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Clay: A Studio Handbook, By Vince Pitelka

"Vince Pitelka's book is my constant companion in my studio. It is invaluable."--Rog Coman, Fish Hook Pottery, Montrose, Colorado USA

Ceramic Review, January/February 2002: "Few are as comprehensive, well thought-out and clearly written as this."

"Pitelka's book is well written and authoratative. It remains the book I go back to again and again to find out more about a new process I'm trying. Some years back, I was struggling with centering on the wheel. Reading Vince's section on centering clay made the light finally come on for me. I have since used his method to help other potters having a problem centering. If you can only have one clay instructional book, this is the one to get, above all others I have read."--Denny Means, Crooked Tree Studios, Mason, Ohio USA

General Description

"Clay: A Studio Handbook" is an authoritative, comprehensive pottery source on topics ranging from studio safety, finding, making, and improvising tools and equipment, firing processes and theory, and much more.

Drawing on more than 30 years of experience in ceramics, Pitelka has created the most practical, all-inclusive studio handbook for students, studio artists, educators, and all those interested in the art of clay. Ten chapters addressing the full range of ceramic processes bring a lifetime of ceramic knowledge directly into the hands of potters.

Written with concern for safe and efficient studio operation, diligent attention is paid to safety practices. A thorough table of contents, glossary, and index make finding answers quick and convenient. Numerous step-by-step illustrations guide readers through the many techniques.

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Book Review from "Greenware," the publication of the Orchard Valley Ceramic Arts Guild

By Charles Moore, Sacramento, California USA

As soon as Vince Pitelka’s book was published, I bought a copy and began to use it--not just read it, but use it. That is to say that "Clay: A Studio Handbook" became for me a major reference. I am glad that I have waited to review Pitelka’s work; I have had a chance to live with it and learn by following his advice and information. "Clay: A Studio Handbook" is perhaps the most comprehensive book on clay work that I have encountered. In addition to the scope of the book, I would note a number of strengths: clarity in writing and in explanation of principles, ample illustrations of techniques, a concern for safety in the clay studio, and a straightforward manner of presentation.

The ten major chapters are the following: Clay and Claybodies; Handbuilding; Throwing; Plaster Working, Mold Making, and Slip Casting; Surface Decoration on Greenware; Glazes and Glazing; Kilns and Firing; Mixed Media in Ceramics; Studio Design, Setup, and Operation (including marketing, photography, and exhibiting).

Within each chapter there are numerous sub-sections. Because of the scope and thoroughness of the text, I can only hope to sample bits here and there to give a reader a sense for what Pitelka presents. Chapter 2, Handbuilding, for example contains matter on: Wedging the Clay, Handbuilding: General Guidelines and suggestions, Making Pinch forms, Coil Construction, Slab Construction. Other chapters offer a much greater number of sub-sections. The book also contains a most thorough alphabetical index that makes it easy to find a topic that you want to study.

Each time I return to the book, I find something that I had missed before. While preparing this review, I found some small bits of information that I had not considered. For example, Pitelka presents a paragraph on “Grinding-In” Your Lids. This grinding-in is done when the pot and lid are bone dry: “To accomplish this, hold the pot sideways vertically (with its mouth facing the side) cradled in one hand, and place your other hand flat against the lid with your fingers spread on either side of the handle. Put the lid in place against the pot, and gently rotate it back and forth against its seat several times…rotate it 90 degrees or so, turn it back sideways, rotate the lid back and forth against its seat, turn the pot upright, life the lid and rotate it 90 degrees. Repeat the procedure until you are satisfied with the fit of the lid” (p. 69). I wish I had known this technique when I recently made a small casserole that had top that would fit only if placed in one position. Note the careful detail of Pitelka’s description of the process of “grinding-in.”

Early in the book, Pitelka uses a series of twelve photographs to show opening clay on the wheel and basic pulling (p. 47). Then he follows with nine photographs showing in cross sections how the clay would look at each step in the pulling and shaping of a vessel (p. 48). Nothing else could be clearer.

In a section on “Vessel Proportions,” Pitelka says, “Vessel proportions vary widely, and unless you are seeking a low spherical shape, these particular forms often look best when the height is at least 1 ½ times the maximum diameter. Also a mix of straight and curved profiles can work very well. For example, the walls might rise straight up six inches from a six-inch diameter base, and then taper inward and flare back outward to a five-inch-diameter rim” (p. 62). Pitelka continues exploring other proportional variations that one finds pleasing. Though he is not dictatorial in this section, he offers some very valuable advice on the matter of proportion. He follows with a section on “Necking In a Vessel” (pp. 63-64). This section is too lengthy for me to repeat, but it is interesting that he presents careful written description of the necking in process and makes reference to a series of photographs, each of which illustrates a part of the process.

