Ceramics Part 1: Kiln-Fired Clay (Ep. 022)

Ceramics is an incredible experience for our kids, but it can be overwhelming if you don’t know what you are doing. Whether you are just starting out teaching clay, or are looking for new and better ideas, this episode has it all! Join Cassie as she discusses all the supplies she uses when teaching her clay units (4:00), avoiding explosions in the kiln (12:00), and making sure your glazes look good (15:30). Full episode transcript below.


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So, did you hear the one about the art teacher who melted down a kiln? Yeah. She had to go home because she had a panic attack when she opened the kiln and noticed that everything inside looked like melted down marshmallows.

That joke would actually be maybe a little bit humorous, if it wasn’t the story of my life, my third year of teaching, my first year with a kiln, and that’s what happened to me. I had a panic attack the moment I opened that kiln and realized that I had done something very, very bad. I didn’t even bother to tell them what I had done when I went to the office and asked if I could please go home, because I was feeling very, very ill. They sent me home, but it didn’t mean that I didn’t get off the hook. The next day, I had to go to them and say, “I think I may have done something wrong to the kiln.”  All right, I’m gonna be honest. I totally blamed the kiln, and the word malfunction might’ve come up, even though it was operator error.

Y’all, why is it that we art teachers are given, a lot of us, the fortunate ones, this very expensive piece of equipment with very little advice, experience, or instruction on how to use it? The kiln. The kids love to work with clay, we’ve got to give them that experience, but why, oh why, do we have to operate this thing, which in my mind, I could almost always burn the school down, it couldn’t happen, I know it’s self-contained, but in my brain, I just see a big old mushroom cloud popping up every time I set that kiln afire.

That’s why today I thought it’d be great if I gave you all my practical tips and tricks on working with clay. Yeah, get ready for it, y’all.

This is Everyday Art Room, and I’m Cassie Stephens.

All right. So, the gal whose happened to melt down a kiln and had a panic attack is gonna give you advice on clay projects and how to use your kiln, and how to do clay with students, aren’t you lucky?

Today, I’m gonna share with you all things kiln fire clay. I know not everybody is fortunate enough to have a kiln, so for that reason I will be following up this podcast with another one all about clay projects for the kiln-less.

Today, let’s talk about those of us who are fortunate enough to have a kiln. I am talking about clay this week because it’s on my mind. Usually, after winter break, when we head back to school, my students, we do a big fiber unit, and in the spring we do clay.

I thought I would share my favorite tips and tricks with you today to get you excited and pumped up about using clay.  Let’s start with how I do clay in my art room. When I do clay with my students, I do clay for about two weeks solid, and I do it with everybody, Kindergarten through fourth grade.

The reason I do this is because: A., that clay gets everywhere, and it’s going to make a huge mess, you might as well knock it all out at once, and make sure that all the kids get the same experience at the same time. There’s nothing like doing clay with one grade level and having the other grade levels find out about it, you’re gonna have a mutiny on your hands. “What do you mean you’re doing clay with second grade, Stephens? That ain’t fair, we want to do clay, too.” So, you should probably just go ahead and do clay with all.

The other thing that I do is I like to have it with everybody, because then my tables are set up, my supplies are out, I’m already in clay mode, and I’m ready to go. Let’s talk about my supplies that I use when I’m teaching my students how to work with clay.

First things first, I use a low-fire clay, Cone 06. You can order your clay from a variety of sources. Personally, I like to order my clay locally, because I know that if there’s any issues I can give them a ring, meaning if my clay is too hard, or if it’s not firing correctly, I can call them up and ask for advice. You can, of course, order clay from the major art suppliers. My only problem with that is that sometimes that clay is sitting in a warehouse where the temperature might fluctuate, and you might end up getting a block of clay that’s dried out.

Now, if any of that ever happens to you, of course, pick up the phone and call those art suppliers, because they’re always really great at bending over backwards and replacing anything, but that’s just why I like to order my clay locally. Low-fire, Cone 06.

On my tables I have each student have their own clay mat.  Let’s talk about my clay mats for a second, because I swear by these things. I purchased my clay mats from The Clay Lady, who you can find on Mid-South Ceramic on the inter webs. I would highly recommend getting these mats, they’re about two bucks each, you will want to get one per student, but I have had mine since that very first year I melted a kiln down, 15 years now, that I’ve been using these same clay mats. They have a white side, and a blue side, the clay will not stick to the white side, you can wipe them down, wash them in the sink, they are fabulous.

