Gary Jackson: Fire When Ready Pottery
A Chicago potter’s somewhat slanted view of clay & play
Pottery Process

There’s a lot of work that goes into every piece of pottery.
Most people have that glorified image of throwing clay on a wheel
thanks to Demi Moore & Patrick Swayze in “Ghost.”
But there’s a lot more to it than that.

One of the most frequent questions I get at an art fair is
“How long does it take to make this piece?”
I try to explain that it is a process and there might be several pieces
all in different stages of the process – so it’s hard to determine
the amount of time for each individual piece.

Hopefully the following overview will give you some idea of the steps
that each piece of handmade, soda-fired pottery goes through.
It’s a labor of love – we don’t do it because it’s easy.

Wedging
Before you can throw clay on the wheel, you need to get out any excess air pockets
by wedging the clay. Basically it’s a process like kneading bread dough. Being careful
to press out the air bubbles instead of folding in new ones!

Wheelthrowing
The wedged ball of clay is placed on the center of the wheel. Once secured, the clay
is wet and spun fast on the wheel. The first step is to center the clay and smooth out
all of the edges. Once the ball is smooth & centered, you can open it up, compress
the bottom and start to raise the walls. As the walls get taller they also get thinner
and less stable. Once the clay is raised to the desired height and the walls are a
good thickness, the shaping can begin. Carefully refining the curves, the shapes
and the rim. When finished, the piece can be wired off the bat and moved off
to start drying.

Drying to Leather-hard
The thrown pieces are set aside and allowed to dry slowly to a soft, leather-hard stage.
At this point, the clay is still malleable, yet no longer sticky or squishy. The pot holds its form
and can now be altered & decorated.

Trimming
Once the pots are stiff enough to work with, they can be flipped over and the bottom trimmed.
The excess clay is trimmed away by scraping with a metal loop tool while spinning quickly -
kind of like a wood lathe. The ribbons of shavings come off and reveal a finished “foot”
for the pot to stand on.

Stamping
While still leather-hard, I use my handmade stamps to create the repetitive patterns
on my work. It is always a challenge to get the stamps to look consistent and line-up
when you get around to the other side. The stamp is pressed in one-at-a-time,
over & over again. I have created hundreds of stamps to choose from… and yet,
there are definitely some favorites that show up more frequently then others!

Attachments… such as handles!
After my pots have been stamped & trimmed, it is now time to start finishing
them with attachments & handles. To add a handle, I “pull” them all
from a lump of clay forming the strap handle. I allow the strap to set up
for awhile – at least until they are no longer wet, mushy & sticky. Once deciding
where to place the handle, I “score & slip” the attachment points,
cut off the necessary portion of the strap handle and press it into place.
A few refining touches and the pot now has a handle.
A basic cylinder is instantly transformed into a mug!!!

gary-jackson-pulled-handles

gary-jackson-attaching-handles

Slip Painting
As if the stamping process weren’t labor-intensive enough… I also like to apply
colored slip to the stamps & top rim of the vases. Around the top of each vase,
I paint colored slip to give the top section. In the center raised section of each stamp,
I apply some slip to help accent the stamp and draw the color down throughout the pot.

Drying to Greenware
Once all of the pieces are trimmed, stamped and slip painted, they are set aside to dry.
As they dry, they become more and more fragile. All pots need to be dry before they
can be placed into the kiln.

Bisque Firing
Once the work is completely dry, it needs to be fired to cone 06,
which is approximately 1850 degrees. This is the point where the clay
becomes solid & less fragile. It is still porous and will readily accept the glaze.

Glaze Inlay
To accentuate the stamping, I take time to inlay glaze into the stamped impressions.
Without the contrasting glaze color, the stamps don’ always show-up
as much as I would like them to.

Glaze Inlay Reveal
Once the stamps are filled with glaze, I gently wipe off the top surface
to reveal the pattern now filled with the contrasting glaze.

Glazing
Once all of the stamps are inlaid with glaze, the interiors need to be glazed as well.
In a soda firing, the exterior of the pots don’t need to be glazed as the soda residue
left from the flame flashing will create the “glaze” surface. If specific colors are wanted,
the choices are colored slip at the leather-hard stage or glaze at this point. Frequently,
I spray some accent colors on the sides of the pots.

