Paul Eshelman’s handled soup bowl, 5 in. (13 cm) in diameter. Photo: John Harrison.
Paul Eshelman’s simple clean pots rest quietly on the table ready to serve those who come to eat and drink. The refined, minimal aesthetic of the wares are derived from his own handmade plaster models and molds, his mid-range red slip and the slip-cast process. This process is consistently evident in the look and feel of each final piece.
For his handled soup bowl, Paul creates a finger hole that is built into the wall of the piece, so while it remains functional, it also reads as a portal or window into the pot, giving physical and visual access to the piece. The curved rim is a sleek, warm sweep, and the curved base is ideal for cradling the bowl in the hand.
Paul’s process begins with a series of simple line drawings that help him define the shape of a piece. The form is modelled first in plaster so he must have a clear idea of dimension and shape before he begins the plaster work. As he draws, he refers to an object of similar size as the piece he is designing, which gives him a sense of the physical presence the piece will have. He breaks down the form, thinking about how the various shapes and curves can be most easily and accurately made. He then scales up all dimensions 10% to account for the shrinkage of his casting slip during drying and firing.
Creating a Model, Then a Mold
In making a model for the handled soup bowl, he begins by setting up a cottle on the wheel from flexible plastic sheeting (salvaged from an old sign) or aluminum flashing bound by rope. The shaping process will be subtractive, so a larger starting round of plaster gives him room to true the plaster form and make adjustments in the shaping the model.
After mixing, he pours the plaster into the cottle and allows it to set for about ten minutes, or until the plaster is the consistency of firm cream cheese. At this point he removes the cottle and begins to turn the piece using a slow wheel speed. He begins with a broad metal putty knife, moves to L-shaped trimming tools (1), then a Surform rasp, sanding mesh, and finally, as he works to create a smooth finish on the model, 220-grit wet/dry sandpaper (2) and a flexible metal rib. The plaster can be worked for about 20–30 minutes.
Throughout shaping, Paul periodically measures the diameter and height of the model to make sure it matches his planned proportions.
After removing the preliminary model from the wheel, Paul treats it with three coats of mold soap as a plaster release agent. He then sets up a square cottle around the upside-down model. He leaves approximately 1–1½ inches between the model and the cottle walls. Next, he pours plaster inside the cottle frame, covering only the bottom half of the model, being sure not to cover the top portion of the model (3). After it sets (4), Paul draws an arc along the newly poured ring to define a top curve for the piece. He saws into the plaster ring along this arc using a band saw (5), then he trims the squared edges into a half-inch wide ring again using a bandsaw (6). Paul fits this ring back onto the preliminary model (7). Although the sweep of the arc is nicely defined, the portion that will become the top edge of the arc is angled strongly. To alleviate this, Paul adds a clay taper to this edge, making it a level 90° angle.
At this point, the model is ready to be used to create a mold. The profile of the piece is slightly tapered to allow it to be cast in one piece. Paul uses this model to create only one mold, which will be a waste mold (8). After the waste mold is poured and sets, Paul removes the preliminary model and cleans up the mold. (He may at this point cast a pot from the mold to see what the piece looks like as a hollow form.) Then he uses the waste mold (9) to cast a master model using Ultracal 30 gypsum cement, which is dense and hard enough to allow multiple production molds to be made from the master model. Once the master model is set, Paul must break the waste mold off of the model. He carefully saws into the waste mold and wedges two metal putty knives into the saw cut (10). He then taps a third putty knife in between these as a wedge. The waste mold will crack off in several large pieces (11).
Now Paul has a final opportunity to clean up the master model. He uses 400-grit wet/dry sandpaper to remove any imperfections.
Next, he sets up a cottle of plastic sheeting, clay, and rope and sets the master model, again treated with release soap, inside. He mixes the plaster and pours it into the cottle. As the plaster begins to set, Paul carefully pushes a ring of drywall mesh all the way to the bottom of the plaster (what will be the rim of the mold), which reinforces the mold and gives it a longer casting life (12).
After the plaster is set and the master is removed, Paul spends a few minutes cleaning it up and rounding sharp exterior edges so plaster bits won’t chip into the clay (13). Paul will create several molds from the master to use for casting bowls.
Casting the Bowl
Each batch of slip Paul mixes for casting is slightly different, so casting times vary from about 45 to 60 minutes. Paul keeps records of the time and uses a timer to ensure the bowls are all cast to approximately 3⁄16-inch thick when wet. After dumping excess slip from the mold and allowing it to dry for about 30 minutes, he trims the rim of the bowl using a shortened plastic trimming tool, which won’t cut into the mold (14). When the bowl has dried in the mold for another three hours, it’s firm enough to be removed
Cutting the Handle
Paul uses a one-inch keyhole drill and a template to drill a hole in the bowl for a handle (15). With the template aligned with the arc of the bowl, he drills a pilot hole into the leather-hard clay. He removes the template and finishes drilling, then sets the pot aside to fully dry.
Once dry, Paul fettles the rim of the bowl, trimming off the sharp edges. He then rounds the rim with a wet scrub pad and sponges the entire piece. While it’s still damp, he polishes the bottom and lower portion of the bowl with a rag to smooth the areas that will remain unglazed (16). Particular care is taken to finish the rim and edges smoothly so they are kind to fingers and lips.
The bowl is now ready to be bisque fired to cone 05. After bisque firing, Paul uses hot wax to delineate the unglazed portion of the bowl. He then dips the bowl in a glaze and cleans up the edge. Finally, the bowls are glaze fired to cone 4 in oxidation.
Paul’s most fundamental intention is to create pots that enter the user’s daily living and give dignity to the human acts of eating and drinking. He envisions people eating from this bowl at the dinner table, informally at the office desk, while watching TV, or sitting out on the deck on a warm evening.
Paul Eshelman received his MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. He was then introduced to slip casting and mold making in a workshop taught by Tim Carder, a designer from the Lenox China Company, and began to make models and molds for his own functional work. In 1988 Paul and his wife Laurel moved to Elizabeth, Illinois, and set up Eshelman Pottery. Their three children, including the author Hannah Marshall, have all worked with them in the pottery. See more of the work at www.eshelmanpottery.com.
Paul Eshelman’s nesting bowls with bump handles, to 12½ in. (32 cm) in diameter.
Hannah Marshall lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she divides her time between writing and mothering. Her prose and poetry have appeared in a number of publications, including Ceramics Monthly, Wisconsin Review, Anglican Theological Review, Minerva Rising, and The Madison Review.