RENEW
Feb 4, 2011

Posted by | 53 Comments

Never Stress During Clay Again!

From clay prep, to storage to products and management, I have gathered every tip I can think of to help you with your own clayfobia and enjoy working with kids and clay.

This is the first chapter of my clay diaries.  I have already shared with you my clay curriculum, Clay Cupcake Lesson and Coil Pots. This, my friends, is the calm before the storm. The prepping.  I have found a very specific pattern with preparing for and working with clay with kids.  The more prepared I am beforehand, the smoothly it goes. Magic, I know, but I do not think I truly understood the full import until I made a few quick changes to the way I prepared for the first week of clay.  Each year, I refine and tweak small things to make the experience a little better. This is not to say there aren’t days when I come home frazzled and exhausted, however, the amount of those days becomes fewer and fewer when I follow these tips.

Prepping The Clay

Prepping Clay Balls: Most projects require kids to start with a nice ball of clay.  Especially the Kindergarten and 1st grade students, because most of them make pinch pots of some kind. I roll clay into balls and put them in bags labeled with the number (usually a bag equals a class, but it can go any way you choose).

Prepping Clay Slabs: For years I would do slab projects and be cutting the slabs for each kid during class. They would walk up to me, I would cut them a slab and then they would go back to their seat and start rolling it out.  Unfortunately, this wasted a ton of time, and while the other kids were waiting for their slab, mass chaos erupted. Now, I simply cut the slabs in the morning, for that day, and put pieces of HEAVY card stock between them. (paper was donated to me with writing on the back).  Cover them up and they are ready to hand out.  Do not try to use thin paper of any kind or even shiny fingerprint paper. Do not try to do this days in advance. The morning of, with heavy card-stock has worked best for me. Otherwise the paper will start to stick and you will be left with even more issues.

Storing the Clay

This is an area many of you have asked me about. How do find storage space for 6 grade levels of clay? Good question. I have a very small triangle shaped art room. There is not a clay room. My kiln is down the hall in the custodial supply closet. Not ideal!

Make Some Space: I clear all surfaces in my room.  Countertops. Open Shelving. Tops of Cabinets. Paper Cutter. Everything! I take supplies that were on my supply shelves and stuff them in a cupboard. Then, I replace it with boxes of clay and pre-prepped clay.  By making room for a month, I feel less chaotic. I hardly use glue or scissors during clay month, so why have it in my way?

Get a Cart (or 2)! I use these clay carts for everything! Storing clay, transporting clay. One cart is usually going in the kiln, and the other is usually coming out.  I prefer a Rubbermaid cart that has a nice lip along the side so that items do not roll right off the cart.

Tubs, Totes and Drying Racks: I have found that using extra storage devices to keep a classes’ work contained is really important. I use long flat totes to store a classes clay when it is finished. Then, I can slip the tub right inside the class drawer if there is room. This really keeps the clay out of my way and off the counters.

I also have these white drying racks. It lets my counters have double the space, because half is off the counter and I can still store clay under it.  Getting wet clay up off the counter also helps the thicker pieces dry faster so I can get them in the kiln.

Speaking of the drying racks- Here is how I store the clay as it’s drying. I label the area with the day of the week.  This way I know which grade and day made it (in addition to carving the teacher’s name on the bottom of the clay)……It helps me to know what needs to go in first, so it’s ready for the them following art time.  I carve the names of all kids on the bottom of their clay. I use a mechanical pencil. It’s nice and sharp and never dulls. I just don’t trust their handwriting and know I can read my own. Even the older kids.

I also store wet clay (in progress) in baggies that are labeled with the teachers name AND the color table they sit at.  This makes passing it out a breeze and there is no fighting over clay or calling out names.  I also store larger pieces in the same tubs I use above, but I drape wet towels inside so they stay moist from time to time.

When students are working with clay, they work on place-mats. I purchased a large tarp at a home improvement shop.  I cut it into pieces and it works great, It also cleans off really well with soapy water so it keeps well from year to year. I know other teachers use boards or canvas pieces. This was an easy and inexpensive alternative for me .  When rolling out a very wet slab, they can stick to the tarp, but it’s been minimal for me so far.

