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Hands in Clay, by Charlotte F. Speight and John Toki

“A simply glorious book! Everything is in it, beautifully presented, marvelously illustrated —a joy! ‘Hands in Clay’ combines history, technique, and visits to individual potters into one harmonious form. A clever idea perfectly implemented. A splendid gift to potters as well as those involved with potters and wondering what the miracle of clay is all about.” —Lili Krakowski in Constableville, New York, USA

Expertise: A Technical Guide to Ceramics, by Charlotte F. Speight and John Toki

“Described as a companion and supplement to the incomparable ‘Hands in Clay,’ this spiral-bound book is filled with technical advice. There are tables of the contents of materials, desirable firing speeds, how to do glaze calculation, and much more. The book is of particular usefulness to school teachers who are unlikely to have the other books that supply this information. For this reviewer—20/20 eyesight with glasses!—the book -- printed in burnt orange on white paper-- was hard to read. Color-blind and eye-sight limited readers are forewarned.” —Lili Krakowski in Constableville, New York, USA


Arnold Howard of Paragon Industries interviewed author John Toki for this website.

Q. John, how did you get started in ceramics?

A. I grew up in Leslie Ceramics, founded in 1946 by my parents. I remember as a five-year-old peering into the spyhole of a big gas kiln watching with great interest as the yellow flames danced inside the chamber.

Q. What are your most interesting childhood stories about ceramics?

A. One of the most profound experiences in my life happened in 1977. I knocked on the Albany, California, studio door of sculptor Stephen DeStaebler. He pulled a tall, corrugated sheet metal-clad sliding door to the right. As he greeted me, I peered into the dimly lit studio and saw eight or ten freestanding abstract seven-foot tall clay figures. My life changed at that moment as I witnessed a man truly committed to his art. It reaffirmed my belief that I needed to commit to my art. DeStaebler was a fabulous role model.

Q. What made you decide to write “Hands In Clay”?

A. In 1985, Charlotte Speight asked me to be a technical advisor for the second edition. After accepting the job, I began contributing information beyond that of a technical advisor and gave input on the book’s conceptual design. Speight invited me to be a co-author on the third edition. We have worked together for over twenty years and have produced two books with six editions.

I always felt that I could reach a larger audience by writing books than I ever could by teaching. At one point I was going to quit teaching and focus only on writing books. Instead, I continued to teach for 25 years. Valuable feedback from students at the California College of the Arts, feedback from Leslie Ceramic’s customers, travels and experiences with artists from around the world, as well as personal studio experiences have helped shape the book’s content.

Q. Please describe some of the problems that your chapter on electric firing deals with.

A. Page 438: Water Release

Remember that by the time the heat in the kiln has reached about 660 F / 348 C, most of the water that was still left in the clay has been driven out in the form of vapor. This is a critical time in the firing, because if the heat is raised too rapidly during this period, the object can explode as the steam escapes.

The number one bisque firing problem is “firing too fast.” The digital readout on electric kiln controllers provides only an average reading and not the actual clay temperature. My advice is to slow the firing down by using a Ramp-Hold program with a slow preheat at 180 F for 6-15 hours, then proceed at about 50-60 F per hour until 1200 F. Then increase the temperature to 80-100 F per hour until the top-end temperature.

Loading glazed ware with a 2” space between the top of the ware and the kiln shelf above, and no closer that 1” from the wall can improve heat radiation.

Q. What pointers can you share about slow cooling?

A. Thick sculpture, handmade tiles, big pots, or commercial tiles are susceptible to cracking if cooled too fast. To prevent clay from cracking, try programming a 70 F per hour cool-down until 300 F.

Q. Most people don’t understand how much work goes into writing a book.

A. The reality in writing a book comes from have a well thought out outline combined with solid editing, and being open to criticism as the book takes shape. Before a book is started, about 50 ceramics professors from around the country are hired to review the outline and make comments about the book. The information helps shape the book’s content. For example, when it came time to decide whether we should include glaze calculation, the vote was split down the middle. For us it was also a matter of saving or adding six pages of text. In the end we decided to keep the glaze calculation section.

