Vince Pitelka
Appalachian Center for Craft
Tennessee Technological University

Tennessee Tech University - Appalachian Center for Craft - Clay Studio

  Vince Pitelka, 2007

Art 3521 - Advanced Studio
Teapots: Thrown or Handbuilt

 The teapot is one of the more extraordinary of ceramic vessels.  With each kind of vessel, there are elements of ritual that accompany use.  It may seem strange to use the term ritual, but this is one way of defining the difference between handmade pottery and commercial china.  When people purchase common factory-made vessels with only function in mind, daily use becomes a matter of routine rather than ritual.  In contrast, when people choose handmade utilitarian vessels at a craft show or  gallery, they are considering far more than pure utility.  They are seeking to enrich life by altering and enhancing routine, which becomes a kind of celebratory ritual.  Garth Clark says “Fine craft reconnects art and life.”  Beautiful functional objects bring fine art into everyday routine, transforming routine to ritual.  The degree to which we can articulate aesthetic and utilitarian ritual in our work through both appearance and function will determine success in exhibition and marketplace. 

At a meal shared with friends, we each have our own cup, bowl, and plate, while the serving bowl, cruet set, platter, and pitcher enhance the shared ritual of gathering together.  The teapot carries this further, as the centerpiece of its own ritual, and any other food present is secondary to the tea.  Only a very unimaginative tea-drinker would select a teapot solely on the basis of utilitarian function.  Its use is too important. Even when drinking tea alone, the quality of ritual is inherent in a teapot. 

In East Asian cultures the teapot is among the most important fixtures of daily ritual.  It may be used by an individual or shared with a group, but in either case, the preparation for use and the utilitarian function of a teapot involve elements of ritual that exceed those of any other common ceramic vessel. 

After over 1000 years of tea drinking in East Asia and at least 500 years in the West, the teapot is instilled with a great deal of aesthetic and utilitarian baggage.  It communicates the qualities of shared use, personal or group ritual, and aesthetic and sensory enjoyment.  Because of its articulated, multi-piece form, the teapot offers special challenges and possibilities for the sculptural manipulation of form in a functional vessel.  Contemporary craft artists often carry this to extremes, creating teapots that are marginally functional or purely non-functional; sculptural objects referring to the teapot.  A customer once purchased a Dick Marquis glass teapot covered with hundreds of American Flag murrini for $5000, and brought it back a few days later when she discovered that the lid wouldn’t come off.  She had intended to brew tea in a $5000 art glass teapot. 

Consider that a good teapot sitting on a shelf or counter offers a series of invitations.  The complex aesthetic qualities invite you to come closer.  The handle invites you to pick it up.  The lid invites you to fill it with hot water and leaf tee.  The spout invites you to enjoy a cup of tea.  That is a neat concept, but to what degree does each teapot present these invitations visually, and just as important, to what degree does it fulfill your hopes or expectations when you follow through?  Is the handle comfortable to pick up and hold?  Is the lid easily removed and the teapot easily filled?  Does it pour without dribbling tea all over?  The user can be somewhat forgiving in the first two cases, because the quality of ritual often involves elaborate routine.  If a person loves the appearance of a teapot, they are inclined to be forgiving if it is slightly awkward to pick it up or to remove and replace the lid.  But a teapot that dribbles and drools is simply evidence of poor design and craftsmanship.  Too often, such a teapot is relegated to the shelf as a decorative object, forever branded with the memory of flawed function: “I love that teapot, but it just doesn’t pour worth a damn.”

Basic Things to Consider When Approaching Teapot Design

  1. Always consider the essential triad of the teapot - handle, rim/lid, and spout.  How do they balance one another, and how do they work with the body of the teapot? The spout should be the primary focal point, but in a successful teapot, the handle and lid will balance the spout aesthetically.

  2. The tip of the spout must be level with or higher than the lid, or tea will slosh out as you move the teapot.

  3. Is the teapot going to be used with loose tea?  If so, either you must use a tea ball, or you must incorporate a truly effective strainer in the teapot wall inside the base of the spout.  See the section below on strainers.

  4. The lid should feature either a locking device, or a lowered center of gravity, so that it doesn’t fall out when you pour tea.  Locking devices are usually awkward to build and use, and break easily.  Look at the lid variations in the text and in the Val Cushing lid handout, and identify the ones that offer a lowered center of gravity. 

  5. The end of the spout should have a fairly sharp edge at the pouring point, in order to break the surface tension, so that the tea does not follow the curvature of the tip and dribble all over. 

