Making Pottery

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Southwest Virginia Project
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The following is from Source:Barber, 1903, and speaks to pottery making by German potters in Pennsylvania. The methods used are probably quit similar to those employed in southwest Virginia.



Getting Clay

The first requisite in making pottery is to procure suitable clay. In the fall of the year, after the busy season was over, the Pennsylvania-German potter began to lay in his supply for the coming year. After selecting a suitable spot for digging a pit, the soil from the surface was taken off and the clay beneath was hauled to the pottery and dumped in a pile close to the building; it was then placed in a clay mill to be ground. This mill was simply an upright post with a number of knives set in it which revolved in the center of a stationary tub or vat. To the post was attached a long beam or "sweep" to which a horse was hooked to furnish the motive power. When the tub was nearly filled with clay, water was sprinkled upon it and the horse started on his rounds. This grinding operation was continued for een changed from a bluish crumbly mass to a yellowish color, soft and plastic as putty. It was then taken out in large handfuls, like butter from a churn, and piled on a bench, after which it was manipulated into a rectangular shape like a block of building stone. These lumps, weighing about one hundred pounds each, were then carried to the cellar beneath the shop, where they were piled up like stones in a wall to keep them moist and prevent them from freezing in the cold weather, as the least frost would have ruined the clay and made it necessary to grind it over again. When the potter was ready to commence work, he brought a supply of the clay from the cellar and deposited it on a long workbench, measuring about eighteen inches in width and standing some thirty inches from the ground. From the lump of clay, he cut with a wire a piece of the size he judged it would take to make up a benchful of pots. This was worked and kneaded ovet and over again and every piece of gravel or fragment of wood carefully picked out. After all foreign substances had been removed the clay was broken up into lumps and slapped vigorously together several times in order to expel the air.

The clay now being in the proper condition for working, the potter cut and rolled it into small flattened balls, each of which contained sufficient material to make a pot or other vessel, being able by experience to gauge the quantity by his eye and by the weight of it in his hands.

The Potters Wheel

The potters wheel of that period consisted of a wooden rame about four feet square and rhee and a half feet in height which had a wooden top like that of a table. Through the center of this peneterated a shaft of iron which was bent about a foot from the bottom end to form a crank. The lower end of the shaft was set in a cup of iron, the upper end projecting through an iron box and terminating in a screw to which was attached a flat disc or head on which the clay was turned to form the vessel. This head was made of some tough wood like gum or elm which does not crack or warp readily, and measured about fifteen inches in diameter and some six inches in thickness. To the lower end of the shaft, beneath the crank, was fastened a large horizontal balance wheel made of inch boards with spokes crossing each other at right angles. This made a stiff wheel two inches in thickness and from three to three feet and a half in diameter, of considerable weight, which acted as a balance wheel to cause the machine to run steadily under a varying load. The motion was transferred to the wheel head by means of a long bar or beam of wood, called a treadle, which ran diagonally across the lower part of the frame, being hinged at one end and connected with the crank of the shaft by a piece of iron directly above the balance wheel. When the potter was ready to commence work, he placed his left foot on the treadle and with his right foot gave a kick to the balance wheel to start it, continuing the motion by the use of the treadle.


Taking a ball of clay from the pile at his right hand, the potter threw it with considerable force on the revolving wheel head to make it adhere firmly. Then, wetting his hands in a pot of water which he kept at his right, he grasped the clay with both hands and with a dexterous movement centered it on the wheel head. Wetting his hands again, he inserted his thumbs in the plastic mass and thrust them downward almost to the revolving head, leaving hands inserted in the center of the spinning mass, he then drew the clay outward and upward until the walls of the vessel had been formed. His left hand was then placed inside of the rapidly revolving shell and his right held to the outside. Pressing the two hands gradually together and slowly drawing them upward until the desired height was obtained, with skillful touch he drew the neck and mouth of the vessel into the desired form.


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Smoothers or Ribs

After the jar or crock had been formed, the surface was smoothed by holding against the outside while yet revolving, a tool called a "rib" which was a small piece of wood, leather or calabash, or square or rounded form usually having a hole in the center for the thumb and finger. This was a simple affair, made by the workman to suit his requirements. Then a wet sponge was passed over the surface of the clay, both on the outside and inside, to give it the finishing touches.


