East Fork sits at a unique and challenging intersection of small-scale artisan workshop and large scale industrial ceramic production. We are potters at our core. At the onset, we made pots from minimally refined materials and fired those pots in a large, wood-burning kiln, and since then, so much has changed. We’ve grown and scaled, and yet our rubric for a pot’s goodness has stayed steady—our work should be beautiful and functional.
If you can’t join us for a tour of our Asheville factory, we’ll do our best to walk you through it across the screen—here’s a glimpse into what goes into each pot, from wet clay to your kitchen sink.
Step 1: Starting with the right clay
We use a proprietary blend of stoneware clays from across the Southeast. This minimally refined clay contains a variety of particle sizes, making for a more workable, durable, malleable clay and a more dynamic final product. East Fork’s clay is rich in iron. During the firing, through a process called reduction, the gas in the kiln pulls oxygen from the clay, causing the iron molecules to rise to the surface. The result is the distinctive brown speckled surface our pots are known for.
Pugging the clay
We process the clay through a pug mill to prepare it for forming. The pug mill homogenizes the clay body and removes air particles. This process is crucial for increasing the clay’s plasticity and giving it an internal spiral structure ideal for forming. After bolts, or “pugs” of clay are pushed through the mill, the pugs are cut into uniform discs to be sent off for forming.
Fun fact—our pug mill was made in 1949, where it was first used by a pottery factory in Pennsylvania, then by another in Indiana, and now us!
Step 2: Forming (3 types)
Our clay is molded into pottery in various ways: jiggering, RAM pressing, wheel-throwing, and—any day now—roller tooling!
Developed in the mid 19th century, the jigger is a hand-powered machine that uses mold technology to simulate throwing. A pre-weighed pug of clay is pressed into a plaster mold that corresponds to the bottom of a form (think, the bottom and exterior of The Soup Bowl or Bitty Bowl), where a metal blade is then lowered by a lever. As the blade lowers into the clay, the mold is rotated beneath it, imitating the motion wheel-throwing, causing the clay to carve up to the lip of the bowl and create sturdy walls uniform in thickness. Currently, our Ice Cream Bowls, Soup Bowls, Popcorn Bowls, Mixing Bowls, Weeknight Serving Bowls, and all drinking vessels are made on the jigger!
The RAM press uses a mechanical hydraulic pressing system and plaster dies (molds) to shape clay into dinnerware. Plates, Bitty Bowls, Breakfast Bowls, Everyday Bowls, and the handles to The Mugs are made on the RAM press.
When we launched East Fork in 2009, all of our work was thrown on a potter's wheel. As the demand for our work started greatly outpacing our ability to produce it, and when we decided we wanted to grow our business to offer jobs for those outside the craft community, we began the long process of transitioning all of our forms to scalable production methods, working hard to not compromise the character of our pots.
The wheel will always be an integral part of our work at East Fork. Its beauty—as well as its indispensability to our prototyping process—lies in the flexibility it offers. We still make pots on the potter’s wheel in our Small Batch studio, where we offer various special vessels throughout the year. Some of our most notable Small Batch vessels include the Sunday Morning Mug, Utensil Crock, Big Mug, Shapes Vases, and Creamers. Sign up for our newsletter to be notified when the next Small Batch pot will launch!
Step 3: Trimming
Step 4: Drying & Bisque Firing
Different forms undergo different drying processes—some go through our overhead commercial dryer and others are air-dried. The dryer brings our drying time down to just a few hours, in contrast with traditional air drying that can take days.
Once the raw clay pots have dried to a state known as “bone-dry,” they are fired in a lower temperature “bisque” firing overnight, ready to unload the next day.
Step 5: Glazing & Glaze Firing
Once the pots finish their bisque firing, they’re ready to be glazed! All of our glazes are developed and mixed in-house. Our glaze team carefully dips each pot into the glaze and wipes the rims and feet clean to expose the clay body using a sponge belt or manually. Once the glaze dries, we load them into the glaze kiln for one final firing.
We fire the glazed pottery into our gas-fired kiln at Cone 10, a much higher temperature than bisque firing. Firing at such a high temperature gives our glazes a vitrified surface and results in pots that are consistent in color and quality from firing to firing, which creates uniform, stackable, and highly-functional dinnerware for homes and restaurants. We fire our glaze kilns full of pottery 6-7 times a week!
Step 6: Sanding
Once the glaze kiln cools, we use an industrial sanding belt to sand away any roughness from the exposed clay body on each pot—typically on the rims, feet, and lower quarters of our mugs and drinking vessels.
Step 7: Quality Control
When a glaze kiln is unloaded, our Quality Control Team separates all the pots by form and color and goes through each stack one by one. They scan for visual flaws, run their hands over the entire surface area, feel the weight of each piece, and more and more. From there, the pot is determined to be a first second, or, in some cases, a third. Firsts are pots that meet our highest standards, the ones that make its way onto our site and in our stores. Seconds have minor blemishes and imperfections; we sell them at 30% off at occasional Seconds Sales. Thirds—very wonky mishaps—never make it to customers, though many of us on the team here have amassed funny little personal collections. Read more about our QC standards here.
Step 8: Fulfillment
Lastly, when pottery is smooth, pristine, and clean, we pack it up in a box to be shipped to your home sweet homes! All of our packaging is plastic free—we use a special, bubble wrap alternative called Geami, that performs even better than bubble wrap.
Our team has really enjoyed making your pottery. We hope that, in turn, you enjoy using it for many, many years to come.