So, that is how I went from fear of clay to conquering clay… I am still learning as I go.

What questions do you still have for me?  Maybe others can also help answer.

Any other fabulous tips out there for clay organization? Do tell.

psstt… I think clay week is extending a little longer- I have lots more to share and the week flew by…..So, it’s now a clay celebration into next week.  Then I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled programming. :)

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  • http://www.megskathy.etsy.com MegsKathy

    What about the actual clay-making during class? Younger kids have a difficult time attaching pieces. Even when I try to demonstrate scoring, at the end of class I usually end up with some pieces that are already falling apart. I do my best to fix them, but I can’t guarantee every single piece will not break. How do you handle that?

    • http://theartofeducation.wordpress.com Jessica Balsley

      MegsKathy- I have that issue as well. I am not sure you can avoid it. The clay making process can get chaotic. It’s just the way it is. That is why I prep and work so hard on the things I CAN control, because anything goes once you have a short amount of time, lots of kids, and wet clay. Blood pressure rises! I am looking for tips to make the clay making smoother as well!

  • http://vividlayers.blogspot.com/ Marcia Beckett

    I like the tarp idea. Does the clay stick to the tarp when you roll out a slab? We use canvas cloths, but the problem with those is that you need to put them in a washing machine to get them really clean. Good tips! I don’t prep nearly as much as you do, wow!

    • Angie

      Wow. This is a lot of prep!

    • http://theartofeducation.wordpress.com Jessica Balsley

      Sometimes very wet slabs can stick. Everything else works fine. I have kids check things from time to time to make sure they aren’t sticking.

      • Kristie Gillespie

        I use blue medical clothes that a parent donated from their work. They were used to wrap medical instruments so no worry of being used in surgery. They are water proof for the most part which is nice and the clay does not stick to them! They are awesome. I tape them to the table before class and then just take the tape off and fold after class, perfect every time!

    • Anonymous

      Another great material is wallpaper samples. I’ve been using them as clay mats for years. The clay never sticks.

  • Anna

    I basically do the same thing you do for prep- I always have the clay cut and in baggies ready to go for each class (I let the kiddos make their own ball:). For the slab I just pre cut and lay in between moist bath towels/rags- this way they don’t stick either and I’ve been able to keep them moist for days. It does make a big difference having all this done doesn’t it?! Thanks again for your tips/tricks:) Love the stackable white wire racks…. not sure why I didn’t think of that:) Happy Friday!

  • http://okeefesbackyard.wordpress.com MadisonArtTeacher

    This is the first year I have done clay with every grade level in the same year. I’ve learned a lot the last few weeks! Here are my two favorite things I’ve learned this year:

    1. Number off each kid at each table. That number coincides with a list of jobs on the board. My list looks like this:
    1-Tools (Get out and put away tools away from your table)
    2-Extra Clay (Put all the extra clay at your table in the extra clay bag. They also hand out clay pieces to use to their tablemates with a friend)
    3-Canvas and Table (Get canvas for each tablemate, stack up canvas pieces and wipe down the table at end)
    4-Slip Cups (get out and put away the slip cups)
    5-Art Work (bring all artwork from your table to your class shelf at end of class)
    If there are more than 5 at a table, those kids are special helpers. They help anyone that needs help. They take this job very seriously. (I usually have 2 or 3).
    This list eliminates clean up craziness!!

    2. For storage, I have each kid wrap their clay in damp paper towel. Then I put them all in a garbage bag on a shelf. No individual bags necessary. Each clay piece has a piece of scrap paper with their name and class code on it (because it’s wrapped in paper towel, I don’t etch their names in until we leave it out to dry). For even more organization, use a certain color for each table (table 1 is green, table 2 is orange etc) so then you can glance at the scrap paper color to put on the right table before class. Then their work is waiting for them on their table without going through the name calling process.

    I still am not sure how I feel about pre-cutting all that clay. I cut them in cubes and put them in a bag. I also think I have more time to cut the clay at the beginning of class because the kids are doing their jobs at the beginning of class. They are prepping their work areas themselves!

    • http://theartofeducation.wordpress.com Jessica Balsley

      Great tips, here! You should write a post about this and link it here! The more help we can all get the better! I still prefer having it all done ahead, but I think your system sounds like it hums like a well oiled machine! Awesome!!