As a book is being written, the text is worked and reworked in every possible way until the flow is perfect. As the book nears completion, it ends up going through twenty rounds of writing, rewriting, and editing, before it hits print. To produce a 700-page book takes about three years.

The best kept secret in a book is the frontis piece. That is the first photo in the book opposite the title page. The photo is designed to set a tone for the book. In the “Hands In Clay” fifth edition, the frontis piece was potter Diane Heart from Cape Cod. In this case we wanted someone who was touching clay. It is harder than one might think. Who should it be? What should the person be doing? What color should the clay be? What should the person be wearing? How should the person’s hair be combed? We usually notify the frontis piece artist by sending them a copy of the book. We love keeping the secret until the very end of the book publication.

Q. Please describe some of the research you did for “Hands In Clay.”

A. There is an obscure bit of information on page 9 titled “Water Proportions for Hands In Clay Glazes” in “Hands In Clay” fifth edition, “Expertise, A Technical Guide to Ceramics.” This chart outlines the correct amount of water to add to a glaze. Where did the facts come from? They came from actual hands-on testing, such as carefully weighing chemicals and water, documenting the notes, and then working the information into the book.

When it came time to write the chapter on molds, I called Tim Frederich for help. He forwarded the names of artists Phyllis Kloda and Bill Campbell and a host of others who use molds in the production of their work. Tim’s network of friends was valuable when I needed contacts in the Midwest to help round out the selection of artists throughout the United States. Ceramist and author Tony Yeh from Taiwan helped me locate artists in his country and in China.

Q. What was the most consuming part of the research?

A. No one part of the research for the book was more consuming than the next. It was all pretty even for a 700-page book. The details in producing a single page are mind boggling if the actual time were to be counted in producing text, photos, drawings, etc. To describe the book writing process to the layman, I tell them, “Try writing one paragraph, and make it perfect. Then write a page, and make it perfect. Then rewrite the last paragraph and deduct 60 words to make it fit the publisher’s request for a 500-word section.” I remember in the book “Make It In Clay” I was told I had to cut half a page of text so it would fit on the last line! I counted every word. Did you know that some words account for one space and others are a half space? I love the entire research and production process and the craft in making a book!

On page 428, “Protection against Open Flame and Infrared Radiation” is a long-winded title for describing the lens shade number for safety glasses when peering into a kiln at high temperatures. In seeking the correct information, I remember first calling the local welding supplier, then the distributor of safety equipment, and then the manufacturer of safety glasses. All the answers were close, but no one agreed on one lens number even when I gave specifics about temperature related to infrared light. One person even said to use sunglasses! This is an example of one little dinky fact for the book that took at least an hour of my time. To get the facts correct in the book, our philosophy was “no stone left unturned.”

Q. What was the most interesting part of working on the book?

A. One of the best aspects about working on a book are the people involved. Gathering material, pictures, and information for a book is a worldwide effort. One minute I would be talking to Tim Frederich in Ohio, and then Tony Yeh in Taipei, or with Peter Oltheten at the European Ceramic Work Center in Holland.

Q. Please describe some of your large environmental projects.

A. I exhibited a 42’ long x 12’ high structure titled “Crossroads” at the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati, Ohio. The show was titled “The Continuous Present of Organic Architecture.” The piece was designed in collaboration with architect Herb Greene of Berkeley, California, and depicted our interpretation of organic architecture. The piece included curving walls and textured surfaces and colors related to the earth’s crust. A long wooden truss that supported the work was inspired from the backbone of an animal. The complex piece was realized with help from the architectural firm Design International, Cincinnati, and from a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

An abstract 14’ tall ceramic sculpture titled “s-Hertogenbosch” was installed in Berkeley, California, in 2003. It was constructed from beautiful French and German porcelain and a coarse Dutch stoneware and was built at the European Ceramic Work Center while I was employed there as a technical advisor and staff member. After firing, the piece it was shipped to America and finished at my studio.

