Wood and Clay – Combining Earthly Elements


Wood and Clay – Combining Earthly Elements:
Andrew Potocnik works with two materials to create these interesting hollow forms.

Andrew Potocnik works with two materials to create these interesting hollow forms

There is nothing I enjoy more than a creative challenge, which in all reality is the same as teaching woodwork at secondary school level; it’s simply about problem solving. Students come up with an idea and I, as the teacher, need to work out how that idea can come to fruition. It’s exactly the same when working in collaboration with another artist, which is where this story begins.
Agreeing to take part in a joint exhibition with a long–term ceramicist friend, I saw this as an opportunity to challenge myself and possibly develop directions I can explore in my own work in the future. There could be some ideas sparked by concepts outside my normal field of work, which is the basis of collaborative events springing up around the world, Emma Lake being the best known. Anyway, here’s how the project evolved…

Presented with a couple of very elegant conical ceramic forms that my friend thought I could suspend on turned and bent legs, my mind went off on a completely different tangent where I flipped them upside down to form lids for turned containers, especially as I’d only recently returned from a trip to Spain and Morocco and still had an element of Moorish influence in my mind. Thoughts of Richard Raffan’s ‘Citadel’ forms did niggle at the back of my mind, which shows how work you’ve seen can be drawn into what I call the ‘Cranial Computer’. Here, they linger, waiting to emerge when an idea or image triggers them to the fore… and then the mind gets going… and hopefully you develop a new and original design.

Intended as a conical vessel, it seemed logical to me to invert this into a lid

Drawings and how to resize them
To enlarge or reduce the size of drawings right click on the image to download it and then go HERE to watch a video on how to use paper with a grid to do exactly that.

Suitable timber
To begin with I sourced suitable timber, in this case, a large recycled red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) post which I cut to approximate length and drew a rough outline of the form I felt suited the ceramic lid. All too often I begin new projects and then start on other new ones, so drawings, dates and notes help to keep
my train of thought going and also allow new design developments to evolve, so this project sat on the back-burner for a few days, (maybe weeks) during which the concept developed. Notes written and placed alongside selected material capture ideas, but these too often lead to new developments. The mind never stops!

Working out proportions for the vessel

Holding and shaping
Finally getting to work, I needed to deal with issues relating to selected timber. As I was working with recycled structural material it had cracks which could have become loose in the turning process.
As soon as I spot this type of danger, I secured it with CA adhesive and left ample time for the glue to set. Better safe than sorry, and for this reason I always wear a full face shield when turning, no matter what I’m doing! Prescription glasses may make it easier to see what you’re doing, but unless they’re up to safety regulations they’re not enough on their own. And there’s also the benefit of noise being deflected away from ears by a full face shield – a bit of help for your ears too.
One end of the cylinder was trimmed down to a tapered tenon, able to be gripped firmly in a scroll chuck then transferred to my Vicmark chuck which I find a wonderful workhorse for most work I do. I now trimmed timber down to a profile I felt suited the ceramic top/lid attempting to create a ‘flow’ of lines from the bottom of the turned vessel through to the intersection with the lid. It’s a difficult concept to describe, but really there needs to be harmony in transition in both material and form… something you simply
need to experiment with if you take on a project like this.

Voids needed stabilisation with CA glue

A tenon was cut so the form could be fitted to a scroll chuck

Determining suitable proportions

Creating the lid recess and initial shaping
With dimensions roughly marked by pencil lines where my eye felt cuts and changes of angles were initially correct, I moved onto the next stage, creating a ‘lip’ or ‘step’ in which the lid could sit. A home made ‘Granny-tooth’ scraper enables two cuts to be made simultaneously, on the front and sides of the tool; however, it’s best to do this in light passes so as to not create chatter or a catch.
With the lid in place I could now determine the final shape of the vessel, which was trimmed down to suit the lid and create what I felt was a complementary design, and still allowing for further development in the ‘Moorish’ direction.

Using a ‘granny tooth’ scraper to create a recess for the lid to sit in

With the lid in place, further refinement of proportions could be established

The vessel’s exterior was refine

Hollowing out
Now I could hollow the interior of the vessel seeing I had parameters to work to with regard to wall thickness. I used a variety of tools including two scrapers and a Crown tool, but there’s a consideration I feel is pertinent when hollowing, how deep to go? Fortunately, this project wasn’t to be an example of fine woodturning, rather a blending of forms, so I didn’t need to hollow right down to the base. And here’s a factor to consider when hollowing – how far will your fingers reach safely when it’s time to sand?
With the interior sanded through to 320 grit I could refine the exterior and add a couple of ‘v’ cut detail lines (using a skew) to create a band at the upper end of the vessel, which was then rounded slightly.