In a series of line drawings, Pitelka presents “Types of Lid and Galleries” (p. 70). Again, nothing could be clearer.

Pitelka’s work on “Glazes and Glazing” (pp. 120-159) is thorough without being overwhelming. Though I like to think that I am well-acquainted glaze work, here and there, Pitelka teaches me something that I did not know. A simple example occurs in the sub-section on “Opacifiers”: “Bone Ash--Calcium phosphate—can give an opalescent satin gloss surface, as microscopic globules of phosphorus remain suspended in the glaze.” p. 146)

In another sub-section, “Firing Clay: Chemical and Physical Changes,” I find useful information about what occurs at different temperatures in the firing process. Briefly, I will extract some sample temperatures that Pitelka discusses at length: “Around 400°F all free water has evaporated from the work, but chemically combined water is still present. Around 451°F organic materials begin to combust (oxidize). Around 900°F sintering begins.” (pp. 73-174) Though Pitelka continues to present the changes that occur as the temperature rises, this sample is, I think, sufficient to illustrate Pitelka’s vast knowledge of heatwork in the kiln.

A few months ago I bought an updraft kiln. I turned to Pitelka’s “Controlling and Correcting Temperature and Atmosphere in an Updraft Kiln” (pp. 180-181). He carefully explains how the damper at the top of the kiln serves to reduce the atmosphere and to even out the temperature from top to bottom. A page later, he presents “Watching the Flame Shape”: “In both updraft and downdraft gas kilns, the shape of the flame entering the burner port can tell you a lot. If the flame tapers rapidly at the burner tip, there is probably too much secondary air, reducing heatwork. If the flame seems to expand and fill the port but there is not reduction, then you have an efficient neutral atmosphere. If the flame spreads out in lazy waves with flickers of yellow, it is getting inadequate secondary air, unless your intention is a reduction atmosphere” (p. 182). I have not found this valuable information elsewhere.

Chapter 9 is entitled “Studio Safety and Sensible Studio Practice” (pp. 246-255). Pitelka begins by presenting a “Studio Safety Checklist.” This chapter is a “must read” for any studio potter. I greatly appreciate Pitelka’s concern for safety in the studio.

When I remodeled my studio recently, I picked up many suggestions from Chapter 10—“Studio Design, Setup, and Operation. Perhaps the most valuable for me was the sub-section on “Ware Storage.” Pitelka says, “I suppose there is not such thing as a studio with too much shelving, but one does not want to sacrifice space needed for other purposes. My favorite solution is to equip the studio with plenty of ware carts. Rather than viewing them as a device for efficiently moving wares from one place to another, think of ware carts as movable shelving” (p. 259). Following his advice, I have no fixed shelving, but use a series of ware carts of different sizes. One of them has a plastic cover, which serves as a damp room. I have even mounted my slab roller on large, lockable casters. I owe Vince real thanks for this advice; my studio is almost completely flexible.

In the appendices at the back of the book, Pitelka presents an extensive and useful “Glossary of [Ceramic] Terms” (p. 316-339) and a “Glossary of Ceramic Raw Materials” (pp. 340-347). Again, his definitions are clear; he has a highly developed sense of reading audience.

Finally, I want to finish this review with a philosophical note from Pitelka: “One of the most valuable aphorisms in ceramics is ‘Don’t bond with a piece until it comes out of the glaze firing’” (p. 136).

Clearly, I am pleased to own Pitelka’s "Clay: A Studio Handbook," and I recommend it to anyone who is serious about clay work.

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"This is a great how-to book. Anyone just starting in clay should have a copy. It covers a wide breadth of topics, has great pictures and clear description of each technique. This is a BIG book; plan to take a while to read it." --Dan Pfeiffer in Elkmont, Alabama

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"First, I find Vince to be very helpful and generous. He helped me greatly last summer when I needed information on making some terra sig, he answered all my 'dumb' questions with patience, and made my first attempt a rousing success.

"I purchased his book and am impressed with the amount of information he has collected in one volume. It is well written and generally easy to understand.

"I have been very pleased except for one major point: The book is sorely lacking in photos and illustrations. There have been a myriad of times when I have read about a particular tool or process and the text begged for an illustration. In the chapter on Kilns & Firing, there are about 80 pages of text and a paltry 13 illustrations. How does one write individual sections on the teapot spout and handles and not include one illustration? This is my only criticism of a fine work." --Rob Di Stasio in South Salem New York

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"Admirable! Vince Pitelka, a well-known teacher, well-known for his teaching and his contributions to Clay Times, here tells you more than you ever thought you needed to know about pottery. The book is richly illustrated, gives wonderful advice on clay, tools, glaze—and Pitelka’s specialty-–multi- colored clay used for neriage, murrini, lamination, and the like. A perfect addition to the clay bookshelf; a tremendous gift." —Lili Krakowski in Constableville, New York, USA

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