PPP: Preventing "S" Cracks

Close-up view of an "S" crack on the inside foot of a thrown pot. Occasionally, the crack can run straight across the bottom of the pot and have a slight curve on either or both ends.

In the beginning stages of working on the potter's wheel, many students encounter frustrations with cracking ware. Every potter is occasionally humbled by the sight of their favorite pot displaying a crack. In fact, the one constant when working with clay is that, at some point, something will crack. Fractures can occur at any time during the forming, drying and firing stages, or, in some instances, even many years later.

Though there are several different types of cracks, most can be easily prevented if the correct information is available. Identifying the type of crack is a significant step in finding the cause and subsequent correction. It is at this stage that potters often encounter difficulties; either they cannot correctly recognize the type of crack or they perform the wrong correction.

The "S" crack, while not the only type of flaw that can occur when forming clay on the potter's wheel, is certainly one of the most common. Its prevention is an interesting technical issue, in that many correction theories have been advanced but few are successful every time for every potter. Understanding the configuration and alignment of clay platelets when centering the clay on the wheel is helpful, and the subsequent pulling up of a cone of clay is essential in solving "S" cracks.

Distinctive Shape

As the name implies, this type of crack is shaped like the letter "S," and it develops during the forming operation on the wheel. As the pot dries and is bisque- and glaze-fired, it shrinks due to increasing vitrification, causing the crack to fully develop and become observable.

When a fired glaze covers the underlying clay, the "S" crack is clearly visible with a rounded edge. Round-edge cracks occur in the forming or drying process, as opposed to sharp-edged or hairline cracks that occur when the glaze has cooled. Whether round or sharp-edged, the crack is identified by its distinctive shape and location on the bottom of the pot.

Figure 1. Two top views of a wide-base pot. Diagram A represents a random alignment of clay platelets in the base of a pot. Diagram B aligns the clay platelets in the circular direction of the potter's wheel, enabling an equal rate of drying with the vertical walls of the pot.

Formation of "S" Cracks

"S" cracks can occur on the inside or outside bottoms of wheel-thrown forms. Wider-based forms such as plates have an increased chance of producing this distinctive type of crack. "S" cracks can also take place in forms thrown off the hump (where a large piece of clay is used as a starting point to form small objects such as tea bowls, which are cut off and the next pot is then formed from some of the remaining clay).

"S" cracks occur when incorrect techniques are used before pulling up the thrown form. In clay bodies, clay platelets are held together (in part) by thin films of water. This unique bonding structure is one of the elements that give moist clay its plastic quality. "S" cracks can develop when there are not enough clay platelets in the base of the pot aligned parallel with the circular direction of the wheel (see Figure 1). The crack starts to form when the base and walls of the pot have different rates of shrinkage in the drying stage.

The correction for "S" cracks is to align the clay platelets in the base of the pot with the direction of the spinning wheel; when this occurs, the base and walls of the pot will have equalized shrinkage rates. Having the correct information on the prevention of "S" cracks is only part of the goal; applying the information accurately is critical to solving this throwing technique deficiency.

5-Step Prevention

While potters can use several marginally effective methods for eliminating "S" cracks, choosing the correct technique is a more reliable option. Simply stated, "S" cracks can be avoided by pulling the clay up into a cone shape and then pushing it down before the actual centering takes place in the throwing operation. (The following directions apply to right-handed potters.)

Step 1. Centering the clay.

Centering the clay
Use equal pressure with the right palm pushing down and the edge of the small finger and palm of the left hand resting lightly on the bat. Make sure the left hand is positioned at a right angle to the bat before pushing in toward the center (see Step 1).

A centered piece of clay will result when this technique is performed with the correct amount of water and equal pressure with both hands. Throughout the operation, the elbows of both arms can be kept in touch with the body to increase leverage and gain stability.

Step 2. Pulling up the cone.

Pulling up the cone
Wet the centered clay and grasp it with both hands. With the wheel turning rapidly, apply equal pressure inward with both hands to bring the clay up into a cone. As your hands move up the form, apply equal pressure with the index fingers and thumbs of both hands, which will compress the top third of the form; this will cause a convex "nipple" of clay to form at the top (see Step 2).