Each of my students has their own clay mat. In between each two of my students I have a doggie dish, and then the doggie dish, I have two toothbrushes. So, let’s talk about it. I use the words, slip and score, with my students, because vocabulary is important; however, I do not give them a metal tool for making the scoring marks, and we do use slip, but instead of that tool, we use toothbrushes.

I tell the kids that if you want to stick two pieces of clay together you have to slip and score, and for that we’re gonna scratch into the surface with a toothbrush, that’s our scoring, and we’re going to use this watery clay, that’s our slip.

I tell them, “If you don’t brush your teeth, your teeth will fall out.”  This is the same thing. If you don’t toothbrush your clay, the pieces are going to fall apart. That’s how I have my students attach the clay.

When it comes to slip, to create the slip I just usually start with a little bit of water in the doggie dish. By the way, doggie dishes from the Dollar Tree are the best thing ever, because they never, ever tip over, and they hold just the right amount of water.

When my students are cleaning using those clay mats at the end of their clay project or at the end of art class, I have them bend their clay mat up creating a U, and then just tip that clay mat into the doggie dish into the watery side, and that clay dissolves, creating the slip that they use.

The other thing that we always have on the table are skewer sticks. I love having the kids use skewer sticks for cutting into the clay, for making textures in the clay, those are invaluable when it comes to working with clay. That’s something that each one of my students uses when they’re creating with clay.

The other thing that I always have on the table, in the middle, is a mountain of textures. I love for my students to use burlap, anything that’s a doily, not a paper doily, but like plastic doilies work great, anything that’s lace is fabulous for texture, even sweaters with a really great texture like a cable-knit work fabulously. Your texture rubbing plates would work good, as well; however, sometimes clay can get a little sticky. If you are using something with your students, and you find that their clay project is sticking to the surface that they’re trying to grab the texture, try using corn starch.  Corn starch is, like flour is to baking, it makes it so things don’t get quite so sticky.

Again, we have a great mountain, and an assortment of textures in the middle of the table. Each one of my students also usually has a plate, one of those really inexpensive paper plates from the Dollar Store. We use those, because at the end of art class, my students write their name on that plate, place their clay project on it, and then bring it to me on that plate. This allows me to make sure that I keep track of who made what, because I always make sure to write the name … their name on the bottom of their clay project. I can’t ask them to do that, because, let’s be honest, it would be too difficult to read their handwriting. Sometimes they damage their clay projects by writing their name in them too deeply. So, we always have those junky paper plates on hand for them to bring me their clay projects on.

Last, but not least, baby wipes. I tell them to grab just one baby wipe, it’s for their hands and for their clay mat. I don’t like the idea of having all that clay going down my sink, and just the amount of students who would have to be at the sink at the end of art class. So, a baby wipe, and I just let the classroom teachers know, “Hey, we worked with clay today, FYI, they’re gonna need to wash their hands.”

That’s how I have my tables set up for clay. A clay mat for each student, a mountain of texture in the middle, a plate, and a skewer stick for each student, and a baby wipe, doggie dish, with a toothbrush for slipping, and scoring.

If you’re thinking, “Cassie, I need clay lessons.” Don’t you worry, I have a ton, and you can find them in video form on my YouTube channel, and a lot on my blog, as well. Just search, clay projects, I have you covered from Kindergarten up through fourth, and beyond.

Now, let’s talk about if your students are working with clay, and they don’t complete their project in one class. I have 30-minute art classes, so this is always an issue. If you have students who are working on clay projects, and you know that they’re gonna need more time in another art class here’s what I do: I give each student a Ziploc bag and a damp paper towel, I have them just drape the damp paper towel over their clay project loosely. If it’s too wet it could start to cause their clay project to kind of dissolve and disintegrate.

Then, I have them place their clay project gently inside of that Ziploc bag without zipping it closed. I just tell them to gently press the air out and tuck the bag underneath. If the bag is sealed closed it could possibly dry the clay project out. Then, I just have them write their name and teacher code on the Ziploc bag, and when they get it back there’s usually a little bit of damage from it dissolving a little bit, or if they weren’t gentle enough when they put it in the bag, but, hey, then that’s just something that they have to fix the following art class.

Once my students’ clay projects are complete, I … You’re gonna think I’m crazy, I let them dry for two solid weeks. I speak from explosion experience. Explosions are caused in the kiln when a clay project is damp. If you don’t let the clay project dry thoroughly, and a water molecule is trapped somehow in that clay project, and it dries too rapidly and starts to shake inside the clay project when it’s fired in the kiln it will explode. When one clay project explodes there’s others that could potentially get busted, broken, and damaged. I don’t like taking my chances. I don’t mind letting things dry for a long time before we fire them the first time.

