The Potter’s Craft

Charles charles_fergus_binnsBinns is known as “the Father of American Studio Ceramics”. Binns brought forth important information about ceramic clay and glaze recipes. He is also known for teaching others about the balance between science, math and ceramics. Along with being a potter and a professor, Charles F. Binns is also an art critic, so the introduction of this book starts off with a general overview of what art should be and how it ought to be perceived.  Binns strongly believes that art should always have a function and a sense of purpose. From the perspective of an outside viewer, when looking at an art piece, it is easily under appreciated by those who do not create it, especially with art pieces, which are more than just purely aesthetic. In order for one to truly understand the process of such a medium, one has to understand the science and math behind the material.  While describing the process of creating ceramic work and how it can be elevated, Binns touches on the science behind clay throughout The Potter’s Craft.

This book was published in 1910 and was reprinted in 1967. As aforementioned, this book is important because it describes the work process of making a ceramic piece. However, before it gets into detail about the method, the book gives us a bit of background history of pottery its purpose as it evolved over the years. It then switches to addressing the clay, what gives it its properties, and the steps needed to prepare the clay for use. Continuing chronologically, details about the techniques used to create the different kinds of pieces are discussed in a thorough manner. Following this, Binns discusses the glazing processes. Binns reverts back to providing scientific background on how firing works, and the effects different temperatures have on multiple types of clays. He provides this information because it helps better explain his methods of working with the clay.

Binns includes a background on pottery because one should know the reason for using different clays and it has changed over time. The opening chapter focuses on expressing the importance of function verses aesthetics. It does so by looking on the where pieces were made with the sole purpose of being functional, when clay was used more in its purest from. It was the work from the American Indians where aesthetics came into play along with the functionality of the piece. Since aesthetics became the main focus, pottery became more of a woman’s craft. From here, the chapter takes a strange turn when it starts describing the method of building these pieces, comparing it by region and introducing terms mainly found in the field of pottery. Binns presents the introduction of the wheel and the effect of colors from an open firing by the types of minerals it contains. He also discusses the artists known for certain styles and the characteristics of styles. With the amount of information provided, this chapter is extremely dense for its length of 11 pages. A similar pattern is seen in chapter 2, which focuses on introduction of porcelain, mixed with types of glazing techniques and overall styles found with this particular type of clay.

In the last chapter Binns officially starts discussing the process of pottery making. Unlike the previous two, this chapter flows a lot better and the transition between the types of clays and the properties is smooth.  It begins by explaining how the characteristic of the clay varies by the type of minerals it contains. Binns supports his statement by using a ordinary clay as an example. “[b]ecause almost all clays contain significant amounts of iron oxide, ware made from ordinary clay will fire to a red color” (p. 16). It then covers the topic of how mixing sand in with the clay can give it different properties, and how those properties affect the clays. Binns listed the three properties which are plasticity, porosity, and the property of being vitrified (converting into class) when fired at a specific temperature. He then explains each of them in a more detailed fashion, and which aspect of the clay changes when either one of the others changed one way or another. He also includes calculations used to measure the proper ratio of clay to water and how shrinkage, absorption and glazing can be differ based on the clay mixture. All going back to the emphasis on the balance of the clay used for the work. This is important for him to explain because these aspects of the clay itself can vary based on its main function. Knowing how the clay changes based on its properties allows the potter to create the correct type of clay.

The next 9 chapters go in depth about each of the different stages of creating a ceramics piece, mainly techniques such as molding, casings, hand building, and the use of the potter’s wheel. Following these chapters, is one about the types of items that are made by using these techniques. Covering the last step of the working process, Binns talks about glazing and provides formulas. All of these chapters have one thing in common; they all go into great depth of the topic, from the making of it to how it is used and the outcomes. Similar to chapters 1 and 2, there have been times where Binns strays away from main topic and goes into greater detail about a particular item or technique. A great example of this is in chapter 5. In this chapter, Binns talks about the molding process. He starts off with presenting the reason why molding is used, and the types of molds, but later trails off to explaining the molding of vases in great detail. By only focusing greatly on a specific molding, one could assume that it holds more importance, and that takes away from the overall teaching of this book.

Aside from being a professor, Binns is a pottery artist who directed this work towards his fellow artists, wanting to share his thirty-six years of experience with pottery. The title of this book is appropriate for the content that he shares because it, indeed, is explaining the craft itself. The strength of this book is the amount of information that Binns touches upon throughout the reading. The weakness, however, lies in the organization. The dense amount of content could have been spaced out, making it easier on the reader to grasp the technical processes. With that being said, the type and amount of information shared, from beginning to end, is extremely successful, and will benefit the audience. Though there are some inconsistencies in regards to the organization, this book is highly recommended for those seeking further knowledge of this craft.

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