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Coil ... blend ... spin ... shape ... coil-building technique in ceramics.

Clay has always had a special fascination for high school students. Whether it be modeling, slab forming, coil pottery, throwing, hand building or casting, each has its own charms.

After experimenting for some time with hand-building techniques, students may develop a desire to create symmetrical forms similar to those they see in ceramics journals or at exhibitions. At this point, it might seem necessary for students to master the technique of throwing clay on the wheel in order to realize such aspirations. Developing the required skills takes a lot of dedication on the part of the student and a lot of individual supervision on the part of the teacher. If a whole class is to learn to throw forms at the same time, the school will need to provide a studio equipped with enough wheels for every aspiring potter--a very expensive outlay.

There is an effective alternative method for constructing perfectly symmetrical ceramic forms. Students can usually master the basics of this technique in a relatively short span of time. The equipment required is simple and inexpensive, and most types of clay can be used. It is a means of building a form out of coils on a banding wheel, and shaping the form once the wheel has been spun. The method can be used for producing sophisticated ceramic forms, or be viewed as an intermediate step toward learning to throw. Many of the skills developed, such as a steady hand and an understanding of turning techniques, are also prerequisites to throwing.

The Setup

An essential piece of equipment is a good, strong banding wheel. Banding wheels are sometimes referred to as turning wheels, spinning wheels and even whizzers. Whatever the label, the wheel will need to be constructed of metal and be heavy enough to sustain good momentum once it has been given a vigorous spin by hand. A plastic wheel will definitely not suffice. Enough metal banding wheels can be purchased for a whole class of students for the equivalent price of about three potter's wheels.

At an early stage in the ceramics program, it's a good idea for students to undertake some research work. I find that this is best done after the students have experimented making their first piece. Motivation is usually high and they already have an understanding of the processes involved and the approach to be taken. Making sketches from a primary source such as an art gallery, museum or potter's studio would be the ideal activity. Alternatively, craft magazines, books on ceramics and the like, as well as observation of both humanmade and natural forms provide students with a rich source of ideas for their own forms. A quick way of developing a variety of ideas is to experiment cutting silhouettes of possible shapes from folded paper.

Spinning and Coiling

Once the clay has been prepared, the first step is to form a base for the pot. A ball of clay is placed on the center of the banding wheel and flattened using either the back of the hand or a wooden rolling pin. The wheel is given a good spin by hand and a base is cut using a pointed instrument or potter's needle. The action is like that of a record player. The needle is lowered in a vertical direction until it cuts a neat, perfect circle through the spinning clay. For beginners, this is easier said than done; however, as the students continue to work with the needle, a steady hand is developed. After a few laughing fits and a few determined tries, most students soon master this step.

Coils are then rolled to the required thickness and placed on the base to form the walls of the pot. Slip is used where necessary, and the coils are blended with the usual coil-building technique. When the pot is about two inches high, the form is then refined. The banding wheel is given a vigorous spin and a wooden turning tool of the required shape is used to form, first the inside, then the outside of the pot. This again requires a steady hand. The best method is to place both elbows firmly on the work bench and to lock the wrist of the first hand with the second hand.

Now it is necessary to trim the uneven layer of clay at the top of the form before adding more coils. Again the banding wheel is given a good spin. This time the needle is brought against the side of the pot in a horizontal motion, then gently pushed inward to cut through the wall of the pot as it spins. What's left is a perfect foundation on which to build.

For every two inches the pot grows, the process is repeated. Coil, blend, spin, shape and trim again. The thickness of the coil is determined by the height of the pot. Very large forms can be made--only the height of your kiln will limit the possibilities. If the form is in danger of sagging at any time, it may be firmed up by partially drying it in the sun, under a fan or with a hair dryer.

Finishing Touches

The completed form can be decorated in the usual ways, with slips, burnishing, sgraffito, glazing, underglazing and so on. One precaution to take is to glaze only after bisque firing. Glazing greenware may weaken the coils. For the same reason, it is best not to use excessive piercing or carving.

There are many possibilities to this technique. Clay slabs, coils or sprigging may be added to the pot to create a more sculptural form. Surfaces may be textured. The form can be modified through either tapping or fluting. Several pieces can be joined after firing to create one, huge form. And once one form is complete, it is on to another; coil, blend, spin, shape ...

Neville Ellis teaches art in the academically and artistically gifted program, Nanyang Girls High School, Singapore.
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Author:Ellis, Neville
Publication:School Arts
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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