When I do fire the clay projects, I fire them on a very slow ramp of firing. I currently have a computerized kiln. If you do, also, you’ll notice that you can fire slow, medium, and fast. I always fire slow just to be on the safe side.

If you’re uncertain, one rule of thumb is just to touch the clay projects. If they feel damp at all, then there’s water trapped inside of them, and you should not be putting them in the kiln.

If they feel a little bit dry or dryish, you could always put them in the kiln and prop the lid of kiln a little bit, and just do a very low-fire, but if you had a couple of incidences like me, and you don’t want to take your chances, then you go ahead and wait those two solid weeks. Trust me, you’ll be golden.

Also, if you pick up any of your students’ clay projects as they’re bringing them to you, and you notice that they’re thick. Thick clay also can cause explosions in the kiln, because it never seems to dry. Then, what you can do is you can use the back of the skewer stick, or even the pointed side, and on the bottom of your students’ clay project, just poke a couple of holes where nobody’s going to see it, and what this will do is allow the dampness to escape and allow the clay project to dry a little bit more thoroughly.

Once your kid’s clay projects are out of the kiln, then we can talk about glazing. Now, glaze is not cheap, but for me, I like to give my students that glaze experience at least once, maybe even a couple of times in their art ed career under my guidance, because glaze is just so amazing and magical, but, like I said, not cheap.

My favorite glaze to use is Mayco’s Stroke & Coat, I cannot recommend it enough. The reason I love it is because the colors, they fire bold, they fire bright, and they’re beautiful. Here’s my little rule of thumb when my students are glazing. When they’re glazing the number one rule is, do not glaze the bottom of your clay project. Simply because, when the glaze melts in the kiln it will act like a glue and cause the clay project to adhere itself to your kiln shelf.

I tell them not to glaze the bottom. They always accidentally get a little bit of glaze on the bottom, so for that reason, when I do load the kiln for a glaze fire, I keep a damp sponge on hand, just wipe the bottom of their clay, and place it inside the kiln.

I also tell them that they need to glaze their clay project, whatever colors they choose, but using that same color that they chose. For example, if they’re glazing a bird, and they’re going to glaze it blue, they need to use that same color three times, just to really get complete coverage, and to make sure it’s going to be vibrant in color, and have that nice glaze shine.

When my students are glazing it can be a little tricky, because glaze, even the Mayco Stroke & Coat, it can change color in the kiln, and for that reason it can be really hard for your students to wrap their head around what color this is actually going to turn out being.

When I distribute glaze to my students I place the glaze in ice cube trays. That’s how I give paint to my students, as well. But, on my glaze trays, I have each color labeled so that they understand, okay, this, even though it looks like purple, it’s actually going to fire to pink, because I see the word pink right here, and even though this one is light yellow, it’s actually gonna fire to a really bright yellow, so I like to have my glaze trays labeled.

When my students are painting I always have them wash their brushes really thoroughly in the doggie dish, dry it off on a sponge that’s sitting on the other side of the doggie dish before changing to another color. That’s just how I set up glaze.

When they’re finished with that, and you’re ready to do a glaze fire, glaze fires, like I said, you can fire that super fast and hot, because it’s already been fired once and there’s no chance of explosions at this point.

Glaze, like I said, can be expensive. There are a lot of glaze alternatives, let’s chat about that for just a moment. We actually talked about this in the last podcast, somebody was asking about how to use a kind of resist. So, what you can do, and I do this a lot with my younger students, is that they will use construction paper crayons to color their clay project, and then you can dip their clay project in either a watered down India ink, or watered down temper paint, and that does a beautiful job of giving your students’ clay projects an antiqued look.

Other things that we have used in my room are gouache kind of trays that I have on hand. I’ve used water color paint is beautiful for working with clay projects, but, honestly, my favorite way is to do the construction paper crayon and the dip method, because it really is quite beautiful.

If you do this alternative route of glazing, then … but you still want your students clay projects to have a little bit of a shine to them, you can always have them paint them with Mod Podge, but Mod Podge sometimes is a little bit too thick, and, let’s be honest, it’s pretty stinky stuff.

Sometimes what I will do is I’ll put all the clay projects that have been glaze alternative’d, shall we say, and I put them on a cart, I roll the cart outside, and I spray them down with a clear kind of varnish, which, not only seals in the color protecting the color a little bit, making the clay project a little bit stronger, but it gives it that really nice, and pretty shine.

