How long does it take you to make that?

This is something that I get asked MANY times over the season.  I find this question very difficult to answer.  I usually make multiple items at a time, so its hard to break it down to how many minutes or hours it takes to make just one.  Plus, as many other artists/craftspeople will tell you…we don’t want to break it down because then we would be able to figure out an hourly wage and who really wants to work for 2.50 an hour? What the person asking the question doesn’t realize is that there are so many stages to making a piece.  So that I can stop calling them pieces, items or products,  I’m going to pick one.  Lets talk about my “Flat” Puffins.  These are puffins that I cut out of a slab of clay and then bend so that they stand up.

The small one is the "Flat Puffin"

The small one is the "Flat Puffin"

Here’s how that puffin makes its way onto the shelves…

Dial phone…”ring, ring ring.. Hello? Hi it’s Sarah at Wildfire Pottery, I need 25 boxes of clay shipped up to Cape Breton.”

“Ring, ring, ring, Hello? Hi Sarah, It’s Roy (the nice courier man) I’ve got your clay and I’ll be there in about an hour”

…mad scramble ensues, clearing a spot for the clay and moving any older boxes out of the way to be stacked on top of the new ones, clearing out dead spiders and bark from the woodstove…

…Carrying 25 boxes of clay (weighing 20 KG each, that’s 44 lbs) up the stairs of my shop…there are many,many steps…my arms get longer and longer…

Fast Forward to winter…

Snow again…shovel the many, many steps…

Shovel the path to the woodshed…again.

…light the stove to keep the studio warm to stop the clay from freezing…

Design a cardboard puffin template to cut out puffin shapes….look through bird books, photos from my bird watching tours, and Google images. Draw design onto cardboard.

Open a box of clay, take out one bag (2 in each box) and take it over to the slab roller.

Open the bag and cut off a piece to roll through the slab roller

Roll out slab (oops, the mat got stuck in the roller…fix the bungled slab)

(Hey, the slab roller’s not working properly after 5 years of use!  Order new parts, take apart slab roller, install new parts, lose one whole day)

Smooth the canvas mat texture off of the surface of the slab.  Flip slab, smooth off the other side.

Find puffin template… cut out 20 puffins.

Remove excess clay from around cut-outs. take cut-outs over to work table and lay them out.

Smooth edges of puffins.  Turn over, smooth edges on other side.

Trace template design onto piece of clear plastic.

Place plastic over puffins and trace lines with pencil onto clay underneath (re-draw the puffin on the plastic sheet when the pencil pokes holes through it)

Flip the feet forward and bend tail around, creating a tripod effect, so that the puffin can stand.

Clean up any ragged edges or stressed bits of clay (yes, clay gets stressed too!)

Move to drying shelf.  After a few hours of drying, check to make sure they stand properly and aren’t too tippy.  Do this a few times as they dry and the clay moves around a bit. I don’t sign these, but if I was making a leaf tile, for example, I would sign my name onto the back of each one.

Once there are enough of them (and other pieces) to fill up the kiln, carry them to the kiln.  Check again to make sure that they aren’t wobbly. Bash one of them that wobbles into the clay scrap recycle tub so that it breaks and I don’t have to look at it.

Put each one carefully into the kiln.  Oops! Knocked the foot off of one of them. BASH it in the tub!

Flat Puffins in the kiln

Flat Puffins in the kiln

Finish packing the kiln (sometimes up to 2 hours of arranging and re-arranging to make maximum use of the space).

Press magic button on electronically controlled kiln and wait 13 hours, check to see if kiln has gone off…wait 6 more hours for kiln to cool.

Unpack kiln.

Ok, this is getting self-indulgent now…Is anyone still reading? Time to wrap it up!

Fast-forward to spring, when I start glaze firings again.

make glazes (measuring, mixing)

glaze puffins, carry puffins back and forth to various locations

haul propane up hill (after driving it from Sydney 1 hr away)

put puffins in kiln

put on protective gear (face mask, gloves, long sleeves)

fire home-made propane-fired garbage can kiln (that I made…at home)

pull puffins out with tongs, drop one, breaking its foot off.

put them in a bucket with crumpled newspaper (hand crumpled!)

wait 10 minutes

take out

clean with steel wool and water, don’t scrub too hard, those feet are fragile.


Wrap, box, put in bag, write receipt, take $20+ tax from customer.

So, how long does it take me to make that? I still don’t know.  But I’m tired, are you? (Probably tired of reading anyway! )

Not to mention the years that it has taken me to learn the nature of clay.  How it responds to different treatments.  I’ve also learned its shortcomings and its forgiving nature.  When people ask my mum how long it takes to make a mug she says “3 minutes to make it….40 years to learn how.”  I love that answer.  Its true, the learning is part of the making of that puffin.  I’m also constantly “honing” my critical eye when looking at my own work…. So how do I figure out how long it takes me to make that?  I plan to use a stop-watch one day (or week) to time each stage of the process.  Obviously I was including steps in the description that don’t take place every time I make a batch of puffins.  I don’t usually break that many of them, but those are the times when it usually happens if I do.  So when I get around to timing the process I’ll post the results here.

I’m back into the studio again and enjoying it.  I’m coming up with some new designs and that’s always exciting.

Thanks for reading!


5 thoughts on “How long does it take you to make that?

  1. Best. Post. Ever. I normally say, “I don’t keep track of time,” which is a total cop-out. I love your mom’s answer, I’m going to steal that one.

    Also, if I ever felt the urge to do Raku Pottery, this post has completely discouraged me. I will just quench my pottery needs at Wildfire!

  2. I am so impressed by your energy to even write it all down! I’m gonna do a long check list of all the steps in making a basket and I might even double space it! There’s no easy answer to that one but you get top marks for trying. 😉

  3. I’ve heard that “X minutes to make, Y years to learn” a few times now and I sure appreciate it but I hesitate to use it ’cause I worry my customers will find it a bit flippant.

    Instead, I tend to do just what you’ve done and start listing off all the steps required: “Well, it doesn’t take that long to actually weave a place mat but first I have to measure 280 ends all the same length – usually around 18 yards long – and get them to the loom without tangling and then wind them onto the back beam (which requires help) and then thread each one through its own heddle and then again through the reed…” by then their eyes have glazed over and they get that it’s a long process, never mind how it’s accomplished.

    I fear they’re still trying to calculate what my profit margin is on each one, though. Since it’s doubtful that they’re taking into account material costs, packaging, sales costs, consignment fees, transportation and all the other stuff, I don’t think they’re getting a very accurate idea. I’ve seriously considered posting a spread sheet of how I’ve calculated the price of a place mat just so they can see how far below minimum wage I’m making. 😉

    When I’m demonstrating people often ask me, “do you make a good living doing that?” My answer: “Meh, I don’t make a good living but I do make a good life.” And that’s what it’s all about, right?

  4. haha, witty *and* insightful with this post, Sarah!
    “$2.50/hr”, huh? looks like i better give myself a raise! ha!
    love the pic of all the little puffers in the tub together–how neat is that!?!

  5. Hello Sarah,
    Lew Freeman drove me to your website and I absolutely LOVE this post. I am a theatre director and although our creative process is very different than yours, I relate to all the steps and to the broken puffins, and the tippy ones. (and the wage;) It’s fascinating and inspiring to learn about your art.
    Hope to meet you some day.

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