If in the process of smoothing the surface any rough places appeared on the ware, which could not be readily reached with the edge of the "rib," a brush made of hog bristles tied to a stick was used to touch up the defective spots.


The vessel now being ready to be taken from the wheel, the potter pressed his right foot on the balance wheel, which acted as a brake and brought the machine to a stop. To loosen the vessel from the wheel head, a fine brass wire, about a foot in length, having a small piece of wood attached to each end to act as a handle, was grasped in the two hands of the workman and drawn across the wheel head immediately below the vessel, thus cutting the moist clay from the wood. The finished piece was then gently lifted off and deposited on a board at the left of the potter. This operation was continued until the board was filled, when it was carried to a strong rack built at one side of the shop, where the vessels were left to dry.


The "green" ware, as it was called when in this condition, was examined from day to day in order to ascertain if it were drying evenly. When it became sufficiently firm, the potter turned each piece upside down and with the "rib" and wet sponge smoothed the rough base. At this stage handles were attached to jugs, pitchers and crocks.

only enough clay between his thumbs and the wheel to form the bottom of the vessel. With the fingers of both

In a day or so the ware was again examined, and when, by his experienced touch, the potter was satisfied that it was in the right condition for glazing, he pulled out one board at a time and placed it with its fragile contents on a trestle. If the glazing were -not applied at the right period in the drying process, it was likely to peel off, or the ware might crack.

The glazing was usually made from red lead. Galena, broken as fine as sand, was sometimes used, but was not always obtainable. The lead was first placed in a large jar and water was added to form a thin mixture. Ordinary clay which had been worked very fine and smooth was added in order to thicken the mixture, which was then ready to run through the glazing mill, to make it smooth and homogeneous. This was a primitive affair consisting of two stones, one on the other, smooth on the grinding faces. Around the circumference of the lower stone was a rim in which the upper stone, which was of smaller size, rested. In the center of the upper stone was a hole into which the glaze was poured, which flowed out at the side between the upper and the projecting rim of the nether stone. The mill was worked by a pole with a, crank, which extended from the upper stone to the roof.

The glazing composition, after having been thoroughly ground, was applied to pots and crocks by pouring the liquid in and whirling the vessel around until every spot on the inside was coated, after which the surplus was emptied out. The edge of the vessel was then wiped carefully with a sponge to prevent it from sticking fast to any object with which it might come into contact during the process of baking in the kiln. When vessels were to be glazed on the outside, they were dipped in the liquid. When a board was filled with the glazed ware it was carried back to the rack, where it remained until the pieces were dry, after which they were removed to the. storeroom and left until a sufficient number were accumulated to fill the kiln. When burned or fired the glaze mixture became a yellowish, translucent glass. To the lead glazing was sometimes added a small quantity of manganese to make it darker. When black glaze was desired, a larger quantity of manganese was used. To produce a greenish tint a little verdigris was substituted. Sometimes the verdigris was dabbed on the ware in spots and when melted it produced a mottled appearance, with pleasing effects, when properly done. After the galena mines were discovered in New Britain township, Bucks county, some of the local potters procured the native ore and used it in place of red lead. It proved to be much cheaper and answered the same purpose.


After the clay was prepared, in the same manner as for making crocks and pots, it was cut into small pieces by means of a brass wire and taken to the workbench to be made into plates and dishes.


An implement of wood, flat on one side and rounded on the other, with a handle at one end, was employed for beating or pounding out the clay roughly into a flattened form, which was the first stage in the process of plate making. These sheets of clay, which resembled in appearance enormous buckwheat cakes, were then piled one on top of the other to the height of about a foot.


The batted cakes of clay were then rolled thin by means of a wooden implement called a roller, shaped like the ordinary rolling-pin used for spreading out dough, with the difference that it was made in tw,o pieces, the handles being attached to a wooden rod which passed through the body. When the handles were firmly grasped in the hands, the body of the roller, which was separate, revolved over the clay.


