The making of my ceramic bird and animal figurines
On this page: How I make my earthenware animals and birds, from a lump of clay to the finished thing in the gallery.
I start with ready-mixed red or white earthenware clay which comes in 10 Kg plastic bags from a local supplier. The basis for all my models is a slab of clay, which I make from a lump of kneaded clay in my slab-roller (like a giant pasta maker), or for small pieces, a domestic rolling pin! I have to be very careful to keep the red and white clays separate, as even a small piece of the wrong sort makes a noticeable mark, so I have a 'red' bench and a 'white' bench in the pottery.
Once the slab is formed, I smooth the surface, cut the pattern and assemble the main body. Then I model all the features and apply them: for a simple bird this may just be a beak and little beady eyes; for a more complicated animal, there may be a carefully-moulded head with applied eyes, ears and nose, and a tail. For some models, I apply a colouring slip (white, black, grey, beige) in two or three coats.
These are left to dry slowly for several days to avoid cracking (difficult in summer!), and then decorated with oxides (mostly iron for black) or underglaze colours. The failure rate at this stage is between 10 and 20% - models that crack and have to be recycled.
Once I have a kiln-full (which can take several days of uninterrupted work), they are packed in as closely as possible. I do this with bated breath, as the dry clay is incredibly fragile, and just a touch can snap off a delicate appendage! The kiln is programmed to fire overnight using cheap rate electricity, and at about 6 I have to get up and close the air supply for the final stages of the first (biscuit) firing.
24 hours later, the kiln is cool enough for unpacking, and the models are now red or white terracotta (like flowerpots). Far less fragile now, but still with a dull surface and porous enough to take the glaze.
Wet clay is shaped, then left to dry slowly. When leather-hard (almost dry), underglaze colours can be painted on.
The photo shows the kiln being packed with raw (unfired) clay figures
Biscuit firing: kiln taken to 950 or 975 °C, quite slowly.
The photo shows the kiln after a biscuit firing, full of "terracotta". It's much harder, and slightly brighter, than the raw clay.
Now they need to be glazed; mostly in transparent, blue, yellow or grey. The raw glaze is a suspension of materials in water that dries to a powdery coating on the clay. I usually apply it using a paint spray gun powered by a compressor, which is a noisy and messy business, but much more effective than the traditional method of dipping the pieces.
The glazed pieces are then loaded back in the kiln, this time making sure nothing touches, or they'll get welded together. The kin fires overnight again, but this is a much shorter programme, and I have to get up at 4 to close the air supply! This time, I go back to bed...
Overnight, the heat has fused the glaze from a whitish powder to a glass finish, which intensifies the colours of any underglaze decoration too. And 24 hours later, I can unpack the kiln for the final time, revealing, I hope, a flawless result! A lower failure rate this time, but sometimes there are cracks, glaze flaws or other blemishes that make a piece unsalable.
Wet glaze slop is applied by spray gun, and left to dry. Any runs or glaze on the base are carefully removed.
The photo shows the kiln full of biscuit-fired figures covered in dry glaze powder. The glaze is quite dull and pale at this stage.
In this load, you can see two darker figures: these are being refired to fix some dry patches in the glaze.
Glaze (glost) firing: kiln taken to 1060°C, faster this time.
The photo shows the kiln after a glaze firing. The clear shiny glaze now reveals the colours below.
That isn't quite the end. I empty the kiln and put all the figures on the bench. Each is inspected for any problems, and relegated to the seconds shelf if necessary. I clean off, measure, price and label the firsts, and enter the details on my stock sheet. Then I make up deliveries, wrapping and boxing, and printing a delivery note. All that's left now is to deliver them ready for you to buy!
People think the making is the most work - but that's the fun part. True, it can take me about a month of work in my spare time to fill a kiln, but making is a very therapeutic way to unwind from my writing work. All the preparation for sale takes a surprisingly long time, and is not quite so entertaining, but it must be done!