  • http://artprojectgirl.blogspot.com Art Project Girl

    Things go a lot quicker with more prep for sure. That being said, I’m always looking for ways to do less prep and have the kids do more! Mostly because I get to see the kids for 3-5 years so if I teach them early they can continue to do it. 5th grade, I reserve for an over the top awesome clay project (I spend most of my energy prepping for this one grade level) last year we did ugly jugs http://artprojectgirl.blogspot.com/2010/06/not-so-ugly-jugs.html This year we made totem poles and of course the clay reliefs (based on famous paintings.)

    I noticed the students all couldn’t make spheres so we spent some time practicing that skill and learning that vocabulary. I made sure students knew we would not move on until everyone had a sphere. This got the kids working together at their tables to teach the others to make spheres and saved me!

    The best advice I have is have a clay play day BEFORE you start making final projects. I let the students experiment with the clay (sometimes a new material) and towards the end of class give a demonstration on what we will be making. They get to practice what they saw for a few minutes without the pressure of completing a project. I stress it’s practice because it will get squished (no matter how good it is) and put into the “play clay” bag for the next class. This gives us time to practice hand washing and clean up too without stressing out about everyone finishing their project. The next class the demo is more like a review and things go A LOT smoother.

  • http://artprojectgirl.blogspot.com Art Project Girl

    By the way I LOVE the cupcakes so much . . . I’m so jealous!!!!!!! I want to do this so bad except I’m starting this healthy eating initiative with the students and I don’t know how that would go over . . what is school coming to? There are no more birthday cupcakes or sweets! I’m a sweet aholic all though I believe in eating your veggies too, a healthy balance. I feel like Elaine from Seinfield in the episode where she misses her 4:00 sugar fix and eats her bosses special cake!

  • http://afaithfulattempt.blogspot.com/ Miss

    Can I ask about the tarp- is a plastic painting tarp or fabric? What size pieces do you cut it into? Currently I use boards, but I can see now that tarp would take up sooooo much less space….

  • allison

    Art Project Girl – you could have them make some kind of healthy treat/food instead! we do pop art food sculptures and each student makes something different using coil, slab, or pinch and i’ve had students make apples using two pinch pots before! Jess – nice tips! I think i’ve finally realized the importance of prep – i’ve got 750 students who are all working with clay at the same time so having the clay ready to go beforehand gave me the time i needed to get my room straightened up throughout the day! i agree with letting the kids practice too, i have “play clay” – the plasticene/colored kind that i let the kids experiment and plan with the class before we make our projects. it just gets the kids into “3-D” mode and allows them to experiment without their clay drying up in front of them.

  • Kim Hyman

    I love doing clay with my elementary students and feel like it runs fairly stress free. Here are some hints that work for me. I “prep” by labeling clothes pins with every childs first name and last initial along with their teacher’s name. (these are stored away for following years so I only have to be concerned about new students coming in. I also keep them sorted by grade in old yogurt containers, large ones, so that it is easy to hand them out the following year.) The first thing we learn is how to effectively wrap our clay in a small bag like you would get at a big box store with your merchandise in it. Many stores, grocery and WalMart have donated these in the past. The top is twisted closed while being consciencious about the contents, the twist is folded over then clipped with their clothes pins. All their clay is handled in this way until I put names on completed pieces and place them in the drying area to ready for firing. I purchased enough canvas to cover my tables like a table cloth. You can use those ironing board hook and springs to secure them under the tables so they don’t slide or move when the students are working. I’ve even considered sewing in elastic at the ends like a fitted sheet. Will probably do that one day when I feel the need to replace them. Canvas cloths go on first thing in the morning and come off at the end of the day. It’s a favorite “job” to help with the folding so that no clay dust ends on the floor. They are folded and stored for the next day and I do not worry about cleaning until we are finished with the unit. If they get particularly dusty, 3 students and myself can take them out of doors for a shaking and we are back to work. I purchased plastic boxes that are big enough to hold one table’s work (4 pieces) and that way I only hand out 6 boxes at the start of class. I don’t precut or premake anything. I stand at the head of 3 tables and cut clay; students pass down to the end of the table until a piece stays at their spot. They begin working immediately when they have clay and hand out goes relatively fast. Hope these ideas are helpful!!!

