Water etching (covering part of the surface with a resist material, then abrading exposed areas using a wet sponge), is a great technique to add depth and visual interest to a surface while keeping a very clean and simple finish. It’s great on its own or in combination with other surface techniques and is a fast way to get relief carvings on an entire piece. Amy Roberson uses water etching to enhance her pieces. To have good results with this technique, you must work with your clay just past the leather-hard state, but definitely not bone dry. Amy’s watering can shows this technique off well because of the dynamic form and surface combination.
Throwing the Body
Begin by throwing a large cylinder—approximately 8 inches tall and 6 inches wide. Because you’re going to water etch this piece, make sure your walls are at least inch to 1⁄3 inch thick. To give yourself a nice clean and flat surface for the etching technique, use a stiff wooden or metal rib to remove any throwing rings on the exterior.
Next, use a plastic or wood cut-in tool to remove clay and create an angle at the bottom of the cylinder, then repeat that angle at the top (1). Since this form will be used to hold water, and we don’t want it to spill over the edge while pouring, the angle at the top of the piece is crucial. Allow the form to firm up, then trim and clean up the bottom (2).
Throwing the Spout
Throw a large spout with a flared rim (3). You want a much larger and longer spout than you would make for a smaller teapot. Amy makes her watering can spouts between 6 and 8 inches long. Note: You’ll also need to cut the spout at an angle to attach it to the body of the watering can.
Once the spout has firmed up to leather hard, attach a slab to the flared end. After the slab has firmed up, punch holes through the slab to allow water to flow out (4)—the larger the holes you cut, the faster the water pours out.
Pulling the Handle
While the body of the watering can and the spout firm up, pull the handle (5). Just like the spout, the handle also needs to be substantial, to accommodate the weight of a full watering can. Think about the curve of the handle (6), its thickness, and how your hand needs to rest against the curve in order to stop it from sliding along the handle—once that happens, the piece becomes difficult to pour from.
Assembling the Form
Notice the placement of the spout on Amy’s watering can—the upright angle of the spout allows water to smoothly pour out when the can is tipped forward but stops the flow of water once it’s set down. Dry fit the spout to the body (7), then mark its placement and the angle of the cut, then slice the end off the spout. At the area on the body marked for the spout’s placement, cut a small hole for water to flow through from the body to the spout. Score both parts, and attach them using slip.
Allow the pot to slowly dry and homogenize—you want the piece to be at a hard to leather-hard state for the water etching technique.
In getting ready to water carve, planning is crucial. Remember that because you’re using ModPodge® as a resistant material, the areas covered with it will not be water etched and will remain raised.
Planning your drawings and patterns involves thinking about both the positive and negative space.
You can draw directly on the clay with the ModPodge® or you can use paper stencils to mask off areas. Using paper cut outs gives you super clean lines as well as allowing you to lay out your design before hand, making sure all the images or patterns fit and work nicely together. Bold lines and shapes work best, while thin or delicate lines and shapes tend to wash away too quickly.
After cutting out your shapes (8), soak them in water until the paper is damp and flexible. Soaking the paper cutouts makes them adhere to the clay and prevents the ModPodge® from seeping under them. Practice will help you know the exact right moisture level to make the cutouts adhere—if the piece is too wet, the soaked paper will move around and prevent you from achieving crisp lines once you paint on the ModPodge®. Conversely, if your piece is too dry, the cutouts will dry out immediately and could fall off.
Water Etching Materials
ModPodge® (gloss variety): ModPodge® is non-toxic, which is why we like using it in place of shellac. ModPodge® is an AP Non-Toxic product commonly used in schools and doesn’t have the fumes associated with shellac. In addition, ModPodge® doesn’t ruin brushes, and is easy to clean up with soap and water.
- Brushes: soft brushes with good line quality
- Paper: newsprint or cheap copy paper
- Paper punches
- Scissors, needle tool, or X-Acto knives
- Small, yellow, synthetic sponge
Use a shallow dish with an edge to pull water off the paper shapes by dragging them across the edge of the dish as you remove them from the water. You don’t want them to dry before application as the wet surface helps them stick to the leather-hard surface. Apply the cutouts to your pot and allow them to dry to the touch (9).
Next, apply one coat of ModPodge® directly over the paper cutouts (10). If you’re not using paper cutouts and are drawing directly with the ModPodge®, you should use caution not to get the ModPodge® in areas where you want to wipe clay away. Once the ModPodge® begins to dry, you can peel the paper cutouts off with the tip of a needle tool or an X-Acto knife. Allow the ModPodge® to fully dry to the touch before moving onto the next step.
Now you can begin water etching. Gently begin wiping the surface with a damp sponge (11); any type of sponge will work, but a synthetic, small, yellow one is preferred. The areas covered with ModPodge® will remain raised clay and where there is none, the clay will wipe away, becoming recessed. Rotate your sponge consistently while wiping—you don’t want clay caught in the sponge or it will abrade the ModPodge® away before your desired depth is achieved. Rinse your sponge out often. Amy usually only makes a few passes between rinsing. Allowing the piece to dry for a few minutes will help you to achieve a deeper recess while maintaining a clean line. You can also add more layers of ModPodge® at this stage to accomplish varying depths or multiple patterns.
Cleaning and Firing
When you’re happy with the depth of your water etching, allow the piece to dry very slowly. Sometimes, if the timing is just right, you can simply peel off the ModPodge®, if you can’t, don’t worry, it will burn away in the kiln.
When the piece is dry, bisque fire it. After the firing, there will be a small amount of residual ash left on the pieces from the burned off ModPodge® (12). Use a wet green scrubbing pad to remove the residue and wipe the piece down. Note: If the ash residue is left on the piece, you may get crawling with some glazes.
Glossy and translucent glazes will show off the delicate line work of the water etching. Amy uses brightly colored sheer glazes that break over the relief shapes.