After the clay had been rolled out into a thin, even sheet, an implement called a disc cutter was used to cut circular pieces of different diameters, as required. This tool consisted of a wooden arm supported on one end by a small foot or block of wood, of circular or octagonal form, in which the arm revolved, and at the other end was a metal point, usually a common horseshoe nail, which passed through it at a right angle, with the point down. The small block of wood on which the arm revolved was grasped with the fingers of the left hand and set on the soft clay as near the center of the sheet as could be calculated, and held there while the right hand of the operator carried the arm completely around the circle. The nail or metal point cut its way through the plastic clay and turned out a perfect disc. The diameter of the circle was regulated by transferring the cutting nail to different holes in the end of the implement. These "bats," as they were called, were then laid on boards to become partially dry. To prevent the clay from sticking while being batted and rolled, the bench was first sprinkled with dust, a supply of which had been gathered during the summer from the highway, carefully sifted and laid away for the winter work.


the size of a coffee cup, usually with depressions on either side to fit the fingers and thumb of the operator. Near the lower part of one side of the cup were perforations in which goose quills were inserted, through which the liquid slip was made to trickle over the surface of the ware in various patterns in the same manner in which designs in sugar icing are applied to a pound cake by a modern pastry cook. The slip was prepared by mixing white clay with water until it was of the consistence of thick cream. At one time the Pennsylvania-German potters were compelled to import clay for this purpose, but at a later date suitable clay was discovered in New Jersey.

Grasping the slip cup between the thumb and fingers of the right hand, the decorator drew the quills over the surface of the clay in waving or zigzag lines, the slip being made to flow out by the power of attraction, very much in the same way as ink is drawn from a fountain pen by contact with the paper. There were generally three quills or pipes in the cups used for this character of work on ordinary commercial wares, though the number varied, sometimes reaching five or seven. For fine work, such as lettering or outlining figures, a single quill was used. Occasionally the three quill box was temporarily converted into a single quill cup by taking out the superfluous quills and stopping up the holes with clay.

After the slip-decoration had been applied, the discs were again set aside to dry sufficiently not to smear. The potter then took each disc in turn and beat it on the decorated side with the flat side of the "batter." By this treatment the slip-decorations were forced into the clay, so that the surface was made entirely smooth and even.


At this point in the process the clay was about half dry. In order to shape the plate or dish a mold was used. This was made of clay, very thick and heavy and baked hard, in shape resembling a clumsy, heavy pie plate. The mold was placed on the table with the rounded side up and with both hands the potter, with considerable force, threw or slapped one of the discs on the mold, with the decorated side downwards. This throwing was repeated two or three times in order to cause the disc to partly assume the shape of the mold. The clay was then rubbed with the hand of the potter over the entire surface until the disc adhered closely to the mold in every part. The surface was then smoothed with a spatula or knife after a wet sponge had been passed over it. Turning the mold over, the potter then with the spatula trimmed the clay close to the edge of the mold.


The formed plate was then ready to be loosened from the mod=ld, and, after being lifted off, a tool called a "coggle" was run around the edge to make the little notches or indentations that are so characteristic of the old-time pie plates. The earliest of these wheels were cut out of wood, but at a later date they were made of iron. Such implements are yet in use in country potteries.


The ware was then permitted to become perfectly dry to be made ready for glazing. In cold weather the unbaked pieces were first heated by piling them on the top of a large stove. When sufficiently warm, the lead glaze was applied to the inside surface by means of a large paint brush. If the glazing was done in the summer time, a bright sunshiny day was selected, and the dishes were taken out of doors and spread on the ground, where they were allowed to remain for an hour or two until they had become thoroughly warmed throughout. The potter then seated himself on a stool and glazed them rapidly with a brush while they were passed to him, one at a time, by a boy assistant. By examining the backs of dishes which have been baked in the kiln, the lead glaze can readily be distinguished in places where it has flown over the edges. This glaze was transparent and of a yellowish tint, softening the white slip which it covered and bringing out the deep red color of the clay body beneath.


Such was the process employed by the old Pennsylvania- German potters in the manufacture of commercial wares. When decorating special pieces, however, with central devices of birds, animals and marginal inscriptions, the plates were first shaped over the mold and trailings of white clay were afterwards applied to the concave surface by means of a slip cup with a single quill. The decoration was not beaten into the surface as in the common wares, but was allowed to stand out in relief. These pieces were not intended for use, but for decorating purposes entirely. The object in pounding the decoration into the surface of the clay was to prevent the designs from wearing off with use, or flaking away under the influence of heat. Frequently before the baking, touches of metallic color were applied to certain parts of the designs by means of verdigris or oxide of copper and other coloring substances.