    • http://theartofeducation.wordpress.com Jessica Balsley

      Very nice ideas here! I like the clothespins idea as a creative way to keep track of student art. Thank you for sharing!

  • http://www.studio4art.net Studio4Art

    Although this is an older post, I wanted to just chime in about attaching pieces of clay together for the younger kids. If you have vinegar (about 1 tablespoon) and add it to water (about 1 cup) this acts as “glue for clay”. No scoring or slip is required. Each child just uses a paint brush (or their pointer finger) to apply the glue (sometimes nick-named “stinky water”, on both parts to be joined. Depending on the size of the piece being attached, twisting it gently back and forth will create a stronger bond. I have been using this technique for about 12 years and it is very successful. My favorite part is that you then don’t have the score marks to deal with. Vinegar and water is also great for smoothing and for fixing cracks.

    • http://theartofeducation.wordpress.com Jessica Balsley

      Great Tip- something I had never heard of and am excited to see what happens if I try this. Thank you for sharing.

    • Anonymous

      I’ve never heard of the vinegar and water trick, I’ll have to try it sometime. But I would also like my students to learn true clay techniques, so they’re prepared for middle school and high school art courses.

  • http://www.facebook.com/donald.d.kennedy Donald Dean Kennedy

    I have great success using cardboard fruit and vegtable flats from Costco to store drying projects and wet projects if they are put in plastic bags.
    You can stack them up in one area of floor space and go a high as you need. The only limitation is how high of a project the kids can make. I find having the kids make something higher than 2 – 3 inches ends up being a kiln space issue. I love doing clay maskes with simple texturing tools to add texture to a mask. Screw threads, and heads plus cut shells and toy tractor tires always get kids to make their mask look interesting.
    I end up cutting plastic – cups in half to make form for drying the masks in a curved fashion. The maskes get dried un a small piece of paper to make moving it around easier.

    Add the clothes pin idea and hand out will be so easy.

    Canvas drop cloth 4 x 15 works so well for the clay making part and than when glazing happens life is good. If time allow and budget allows I will paper to protect the work area and the canvas a bit. I uses this to keep the area fresh for the next class. If budget doesn’t allow – I uses newspaper.

    I have found that prep is key. Rolling out slabs a head of time is okay – If kids are doing a slab project – sticky water is the way to go – I haven’t been using it for 12 years but have for 2 years and K & 1st graders have had great success. If you want kids to learn how to roll a slab I have found that making small slabs to add decorating detail helps them to learn how to role a slab that is not so large and imtimdating.

    We always roll our slabs between a folded over piece of blue jean. Kids love seeing their old pants used over again. I cut the jeans open and the small slabs are just the right size to add detail to a project.
    I do uses railroad bars to help the kids make consistent slab – parts.

    Clay really allows kids to think 3 dimensionals and is so much fun!

    Think things thru and allow your own creativity to solve problems you never know when the idea will hit you to solve a class room flow idea.
    The blue jean idea was just that.

    Have fun.

  • Maureen Pierce

    When doing small slab pieces we’ve had great success with Glad Press N Seal. We roll it out, put it on a board with lined with Press N Seal and then put a top layer of Press N Seal on top and then press. We then pile the individual pieces on top of each other. We leave wide margins and sometimes just cut through the Press N Seal and they use they bottom layer as an extra placemat. The clay keeps for weeks.

  • Cheryl Hancock

    I saw a very clever idea for cutting slabs demonstrated recently –
    Place the block of clay on a canvas board. On two opposite sides of the clay put two wooden battens around a 1/4 inch thick. Using a cutting wire pull it through from the far side towards you using the wooden battens as you guide. It saves heaps of time. Then store between sheets of Glad Wrap or baking paper.
    I place prepared clay and or unfinished clay works in large lidded plastic tubs. Place a damp hand towel in the base. Then put in clay and then recover with a damp towel. As I see students once a week I check a couple of days later to see that work is still damp and spray to make sure. These days I use only paper clay as it is so easy to rejoin even when work is dry – just dampen and use a little slip to repair.
    I have been teaching visual arts 22 years and also having a sister Sandra Black who is a world renown ceramic artist is a plus. ( Sometimes I use her rolling mill when I have lots of tiles to do.)
    Cheryl Hancock
    Perth, Western Australia

    • Aclaird

      The best money I have ever spent is the glue dispenser and a slab cutter.  http://www.monstermarketplace.com/clay-planet-ceramic-supplies/precision-clay-cutter
      $15 and saves so much time with precise slab widths!!

