The Basics of Hand-Building Slab Pottery

What Makes Slab Pots Unique

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.

Take a look at some of the basic elements...MORE for making slab pottery.

  • 01 of 04

    History of Slab Building

    A pottery pitcher made using the slab building method.
    Photo © 2009 Beth E Peterson

    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.

  • 02 of 04
    Rolling out a clay slab using a rolling pin and two wooden slats.
    Beth E Peterson

    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.

  • 03 of 04

    Soft-Slab Construction

    Soft slabs used to make pottery vessles.
    Pouch Pots / Beth E Peterson

    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.

    Another exciting technique used with soft-slab construction is the drop technique. Place the soft slab over a wooden dish mold, similar to a picture frame. Place the frame and clay on a supporting board and drop it from waist height onto the floor. The weight and gravity will force the slab into the mold on impact while producing an exciting, bang sound. This method allows very wet slabs to be instantly shaped into bowls or plates without the surface of the clay being touched or smudged. 

  • 04 of 04
    A pottery tray made using the stiff-slab technique.
    Beth E Peterson

    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.