  6. One of the objectives of a teapot is to keep the tea hot as long as possible, and thus the best teapots usually feature a raised foot.

  7. Teapots come in many sizes.  For a single cup of tea each for two people, a small teapot might hold only a pint.  For a small group of tea drinkers who might want a second cup, the teapot should hold between 24 fluid ounces and a quart (32 fluid ounces. 

Handle Type and Location
The handle can be mounted on the back of the teapot, like a conventional pitcher handle, or it can span the top of the teapot.  Tall teapots often have the handle on the back, while low squat teapots usually have the handle overhead, although there are always exceptions in both cases.  A handle overhead is often canted slightly towards the back of the teapot in order to visually balance the spout.  You can use a pulled handle, or you can make one from a strip of slab or a rolled coil.  I prefer to use pulled handles for thrown teapots and a rolled coil for handbuilt teapots, but you may do as you wish.  It is not difficult to make a very fine, comfortable handle from a tapered rolled coil flattened slightly. 

If you wish, you can install appropriate attachment lugs and use a metal or bamboo handle.  The sales gallery carries the classic East Asian bamboo handles, and if you are making a very conventional teapot you may wish to consider those.  However, you must also consider that they place a stamp of the ordinary on your teapot.  Consider making your own handle out of vines (avoid poison ivy!), wire, and/or wood.  If you are considering this, I will be happy to discuss the design and installation of attachment lugs. 

Built-In Tea Strainers, and Whether to Glaze the Inside
Many East Asian teapots are unglazed on the inside, and are never washed with more than hot water.  The users claim that after a teapot is “broken in” from long use it produces superior tea, but only if unglazed on the inside.  My suspicion is that this practice began as a practical way of keeping the strainer holes from glazing shut.  The reality is that a strainer must have very small holes (no more than 1/16") to work effectively with loose leaf tea, and if glaze is applied to the inside of the pot and spout, it is almost impossible to keep those holes from glazing shut.  Many Western potters incorporate a strainer and make the holes 1/4" in diameter so that they won’t glaze shut, but that defeats the whole purpose and thus is no longer a strainer. 

A strainer with 1/8" holes is still marginally effective with coarse leaf tea, and there are several ways to reduce the chance of the holes glazing shut.  The wall thickness may be carved thinner where the holes are created, before installing the spout.  In glazing, a thin wall thickness absorbs less water and therefore takes a thinner coat of glaze.  Also, it is a simple matter to reach inside the teapot with a paintbrush before glazing and apply a little water to the strainer, thus decreasing its ability to take a coat of glaze.  There isn’t much point in trying to use wax resist for this purpose, because how could you coat the strainer on both sides?  If you coat it only on one side, you make the problem worse, because it will absorb more water from the other side.  And if you are going to leave the strainer unglazed, you might as well leave the whole inside unglazed. 

Many fine Japanese and Chinese teapots have a removable clay strainer of deep cylindrical shape that rests on the flange beneath the lid and extends down into the water, placing the tea leaves in the water but confined to the strainer.  Such a strainer must be left unglazed, and the holes should be no larger than 1/16”.  These are time-consuming to make, because a good one has hundreds of holes, drilled at the hard-leather-hard stage. 

If you are considering leaving the inside or entirety of your teapot unglazed, you should use a porcelain body or a gritless stoneware such as our “studio stoneware,” because either will give a more pleasing, serviceable unglazed surface.  The famous Chinese Yixing teapots are unglazed inside and out, except for occasional use of a fluxed oxide stain on the outside to introduce color and emphasize surface relief.  They are formed from a fine-grained porcelaineous stoneware that has a pleasing appearance and texture, and is also especially appropriate for surface carving at the hard-leather-hard or even bone-dry stage.

That’s Not a Steam Hole, It’s an Air Hole
To make your teapot function really well, you must drill a small air hole in the lid, and make sure it remains free of glaze in the firing.  Usually, a hole 1/8” in diameter is adequate, and under no circumstances should it be smaller.  This hole is often mistakenly called a steam hole, but its purpose is to let air in, not to let steam out.  If the lid fits snugly, and the lid seat is wet after you fill the pot with tea, it can form a fairly airtight seal.  If no other air entry point is provided, air bubbles will gurgle back up the spout when you start pouring, and the tea will come out in an irregular, broken stream, splattering all over the place, just like pouring water quickly from a small-necked bottle.  The air hole simply lets air in as the tea is poured out. 

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