Q. How long did it take to finish “Crossroads”?

A. Two years. The first year was devoted to the design of the work at my Richmond, California studio. The second year was in planning and building insert parts for the 42 foot long structure. The piece was built with volunteer help from the architectural firm Design International. The project was not an easy task for Design International as they had to use a computer to assist in the design of the compound curves for the main wooden truss. Paper templates were generated from a computer that in turn were used in building the rib system.

The show concept was built around architects influenced by organic architecture. Of particular note this would include architects such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. In layman terms organic architecture is fluid, non-linear, and textural in nature. My working partner Herb Greene invited me to collaborate with him on this project. After identifying the parameters for our work we started by exchanging drawings and models. He would sketch an idea and turn it over to me to respond by sculpting a 3-D model. I in turn would give him the model and let him draw. This process went back and forth about four times until we had a unified concept. It was a great way to develop an idea, and better yet, it worked.

Q. What was the most anticipated moment in creating “Crossroads”?

A. The best part of a long project such as “Crossroads” is the day the piece is complete and ready to show--unveiling the actual piece to see if it matches the concept. The 42’ long x 12’ high structure was quite impressive. It had an open-air feeling like the space found in a cathedral combined with an organic rounded shape like the body of an insect. All the entrances to the space were different sizes, all designed to make each entrance feel unique. The walls were painted in earth tones to mirror earth strata.

Q. Your electric kiln stories are great. Do you have more?

A. This is my own turkey story. I offered to cook for my sister’s family and a few friends. What could be better then cooking a turkey in a kiln? Here is how I did it:

Kiln: 7 cubic foot, 23-3/8” across x 27” high, with electronic controller.

Program: USER 1

Segment: SEG, input 1

Rate: RA1, input 350

Temperature: Set F. (Fahrenheit) at 350

Hold: (HLD) set hold at 5 hours

Kiln Preparation: Set three hard bricks on end on the kiln floor. Then set a 1” thick full 21” diameter kiln shelf on the bricks. Position three 1” kiln posts equally spaced on top of the shelf and then set another full 1” shelf on top.

Turkey Preparation: Approximate 15-20 lb Turkey

Rub inside and outside with olive oil. Sprinkle a little Lowrey’s seasoning salt on the outside. Place the turkey in an aluminum foil pan and cover with aluminum foil. Place in the kiln, close the lid and all peepholes. Press START.

Let the turkey cook for about 3-1/2 hours. Check progress, and baste if desired. When the turkey appears to be close to being cooked, remove the aluminum foil and let it continue for about an hour or until the outside skin is brown.

When the turkey is cooked, turn the kiln off by pressing STOP. Or if you wish to keep the kiln on warm then reset the temperature to 150-170 F. with a 2-4 hour hold.

Toki’s Shrimp Stuffing: (recipe quantity varies according to the size of the turkey, and seasoning to taste) Mix 1 to 1-1/2 box of commercial stuffing mix with: 1 large onion, 2-4 garlic cloves finely diced, 1 tsp. dill, 1/16 tsp diced lemon peel, ¼ tsp diced fresh ginger, 1/8 tsp nutmeg, 1 tsp. Lowrey’s seasoning salt, 1/8 tsp hot-red pepper flakes, 2-3 tbsp oyster sauce, 1/2 green or red bell pepper, 2-3 stalks of celery diced, 1-2 carrots diced, ½ cup of fresh basil diced, 2 cups of chicken stock or bouillon, 1/4 cube of butter or margarine, 1/16 cup of olive oil used to sauté the vegetables, ½-1 lb raw shrimp: remove shells and tails and boil with 1 cup water and a little salt to make juice, then add to the stuffing mix.

Saute all the vegetables, then blend with stuffing mix, and chicken and shrimp juice stock. Let it cool. Then add 2 beaten eggs, and blend in the shrimp. Stuff the turkey, cook, and enjoy.

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