ceramic art

Mold Making with April Cannon

Over the past year I have been preparing for a new chapter in my life as an artist/maker. The new project, driven largely by a need to get back into the studio full time, is an unapologetically commercial venture. Interfacing with the growing movement of legalization of weed in the US I am launching a bong/smoking accessory company called Bong Monsters.

The initial phase of the project focuses on slip cast doll parts for the creation of the objects. The problem with this is my limited experience in slip casting. While I have worked with the technique in grad school it’s never been my specialty. In addition to reading and watching videos on the subject I decided to have my friend from school come down and run me through the basics again.

April Cannon, who lives in Denver, completed her MFA in 2017 from Fort Hays State University. In addition to several private commissions she is represented by Mai Wyn Fine Art gallery in Denver https://www.maiwyn.com. You can see more examples of her wonderful work at www.aprilnoble.net

I’ve made many molds before but it’s an incredibly demanding skill that I have never been completely comfortable with. Choosing a slip cast driven project then was either a poor decision or an opportunity to learn new skills. I’ve opted for the latter, which is why in part it is taking so long to really get the project moving.

April coming down to help this month has been a huge step toward competence in this area. When I first considered this idea I was focused on where I needed to be rather than where I actually was, if that makes any sense? I wanted to work out multi part mold construction and various material techniques but on further reflection I decided what I needed most was a stable foundation  to build on, so opted to have her demonstrate the most basic two part mold.

I threw some bong necks for the purpose, which is the part I most urgently need to start prototyping, and we worked with those. While the pieces we used as models were leather hard clay, April recommends either soft bisquing models to cone 014-012 or reductively sculpting the model from a solid block of plaster.

Before I start a description of the day, here is the tool list:

April’s List of Essential Tools: wet-dry sand paper, drywall sanding screens, cabinet scraper for scraping plaster to get a flat edge, misc. files for shaping plaster, surforms for carving and shaping plaster, wire brush to clean the files and surforms, WD40 to protect steel tools from rust after cleaning, clay shaping tools for claying up the model, wooden knives for cutting and scraping the plasticine on the edges of cottle boards, soft wax based plasticine for filling gaps, level, spring loaded clamps to hold the cottle boards in place while they are positioned, screw down clamps for use while constructing the mold, metal spoon for carving keys, cheap brush for mold soap, small sponges, dust mask, graduated buckets for mixing plaster, measuring cups for water, large square for laying out cottle boards, small square for checking midline, non-stick surface for working like plexiglass, melamine or granite, a good ruler

soaping the master
leveling and marking the dividing line

Here is April getting started with the model. She recommends applying, then wiping off, 3 coats of mold soap. Here we used Murphy’s Oil Soap, but Dr Brauner’s Pure Castile Soap works too and can be selected without scent. Mold soap is diluted to one part soap and one part water.

Finding the dividing line is one of the most important parts of making multi-part molds. The principle on a simple object like this is to divide the object in half using the widest point in circumference. On more complex forms the principal is the same, following the variable line dividing the object to avoid undercutting so the mold may be lifted cleanly from the cast object. April recommends looking at toys for an understanding of multipart mold construction as the dividing lines are often discernible on the object.

Once this step is complete, it’s time to clay up the bottom half of the model so the top half can be cast in plaster.

claying up
claying up

The model is immersed in clay up to the dividing line and then walls are built around the entire construction to contain the plaster. Normally cottle boards would be used, but mine were unavailable so we made due by building clay walls. All gaps were filled and the area was leveled and cleaned in preparation for the plaster. April recommends working with plasticine for filling in most gaps when using cottle boards as it will not dry out and can increase working time.

filling gaps for first half casting
calculating plaster volume

Calculating for the amount of plaster needed is a simple matter of multiplying L” x W” x H” of the area to be filled and dividing that number by 80. That will break the calculation into quarts. Rather than using a pre-determined formula for the plaster April uses the island method, putting the prescribed amount of water into a bucket and then slowly adding plaster until an island of the material remains above the water line. Once the prescribed amount of plaster is added, the mixture is allowed to hydrate for a few minutes and the mixed by hand. Other methods for mixing can be used but care should be taken not to add air bubbles that can cause problems on the surface of the object to be cast. Once mixed the plaster is allowed to sit another few minutes while agitating the bucket to remove more air bubbles.

plaster island
pouring plaster

Setting times for plaster vary depending on the temperature of the water used in mixing. As the water in the studio is a ground spigot we waited nearly 45 minutes to break away the clay and reveal the first section.

first part finished
cleaning the first cast

Once freed from the clay and walls the object was prepared for the second half of the mold. If the master had been bisque, she would have removed it from the mold and thoroughly cleaned and leveled the top of this portion for a more perfect fit. Because the model was green she opted to leave it in place and clean around it. Once clean, it was prepared for the second half of the plaster, including cutting the keys with a penny and filling gaps.