There ya have it. My favorite clay tips and tricks. I know that you probably have a ton of clay tips and tricks up your sleeve. Love to hear from you. Like I said, if you’re in need of any project ideas or lessons, don’t forget to check out my YouTube channel, and my blog, I have bunches. Woo! Now I’m really juiced, now I want to go and work with clay with my students, and not melt down a kiln.

Thank you so much for letting me share all this with y’all today.

Tim Bogatz: I hope you’re enjoying this episode of Everyday Art Room. If you are looking to learn even more about ceramics, I want to suggest you check out Art Ed PRO. There are learning packs specific to learning how to fire your kiln, how to teach hand building, and how to develop a ceramics curriculum.

You will learn strategies, techniques, organization, management, and how to weave all of these ideas seamlessly into what you’re doing when you teach clay, because the ideas are just a small part of the over 50 learning packs now available in the PRO library, dealing with, not just ceramics, but a wide variety of topics that can help you in all aspects of your teaching in all areas of your classroom.

Check it out and start your 30-day free trail at theartofed.com/PRO. Now, let’s hear what Cassie has to say as she dips into the mailbag, and finishes the show.

Cassie Stephens: All right, guys. Let’s take a little dip into the mailbag. This question comes from Jessica, and I love this question, because I actually get it quite a bit, and so I don’t think I’ve ever addressed it on Everyday Art Room with you all.

She says, “Quick question about your videos: Do you show the students the whole video, or are you just showing us what you would be telling the students in class? Or do you show them bits and pieces of the video?”

Okay, this is what I do. I have a lot of videos, I know, on my YouTube channel, and there are some that are me creating them specifically for my students, and then sharing with you all out of the generosity of my itty bitty heart. When I share those instructional videos with my students, I share them piecemeal, meaning, I will show them what I know, especially from our hour-long classes, what I know that they can knock out the first-half of art class, then we call a meeting, and we usually will watch the second-half of the video.

I do this because, I feel as though if I give them too much information in a video, because sometimes the lessons are a little bit complex, they will forget the steps, or rush through the steps and not do their best. So, I usually show them a little bit, then I will notice that there’s a couple of kids that are finished, and they know to come to the floor when they’re done. When I usually see about five kids chilling out on the floor, I will ring a bell, and I’ll say to everybody, “Hey, guys, I need to have a meeting with you all. Press the pause button on what you’re working on, and come to the floor.” They know this is the routine, they go ahead and they come to the floor, and this allows my friends who finish a little bit faster to continue to keep up that pace, to not have to wait.

This also makes it so my friends who work a little bit slower understand that it’s okay if you move a little bit slower, because now you know what to do when you do get to the point of working along with your other … the same speed as your other friends.

That’s kind of how I operate in my room. It would be lovely if my students each had an iPad so they could kind of pace themselves.  Unfortunately, I don’t have access to that, nor do I know that it would be great if we were doing something with clay, if they were sitting there touching an iPad.

That’s kind of how I do my instructional videos in my art room.

Thank you so much for letting me address that question, Jessica, because it’s a great one.

If you guys have any questions for me, please feel free to send them my way. You can find me at theeverydayartroom@theartofed.com.

Well, I hope that I’ve been able to provide a couple of tips and tricks for you all clay experts out there. It’s just kind of bananas for me to think that through osmosis or something, we art teachers are expected to be experts on so many different things, and, let’s face it, we didn’t learn all of this stuff in college. I didn’t take a single ceramics class in college. Bonkers! Which, is why I’ve managed to take a lot of clay classes when I go to conventions, or just signing up for local classes so I could learn as much as I could to share that information with my students. I’d recommend that to you, as well, especially, if you have a subject that you have to teach for making clay, whatever, that you’re not really comfortable with. Why not take a class? There’s no shame in that.

Well, thank you so much for letting me share all my clay knowledge, my wealth of knowledge with y’all today, or a lack thereof, and stay tuned for next week when I share with you my fave tips and tricks for those friends of you that are kiln-less.

Thanks, guys. Have a super week. Chat soon.

3 months ago


  • Kristin

    I love everything you do Cassie! I really would like to take a couple classes to strengthen those areas I feel weak in. At this point in my life, squeaking out an hour a week of free time during normal people hours is not going to happen. Have you tried any online classes? Is there anywhere you could direct me to? Thank you for all you do and share!