      • Jennifer

        If you are still here…glue dispenser? You mean a gallon pump bottle? I hate glue :)

  • Anonymous

    I use cut up old clay bags to divide my slabs once they are cut. I put the stack of slabs (with dividers) on a masonite board and then can easily slip this board in and out of another old clay bag and twist tie it up! Works like a charm and I can cut slabs a day or two ahead of time saving me tons of time in the morning!
    Great ideas!

    • Paulinepdm

      I am not a teacher, but I slab out all of my clay, using cut up bags to separate as you do, also one on the bottom, place them in plastic lidded bins,–whatever sizes work best for your slabs, with a wet /damp bath towel over top and they last MONTHS and MONTHS, sometimes a year or more, just check periodically and rewet towel if needed.  So prep can really be way in advance.  

  • Ashley

    Great tips! I find the easiest way to label clay is to print off each class list in Excel. We have lists of classes in our ISD teacher web, and I put a number next to each kids name. So no more writing names and teacher names. Just the number will do. Like, Mrs. Smith’s class numbers are from 1-26. When I pull them out of the kiln, I know which shelf or shoe box to store them in before we glaze, because I have a piece of tape labeled Smith 1-26. It saves me SO much time and hassle, even when a kid says their pinch pot is not theirs, I have their name and number on a sheet of paper to reference.

  • Amanda

    You have great ideas! Thanks for sharing. I am going to use the tarp idea. I have always used tablecloths, but not all my students are using clay at the same time cause they all work at different paces!

  • Holly

    I actually have a slab roller and pre-roll/cut pieces for specific grades 1 to 2 days prior. I store them in a white cheap cooler and lay a piece of paper towel between each slab, spray with water and then continue from there. I love the zip-lock backs of pre-rolled pieces. Thanks for sharing.

  • Sarah

    These are really great tips and comments, especially for someone who plans to venture into a clay activity for the first time! I have yards and yards of burlap leftover from a retired teacher (between that and the dust covered bags of yarn, I think there was a lot of time spent on hook and rug) and was wondering if it would work as an alternative to the tarp or canvas boards.

    • Aclaird

      I use burlap mats (about 9″x12″) for the students to work on top of with clay.  It works great and leaves a small woven design on the bottom of their piece.  They can easily smooth this away with fingers as they bring it to me to scratch their name into the bottom. 

  • Cookie True

    has anyone come up with a fool proof way to mark clay projects with student names. Is there any kind of pen that will make it through the firing process?

    • http://www.theartofed.com/ Jessica Balsley

      I just carve it in with a mechanical pencil, but they do make clay chalks… Not sure about clay pens- get the patent while you can!

    • guest

       An underglaze pencil will make it through a bisque and glaze firing.

      • http://www.theartofed.com/ Jessica Balsley

        I need to look into these!

        • Karelyn

          Hobbyceram underglaze pencils are oxide pencils perfect for bisque ware. They are pricey tho $27.95 AU each!

    • Kristin

      I have discovered a new system that works great for me! I make a numbered class list and assign each kiddo a number. This way they just write their number, grade level and first initial of their teacher. So it may look like 4 3M. Our school uses this same number system on mailboxes in their classroom, homework folders etc so the kids are used to it. Writing 3 characters is SO much easier than trying to fit “Cheyenne 4M” on a tiny piece of wet clay. I also have the kids put their wet clay into a cardboard box (low and big used for fruit) on top of their number. This is like an insurance policy for me. If they forgot to put their number on the piece I can add it before the project is dry.

