How To Create Designs On Clay – Carve It Out

Potters can make and design almost anything from clay. One of my favourite ways to decorate ceramics is to carve out the designs. I find it simple to carve, but a few techniques help the process along.

When carving on clay it is best to use leather-hard clay. Leather-hard clay has most of the moisture out of it and is stiff, with a bit of flex. You can bend leather hard clay a bit. If the clay is too dry to carve it will flake off along the edge of the line and can break while carving. Leather-hard clay leaves a cleaner groove. In the video below you can see that my mug was almost too dry to carve. The carved edges are was a bit raged instead of smooth.

An easy way to carve is to carve out the outline of the design. For example — carve the outline of leaves and flowers, then carve out veins and stems. When the pottery is glazed with breaking glaze; a glaze with more than one colour; one colour will melt into the carved areas, which outlines the design. A second colour stays on the surface. Not all glazes are suitable for carving. Make a test tiles to see if the glaze creates different colours. Pottery suppliers show glazes on test tiles with raised areas, which shows the glazes different colours.

Below are examples of how my glazes outline the carved area.

Another, more detailed way to carve is to carve the negative places around the design. Simple designs are best, especially when learning to carve.

I draw ,y design free-hand on the leather-hard pottery, especially if it is foliage. I don’t carve out the design exactly as I’ve drawn it. I might move it slightly, and add or take off parts of it, to improve the composition. This is my way, but you can draw or copy a detailed design and stick to it.

How to Carve Cattails

I drew cattail and leaves around this mug. I start by carving the outline of the cattails and leaves. I hold my small carving tool at an angle, which carves deeper at the edge of the foliage.

The cattails are carved, 6 cup is bone-dry and ready to be bisque fired.

When I have the outline carved I switch to a larger carving tool. I carve as deep as possible close to the design, careful not to carve a hole in the mug. I carve up and away from the cattail and leaves. It is like I am carving a slope or uphill on the mug. I don’t need to carve the entire mug out. Carving up and away from the design gives the illusion that the entire mug has been carved.

This larger carving tool takes out a wider area of clay

When I have most of it carved I run a damp sponge over it to clean up any loose clay. I also smooth out the carving lines I don’t want. To get the marks my sponge misses I dip my finger in water and rub or burnish out the rough areas of the cup. I am careful not to wipe the sponge over the design as the water will take off some of the detail of the design.

When I am satisfied I have most of the piece carved I go back to my small carving tool and run it along the edge of my design carving a crisp sharp line around the cattail and leaves. I also smooth out the clay. With a sharp knife or blade, I’ll score a line around the cattail and leaves. This gives my design more lift from the background.

Small carving tools. The triangle one is my go-to tool.

Last I carved in the veins in the leaves and the texture on the cattail. I add the details last. That way I don’t take a chance of wiping them off when I clean up the clay bits.

Watch my YouTube video of carving out the cattail.

Carving is done on greenware clay. If you make a mistake it can be wiped off. If it is too bad to wipe off toss the piece back in the clay bucket and chalk it up to experience. Don’t be afraid to start. I carved cattails on 2 mugs, but carved a hole in one mug which I couldn’t fix. That mug went back in my scrap clay bucket to be made into something else.

I like to carve foilage and animals as I enjoy nature. What would you carve on pottery?

You can check my pottery for sale on Etsy (the orange button) or The Butler’s Pottery (the blue button) below.

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