Archive | July, 2010

The Making of a Mushroom

1 Jul

One of the favorite projects of the kids in my pottery classes is making mushroom houses. We do some pretty elaborate ones with window boxes, hobbit doors, chimneys, etc. The kids come up with some great ideas for mushroom house beautification. I’m going to post a simpler version in this tutorial. Once you have the basic idea, you can go pretty much anywhere with it. So . . . here we go.

Start with a smooth round ball of clay. I’m going for a fairly small mushroom house and using a ball the size of a tangerine. To smooth out cracks in your ball of clay, run your thumb or finger across and back, perpendicular to the crack. If the clay is too dry, it will crack enough to make forming your mushroom house almost impossible. In this case, dip the clay in a little water and squeeze and squish it until it’s soft enough to work with.

To begin the pinch pot, stick your thumb right into the center. You should be holding the clay in the palm of your non-dominant hand. When you stick your thumb in, press until you can feel the pressure on the palm of your other hand. For a more thorough exposition of making pinch pots, please see my basic pinch pot post.

With your thumbs on the inside, press against the rest of your fingers on the outside. Turn the clay as you do this. Unlike with the procedure for making the usual pinch pot, you will be spreading the rim outward. This piece will become the cap of the mushroom. Notice there are cracks along the rim. This particular clay is moist enough, but is “short,” because it has been sitting outside freezing and thawing and all the microorganisms that normally live in clay and add to its plasticity have died. A few cracks along the rim of a mushroom cap aren’t a problem. Real mushrooms have them, too.

There’s still a ways to go, but this is the basic mushroom cap. Of course, mushrooms have all sorts of variety in cap size and shape, but this is going to be your generic mushroom type. From here, I’ll just be shaping it. It’s big enough.

As you can see, I’ve introduced a little moisture to help me smooth the cap. Unless you’re working with short clay, or overly dry clay, you won’t need to do this. Should you decide to, use a very light touch with the water. It can quickly cause your clay to lose structural integrity and either become floppy or begin to disintegrate. I’ve squeezed the edges to cause them to flare outward. Again, go easy with this. You don’t want the cap to become so thin it can’t support itself.

I used the dowel laying in the background to create a semi-flat surface inside the mushroom cap. The cap will rest on the top of the stalk here at this flat area. I don’t affix the cap until the glaze firing. The glaze will “glue” it to the stalk. I would be concerned about the dip you see in the center becoming an air pocket otherwise, and I would fill it. If you intend to stick your mushroom together pre-firing, be sure not to have any air pockets or they’ll blow apart in the bisque kiln.

Now I’m going to form the stalk of the mushroom. I’ll start with a carrot-shaped piece of clay, about the same amount as I used for the cap.

You could enter the stalk with a finger like we did for the cap, but it’s easier if you have a stick. The sharpened dowel works well, as does the end of a large paintbrush, a pencil — whatever you have on hand.

I learned recently that the above is called the “broomstick method” and is used to make quite large pots. It also works well for mushroom stalks. Essentially, the dowel is acting as a rolling pin, only it is rolling the inside surface of the cylinder. You don’t want to thin this cylinder out too much. It needs to be strong enough to hold up the cap.

Once there’s a large enough hole, stick your thumb in there and do some more pinch potting. The broomstick method creates a very regular and straight cylinder, so you need to give it a little character with your fingers. Again remember — not too thin!

Adjust the size and flatness of the top of the stalk to fit the cap, and then try on the cap to see how you like it. This one’s okay, but in my opinion it lacks a certain “something.”

There! That’s better. I’m sorely tempted at this point to give him a cute face and a guitar, but I’ll resist. He’ll lose his resemblance to a dashing caballero in a few moments.

I’m using a punch that came with a screwdriver set, but you can use an awl, a large needle tool, a round toothpick, a bamboo skewer . . . anything like that. Note the position of the tip. I want to avoid tearing the clay, so I have it laid down pretty low. It should crease, not cut the clay. You can make the door any shape you like. I decided on this one for now, but I also like hobbitish round doors. If you’re going to “open” the door (as I will below), be sure not to make it so large that its removal will make your mushroom stalk too weak to hold up the cap.

I want this door to stand slightly ajar, so I’m going to cut it out. A needle tool is ideal for this job.

After you’ve cut the door out, thin the walls adjacent to it, then smooth them out. You’ll also want to pare down the thickness of the door. Once you’ve done this, you’ll need to touch up the boards, etc. that you’ve impressed into its surface. Be sure to smooth all the edges nicely.

Once you’ve got everything thinned down and smoothed off, reattach the door in an attractive position of welcome.

It seemed a little plain with just the door, so I gave it a window as well. This mushroom house is too small for much more embellishment. I’m smoothing some of the cracks here. This mushroom house is finished. Here are a few others:

Usually I swing my hobbit doors on hinges at the edge, but I decided to pivot this one.

Cheri and I made a whole village of mushrooms. Some houses; some more realistic. Mushrooms are so cool!

I think this one maybe belongs to the village shaman . . .

I’m particularly fond of the one on the right (with the collar), though after I made it, I found one on the back trail and discovered it didn’t have a collar. The collar forms when the cap detaches from the stalk and some of the attachment is left behind. Some mushroom varieties have them and others don’t.

I made the fins under this mushroom cap by cutting over and over with a thin flexible metal pottery rib.

My daughter, Cheri, made these. I think they’re adorable. 🙂

The one on the right is a King Bolete. Boletes have pores rather than fins. They’re really cool! So that’s the end of the story for today. Hope you enjoyed it and will get out the clay and make yourself some mushrooms. They’re great on the windowsill, in a potted plant, in the garden . . . wherever you need a little whimsy.

Photography credit: Cheri Odum (Thanks, Sweetheart — you did a great job!)