One of the artists I follow online, Jimmy Diresta, recently posted a vlog where he visited an iron worker by the name of Fletcher Coddington, and Fletcher was talking about his past and how he got into metallurgy. The comment that struck me the most about his work was regarding his preference for metal over other materials because it was the only one that you could recycle and reshape endlessly, even after the project has been completed; you can't do this with materials like wood, plastic, etc. Come to think of it, though, I think glass would be in similar category.
I believe that clay, however, comes in a close second. It's true that once it has been fired you're completely done and out of choices, but up and until that point you can keep shaping and re-shaping your project endlessly, fiddling with it, putting it aside even for days, finishing it or even choosing to smoosh it up and start over, and basically take as long as needed until you're ready to fire it. You can't do this with materials such as wood and plastic.
I started working with clay a couple of years ago with my kids at the local community center, and it's important to note that doing it this way is much simpler and cheaper than starting your own home shop because the kiln itself is expensive (it starts around $500 for a basic one around 2cubic feet in size), the paints cost about $15-20 per bottle (which is the size of a small water bottle and could last several pieces depending on their size), and then there's the glaze (the final shiny layer that goes on top of the paint) and the clay itself, and I do not know the costs for those two.
On top of that there is the question of proper installation of the kiln and exhaust system, any bylaws that need respecting, the complexity of learning the kiln's temperature and time settings (depending, for example, on whether this is the piece's initial firing, the firing of the paint and glaze, etc), and others.
Bottom line: if you manage to find an art studio or community center in your area that offers clay work as a course, I definitely recommend starting that way. The ones in my area range around the $150-200 price for ten sessions (with an instructor) of about 2 hours each, include the materials and use of a kiln, and you can come out of that with at least 2 or 3 decent pieces.
I've made few interesting pieces so far, and decided it was time to document and explain one of them. So here goes.
* You'll obviously need clay. For this candle holder I estimate I used about a block that was about 10" cubed, but it's hard to tell exactly.
* I also used gray paint, black paint and some glaze to coat the outside (it's basically a type of paint as well)
* Three large candles (two medium height and one tall)
* Cardboard (to line the candles and increase their thickness
* Several sheets of paper
* Miscellaneous hand tools like a knife, wooden skewers, etc.
Step 1: Preparing the Candles and Making the Template
You can make pretty much anything you want with the clay by hand, and take your time to shape it perfectly. I've tried that method and although it's a lot of fun and very relaxing, I find that it lacks a certain amount of precision and actually makes some designs a bit more difficult to implement.
So for this holder I knew I wanted a base and walls that flowed around the candles, and wanted the walls to curve both horizontally (i.e. around the candles) and vertically (i.e. by changing their height). So the easiest way to figure this out was to create a template by taping three sheets of paper together (end to end), cutting the width down to the maximum height I wanted to have for the walls, and then begin wrapping it around the candles in different ways to see what worked best.
Before settling on a final shape, however, the width of the candles needed to be increased by rolling and then taping a layer of cardboard around them. This is done for two reasons: the clay shrinks in size a bit when it is left to dry (so if you use unwrapped candles they won't fit in the end), and I also wanted them to have plenty of wiggle room so it was easy to put new ones in, clean up the leftover after they're used up, etc.
Once the candles were wrapped, I settled on a wavy shape for the template, played around with a curving height for the walls, and proceeded to work on the clay.
Step 2: Working With the Clay
The fun part starts now. Taking a chunk of clay, you need to flatten it out and make two parts: the floor and the walls. The thickness of both items is the same, and you control that simply by using a rolling pin and two strips of wood of the thickness you want (in this case about 0.25"). Lay the clay on a flat area, put the strips of wood on both sides (about a foot apart), and roll the clay until the rolling pin is running flat on top of the strips. Once you get to that point, the clay has an even thickness and is ready to be cut and shaped. If the area you rolled the clay on is not the one you'll be working on, then moving the clay might be tricky since it could stick to the surface so try using some wax paper underneath it before you start rolling.