Step 3. Forming the cone's shape.

Shaping the cone
Repeat Step 2 at least twice, always starting from the base of the cone (see Step 3). At this stage, the form should look more like a cylinder than a pyramid. When complete, it should have a slightly wider base.

Step 4. Pushing the cone down.

Pushing the cone down
With the left hand pushing down toward the center and the upper palm of the right hand exerting slightly more pressure in a downward direction, the cone shape should be compressed downward into itself (see Step 4).

The form can sometimes take on a "mushroom" shape as it is pressed downward. To avoid this problem, increase pressure of the left hand pushing toward the center as the wheel spins.

Step 5. Returning the form to the centered position.

Returning to the centered position
As the cone is compressed downward and centered on the wheel, the height and width of the centered form can be determined (see Step 5). Horizontal forms such as plates will start with a wider base than narrow forms like cups.

Figure 2. The correct form should be cylindrical.

Incorrect Technique

Improper technique during the cone-up procedure can allow the formation of "S" cracks. Potters are often discouraged when they attempt the cone-up procedure only to eventually see an "S" crack appear in their ware in the leather-hard, bone dry, bisque or glaze firing stages.

Figure 3. A pyramid indicates incorrect form.

At this point, a careful and detailed review of the cone-up procedure is recommended for the eventual elimination of the crack. When bringing the clay up into a cone shape, be sure to keep the base narrow. A wide base will defeat the purpose of the cone-up procedure. The correct form is more like a cylinder than a pyramid (see Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 4. Incorrect concave shape.

If the top of the cone develops a concave area, the clay platelets are not aligned correctly (see Figure 4). In many instances, an "S" crack is in place when the cone is pushed down and the clay is finally centered on the wheel head.

Figure 5. Correct convex shape.

To prevent this defect, the index fingers and thumbs should be applied with increased pressure when arriving at the upper part of the cone, as shown in Figure 5. The top part of the cone should never have a recessed area at any stage when bringing the clay up into a cone or pushing it down for the centering operation.

If the clay platelets are not aligned properly, the probability of an "S" crack forming is greater, depending on factors such as an individual potter's centering technique and, to some extent, the specific clay body formula. Some clay bodies are more forgiving of incorrect throwing and centering techniques. Put another way, correctly pulling the clay up into a cone shape and then centering the clay can eliminate the "S" crack when using any clay body. On the other hand, not pulling the clay up into a cone or incorrectly forming the cone forces the potter to depend on a more-forgiving clay body or other correction techniques that might not be successful.

Figure 6a. Cross-section of plate thrown using the correct cone-up procedure. Using the cone-up procedure clearly results in more complete clay circular alignment.

Clay Alignment

Another way to illustrate the importance of circular alignment in the clay platelets is shown in Figure 6, where white and brown clay were used together. In Figure 6a, the clay mixture was brought up into a cone correctly and then pushed down into a flat surface. A wire tool cut away the top layers of clay to reveal the circular pattern.

Figure 6b. Cross-section of plate thrown without using the cone-up procedure.

Figure 6b reveals the same white and brown clays, but in this instance they were not brought up into a cone shape. The center pattern indicates that not enough clay was moved into a circular position, which can result in an "S" crack. Conversely, the more complete alignment shown in Figure 6a will prevent "S" cracks.

Clear-Cut Solution

Not fully understanding the cause of "S" cracking often leads to marginally successful methods of trying to solve this common throwing defect. While other methods of preventing "S" cracks do sometimes work (see the "S" Crack Correction Myths sidebar in the expanded online version of this article), they do not fully address the central cause of the problem.

While "S" cracks can be a chronically frustrating problem, they can be prevented by correctly bringing the clay up into a cone before centering. In fact, the diagnosis and cure for "S" cracks is so clear-cut that it can be described over the phone to a troubled potter. In this regard, it is unlike many pottery techniques that actually have to be observed and sometimes revised to achieve any degree of success.

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