Wadding
Another labor-intensive step… every piece that goes into the soda kiln needs to be
raised off the shelf so that the soda build-up doesn’t adhere the pot to the shelf.
Typically, three small balls of wadding are attached to the bottom to raise the piece
on a “tripod of wad.” Wadding is a soda-resistant clay mixture made with alumina hydrate.
And when we say every piece needs to be wadded… that includes every tile!

Glazed & Wadded – ready to go!
As each piece is finished, they are put onto the cart waiting to go downstairs
to the kiln. It’s a great feeling to see the cart filling up with pots that are all done
and waiting to be fired for the final time!

Kiln Loading
Once everything is glazed & wadded it is time for the kiln loading.
Each shelf is supported by three bricks, then another shelf, then more bricks!
Think of it as a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Trying to fit in as many pieces
as possible while leaving enough space above & between the pieces to allow for
good air flow and flame flashing throughout the kiln.

Closing The Kiln
Once the kiln is loaded, the door needs to be closed…. one brick at a time!
From bottom to top, the bricks are placed allowing for the peeps and temperature sensors.
Specially shaped (shaved) bricks finish off the top arch.

Glaze Firing
The soda kiln is a gas reduction kiln. Meaning the flames enter through the back
of the kiln and heat the kiln to cone 10 around 2350 degrees. The reduction atmosphere
is created by altering the balanced ratio of gas-to-air by reducing the amount of air.
The flames “search” the kiln for the needed air and pull it from the porous clay body
thus sealing the clay and making it solid & vitreous.

As the kiln gets hotter throughout the day, the pyrometric cones each melt
at a different temperature. To see the cones inside the kiln, you carefully remove
two of the bricks in the door – peek inside to see which cones have melted.
When the last cone goes down… you know you are at cone 10 and the kiln
is done. It’s a long day… but well worth the wait.

Kiln Cooling
After a full day of firing, the kiln takes another full day to cool.
At certain points through the cooling, the peeps can be removed and the damper opened
to help speed along the process. If the kiln is cooled to rapidly, there is a chance of cracking
the pots inside through thermal shock.

Kiln Unloading
Once the kiln is cooled, the door can be unbricked. The sequence needs to remain intact
so that the next person who will be firing can put the bricks back in in the same sequence.
If the pieces are cooled enough to touch, they can be taken out of the kiln. The wadding
typically pops right off and can be thrown away. All of the shelves and posts are taken out
layer by layer along with the pots. Every shelf needs to be scraped to remove any excess
soda build-up that may have adhered during the firing. Shelves are also recoated with
kiln wash which helps protect the shelf from the soda. The fire box on each side of the kiln
needs to be cleaned out as well – any leftover residue from the soda mixture needs to be
swept out before the next firing.

And Now For The Fun Part
Once all of that dirty work is done… you can sit back and enjoy the new pots.
Unloading a kiln is kind of like a little treasure hunt. Some of the pieces are immediate
favorites, while others may not be what you expected and may take a few minutes
to grow on you. Luckily, they are always a few hidden surprises along the way!

45 Comments

Kelly

February 24th, 2009

Merryn wonders if that oven gets so hot that it would melt clay?

Shanae

March 24th, 2009

I LOVE YOUR WORK. Beautiful

Johnny

June 30th, 2009

Your ceramics are very nice. I use an electric kiln and like gas kiln results better. You have gorgious results.

Johnny

June 30th, 2009

too bad I can’t spell! Gorgeous work!

May 8th, 2010

I love your pottery process information. Most people think it’s so easy to create something with clay never realizing how much is involved. One thing you neglected to mention is how many years it took you to get to this place. That’s part of the process as well. Your work is beautiful!

Caroline Bielecki-Riefner

June 10th, 2010

Love your work. Beautiful!

July 8th, 2010

Gary,
Your energy and your work amaze me!
Awesome… I am happy for you and am thinking you found the key to life!
Cheers. : ))

August 5th, 2010

i like you work….its really good…

August 5th, 2010

thanks for checking in… I hope you’ve learned something, seen something you like and just had some fun along the way! stop back again real soon! GARY

October 8th, 2010

It’s so helpful for folks to see the process. Thanks for writing about it Gary.

