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Slab happy.

Do you like fanciful clay objects? Do you enjoy fooling around with textures? Try building with slabs.

Making sculpture with slabs of clay offers a great deal of freedom to work on large objects, create really complex forms or simply make fun stuff. Virtually any kind of form can be produced using clay slabs--whether you work with clay that is still soft, or slabs that have become stiff. For best results in each case, however, a little planning and preparation are necessary.


To insure against unforeseen complications, always start with a few sketches. This first step is most important. Not only can the shapes and proper proportions be refined, but actual measurements should be noted. In some cases, full-size drawings can be used as patterns for cutting the slabs. For more complicated works, detailed drawings showing how parts are to be joined may be necessary. Both the size and number of slabs needed can be worked out before any clay is processed.

After developing the form on paper, the next step is to prepare the slabs. For those people fortunate enough to have a slab-rolling machine, you know what to do. For the rest of us, the pizza method is the easiest way to produce a slab of even thickness throughout.

Rolling can be done on a sturdy table, but is best done on the floor. Two pieces of canvas or other heavy fabric, two guide sticks such as yardsticks and a metal pipe or a large rolling pin are required. The clay should be well-kneaded and not too soft or stiff.

Rolling the Slab

Take a ball of clay and flatten it by batting it down with the fist on the canvas-covered surface. Lift the clay up by the farthest end and flip it over and down. Repeat this process by grasping the far edge of clay, then lift the entire piece, drop it down away from the body and pull it back in one swinging motion. Continue until the slab is slightly thicker than needed.

Place the guide sticks next to both sides of the clay, but not touching it. Cover the clay and sticks with the other piece of canvas. Set the rolling pin on top of the canvas across the middle of the clay and sticks. Slowly roll the pin to one end of the clay. Put the pin back in the middle and roll it to the other end. Using the entire body weight in this way is easier and less tiring than rolling by hand.

Peel off the top canvas, flip the clay slab onto it, and reset the guide sticks. Replace the second piece of canvas and reroll the clay until the slab is level. If a larger slab is needed, take several smaller slabs and overlap their edges. Firmly paddle down the clay, weld the seams and roll the joints level.

Most sculptures can be made with slabs about 1/4" to 1/2" thick. Thicker slabs do not make a sculpture stronger. In fact, clay that is too thick can cause uneven drying, cracks and even explode when fired.


For more interesting textures, try rolling the slabs on canvas, or try burlap or an old shag rug. Create other textures by laying leaves, string, strips of cardboard or other objects on top of the slab, then rolling over them with the rolling pin. Remember to take all the bits off the clay after rolling. Other textures can be added by batting the slab with a meat tenderizing mallet or rope-wrapped paddle.

Soft Slabs

Soft slabs can be used to make a puffed-up animal form--a fun project for students of any age. To do this, take a slab and place a wad of loosely crumpled newspaper on it. Carefully drape the slab over the paper and seal the edges. Make all the needed appendages in this manner. When they have stiffened sufficiently so that the object can stand, join all the parts. Be sure to drill holes so that steam can escape from every cavity of the form. One forgotten hole equals disaster. Allow the work to dry slowly to prevent cracking. If the newspaper cannot be easily removed before the sculpture is fired, don't worry--it will burn away in the hot kiln.

Stiff Slabs

Sharp-edged, flat-sided geometric forms can be best made from stiffened slabs. If possible, roll out a slab large enough to accommodate all the parts needed for a particular piece. Carefully measure and cut each slab. Allow all the pieces to stiffen at the same rate until they are firm but not leather hard. For a rectangular object, bevel each edge of the slabs at 45 degrees. Score all the surfaces to be joined and coat them with vinegar. (Vinegar softens clay quicker than water or slurry.) Press the first two pieces together and weld the inside seam with a wooden tool. Seal the joint with a thin coil of clay.

Continue to join each side until the piece is completely enclosed, then paddle the exterior of all the seams to ensure firm joints and sharp corners. Do any additional decorating while the box is still sealed. The air trapped inside will help prevent the box from deforming. Be sure to poke a hole in the form somewhere to prevent an explosion in the kiln.

Stiff slabs can also be used to make free-standing, open forms.

Once students get the hang of slab rolling and building, don't be surprised if they start talking about making wall murals, fountains and really big stuff ... but that's another article.

Leon Nigrosh is a ceramist, teacher and writer in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author of the books Claywork, Lowfire and Sculpting Clay (Davis Publications, Inc., Worcester, MA).
COPYRIGHT 1992 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Nigrosh, Leon
Publication:School Arts
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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