Simon Leach on Making Pots

No matter how long you have been potting, you can always learn something new. That’s the nature of a craft that is so ancient. For this reason, I always look at how-to books, even very basic ones. And being an admirer of his work, I have especially been looking forward to Simon Leach’s book, written with Bruce Dehnert, Simon Leach’s Pottery Handbook.

Leach is the grandson of Bernard Leach and the son of David Leach. He fooled around in his dad’s pottery as a kid, but left to become an engineering apprentice at a helicopter factory. He loved making balsawood model planes and thought aircraft was the thing for him. To his dismay, it was painfully boring, and when the opportunity arose, he left to travel. Out of money, he went to work for his father for “six months” and discovered that indeed, pottery was for him. Six months stretched into years. When his father asked him if he would like to run the pottery, he decided to go out on his own. He has subsequently had potteries in England, Spain and now the US.

Leach has produced more than 800 YouTube videos on making pots and has an extensive following. The book comes with two DVD’s and has pages and pages of thorough illustrations. This is primarily a handbook of throwing. He does talk about glazes and firing but not about handbuilding. The premise is, that with the book and the DVD’s you can learn to throw on your own. I think you could.

What I personally learned from the book is an interesting way to use wood ashes. Yes, ashes again. He burns them in a metal lid, sifts them and mixes them with water to make a thin liquid, which he runs through an 80-mesh sieve. Then, depending upon the temperature he is firing to, he adds Gerstley Borate or Feldspar. He sprays the mixture onto the exterior of a bisque pot with an atomizer. There is a delightful photo of Leach blowing through the mouthpiece of his atomizer. The results are very beautiful.

I sometimes sprinkle ashes onto my damp pots (I single fire). Or I give a bone-dry pot a light wash of Gerstley Borate and Yellow Ochre and then sift ashes onto the surface. But I like the look Leach is achieving with his method: it is more organic and speaks of wood and flames.

The book has a spiral binding, which is not my favorite type of binding because the pages can rip out. But if you are using to book to learn to throw, with the spiral binding, you can open the book and lay it flat so that you can easily see two pages at once.  You could open it to the chapter you are working on, and glance at it as you work.

The DVD’s contain short videos to accompany the chapters. Leach explains what his hands are doing. You know he is having fun, because now and then he starts to hum or whistle! His motto, on the videos and throughout the book, is “Keep On Practicing.” A good motto for all of us!

Guy Wolff and Isaac Button on Throwing

Some place in this house is a copy of Making Pottery by John Anderson. It should be on the shelves with all the other books on ceramics that crowd my living room, but if it is, my eyes are passing it by. I hope I am not becoming like my now deceased friend Francelia who in her later years, had to keep buying copies of the same books because she was never able to find her copy when she needed it. Sigh.

I am looking for it because, as I recall, it had a bit on Isaac Button. Button, sometimes called the “last true country potter” in England, operated Soil Hill, near Halifax England. He could and did throw a half ton of clay a day, swiftly making hundreds of repeat shapes – jugs, flowerpots, crocks, cider jars and so on. His ability to throw fast and large is astonishing to us today, but was typical of the way old time country potters worked. Fortunately for us, a few years before he died, John Anderson and Robert Fournier filmed him.

I drove out to Guy Wolff’s pottery on Friday to interview him some more for the book project. Wolff is also a repeat thrower and throws fast and large. Toward the end of the interview, he mentioned how much he liked the Button video. So, before beginning work on the chapter I am writing, I watched the video again myself (thanks YouTube) and then searched futilely for the book.

The film is over 40 minutes in its entirety, but here is an extract of Button throwing.

And here’s Guy Wolff.