A series of tools was used to hollow the interior

Don’t hollow forms too far for fingers to fit into

The exterior sanded and a couple of ‘V’ lines cut for a feature line

Index marking decoration positions
Using the indexing head of the lathe I marked eight points, which seemed to be spaced far enough apart to house domed ‘buttons’. Centres for holes were marked with a sharpened 75mm nail that lives permanently in the right pocket of my dust coat. It’s the most universal tool available that I can think of, and it fulfils so many purposes. Here it was the equivalent of a centre-punch, but I wasn’t too fussy about getting the
marks perfectly aligned, but still evenly spaced. After all, the final piece was intended to have a touch of a rough feel.
Holes of 3mm diameter were drilled freehand and as you can see there was a bit of tear-out, but this would be covered by the buttons. I could have been neater and more careful; however, I wanted this vessel to have an element of texture and roughness, which was still to come. Nevertheless, the bulk of the exterior was sanded to a smooth flowing shape before being parted free of the waste stock.

Using the indexing head of my lathe, spacing for ‘buttons’ were marked

Holes were centre-punched with a sharpened nail

Masking tape ensured all holes were drilled to similar depths

The form was cut free of the chuck with a parting tool

Refining the base
Reversed and held in the expansion mode of the scroll chuck I could (carefully) trim down the base and sand it to a finished surface. As the chuck was gripping a relatively thin walled section
of the vessel, I was very careful to apply as little pressure to the wood as possible for fear of a catch sending the whole project into the firewood box…

The base was cleaned up while the form was held on the chuck in its expansion mode

Creating and affixing spikes and buttons
The original ceramic form was intended to be a conical vessel suspended on three legs pinned into holes that had been perfectly positioned around its perimeter. To me, this was an opportunity to add spike-like forms that in a way relating to images of horns on Viking helmets, so I opted for ancient red gum which has been blackened in much the same way as bog oak, due to hundreds of years submerged in mud and water.
Gripped in a scroll chuck, it was turned down to a point of about 12mm length and 4mm diameter, with a slight undercut before the tenon which matched the holes. Most of this work was completed with a skew followed with a parting tool to get the tenon just right. A similar process was followed to create a series of ‘buttons’ with 3mm tenons that matched holes drilled earlier so glue could be applied for final fixture. Spikes were glued into position with Cyanoacrylate glue using a sliver of veneer to ensure glue was applied to just the right places.

Spikes were cut to size using a skew

Tenons were trimmed to size with a parting tool

A sliver of veneer ensured just the right amount of glue was applied to fix each button into place

CA glue was used to attach spikes to the ceramic lid

Creating surface texture and colour
I was keen to add some texture to the vessel so sand-blasting was the method of choice. Here you can see the thick gloves used to hold work while inside the cabinet. Obviously, the lid needs to be shut so all abrasive and residue is kept in a contained area to protect the operator. A sand-blasting set-up can be quite a daunting item to purchase, but now there are a number of small cabinets and suitable compressors available on the market, and once you begin to experiment, you’ll see endless ways to add this technique to your work.
I covered the band featuring buttons with masking tape to prevent it from being textured, but you can see the effect of a few minutes of sand blasting on what is a very hard timber. Beware, pressure of your set-up and the type of abrasive used will determine how aggressively your timber will be textured, but that’s a completely new story in itself…
A careful application of Black Japan highlighted grain exposed by the sandblasting operation but I wanted a bit more of the timber to show through, so I rubbed the surface back with turpentine, but it wasn’t yet to my liking.
A light sand with 180 grit exposed just enough to keep me happy; especially once a polyurethane finish was applied, highlighting the grain and base timber colour.
To complete this piece I felt a bit of detailing was needed, hence after several trials I decided on black cotton thread which was bound around the spikes I’d added to the ceramic lid, secured in place with a couple of very small dobs of CA glue.
The second vessel was quite different in that I opted to burn its surface and then ‘carve’ into the surface with a rotary burr to create a pattern exposing contrasting red colour of the timber it was made from.
Ultimately, both of these pieces were a far cry from what my friend had in mind when she handed over the ceramic forms, but I had no idea of where they would lead me either. Collaboration is a wonderful opportunity to challenge oneself and see what can be created, for better, or worse, but it’s all part of the learning journey that can be added to the repertoire of successes, possibly failures, but most importantly techniques you can build upon in the future. And any lesson learnt is a valuable lesson indeed!

The feature collar was protected with masking tape while the outer surfaces were sandblasted

The finished surface after sandblasting

Black Japan was rubbed into the surface

Colour was cut back with sand paper to highlight the exposed grain

Embroidery thread finished the lid off


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