: while recording this part, an alarm went off on my phone, which sent it diving into the tote of glaze. *sigh * Luckily it didn’t completely kill my phone, but my speakers and volume buttons haven’t been the same since.
The next video will be prepping the shelves and loading up the kiln which is usually done the same day as glazing, but this week our firing schedule has been altered.
Loading: The last part of the glazing day process is to prep the shelves and load the kiln. We first scrape the old kiln wash off of the shelves, and then apply a new layer of wash with a brush. This is a material that helps protect our shelves from being ruined if glaze runs off a piece. Instead of permanently gluing itself to (and ruining) the shelf, the kiln wash allows us to pop the glaze off with a little pressure. From there, we load up the work!
We are careful not to bump any glazed surface, because the glaze is easily chipped before it is fired. Additionally, the pieces can NOT touch in this firing, or they will be fused together. Each piece is loaded thoughtfully, giving it the space it requires for the glaze to do it’s think without being a risk to other pieces, the sides of the kiln or the shelves. Pottery shrinks as it is fired, so when we open the kiln back up, everything will actually be a bit further away than it is when loaded.
Once loaded, the kiln is fired to past 2200 degrees F (taking 12-14 hours). It will cool over the following 20+ hours!
The final step is unloading the kiln! It has taken us over 2 weeks to get here, but we made it. This morning I unpacked the work when the kiln was cooled to 150 degrees. The closer to the bottom that I get, the hotter the kiln will be so we use gloves rated for high temperatures to help. Each piece is taken out of the kiln and inspected for flaws that have occurred in the glaze firing. This could be cracks in the piece, glaze malfunctions, or debris contamination that has created an issue with the glazed surface. We now take a high grit sanding block and rub the bottom of each piece to ensure a smooth surface for your pottery.
And that’s it, folks! I hope you enjoyed the tour of the process, and learned enough to impress your friends with your killer pottery knowledge.
There honestly is no ‘right’ way to make pottery, it is all based on the artist’s preference, the clay body being used, and the environment in which the pieces are made. This is how we do our work here on North Main Street. If you’re interested in seeing more, our shop has a demonstration area that showcases Carvel’s production area. Most days that we are open you can catch him making or finishing up work – feel free to step up and watch! He is quite the talker and loves chatting about pottery.