Sgraffito can be an impactful, dramatic way of decorating pots (like in Kathy King’s plate to the left) or a more subtle way to add color or definition to a design (see Kristen Pavelka’s plate below). No matter what effect you’re after, it is super fun to carve into an underglazed or slipped pot.
In today’s post, Kathy King, Wayne Bates, and Kristen Pavelka share their best tips for sgraffito, including what tools they use and the perfect time to carve. Everybody does it slightly differently. Read on to see which method makes the most sense to you! – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
by Kathy King
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Homemade Sgraffito Tools
by Wayne Bates
My sgraffito tool tips are made from the main spring of a pocket watch. The spring metal is thin and strong, doesn’t have to be sharpened and keeps the same feel as it wears away. To make the tip, cut a piece of spring, heat it with a small torch and bend it to the shape you want. A small rounded point is used for the line cutting tips, and a broader rounder tip for large cuts. Glue the tip with Elmers glue into the brass ferrel of the trimming tool and allow it to harden. Lightly heating the ferrel softens the glue and the ferrel can be removed and another tip glued into the tool. For ribs, cut them with tin snips from sheets of metal and flatten the edges, making two square edges for scraping (do not sharpen the edges). You can also cut serrated-edge ribs with the snips.
See Wayne’s complete guide to sgraffito in this Ceramic Art Lesson Plan!
Decorating with Slip and Sgraffito
by Kristen Pavelka
I slip my pots when they look dry but have a small bit of moisture in them. This allows for a relatively even coating of slip, yet it dries a bit slower giving me time to complete my sgrafitto before the slip starts to chip when scratched. Because the slip dries quickly, I have to work fast to complete my design, so I plan the patterns ahead of time in a sketchbook or by drawing with a soft pencil on the unslipped plate itself.
Once I’ve decided on a pattern, I can begin slipping. Holding the plate vertically, I pour the white slip onto the middle of the plate using a large ladle, turning the piece clockwise until the entire face is covered. Keep the plate vertical until the slip drips have firmed, then rest the plate on the tabletop and allow the slip to dry for a few minutes until you can touch it without a fingerprint remaining, but while it still feels cold and damp.
Lightly draw a grid on the piece using a soft pencil, like a 2B. Breaking up the space symmetrically on a circular form is a quick and easy way to understand the space. I sometimes draw my pattern on the piece to double check the placement of key elements, but usually I draw directly with my sgraffito tool using just the grid as an aid for placing the design.
My sgrafitto tool had a previous life as a dentistry tool and is thicker and duller than a standard needle tool. A long nail with a dull point is a good substitute. The line created is thicker than an X-Acto blade or needle tool and can give a similar line quality as a standard-sized pencil lead. Medium pressure is exerted with the tool tip so that it scratches through the white slip and just barely digs into the red underlying clay.
To see the rest of Kristen’s decorating process, see this post in the archives!
For more great clay carving techniques, be sure to download your free copy of Ceramic Carving Tool Techniques: Bringing the Ceramic Surface to Life.