Slipcast Handles: from design, to 3D print, to product
As an artist, making work is about joy and creativity and passion. It’s about a need to create objects that spark curiosity for you as a maker. However, as a small business owner, it’s also about a lot more than that. Some of it, honestly, is a numbers game. Not for the sake of greed, but for the joyful problem of having a demand that you cannot meet. Or for the more real problem of not being able to pay your bills because you can’t make your work at an efficient rate.
With that issue in mind, a few months ago I hired my friend and colleague Shannon Tovey to create molds for my handles. Going in, it was important to me that we create something based on my original hand-built handle design, but even nicer. I needed to create a handle that was not only comfortable and matched my aesthetic, but one that would withstand the test of time. Basically – I wanted a handle that my hypercritical mind wouldn’t look at in a year and think “yuck, I can do better”.
Initially I planned to make the handles and have her just make a mold from that original, but on my end, I was having issues making that happen. Shannon suggested, gently, that we might try 3D modeling the handle. I was grateful to have the responsibility of creating a perfect model off of my plate, so right away I sent her a mug with a handle that I felt emulated what I wanted.
Using technological know-how and hard-earned skills that I can’t fathom; Shannon was able to then translate that physical handle onto a mug on a screen. She sent me the renderings, and I printed them out to draw on them and show what I wanted to be slightly different. We discussed the cross-section, the handle size (2-3 finger grip) and pulled back and forth the aesthetic qualities and the ergonomic qualities until she found something I was completely happy with in print.
From there, I needed to see it in person and to hold it in my hand. My clay body shrinks by 13% through firing, so Shannon had the handle 3D printed in the size that the handle would be post-firing and sent straight to me. I was able to see it, scrutinize it, and hold it up to a glazed mug to see if it was what I really wanted. As you may guess by now, it was.
If you are unfamiliar with slip casting, a “model” refers to the original piece that a mold maker will make a mold off of. Basically, it’s the thing that you pour plaster around. Once I had approved the model, a few things were able to quickly be set in motion. Shannon was able to render and print the scaled-up model for mold making as well as a model for the mold itself, and then she made the most gorgeous, perfect molds.
If you are new to slip casting or ceramics you may think – who cares if the mold looks good? And before spending years working in a casting studio, I felt the same. The mold’s aesthetic qualities, however, are significant. Not only are they a signifier of the skillset of the mold maker, but they exemplify the success you will have when you successfully cast a gorgeous piece with no dimples and with tight seam lines that are easily cleaned up.
I had initial intimidation while casting these handles. Although I have spent a lot of time learning about slip casting in the abstract, learning something through practice is a completely different thing. Because I had hired a mold maker instead of giving it a go on my own, I quickly found that Shannon had already done all of my problem solving for me – resulting in an extremely high success rate on my end.
Through my first batch of work with these molds I was able to make more mugs, which is obviously the financial goal that justifies the cost of the mold maker. Even more than that though, I was able to spend more time doing what I love, which is decorating and being creative with my work. My goal as a potter is to not lose the art or the creativity and to not feel like a one-woman porcelain factory – and taking out the laborious task of handle-making achieved that goal.
Seconds, or slightly flawed work that cannot be sold, are absolutely inevitable in ceramics. Post-firing, when I tallied up the number of mugs I made in the batch and subtracted the seconds, I found that my seconds rate in mugs had dropped dramatically from 25% to 5%. In that success increase alone, the molds paid for themselves.
All in all, this is a peek into this process because I know many artists are intimidated by slip casting. I also know a lot of potters that struggle with demand or a high seconds rate. This has made a huge difference in my business in an incredibly short span of time, and I want people to know about it. There is a lot of pride in being an artisan who is isolated and can do everything 100% independently, but in my thoughts if you can hire someone to amplify what you do best - do that.
Additionally, this is an explanation to those who have hang-ups about slip casting their work or artists who incorporate slip casting because of the ties it has to manufacturing. I know many potters who slip cast their work but make a point not to advertise it because of this stigma. I can assure you, my work is 100% handmade with or without a slip cast handle. A mold is no more than a tool, just like my potter’s wheel or my kiln – both of which I cannot make my work without.
I also feel compelled to say this post is not sponsored in any way by Shannon or by slip casting, just a process that I found incredibly interesting and helpful. To learn more about Shannon Tovey and her work, take a look at shannontovey.com