Eight years ago, shortly after our son was born, my mother-in-law was visiting and stayed with us through Christmas. My brother lived near us at the time, and gave my mother-in-law a vintage pancaker from the 50’s. You filled it with batter, held it over a hot skillet and depressed the plunger for a few seconds to open the plug at the bottom and let the batter flow into the skillet. The result: perfect pancakes with no mess. The pancaker she received came in the original 1950’s box-everything about it was cool. I probably made pancakes every day during her visit.

My pancaker is basically a tall basket or
bowl that has a pedestal attached to the bottom to keep the stopper
from touching the counter. The plunger rod and nuts ideally should be
made from stainless steel, however this is usually hard to come by, so
a brass rod works just as well. The right-sized spring may also be hard
to come by, but farm supply stores usually have a great selection. A
spring from a retractable pen might work in a pinch. Finally, the #6-32
die probably has to be purchased as part of a tap and die set. This
will be used to thread the rod once you have it measured and cut to
size.
Materials
3-4 pounds of clay
2 ft. of 1/8 in. brass or stainless steel rod
7/32 x 13/4 in. 020 compression spring
2 #6-32 hex nuts
2 #8 washers
5-minute epoxy
#6-32 die (available at home centers)


Throwing the sections

Start by throwing a tall bowl with
21/2-3 lbs. of clay. The shape or style is up to you (it doesn’t have
to be round!). Be sure the rim is a little thicker than normal. The
weight of the basket-type handle can spread the bowl during firing, and
a sturdy rim helps counter that.
Though the overall shape is up to
you, the bottom of the pot should be about 1/4-3/8 in. thick. The plug
will be cut out of the bottom later and making it a little thicker
makes this plug stronger. I usually taper the bottom of the form in
slightly, making a graceful transition to the pedestal foot
that’s attached later.
Next, throw the pedestal. This needs to be a
bottomless form. It is thrown upside down, with the bottom tapered to
match the diameter of the bottom of the bowl.
 
 Finally, throw a little knob. I find it easier to throw small items
off the hump, since the form I’m throwing is raised up on a mound of
clay rather than close to the wheelhead, I can easily get to the
underside and shape it. When you’re finished, just slice it
off the mound using a wire tool.

Trim the bottom of the bowl. You don’t need a proper foot since it will
sit on the pedestal. Before taking it off the wheel, cut out the plug
from the bottom. First take a 1/4 in. drill bit and drill a hole in the
exact middle of the bowl.
Then take your needle tool and cut a 11/4 inch diameter circle out of
the bottom. This piece becomes the plug, so take care when cutting it
out to keep it intact. Hold the needle tool at an angle and not
straight up and down when making this cut. This creates an inward taper
on the plug, so that it can easily be pushed open, but makes a seal
when closed.
It will be impossible to make the pancaker
water tight, but batter is thicker and won’t seep out. Just make sure
the plug matches the hole as closely as possible.

Joining the parts
Now score and slip the pedestal and the bottom of the bowl, then attach the two together.
Roll out a small coil about an inch thick and then gently flatten it so
it gets a little wider, while keeping it about a half-inch thick. Form
it into a bridge, then slip and attach it to the inside bottom of the
bowl so that it spans the hole. This is a second guide for the plunger
rod, and will help make the stopper line up and the plunger operate
smoothly.
Drill a 1/4 inch hole in the second guide, being sure to drill
straight, lining it up with the hole in the plug. There is little play
in between these two, so be sure this hole and the plug hole are
exactly in the center of the bowl.

Roll out another coil for the handle, then pull and taper both ends
like a handle for a mug. Don’t pull too thin, you want it to hold its
shape and not slump when fired. Make the mid-section near the top of
the arch pretty thick as well, since you’ll be drilling the guide hole
for the rod through that section.

When the handle has stiffened
enough to work with it, firmly attach it to the bowl. You want a strong
attachment here as this is the area where cracks are most likely to
form. If there’s any place you develop cracks, it will probably be
here. So dry slowly and be gentle.

When the handle has set, but before it’s bone dry, drill your hole
exactly in the center. You can have more play here, and you
might want to step up one size on your drill bit. You can always use a
washer later if your hole is too big for your spring. Still, be very
careful drilling the hole, be sure it lines up with the second guide
hole in the strap of clay at the bottom. Also don’t press too hard when
drilling, you want the bit to “cut” the clay, not push through it.

The
easiest hole to drill is in your knob. Don’t go all the way through,
you just need about half an inch for your rod to glue into. Slowly dry the pancaker and then bisque and glaze. When glazing,
wax as you normally would. Fire the plug separate from the pancaker, as
there’s no way to secure it into the bottom. By firing it separately,
you can also glaze the area that will eventually make contact with the
bowl.

This article appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated

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Creating the mechanism
Use a die to thread the rod, so that a nut will gracefully screw on to
it. Since you are using a 1/8-inch thick rod you will want to get a
#6-32 die. This makes a thread for a fine-thread #6 machine nut.

Holding the rod with pliers, carefully start twisting the die onto the
rod like you would if threading a nut, being sure to keep it straight.
Once it is started, just keep rotating the die and it will carve the
threads. You only need to thread about a 1/4- to 1/2-inch section of
the rod. Unscrew the die and you should have a nice threaded end.

Slide the stopper on with the bevel side up, then add
a washer and nut.
Insert the rod into the bottom of the
pancaker, through the bottom guide and finally into the hole in the
handle.
 
Pull the rod all the way up to seat the
plug then set the pancaker aside.
The next step involves measuring the rod to figure out the final length
of your stopper mechanism. Push a spring and spare length of rod into
the knob and make a mark on the rod where the end of the spring comes
to when it’s NOT under compression. Measure that distance,
and then subtract about half an inch. This will create enough tension
to keep the plug seated securely so that it covers the opening. For
example, my overall measurement came to 13/4 in., so my measurement for
the next step was 11/4 in. Pull the rod all the way up so the
stopper seals the bowl.
Now take the measurement from the previous step
and add it to the rod. Start at the very top of the handle, measure up
toward the end of the rod, and mark this point. This is where you want
to cut the rod. This should be a perfect length so the
stopper is firmly under pressure, sealing the pancaker, but also
leaving enough room so that the knob can be pressed down about a half
inch, opening the stopper and releasing the batter. Disassemble
everything and cut the rod with a hacksaw. Using the die, thread the
end of the rod to make a nice “grip” for the glue.

Assembling the pancaker

Take one end of the rod and slide the spring on, daub a fair amount of
five-minute epoxy onto the end and glue it into the knob. Make sure
there is enough epoxy to hold everything in place when it sets. Also,
make sure the rod is sticking straight out of the knob while the epoxy
sets. Note: Even though it says five minutes, wait twenty before
assembling your pancaker. Slide a washer against the spring and then
insert the rod into the handle.

 
Slide the assembly down through the second guide and then flip the
pancaker over and re-assemble the stopper. Slide the clay
plug on, then slide a washer onto the rod so it rests against the clay
plug and then thread on the nut against the washer. When the assembly
is finished, just heat the skillet, fill your pancaker with batter and
you’re ready to go.

Keith Phillips is a full-time artist and potter in Fletcher, North
Carolina. To see more of his work, go to http://khphillips.etsy.com or
visit his blog at http://blog.mudstuffing.com or contact him via email
at keith@mudstuffing.com.

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