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Wheel-Thrown Ceramics: Altering, Trimming, Adding, Finishing, by Don Davis

Reviewed by Charles Moore of Sacramento, CA

Let me get out front on this review and say that this is the best book I have ever encountered on throwing on the potter’s wheel. The strengths: thoroughness and clear explanations matched with a sufficient number of fine photographs. Most how-to books tend to go quickly over the material covered and do not supply enough illustrations. In addition to his explanations and photographs, Davis in each chapter provides several pages of beautiful photos of other potters’ work to illustrate the techniques he is teaching in that chapter. I should note that, throughout the book, the explanations always make reference to a numbered photograph very near the written instructions. This is a book that stresses process to an extent that I think is rare.

Here is a quick outline of Davis’s book: Chapter 1: Setting Up; Chapter 2: Clay and Kilns; Chapter 3: Beginning to Throw; Chapter 4: Wheel-Thrown and Altered Projects (11 projects); Chapter 5: Surface Treatments; Appendices, including glaze recipes at various firing ranges.

“Setting Up”: What tools do you need to get started? Davis organizes lists of tools with discussion: basic tools, tools for throwing and altering, trimming tools, tools for glazing, and, finally, your hands. He also covers kinds of wheels including some history of the modern wheel, and then he moves on to discuss work space.

In “Clay and Kilns,” Davis thoroughly discusses types of clays, the drying and firing of clay, recycling techniques, even clay storage. His discussion of electric and gas fired kilns is perhaps a bit briefer than I would want if I were a novice potter in need of such information. But that is my only criticism.

“Beginning to Throw”(Chapter 3) takes on the extremely difficult task of showing the beginner how to center and pull up the clay. After covering two methods of centering, then opening, Davis shows how to pull a cylinder. He includes a section called “Pulling Tips.” I quote one of the tips to show the clarity of the explanations: “When you begin a pull, your outer finger should be slightly below your inner finger, but as you hands move up, your outer finger should gradually pull even with the inner one. By the time you approach the end of the pull, your fingers should be on the same horizontal plane” (p. 38).

I would note here that I do not believe that many untutored potters could learn to center and pull solely by following any set of written or illustrated instructions. Nothing is better than hands-on instruction. But a “re-entry potter”—as I was a few years back—could certainly re-learn from Davis’s basic instructions.

Chapter 4: “Wheel-Thrown and Altered Projects” is the heart of the book and has proven one of the most useful for me. I will choose the second project, which is a wide, flared bowl. Davis discusses the opening, pulling, shaping of a bowl, to the final stages of trimming. There are 14 steps and 11 photographed illustrations matched to the discussion.

Then Davis turns to “Variations” (p. 62). The first variation develops from the basic flared bowl to a bowl with a wide flared rim. “Right after throwing, with the wheel turning slowly, carefully press the flat edge of a wooden stick down onto the moist clay (Photo 12). As you do this, press your other hand underneath the clay rim to support this. The flattened rim must be left angled slightly upward, or it will collapse” (p. 62). I use this technique with either a wooden ruler or a paint can stirrer. It works.

Next Davis offers this variation: “Another way to alter a classic bowl shape is to create an oval form by gently pressing in the sides of the piece when it’s at the soft leather-hard stage (see the photo above). Trimming an altered form such as an oval bowl can be a special challenge. In this case, because the bowl will no longer sit evenly on its rim, you’ll need to hold it in a cylindrical chuck” (p. 63). Davis goes on to discuss and illustrate the needed chuck and the trimming of the altered bowl.

Other forms that Davis includes: Carved Bowl, Plate, Pitcher, Teapot, Elliptical Pot, Double-Walled Bowl. You will notice that the projects proceed with increasing difficulty and complexity.

Chapter 5: Surface Treatments is surprisingly unlike the rest of the book. Davis presents application methods like dipping, pouring, brushing, trailing, spraying, etc., but does not illustrate via a sequence of steps and photographs. One might perhaps see this section as a weakness in the book, but the focus of the book really is upon throwing and altering.

At the end of the book (pp. 154-56), occurs Appendix A: Glaze Formulas. I checked a couple of Davis’s recipes by running them through the Insight glaze calculation program and found them to be quite in line with expectations (limits) for a good cone 6 glaze. I wish that Davis had provided a formula or an oxide analysis in addition to the recipes. If, however, you have a glaze calculation program, you will be able to derive an oxide analysis so that you might be able to substitute other oxides or compounds as needed.

Don Davis has, in my opinion, put together a fine text to teach throwing of some easy to difficult forms and the alterations on those forms for variety and style.

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