      • Adk Girl

        Mayco makes a stoneware wash sw-301 Iron Wash. Dilute it with a little water, apply with eyeliner brushes can get 100 for $5 on Amazon. The Iron oxide can go on last when the clay is still wet, just have them blow on it. When the piece is fired, it’s completely permanent and visible. Very little goes a long way and will last forever! It does stain clothing however, so use caution with the Kg 1st graders!

  • Vickidaniele

    I use old white boards (12×12) from a regular ed class.  On the back is a textured surface.  It is sturdy so they can work on the surface (especially for any slab work) and they can also carry their work for storage.  I also use ziploc bags for projects that need more than one class time. I used to write the names and teacher codes on the bags, but I like to reuse them so now I just have them write on a scrap paper that they just put into the bag.  When they are finished, they keep the paper with their piece and I write their names with a needle clay tool.

  • Mrs. Ruvolo

    I do not have a kiln.  What clay do you recommend if you do not have a kiln?

    • Tmiles576

      Sculpy is a good alternative though it is a little expensive. I would check with any local colleges or universities. I know that a lot of them are willing to fire clay for teachers. It never hurts to ask.

  • Art4him07

    Thankfully my kiln is in the back closet of my classroom. As far as storing the clay, each child gets their own zippered bag with their name on it…in goes their clay for the next week. I only work with clay one grade level at a time, which is less stressful in the long run! It allows me to have fun all year long! Clean up is easy as the kids only need water rinsing their hands…clay is NOT dirty. Paper towel usage is the main problem, however. If anyone has any great thoughts on less paper towel usage-please share!

    • http://www.theartofed.com/ Jessica Balsley

      I put damp rags out on the table, and allow students to wipe their hands on it, and also the table. They can be rinsed and reused for each class period. They can then be used at the end of the day to put into tubs to keep the clay damp. Saves a ton of paper towels!

  • Bubbleartist

    You could use waxed paper or plastic bags between clay slabs

  • Sarahcbradsher

    I have been using plastic page protectors between my slabs recently. It helps keep the clay more moist, and it dosen’t stick! Plus they are pre-cut and durable

  • Patti

    Any suggestions on how to take dried and finished project home?

    • Alyssa J

      I ask for paper lunch bags and newspaper, wrap the clay up and staple it closed so they aren’t taking it out until they get home. I also give a “This is fragile!” speech.

  • http://dfx4509b.deviantart.com Josh Mason

    Just a quick tip if you’re creating any chibi characters out of clay, those tend to use a lot of clay balls, actually, two big ones for the head and body, and four smaller ones for the hands and feet.

  • Kathy

    All my clay is dried, rock hard. How do I moisten it?

    • Adk Girl

      If it’s a solid block, put it in a 5 gal pail with hot water and leave it for several weeks or longer!
      I do mine in a 3 step process.

      If it’s all small pieces that are dried out, I fill a 5 gal pail half way with the clay pieces, and then fill with hot water, give it a swirl and let it sit over night. Top it off with more water and swirl over the next few days you can also add more clay. Mix it good! I use a plaster mixer attached to a drill. You want it to be like heavy cream. That’s step 1

      Step 2
      Take HALF the bucket of “heavy cream” clay and pour it into another 5 gal bucket. Top it off with water, mix it well and let sit for several days, or weeks! Each step the clay gets more smooth and creamy.

      Step 3
      Take half of the step 2 bucket and poor it into a 2 gal bucket. Add water and mix. Let sit a few days, mix again and dump into a plaster batt/ mold. After several hours you should be able to peel it out of the mold and flip it over. Once it’s the consistency you like to work with, wedge it up really well and use, or bag for later.

  • Tina

    Instead of writing names we stamp out names. I got these small metal letter stamps (I believe they are for leather) and have the kids stamp their name or initials. They are clear and easy to use. Minus the upside down letter time to time but it works out great for me:)

  • Adk Girl

    Empty Wood Pellet bags work great. Just cut them to the size you need. They are heavy duty and can easily transport, and wrap clay. Damp boxes work great to either keep clay from drying out, or to rehydrate a project that dried out, just poor and inch or so of plaster in a lidded tote and let set up. Once the plaster is set, add some water to the plaster, let it absorb and then put your project in and seal it up until your ready to work on it again! I keep several sizes of totes around for this…they don’t have to be very big.