The reverse of slip-decoration, where the designs are in intaglio, is what is known as sgraffito or scratched work. By this process the slip cup is dispensed with and the orna- mentation instead of appearing in relief, or imbedded in the mentation instead of appearing in relief, or imbedded in the level surface, is depressed in the clay. After the plates had been shaped over the mold, the upper concave surface was entirely covered with a coating of white slip and through this layer the designs were cut or etched by means of a sharpened stick, to bring out the bright color of the under stratum of clay. This variety of decoration was practised by the Pennsylvania- German potters much more extensively than slip- tracing. More elaborate designs could be executed and better results procured by this method than by the more clumsy process of tracing lines with a viscous liquid. In both of the above described processes the decorated ware passed through but one firing, except in rare cases where more elaborately executed pieces were subjected to two bakings.


The typical form of the old kilns used by the German potters in eastern Pennsylvania was round, though a few were square on the outside with circular interiors. They were usually about seven feet in height at the center and six feet at the sides, with a diameter of about nine feet. The roof or crown was made of brick, slightly arched, while the walls were of stone held together at the top by bands of iron or heavy timber to prevent spreading. In the early times the pottery and house were under the same roof. This arrangement was economical as well as convenient, since it was necessary to keep good fires constantly burning in winter, day and night, to prevent the green ware from freezing; at a later period many of the well-to-do potters


The day fixed for "setting" or filling the kiln was a busy one at the country pottery. The crocks and jars and other utensils of hollow form were nested, that is, the different sizes were placed one within the other, great care being taken however that they did not come into contact with each other at any point, as they would stick together and be ruined if they touched. Around the walls of the kiln they were piled, one row on top of another, the hollow ware being placed upside down so that it would readily catch the heat from below. Each row was so arranged that the pieces would cover the spaces between those of the row beneath. At the top of the kiln the plates and dishes were set on edge, as they did not require so great a heat as the other ware, and were separated by small clay wedges to prevent them from touching. Early in the morning the fires under the kiln were arly in the morning the fires under the kiln were lighted.

There were two fireplaces, one on either side, directly opposite each other, which were connected by a straight tunnel which passed through a circular tunnel in the middle of the kiln, by means of which the heat penetrated into every part of the interior. For the space of about six hours the firing was very light, barely sufficient to gently warm the inside of the kiln, as it was necessary to increase the heat gradually. From about noon until evening the temperature was greatly increased. Throughout the night and during the next day cord wood was piled into the fireplaces as rapidly as it could be consumed. Twenty-four hours after the fire had been started the greatest heat had been obtained and the tunnels were half filled with live coals, which were then spread into every part with long- handled rakes.

A small blue flame appeared at the vents in the crown of the kiln, which increased as the heat became more intense. When the temperature reached a certain point it became a white, roaring flame several feet in height, having the appearance of natural gas, burning at the end of a gas pipe. As one vent after another burst out into white flame the roar of the chimney resembled the sound of a locomotive blowing off steam. At this stage of the baking no smoke came from the chimney, all being consumed within. Before starting the fire, trial pieces of clay had been inserted through the vents to guide the kiln-burner in his work. These trial pieces were made of strips of clay about two feet in length, three inches broad and half an inch thick, the lower end having been dipped in the lead glaze. These strips reached through the crown of the kiln and rested on the top of the outer course of ware. At the point where the white flame appeared, the potter with a pair of tongs in the glaze had been properly melted. Passing from one vent to another, walking on top of the wall of the kiln, he examined each piece in turn to ascertain whether the ware was "done." If his inspection were satisfactory he allowed the wood to burn to coals and then walled the fire places up with iron plates, or with brick, as the case might be, which were made perfectly air-tight by plastering every crack with clay.

The kiln was then left sealed up for about a week, at the expiration of which time it had cooled sufficiently to allow the ware to be removed. In ordinary cases thirty-six hours were required to bake the ware and about three cords of wood were consumed in the process.