Making your handles stick


When I was learning to throw, how I was taught to attach handles and other pieces of clay to each other was:

  1. score heavily with a fork (both pieces)
  2. add thick slip to both pieces
  3. score the slip
  4. push them together until slip squished out
  5. clean off the excess
  6. add a thin coil into the crack
  7. blend together

I did the above for 20 years and more pieces than I want to count. Many — probably most — students are still taught this method. And it's completely wrong.

Students should be taught the modern way to stick clay together. Not only is it easier, it's more effective and it looks better:

  1. Dip a toothbrush in Magic Water.
  2. Rough up both sides with the toothbrush, dipping it again as necessary so that both sides are wet and rough. Ideally, the brush strokes should go in the same direction for both pieces.
  3. Gently press the two sides together, wiggling them until they "stick".
  4. Smooth out the joint.

"But what's Magic Water?" you ask. "And won't the handles pop off? And what's the green stuff in the picture? And what am I supposed to do with this fork now?"

Magic Water is both a deflocculant (a substance which changes the binding properties of clay) and a flux (one which makes clay melt). As a result, it allows to pieces of clay to bind together better when wet, and it helps them stay together when fired. Here's a recipe, originally developed by Lana Wilson. It's easy and cheap to make if you have access to a ceramics supply house:

  • 1 gallon purified water
  • 3 Tbs liquid Sodium Silicate
  • 3 grams Soda Ash

When I switched from slip to Magic Water, I decided to do an experiment. I made 18 mugs, half using slip-and-score, half with Magic Water. Two of the slip-and-score mugs had handle separation issues (one broke off entirely). None of the Magic Water mugs had problems.

Now, if you're using magic water and your handles are popping off anyway, you're probably not controlling drying properly. Sometimes handles pop off because they weren't stuck on well, but most of the time they come off (or break in half) because they were allowed to dry at a different rate from the cup. Just avoid these three pitfalls:

  • sticking a wet handle on a dry mug body
  • letting the mug dry too fast
  • letting the handle dry faster than the mug

For the first, you'll lower your loss rate tremendously by attaching the handle before the cup is leather-hard. This does make it difficult to trim the mug, which is why most of my handled mugs have flat instead of footed bottoms. But the closer you can get the handle and the mug to the same level of wetness when combined, the fewer problems you'll have. The second problem can be avoided with a wetbox or some dry-cleaner plastic.

For the third problem, well, that's where the green stuff comes in. Handles tend to dry faster than mug bodies because they are thin and get air from all sides. If they are allowed to dry as fast as they want, then they will crack or pop off because the handle will become shorter than the clay it's attached to. That green stuff is AFTOSA wax, a thick formadehyde-soluable wax which will stick even to leather-hard clay. By painting the thin edges of the handle, you slow down the handle's drying rate to match that of the mug. I've also found that waxing the joints makes cracking at the joints less likely, although I'm not completely sure why.

So, there you go: a newer, better-looking, easier, and more effective way to attach your handles to mugs. Now go and make some mugs!

As for the fork, well, maybe a salad?