October 26th, 2010

Simply good… but not simple, but good. Now, can I steam wash them, hose them down, put them in the washing machine, the dishwasher, the microwave, show them a photograph of Three Mile Island? A friend gave me some superb mugs as a present for giving their dog back when they came home to Austin from Chicago. Don’t want to wash them away or see love shatter, but am determined to use them daily….

October 27th, 2010

I would say it’s all good… except maybe the washing machine?! Not sure that the whole spinning, sloshing, tumbling motion would be so good? But by all means… use them every day!!! Then toss them in the dishwasher… and use them again! And by the way… was your friend named Elizabeth by any chance?!

Rachel

October 27th, 2010

I love your work! Have you ever taught workshops? If so, and if you have one on the horizon, I’d be very interested. :o )

October 27th, 2010

RACHEL – Thanks for your interest. But sadly, I don’t currently teach any workshops. But I wouldn’t mind getting into that. In fact, it might be a lot of fun? At this point, it’s basically just my Tuesday night class at Lillstreet Art Center for those that want to “play” with me and my stamping! But if you know of anyone looking for a workshop instructor, let me know!

February 11th, 2011

Thanks for all the information and great photos. I love to see the process and gain some insight.

February 18th, 2011

I love your work!
Very inspiring and what a great deal of time and patience to create all this work and build the website too.

Kim from Sydney

February 19th, 2011

From Sydney… as in Australia?!
If so, I do believe you’re the first person to check in from “Down Under.” Welcome aboard… and thanks for stopping by!

Frank

February 24th, 2011

I would like to know more about your burners.
Is that a ceramic flame retention tip?
Do you build the burner? Does it have a fan?
Do you introduce the soda as a liquid? Is it atomized?

March 11th, 2011

Hi Gary. You can expect some more visitors from ‘Down Under’ as Kim just posted a link to your website on our College Facebook page. Love your great Stamping and Soda firing is always wonderful. Our College has a wood fire kiln, gas kilns and electric kilns.

March 12th, 2011

HEY ANNA – So glad you like my work, and that it’s being shown to college kids starting out down their own pottery path. Especially those on a different continent… how cool is this Internet thing?! Thanks for sharing my website with your students. If I can offer any advice, let me know. And if you have any “photo examples” of how I may have influenced your students, please e-mail them to me so I can add them to my blog!!! Thanks… GARY

March 12th, 2011

FRANK – So sorry it has taken me so long to respond. Unfortunately, I don’t know all that much about the burners. I work at Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago, and have my studio on the second floor. One of the benefits is that we get to rent their kilns instead of buying & building our own! So, the burners were chosen & installed when the kiln was built years ago. I don’t know much technical information about them. There are two burners, one on each side, that shoot in through the back of the kiln on each side of the chimney. I do know that there is a thermocouple sensor on each burner – a safety precaution which turns the gas off if the flame goes out for any reason. There is a fan attached to the system, but not in the burner “contraption” unit itself. As for the soda, I mix Soda Ash, Soda Bicarbonate and some Whiting with wood chips and mix it with water to create a stiff, oatmeal-like mixture. I scoop it onto a long angle iron to drop it into the fire box on each side through two ports on the front of the kiln. At the old studio location, we used to dissolve the soda in hot water and spray it in with an industrial sprayer. Both worked well. I think it’s a matter of convenience and personal preference. I hope some of this rambling may have answered a few of your questions. And again, sorry for the long delay in my response. Thanks. GARY

Judy

November 12th, 2012

Gary: your work is wonderful. I love your stamps. Wish I could make them like you do. Wish you will sell the stamps. Enjoyed reading all about your process.

November 25th, 2013

Hi Gary,
ever thought about selling your stamps to other potters?

My website is new so it is still under construction.

November 29th, 2013

JACKIE – I’ve gotten that question a few times. And I typically give the same answer. My stamps make my pots. Where if you made your own stamps, they would help make YOUR pots!

I’ve put up several posts about the techniques I use to make my stamps, and use them to decorate the pots. If you go to the right column of my blog, just click on the category “STAMPS” for more info, process & pictures!