Cut a long piece of the flattened clay, lay your wall's paper template on it, and cut along the edges. Then take a second piece of flattened clay to act as the floor, stand the wall section up and wrap it around the candles. It's always a good idea to put some newspaper between the clay and any object it touches because if left there for a bit it can stick to your object. Letting it stick to newspaper instead makes it easy to remove and the paper can just be peeled off. When you've found the right position for the wall, remove the candles and use a marking tool (e.g. a skewer) to gently score the floor along the wall's position.
Time to attach the two pieces. To do this you need some slip (which is basically a little bit of clay that's been mixed with enough water to make it run more or less like thick oatmeal) and some extra clay rolled into thin long "snakes". Spread some slip along the lines where the wall will attach to the base (about as much as you would if you were spreading peanut butter on bread) and then put the wall back in place (on top of the slip). Follow up by taking the rolled snakes and laying them at the base of wall, all along the lines where it joins the floor (on both sides of the wall).
Using a flat edged tool and/or your finger, begin squashing the snakes into the wall/floor joint, effectively making the two into one continuous piece. Keep in mind that any scratches or non smoothed-out areas will become very noticeable once the piece is completely finished, so you'll want to take your time and carefully merge the clay parts and smooth out the joints.
When you've got all the edges worked out, figure out how you'd like the floor to look and just cut the excess off. Any rough edges can also be smoothed over with a flat tool or your finger.
Once complete, use a wet sponge (not soaking; just wrung out) to go over all the sides and do a final smoothing. This will help get rid of any little gouges, holes, etc. Make sure you pass the sponge over your piece in a consistent direction as this motion can also leave marks of its own and they can be even more visible in the final product if they're done at different angles. It helps to have a bowl of water next to you so you can constantly rinse the sponge off and get it wet again.
You're now pretty much ready to have the piece fired in a kiln and move on to painting. If you want to take more time to work on it, though, you can postpone the kiln pretty much indefinitely by completely enclosing your piece in a plastic bag and gently spraying all sides with a bit of water every couple of days. Continue to work on it for as long as it takes, and when you're completely satisfied moved on to the next step.
Step 3: Firing, Painting, and Firing Again
When your piece is completely done, it needs to be fired in a kiln a couple of times. But before you can do that, you need to let the clay dry out as much as possible on its own in order to lower the amount of water in it. If the pieces are thick and still have water in them, the quick evaporation in the kiln can make the clay shatter and/or explode, ruining the piece. This can also ruin any other pieces you're firing at the same time or even damage the heating elements in the kiln, so you definitely want to let the piece dry out properly first. This implies leaving it on a shelf, completely uncovered, for a good 4-5 days.
When the piece is dry, you can give it a light sanding with find sandpaper (we usually use 400 grit) and into the kiln it goes (note that the dust you generate from the sanding is excellent material for the slip, so don't discard it). I'm unsure about the exact kiln temperatures, and our instructor is the one that handles this part, but I recall hearing that this firing is done around 600F (315C) and is an overnight process.
When you get your piece back you can start painting. There are many options for colours here, but you're essentially applying two different things: a paint that will colour your piece as you like, and then a glaze that will give the piece its final shiny and protective layer. Some paints are also available with metallic compounds and finishes, some glazes are available with paint in them so you could avoid the first step, etc. There are plenty of choices in this area.
I work with separate paint and glaze materials, so the painting always goes first. It dries pretty quickly (since it gets absorbed into the clay within seconds) and this part does not take long. To get good coverage you'll also want to make sure you've applied 2-3 coats, letting the paint dry in between coats. I also experimented with painter's tape in order to block some areas out and paint others, and the results were very good; just be very careful when pulling the tape off as the paint will be completely dry and might crack if you pull it off too quickly.
When the paint has dried you brush on a coat of glaze, and don't worry about its colour; it goes on green, but turns transparent once the piece has been fired. The glaze does take a few minutes to dry and you can shorten that time by using a hair or hand drier.
When the glaze is done the piece goes into the kiln for a second round, this time I believe at around 1000F (540C), and overnight as before. When it's out the following day you're all done and ready to enjoy your creation :)
I hope this instructable came in handy and gave you an idea of what working with clay is like. It's an incredibly fun and creative process with limitless options on what you can create. If you have any questions or comments about it feel free to leave them in the comments section!