Keying the mold
prepairing the second half
second half ready for plaster

Before adding plaster, the water resistance of the model was considered, first with a final coat of soap and then an overall spray of mold release.

rough finished molds
rough finished mold

Without the cottle boards they will need quite a bit of reshaping as well as thorough cleaning to remove the mold soap and curing of the paster before a test cast can be made. If they turn out well the next step will be making mother molds from these masters for the production of working molds.

Thank you April! Such a productive and informative day!

Mold Making

Hanging Wall Tiles



Wall hanging tiles are a new part of the Magic Box project that we have been working on.  Like the house, the mold was made for this in July.  This mold was designed by Gabe and is intended to mimic gallery wrapped canvas.  The piece is large (16″x15″x2″) and was constructed initially from wood wrapped in a heavy burlap.  The top pic shows Gabe taking the mold apart after the plaster was poured.  The piece by piece construction allowed the box to be removed cleanly without damaging the plaster.  The second shows the finished piece.IMG_6001 IMG_6177 IMG_6178Once the mold was dry, we were ready to press.  The first slabs for this were 3/8″ and weighed about 15 lbs.  This weight was usually enough to build the supports from as well, provided the slab was well-shaped before pressing.  The photo of the finished tile really shows off the texture.  The initial rules of the press have changed quite a bit as we have made several.  The piece is very large for slab work and has major problems with cracking.  We have adjusted the support structure, slab depth, dry times, clay bodies and added a waster slab.  In spite of all these adjustments, cracking is still a major problem for these pieces.

In addition to the technical exploration I have tried several finishing methods for the surfaces, depending on the image and the condition of the tile.  The first series depicts images taken from The Magic Box film,  These images originated as screen shots and then were translated into paintings or transfers through various methods.

IMG_6659 IMG_6740 IMG_6614 IMG_6741These four pictures show the screen shot after photo manipulation and then the finished image on tile.  These were rendered in oxide and glaze.  This was difficult to control saturation and color gradient and was not attempted again.

IMG_6759 IMG_6751 IMG_6748The other major technique used in the first series was a more graphic approach that relied on decals and glaze effects.  I really love these, in part because they work with the cracking a bit better than the heavily image dependent tiles.  This graphic approach also relies less on images from the film.  Only the house image here is taken directly from the film.  The other two tiles are more descriptive of the development of the characters depicted.

painting tiles1 painting tiles 2 Painting tiles 3IMG_7387The second series saw further development of both the technical clay and surfacing techniques.  The tile above was too badly cracked to glaze fire and so was epoxides and paint finished.  The process of painting ceramic always starts with spray paint for us, the first image shows the tile masked off and the second, the protected drawing after the mask was removed.  The last two are the paint in process.

IMG_7389 IMG_7391The last two tiles combine the techniques used in the first series but rather than oxides, I used commercial underglazes for building the image.  These have a painterly quality that I am interested in, but might benefit from more color.  The series is ongoing, and will likely continue to evolve.

ceramic art

Making Molds for the Empty Room


Making molds for the house that will be used in our upcoming film, The Empty Room, has been the major focus of the last few weeks.  Using the preliminary drawings and the scale model discussed in the last post, Gabe focused on drawing the transfers.  These are done on trace paper, using a soft lead and a light table designed and made by Gabe.



Each of the transfer pages is an exact map of the clay tile that will be built.  The light table is necessary so the transfers are not backward when they are placed on to the clay slab.


The trace paper is laid, graphite down, onto the clay surface and smoothed out.  The paper begins to wrinkle and distort almost immediately so this step must be done quickly and precisely.  Once the sheet has had full contact with the clay and is lightly compressed onto the surface, the paper is removed and the clay is ready to work.


The first step was to trim the borders of the wall.


Next, the masonry joints were pushed into the slab along lines indicated by the transfer sheet using a custom rib that Gabe made for the purpose.  These lines needed to be exactly the correct size and completely uniform, no tool we had, was able to give exactly what we were looking for, so making the tool was necessary.


Once the tile was completed, clay walls were built in preparation for plaster casting.  Shrinkage was a major factor as we need the closest size uniformity possible among the tile molds so each of them was cast no more that 12 to 18 hours after they were made.


Using the paster formula from ceramicartsdaily.org, the tiles were cast.