Linda Williams

December 26th, 2013

Love your work. I want to learn to make stamps for designing jewelry. I will keep looking at you ideas. They are beautiful. Thanks.
Linda

Nicoline

January 9th, 2014

Love your work and the stamp making.
Greetings from Holland.

Franzi

January 27th, 2014

Mash’allah!

January 29th, 2014

Thank You!
Thanks for checking in…
and thank you for the nice comment.
Unfortunately, I needed to look it up…
but now it’s one of my favorite comments!!!

Eszter K.

February 7th, 2014

Sorry, forgot to say I have shared the link with my pottery class in the UK, x

February 8th, 2014

Thanks for sharing!!!

February 9th, 2014

Best process description ever.
Nice kiln you’ve got :)

May 25th, 2014

I’m new to ceramics, and very inspired by your handmade stamps, and the amazing results they produce. I will be trying my hand at it, and love your idea of designs on both ends – so practical. Also, this description of the end-to-end process is the best I’ve read. Thanks!

mali tessler

July 22nd, 2014

wonderful work. thanks for share your knowledge.

Mary

August 8th, 2014

Gary,
Thank you so much for sharing all of your processes and ideas! I throw on the wheel and then alter my forms, George Ohr-like. Then I had colored slips and sgraffito them. Absolutely LOVE your stamps…. I may have to try that.
Keep throwing – love your work!!

rosita pino

November 2nd, 2014

Gary – I am from Chile, and I do love to have the web to see what other potters do. You are my inspiration. I started doing stamps and my work has changed absolutely. It looks better and more professional now.

Thanks so much for sharing your tips and work. Rosita Pino from Chile….

sherry

November 18th, 2014

Hi
You have inspired me to make stamps
Thank you for showing us the shapes of your stamps.

Elizabeth

January 24th, 2015

I purchased one of your beautiful stamped mugs from the Beans and Leaves coffee shop in Long Grove, il today. I fell in love with your pieces and intend to buy more! Can I put this mug in the microwave to heat up coffee and are they dishwasher safe. The number on the mug is 014- hope that helps.
Thanks!
Elizabeth

January 28th, 2015

ELIZABETH – Thanks for checking in… and I LOVE that you’re loving your new mug!!! And yes, of course you can microwave it and toss it in the dishwasher when you’re done. Okay, maybe not “toss”… but you know what I mean…

Lucille Smith

March 21st, 2015

Your work is beautiful! and appears to be very satisfying.

May 25th, 2015

NICE job!!!

E.J. Quansah

August 3rd, 2015

I have been inspired by your works and your personal profile very much and it has gingered me to follow my dream as a ceramist. I am a trained ceramist from Ghana but have not practiced the trade for over 8 years now because I had to venture into other jobs to be able to finance my own studio set-up. Though it’s not easy, I believe now is the time. Thank you so much.

January 6th, 2016

¬°Precioso!
Beautiful!
I am an artisan in Puerto Rico making mostly placques with messages. Can your pieces/mugs, etc be made in an electric kiln? I love that you make your stamps. This makes your pieces unique. Keep up the great work…and attitude. Blessings.

January 8th, 2016

RITA – Yes, the pieces could also be made in an electric kiln. The soda firing process I typically do is mainly a cone 10 gas reduction process. But I do know that some people have done it with success in an electric kiln. However, once you introduce the soda mixture into a kiln it sort of “contaminates it” for all future firings. The soda atmosphere attaches and “glazes” the interior kiln bricks as well as the pieces. Most studios dedicate a kiln to be a soda kiln and nothing else. If you scroll down the Links on the right side of my blog page, click on ceramic artist Julia Galloway. I believe most of her work is fired in an electric soda kiln. She’s very generous on her website about her process, recipes and more. Good luck.

Martha Matthews

June 28th, 2016

OK, so now you’ve been found in New Zealand too! Great pics. I’m getting ready to attend a workshop in Canberra (AU) for soda firing. THis web answered my question about whether I could use slips for decorative colour and patterning. I carve into slips rather than use stamps.(maybe i should try them?) Come visit us “down under”. We welcome talent!!

July 2nd, 2016

WHOO-HOO MARTHA!!! I’ve heard wonderful things about New Zealand!!! I would love to come visit some time. Good luck with your soda firing. If you have any additional questions, just let me know! Have fun “down under”… so does that make me “up over”???

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