The Basics of Hand-Building Slab Pottery

Raw clay slab
jypsygen/Flickr/CC By 2.0

Hand-building pottery using slabs of clay is an exciting way to create shapes that could never be produced using a potter's wheel or that would be difficult to achieve if you are doing hand construction using coils of clay.

What makes these creations unique is the hand artistry and the type of potter's clay you use. Slab pots can be produced using soft slabs and stiff slabs. You can roll out the slabs by hand or use machines to roll out the slabs.

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    History of Slab Building

    Slab building techniques were used extensively by Mesoamerican Pre-Columbian potters with some beautiful results. Other than these potters, though, slab pots were only minor players in the hand-building playing field of other ancient cultures across the globe. Most ancient cultures gravitated to the pottery wheel for the creation of vessels.

    Today, slab pots and slab-building techniques are experiencing a renewed popularity. Modern potters and ceramic sculptors have embraced the slab, creating works using both soft slabs and stiff, leather-hard slabs.

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    Slabs can be made in a variety of methods. The most common method is to roll out the slab by hand using a rolling pin. Other methods include using slab rollers, extruders, and hand tossing.

    Slab rollers are large pieces of equipment that enable potters to roll large slabs to uniform thicknesses rapidly. 

    Or, for a more organic approach, slabs can be formed by tossing the clay onto a hard surface at an angle. The resulting slabs are not uniform in thickness and can give a handmade feel to a piece.

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    Soft-Slab Construction

    Many potters have developed a style that uses slabs that have been freshly rolled out and are still damp. These soft slabs can be formed into lovely, flowing structures that are often reminiscent of leather. They can be used with slump molds or draped over hump molds to create repeatable forms, leaving the potter to concentrate more on finishing the form with surface textures, decorations, or firing effects. Slabs can also be formed while soft and then incorporated into a larger piece after they have stiffened to leather-hard.

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    The stiff-slab method is more appropriate for architectural and geometric forms. The slab is rolled and then allowed to slowly dry to the leather-hard stage before being cut and joined with other stiffened slabs to create the form.

    Stiff slab shapes can be merged with other leather-hard clay components, such as stiffened slump-molded slabs, thrown components, or pinched components. For example, a soft slab may be slumped into the opening of the stiff slab pot as part of creating a lid for the pot. Another example is making a series of rings and adding them to the pot's bottom to serve as feet.

    The possibilities are nearly endless. If you have not made a slab pot before, give it a try, and let your creativity guide you.