Friday, August 28, 2009

Ceramic Animal Ornaments: Behind the Scenes

Hello, there, and welcome to a short course on the creation of my ceramic animal ornaments, currently sold in my shop at


The Basic Creation Process:

     I have basically two types:  various "mischeivous mice" (I call them "The Mousecheif Crew"),  and assorted carousel-type animals.

     The largest of these is only about 4" tall, and that would be the carousel giraffe.  The others are only about 2" or 2½" tall max.

   (While this article is specifically about my ceramic holiday ornaments, please note that regardless of the size,  type or subject matter of ceramics in my shop, they are all created by this same basic process.)

     First, the liquid clay slip must be poured into the molds, allowed to set up for a very critically sensitive period of time, and the excess slip dumped out.  (If they were cast solid, they would be heavy, if they survived the firing:  without the internal air space, they stand a much better chance of 'exploding' in the kiln during firing).
     Next, once the casting has set up to a point of being about like leather, it can be removed from the mold, and allowed to finish drying. 

      At this point, the green ware must be cleaned; that is, carefully scraped down to eliminate any seam lines left by the molds, which split in half so the item can be removed.  Prior to cleaning, the line this leaves is very visible, and most unappealing if not removed.  It is a tricky process--these are small, and poured thin--and at the green ware stage can easily be crushed in the hand.

     After the cleaning is finished, it is ready to be fired in the kiln.  This takes about 5 hours for the kiln to get up to the temperature required (and almost another 8 hours to cool back down enough to open the kiln and handle the items.)  The firing turns the items from extra-fragile green ware into bisque, which is still fragile, but no more so than a drinking glass...that is to say, it can be handled confidently, but it will break if dropped.

     The next step is the first step in the decorating process: to basecoat the entire figurine in a white stain.  This allows subsequent colors to 'float' as it were, giving a bit of added depth to the color--but it also has the advantage of keeping the color coats from 'grabbing' the ceramic too quickly before it dries--allowing time to fix any errant brush strokes.

Each of these miniature figurines is highly detailed, and much care must be taken to 'color within the lines.'  A good deal of the work requires the use of a high-power magnifying lens visor, and a "2-hair" paintbrush.  A steady hand doesn't hurt, either.

     Each color needs to be dry before the adjacent color can be applied.  That way, there is no blurring or muddying of the colors into each other.  Luckily, the non-toxic acrylic paints I use do dry fairly quickly--albeit if it is wintertime, the drying time is affected, so I try to paint these before the end of the fall season.  (Christmas in July and August..oh, boy!)   ;-)

     Once the painting is done, the piece is allowed to dry for at least 24 hours, and then an antiquing colorant is applied, and wiped back.  This accents the shadow details and makes for a more finished look.

     The antiqued piece must again dry for at least 24 hours (weather is a factor), before being sprayed with the sealer coat, which is almost the final step.

    The final-final step is assembly.  This varies from piece to piece, but may involve custom-fitting of the carousel poles, or measuring and tying ribbon to the hanging loops.

A Word on Pricing:

     Crafters for the most part know that they cannot recoup their time in pricing their items.  The most expensive of my figurines are the carousel animals done in a plain glaze with selected highlights done in a 24k overglaze.  These run up to about $12. each. 

     The color-painted ones run in a range of about $4 - $9, depending on whether or not they are true carousel type, complete with pole, or a simpler tree ornament hung from a built-in loop.  A few of these also come with a display stand included, and so are in the mid price range.

     Let's consider, for a moment....if I were to ask the hourly rate I used to get as a handy-gal.. (unthinkable in the crafts market, I know), each figurine would cost upwards of $90...because in that field I got $45. an hour.  To be sure, I cannot expect that from least not for small figurines.  (A wood carver for example, working in large-scale statues, on the other hand, might well command such a price point.)

     That said, each figurine takes approximately 4 hours of labor to complete, from the casting, through cleaning, firing, painting, antiquing and seal coat.  (Naturally, I cannot count the kiln time as my labor time; it is just part of how long it all takes.) Even at the minimum wage of $8. per hour (here in California), the full cost of these figurines would come out to about $32. each....just for labor...that does not include supplies and utility costs.  The market won't support that.

     Ironically, the plain glazed and gold items take considerably less time in the painting end, but require 2 additional firings in the kiln--one for the glaze, and another for the gold overglaze.  This is actual 24k gold suspended in a liquid, and the cost on this is about $20. for a 1-gram bottle! (To put this size in perspective, the bottle measures a little less than ½" in diameter, and only about 1" tall !!)  Then, each time the kiln is run, it adds about $14 to the electric bill.

     So, the next time you are shopping online for hand-crafted items, or at a craft fair, before you walk away and decide that the item is "overpriced," just remember--most crafters are working for the love of the craft, and for less than minimum wage.  They have a lot of costs that may not be readily apparent to the casual observer or shopper.  They are hoping to at least make just a little profit  over their 'break-even' point.

    But, by purchasing your gifts and some of your needs from these craftspeople, you are helping the economy recover, and helping to stop the hemmorhaging of our jobs to overseas markets.  Every purchase helps.

Thank you for shopping and supporting  "Made in the U.S.A."


Lynne said...

I have paid $25 for a Christmas ornament (Baldwin, I think) that was not handmade. I think many people think that BECAUSE an item is handmade, it should be less costly. Your figurines should cost more. No one should work for less than minimum wage, here or overseas!

(I didn't get to see the figurines btw because there were no pics and I'm to lazy to click over to etsy....)


Lizzy said...

I don't have many photos in the body text of my blog, as I am still relatively new at this blogging thing, and find it a bit trying to get photos into the actual article.

My Friend, Christine B.

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