We ignored the 1″ border that is conventional in mold making so the tiles could be cut exactly to size, using the mold itself as a guide.  This makes the molds extremely fragile, we are using great care in storage and drying.



Each wall needed its own mold because of the intricacy of the brick detail which is correct for structural brick.   In addition to the brick pattern, the third floor has many architectural details and each of the panels needed a full redesign.  At this point we have 13 molds completed with many internal details to continue to resolve, but it is encouraging to see the project so well on its way.

Mold Making

Doll House

The next major project for Foxy-Wolff is another play set/ film project.  The earliest inspiration for this piece comes from Barbie’s Dream House, but early concept is as far as the influence goes.  This work was conceived of at the same time we dreamed up the LLICPS, but is so much more complex to build and film that it has taken a great deal of time to manifest.  IMG_4103Our first job was to decide on the scale of the piece.  We were wanting a larger piece than our small kiln would allow so modules were the best solution.  Another priority of the piece was a high degree of precision.  Molds then became the best solution for the build.  Several ideas were pursued, but in the end a two-part press mold was decided on, allowing uniformity of each wall with both inside and outside detail.  When making a doll house, better follow the rules of doll houses.  Each wall would then need two parts, a floor, a ceiling, a roof joist, roof tiles, trim work, gables, and a staircase; in total 15 separate molds were made.IMG_4108Originals were the first step, after determining desired finish size and calculating shrinkage, patterns were created from heavy paper.  all the decoration was applied to the patterns, then transfers were made using graphite and tracing paper.IMG_4107After the transfer process and the tiles were cut, the decoration needed to be removed from the original.  A border was then added to the tile to provide a wall for the mold.  Registration marks were also cut to help the molds fit back together after the original was removed. IMG_4116 Walls were then built and secured in preparation for the plaster.IMG_4119 once the first side of the wall was poured, the walls and the border was removed and the interior received its transfer image and was carved and prepared for plaster.  Early on we could see that an escape route for the clay was essential.  the tabs at the top and bottom were added to create voids to allow this.  in the end this was not quite enough and plaster had so be dug from the window voids as well.  Another tricky issue with these was the need for the window openings to line up inside and outside.IMG_4150 The plaster was added again.  For our plaster mixing formula we follow the one provided by ceramic arts daily.


The basic advice here is excellent and the ratio is nearly always perfect.  The small batches seems a bit watery, we typically add a little plaster when mixing small.image-2After a few days of drying, the molds were broken into so that the original could be removed and the mold left to dry.  At least a week, but the longer they dry, the better the molds become.IMG_4174 As mentioned above, they piece required many details.  The mold making phase of the project lasted weeks.IMG_4179The stairs proved a different sort of challenge.  As I said, precision is a high priority for the project, I was unsure of how to get what I wanted with clay and keep it crisp through the build and pour.  This bit was handed off to Gabe and he engineered and built this beauty in a couple of hours.  This mold was not only huge time-saving but its crisp lines really makes the look of the piece.IMG_4180The roof and the ceiling were difficult to design, this is how the module aspect of each floor works, with locking tabs in the floor and roof of each story. Also critical is tying the porch to the stairs so that the characters can move from floor to floor smoothly.IMG_4181Once the molds were built we had to learn how to use them.  The stairs were a particular challenge, keeping that crisp line and filling all of the cracks and gaps took several tries and approaches.IMG_4186As the molds were dried and their techniques for use were understood, we were ready for the build.  More on that soon.

The Limited Liability Insurance Company Play Set

Play Set Action Figures and Making a Two Part Mold

IMG_3530 IMG_3534 IMG_3541

The three small objects above are the first attempt at action figures for the play set.  Obviously based on Fisher Price toys from the seventies, I wanted the objects simple and direct and to work with the mold making technique that I am focusing on this semester.  I began with three small pieces of clay that I allowed to dry to leather hard.  Using sketches, I carved the solid figures so that they would have no undercuts so that they could be easily cast and reproduced.  For the video I am wanting to produce several identical objects that can be broken and replaced through the course of the filming.

When the figures were complete I then made forms for the molds using foam core and duct tape. I made the forms in two pieces because the openings are small and I wanted simple access for notching the bottom piece.  The top of the form was attached with more duct tape after the bottom half of the mold was cast.  Rather than setting the object into clay to cast the first half, I placed the figures directly into the wet plaster after it had a moment to slightly set.  This was a great innovation in several ways, however the figures did slip and move making the molds possibly unusable, especially in the case of the male office worker.

After the molds came out of the forms I separated them using hot water and cleaned them up with a metal loop tool.  While I love the little molds I made, there is no doubt there is much improvement that can be made on them.  I’m looking forward to another try.