Making Mugs

Everyone likes to have a hot drink now and then and having it in a mug that fits just right in your hand feels so good. Mugs are popular items at my market booth and I’ve been making a lot of them recently so I thought I’d share a bit of the process here. Like everything else in pottery, making a mug takes multiple steps. These are the steps I go through to make mine.

1. I usually make several mugs at a time and I want them to have the same size and shape as much as possible so I start by weighing out clay balls. That way I know that I am working with the same amount of clay each time. My standard mug starts with 20oz of clay.

2. The next step is to throw the mug form on the wheel. Here is where it really matters to pay attention so that I make the mugs look the same. After all, 20oz of clay could decide to be a mug, a cereal bowl, or a whole lot of tiny pots! Sometimes it is fun to center a lump of clay on the wheel and just see what it wants to be. However, it is an important skill (and one I am always working on) to be able to make a set of things that are the same. Once I have a form that I like I make myself a measuring tool to be the standard for that form.

I use wooden skewers connected with a rubber band such that when I set it into the cylinder the tail touches the floor of the pot and the cross piece rests on and is the exact diameter of the rim. With those basic measurements standardized I can then eyeball the curve. For my typical mug shape I use a wooden tool to cut an angle at the base down to the wheel before I cut the form off and transfer it to at board to dry.

Measuring tool to judge whether pot height and diameter are the same across multiple pots.
Mug forms freshly cut off the wheel and waiting to be trimmed.

3. At this point I have a curvy cylinder but unfortunately, the hard part is just beginning! Next I have to wait until the clay has dried out a bit, ideally to what is called leather hard. Then it goes back on the wheel so I can trim up the bottom and give it a more classy foot. This step also removes excess clay that would make the pot too heavy. Of course, if you are going to trim, you need to have left a thick enough floor so that you don’t trim right through it. Trimming through the bottom of your pot is the cause of much groaning and wails of “Nooooo!” common in all pottery studios.

Not a mug but this cross section shows the clay that I would have trimmed away on this pot if I hadn’t accidently dropped it and squished the lid beyond repair. This guy went in the recycle bucket.

4. Once the mug has a foot it is time to add the handle. There are many different ways that people make handles. Handles can be hand built, made with an extruder or “pulled” from a carrot shaped “lug” of clay. Sometimes this lug is attached to the pot and the handle is then “pulled on the pot”. I pull my handles first then attach them to my pots. This way I can pull more handles than I need and just use the ones I like best.

Here are some mugs and handles ready to be put together. I rough up the clay on the pot and use slip (wet, sloppy clay) to glue them together.

With the handles on, these mugs are ready for my stamp on the bottom then they are snuggly wrapped in plastic for 24 hours to allow the moisture content of the form and the handle to equalize before a long slow dry. Then it’s time to do a first firing in the kiln!

Ready to dry completely, then into the kiln!

5. The first firing is called a bisque firing and the pots that come out are called bisque ware. The clay I’m using here use looks pink after the bisque fire and if done right the pots will make a beautiful ringing sound when tapped.

A load of bisque fired mugs!
These mugs have been glazed. I promise they are prettier after the glaze firing!

6. Almost there!! The last step is to glaze the pot and fire again at a higher temperature. Some people love glazing and some people dread it. At this point you’ve put a lot of time and effort into a pot and it feels so bad to have it come out of the kiln looking hideous. Glazes can be very unpredictable even when you are using the same clays and glazes that you are accustomed to. If something is slightly off or different in the kiln, the glaze went on a little thicker or thinner that usual, or the neighboring pots react with each other the results can be astounding. There are wonderful but irreproducible beauties and shocking disappointments. I’ll admit that I prefer to work within a limited palate and play with overlapping different glazes or using wax resist to leave certain areas bare for interest. Look in my last post Searching for the perfect blue to see some of the different colors I get out of two glazes. One of the strangest things about glazes is how different they look before and after they are fired. Below is a kiln before and after firing. Hard to believe they are the same!

So that’s it. That’s how a mug gets made. Now go make yourself a cup of something good. Cheers.

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