What’s this post about?
- How I made my brother a set of couple’s coffee mugs – yes!
- Free illustrated printable of the process- yes!
- Making you read through anecdotes of my childhood – always!
Nothing beats a personalised gift lovingly crafted by hand.
As a child I was blessed with a crafty Irish gran, who would often send handmade gifts for birthdays and Christmases. I had a favourite sculpture of hers on my bedroom wall, a girl in a pink dress with sunshine spaghetti hair.
I think of these now and immediately smell the yeasty, warm fragrance of salt dough.
I eventually discovered that salt dough doesn’t last forever (hello disintegration), however thanks to her diverse creativity a handful of actual fired ceramic pieces still survive.
With these childhood gifts in mind, when my older brother got engaged last year I immediately knew I wanted to give a celebratory engagement gift from my own two hands… but what to make?
I visited my brother and his fiance over New Years, and while there I was inspired by their daily ritual of morning coffee. It was often taken on the back porch in the scorching Sydney sun, whilst chatting and planning the day ahead.
It was the perfect moment to enhance with something handmade.
I thought sharing how I made these slab-built coffee cups might be useful for some of my fellow ceramists, or if you’re curious about the process behind a couple of my simpler objects. While killing time in a cafe or on the train I’ve often struggled to find clean, simple ceramic tutorials that aren’t videos (such data eaters!).
If you’ve ever wondered how to make ceramic mugs at home, this is also a compact and practical method for home-based pottery.
Read on to the end of the post for a free illustrated printable.
So! Here’s how to slab build a mug using my simple pottery process.
1. Concept and Slab Mug Designs
First and foremost, I wanted to make functional mugs that would work with their other dinnerware and could be used daily.
I chose a practical stoneware clay body for strength and durability, and a glossy white glaze so the handmade ceramics would blend well with other manufactured objects in their kitchen.
I didn’t want mugs so simple they could be from any store, but also not too eccentric when they’re still flatting and I’m not 100% sure of their interior design style.
I modeled the mug size on a nice set of coffee cups we used at a hotel recently. The shape is low set for good aroma – and because my brother is a hazard and apparently broke a bunch of glasses that were sitting on their kitchen bench last year… Let’s say a collective prayer for these two handmade ones.
The slab-built design I settled on was the top right mug. Although I preferred some of the other styles, I didn’t want them to not use the mugs because it was too hot to hold a tumbler that didn’t have a handle. Since they don’t have any other handmade mugs to alternate these with, an everyday practicality was most important.
2. Construction: Hand Building
- Wedging: As usual I started by removing air bubbles from the clay using the rams head method.
- Cut pieces: Using a rolling pin I evenly rolled clay out over a plaster bat, then cut 1x disc (base) + 1x rectangle (wall). I cut the base first. This decided the length of the wall – I wrapped the disc with a measuring tape to get the correct rectangle / wall length. These measurements were then used for the second mug.
- Slab Assembly: Scored using a needle tool, slipped, then attached the wall to the base.
- Adjustments: I ended up cropping the height a little further than my initial sketchbook concept when I actually assembled the slabs – once it was together I just felt like they weren’t quite balanced to the eye. I finished the texture and sealing by pinching and smoothing the surface by hand.
- Cut handles: Cut straps for handles and rested on plaster bats.
- First drying: Dried to leatherhard.
- Attached handles: Once dried to leatherhard, the final structural task was to choose the handle height and attach the slab handles. I did this by eye, holding the handle to a position I was happy with and marking it on the vessel, then attached using scoring and slip.
Unfortunately I didn’t plan on writing a blog at this stage and wasn’t taking photos to fully document the construction. I hope this description is helpful, however I have also illustrated the process in a printable graphic for clarity. You can find the download link at the end of the post.
Once finished the bases were signed and the clay mugs left to dry on a plaster bat, with loose plastic to promote even drying. I haven’t decided on a stamp design so I hand etched my initials, a personal touch (which is maybe even preferable to a professional stamp for this project).
I’m not terribly experienced with handles and usually prefer making pottery tumblers than mugs, so I did have some issues with the handles drooping slightly – a problem caused by the weight of the extended handle.
I combatted this by setting the two drying cups upside down with improvised card supports.
The handles were turned to face one another (shown above) to help slow their drying speed and lessen the chance of cracks. As they have more surface area they dry at a higher rate than the body of the mug.
When they got a little further along in drying, I removed the plastic from all but the handles to help them to continue to dry as evenly as possible.
A silicone kidney tool was perfect for tidying up the surface while leather hard.
Once they had reached bone dry, finally I sponged the greenware vessels down and smoothed any remaining nicks using the pads of my fingers, before taking to Northcote Pottery Supplies for bisque firing.
I took these on the tram in an a reused polystyrene box to protect them, and a stranger told me the box made me look like a serial killer. As I said to him – polystyrene boxes are a great conversation starter, but probably not a great way to make friends.
Usually my preferred method of glazing is dipping, but with planning to leave Australia so soon I didn’t want to invest in the giant buckets of dipping glaze or expensive glaze mixing materials that might go to waste. This meant my best option was the brush on glaze.
Why do you use a Hake brush for glazing?
Aside from being arguably the most beautiful tool in the box, Japanese style Hake brushes hold a large quantity of liquid and deliver it relatively evenly – making for a smooth coat of glaze without brush marks. The soft brush fibers also avoid the lifting of previous glaze coats, which is super helpful with brush on glaze as most of the glazes I’ve seen recommend 2 – 4 coats.
For the scale of my work I use a modestly sized Hake brush, around 1.5 – 2 inches across.
How to use brush – on glaze
Starting from the center of the inner cup I wound my way out at an even pace, moving over the lip and rotating the exterior for even coverage, dipping the brush in glaze as needed (and scraping off excess on the edge of the container – you don’t want it to be dripping wet).
Once dry I applied another 2 coats of glaze, then gently scratched off any tiny drips or areas where it was a little too thick.
I didn’t worry about masking the base as I have used this glaze before and was confident it would not run onto the kiln shelf during firing. You may prefer to wax or mask the base to be safe.
- One of the characteristics i’m most pleased with is the way the dappled fingerprint texture shows through the glaze.
- I’m really happy with the surface finish, I was expecting more of a gloss and this satin was a pleasant surprise. The gently undulating edges and off-white glaze soften the harshness of the white, offering a much warmer shade perfect for morning use.
- The hard – wearing stoneware and low form makes them a very durable everyday object.
…Not so good
- The handle does still have a very slight drop which came out in the firing. If I make more of these in the future I would let the handle harden futher before attaching, or possibly use a grittier clay to prevent sinking.
Overall these handmade mugs are simple, timeless, and practical. I haven’t made drinking vessels for aaages and the whole process has been so satisfying – but the best part was the elated reception by my brother and his partner.
It’s so special to be able to make functional objects filled with love for the people you care about.
And guess what? I made something for you, too!
Download a free digital pdf file designed by me, illustrating this handmade mug process:
Designed to be printed at A4* on heavyweight off-white cardstock.(*for personal use only, not to be profited from or redistributed).
Have you made special custom work for family members? Or have you tried making mugs inspired by these guys? I’d love to hear about it! Let me know in the comments.
Need more mud? You can find the rest of my How-Tos in my STUDIO collection, here.