The Making of a Plate

Let’s talk plates.  Plates are one of the more difficult things to make on the potter’s wheel, and not many people keep at them long enough to get them to a successful point.  In 2017 I made over 550 plates and I still have trouble with them.  Just a few weeks ago I unloaded a custom order of 10 dinner plates from the gas kiln, only to find them all slumped in the center.  So what makes them so difficult to make you ask?  Most of the trouble comes from warping or slumping in the final glaze firing…but that’s if you make it to the glaze firing.  There are several steps prior to the glaze firing that allow for many disappointing days.   I’ll take you through the plate making process and point out some tips that I’ve learned along the way.

Making the plate on the potter’s wheel  

How much clay should you use?  More than you think.  A thin plate has a much greater chance of warping, slumping or cracking.  Just by increasing my 10” dinner plate from 4 pounds to 4.5 pounds, I’ve decreased my loss rate from about 20% to about 10%.  Before the clay is even thrown onto the bat, I check to make sure the wedged piece of clay doesn’t have any cracks or openings.  I want a smooth ball of clay to go onto bat.  If it isn’t smooth, then I increase the chance of there being a weak spot or creating an air pocket in the center that can give me trouble when trimming, while compressing the clay into a flat plate shape.  It may even show up when the plate is in use being heated in a microwave, for example, and the hot spot of the food creates tension directly on the weak spot, and – pop! – you’ve got a cracked plate. 

Watch me make a dinner plate with 4.5 pounds of clay by clicking on the video above!
When centering the ball of clay, I first get it centered up high before lowering it down into a flattened disc. It is much harder to center of low and wide piece of clay, than it is to center a taller chunk.  I have also found with centering larger pieces of clay, that it is much easier to do it with the wheel at a slower speed versus the speed you would center a ball of clay to make a cup.  A faster wheel tends to make the off centered chunk of clay get even more off centered faster.  Once it is flattened out to about ¾” all the way across, I use my thumb and/or sponge to press on the outside of the disc to remove excess clay and slip.  If you leave anything there while trying to create the rim of the plate, it can cause an uneven rim and make it harder to pull a wall.  I then push inward towards the center with my thumb flat on the bat.  Depending on how far I push in, it will give me the height of my wall and rim.  
When pulling this now thickened wall to its final thickness, I have to be extremely careful not to pull too thin.  It only takes one or two pulls to get it to the right thickness, so it is super easy to go thin.  If the transition point between the floor of the plate and the wall/rim is too thin the plate may crack during drying or warp during firing in that area.  After the wall is pulled and shaped, I compress the center of the plate with a metal rib.  I press pretty firmly at this point, but am very careful not to press over the base of the plate.  If I do pass the rib over the wall of the plate it is merely a scraping of the surface to wipe away slip and smooth it out.  Lastly, the rim is cleaned up very softly with my finger or a sponge.  Any quick or hard movement on the wall or rim will throw the whole thing off center or collapse the wall.

Drying out the plate

How the plate dries may be one of the most important steps to its success.  A plate must dry out evenly for it to be trimmed evenly and then be fired evenly.  If just part of the plate dries out more than another part then the dry part will be harder to trim, less clay will be cut away, and more will be cut away from the softer part.  With a partially dryer/partially more wet plate, I’m left with a foot that is thick on one side, thin on the other, or the foot is higher on one side and lower on the other.  It all depends on how it dries.  The best way that I have found for drying plates, is to simply let them air dry in a well ventilated area.  In my studio, I have a shelving unit for storing my works in progress.  Because the shelves are not completely open, I have to rotate the plates to make sure they dry out evenly.  A plate in the back corner will dry out differently than a plate in the center front.  I have to constantly monitor the drying if I want the best possible outcome. 

Trimming the plate

Within the last couple of years I have started using a Diamond Core Tools Sticky Bat to do all of my trimming for plates.  It has cut my trimming time in half because I don’t have to worry about using lugs of clay to hold the plate in place.  Also, because I don’t need lugs, I am able to trim all the way to the rim which makes for a very nice transition from foot to rim. 

I wait to trim the plate when it hard enough to where there isn’t any movement whatsoever.  None.  I know, potter friends, it is very tempting to trim a piece when it is just to that leather hard stage.  For a cup, you may be able to get away with that, but not for a plate.  If I ever try to trim a plate too soft, then it’s about a 95% chance that I’m going to lose it in the glaze firing.  It might even make it through the bisque firing without warping, but I’m sure to see it in the glaze firing.    Even though it is harder to trim when the clay is harder, it is worth it to wait.  But then I can’t wait too long.  If a plate gets too dry to where it is changing color and I have to wet it back down, then I’m getting stuck in that drying uneven/trimming uneven situation.  This is what happened to those 10 plates I mentioned in the beginning of the post.  I let them go too long before I started to trim them, but I desperately wanted to save them.  So I sprayed them down, and sprayed them down, and sprayed them down… almost all day… only to lose them anyway in the final stage.  A seasoned potter would have scrapped them right then and there and started over.  Maybe I’m just too stubborn, or maybe I’ll actually learn my lesson this time.  I’ll let you know when it happens again.  I try to leave a plate a little thicker than a quarter inch – the standard thickness when learning how to throw pots.  3/8” is a nice thickness that makes it hefty enough to withstand the firings without warping, but not too heavy that you feel like you’re carrying around a brick with a sandwich on it. 

See me trim a dinner plate by clicking on the video below!

Firing the plate

Rule of thumb #1: always fire a flat piece of clay on a flat kiln shelf.  This may sound really obvious, and I wish it was for this potter who has lost so many plates I can’t even count.   If there is any unevenness in the bisque or glaze kiln shelves, then you guessed it, the plate will also be uneven. 

There you have it… the tips and tricks of a potter trying to make the world go round with one handmade plate at a time.  If you have any questions or need me to clarify anything, please ask!  I’m sure to have left some info out. 


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