Using Solid-Color Ceramic Decal Sheets with a Die Cutter

Work for a show at Schaller Gallery just went out the door, so I’ve had a little time to do studio clean-up and some research. I had a piece that I’d surfaced at the ends, planning some decal shapes in the center, and a large serving tray that didn’t pass my inspection that I hoped I could make a bit more attractive with decal intervention and use around the house.

There is a company that is developing non-toxic decals, some of which may be safe enough unfired for use by children. This would be a great boon for functional potters. Traditionally, many China paint and ceramic decal products are fluxed with lead. I have some samples of their sheets of solid decal color (not yet for sale), as well as some sheets of solid ceramic decal color from Chinese Clay Art (13″ x 20″, 8.00, probably NOT food safe).

With Make-The-Cut software, I made an 11″ x 7″ oval, did a nested duplicate where I could set the width – the software will make and center a smaller duplicate of the shape – and made a band that would be the size of the bottom of my platter. I wanted a crisp, solid  black line to anchor the bottom of the composition and make the wimpy, pale ground look like a contrast.

Screen shot in Make-the-Cut software of created shape

Screen shot in Make-the-Cut software of created shape

Below left, the cut shape left on the sticky cutting mat that goes through the die cutter bed. Right, the sheet of decal medium that was peeled up to reveal the cut shape. Removing things other than the cut shape from the mat is called “weeding”. This was very simple, but if you do elaborate shapes with a lot of interior cut-outs, it can involve some time to weed all the negative spaces.

cut ceramic decal shape

Cut form in Chinese ClayArt black on a cutting mat (left) after the decal sheet medium is peeled off (right)

Below, the arc applied to the platter. The arc was cut in several places so that it appears the leaves come in front of the arc. It would have been good to have a “before” image as well. The arc grounds things and makes a better value contrast with the light ground color. The decal color is probably not food safe, and would not be used in a situation where I would not control the platter’s use. Acid foods could cause lead to leach. This is a small shape, and the amount of lead would be small, but not a good practice. I will keep this, and NOT serve pasta with tomato sauce in it. The most important part of this exercise is the experiment with the die cutter and decal medium to see what’s possible. I recommend using potentially toxic decal media on the outside of functional pottery only.

Platter with unfired decal  arc.

Majolica platter with unfired black arc decal shape.

The green sample of the non-toxic decal medium cut poorly. The decal medium was stretchy and tore in cutting, and pulled off the backing easily. Not good for use with a die cutter at this point. Settings for the cutter were the same for both decal sheets. Offset .35, force 110, speed 10/10, single pass.

Experimental non-toxic decal medium. Tore badly in cutting.

Experimental non-toxic decal medium. Tore badly in cutting.

Die-cut shapes from Chinese Clay Art black solid decal sheet.

Die-cut shapes from Chinese Clay Art black solid decal sheet. Artifact arc from earlier cut.

The test tray with shapes in both the green non-toxic sample decal medium, and the Chinese Clay Art black. Applying the cut decal forms is a new challenge. In using a traditional decal printed onto a clear base, a large, simple shape may be cut and applied because the clear ground medium will either burn away, or clear cover coat will melt into the surface. With intricate cuts, the decal loosens from the backing, and can easily fold over and stick to itself or wrinkle, making a poor application. I found I had to put the decal face-down on my hand, carefully peel up the backing, then coax it onto the ceramic surface from my hand by pressing it down. I’m still working of developing moves on this. The wet decal stretches a bit, so just sliding the backing out from under the leaf shapes made the backing catch on the lower forms and decals fold onto themselves. Ew. I also tried peeling back the first half inch of backing, putting the exposed decal onto the form, and then gently peeling back the backing in a U shape while lowering the rest of the exposed decal. These problems are much simpler with silk-screened decals than they are with complex cut shapes.

Majolica tray with painted image at the ends, unfired cut decal shapes in black and green in the center.

Majolica tray with painted image at the ends, unfired cut decal shapes in black and green in the center.

Learning to use the die cutter is a lot of fun for me. Not sure where it goes in terms of my aesthetic, but it offers the opportunity to do things not easily done with majolica and a brush, like crisp, precise shapes, text, dense, solid color. Also good for touch-ups and revisions.

Kiln is cooling. Looking forward to the results.

Bottom line: new problems found.

  • The specific decal medium makes a difference in how it cuts. Not all are equal for die-cutter use, although they may work well with scissors.
  • applying intricate cut shapes is no picnic and poses challenges of its own. People doing scrapbooking use transfer tape to keep shapes in place during transfer. Artist Garth Johnson has done a version of this with his gold decal demo. See



Die-cut Stencils for Majolica/Die-Cut Decal Shapes

The blog has been rather neglected for the past  months. I’ve had successful treatment for a second bout of Lyme disease (the ticks and I both like living in the woods), and my husband had a liver tumor removed. So, it was a chewy medical time, and other things had to wait. We are both doing much better, and I’m back at it. Almost out the door to the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in Milwaukee tomorrow (3-17-2014)

The die cutter continues to intrigue me. I’m still working my way through some video tutorials and online info. The software does amazing things, but some days I have trouble figuring out what I don’t know to get where I want to go. I’ve been working on some cards in cardstock to learn the software – paper is cheaper than other materials, and there are bound to be failures while learning. The manual for the Zing die cutter says to experiment: you’re bound to have failures, but you will learn a lot. A good attitude. There is a great deal of info online, and I’m working on a handout for my web site to list some of those resources.

In studio, I had cups. I wanted to do some sunflowers. Realism isn’t a big goal for me. Many of the plants I paint are made up, rather than descriptive of a specific plant or fruit – the generic idea of plants, leaves, flowers, fruit. But even within stylization, there are some shapes that are harder to make with a brush in one fluid stroke. With majolica, the overlaps often show. So, I made some Tyvek stencils of wide leaves with toothed edges.

The stencils won’t stick to raw glaze, so I am reduced to just holding them on the cup to mask my brush stroke, arbuckle-2014-tankard-w-sunflowers-w-red-handle

preferable with the cup on its side so the stencil sits with gravity helping. The results are not as crisp as a slip stencil, but it does help me get closer to that broad leaf shape with a toothed edge in one stroke with a big, soft brush.

At NCECA, I will be the point person for an NCECA Connections group for die-cutter shop talk, Friday, 5 pm. Check the program or with the NCECA booth for location. The Ceramic Art Cart/Keraflex people are testing some un-leaded sheets of solid decal color, and kindly provided samples sheets in a number of colors. Last night I jammed on it and did my first decal cuts on the die cutter, using their samples. Took some adjusting to get the right blade depth (check the sample cut on the decal medium itself, not just the backing), force (80), speed (6- which is s-l-o-w), and cut (2 passes). The first time with less force and one pass, didn’t cut through. Worked better with the settings listed, but this is a very slow cut. Decals were put in water, slid onto the cup once loosened from the backing, patted dry, and fired to 017 slow in my test kiln. Results below. This is how I would like to imagine I feel in the morning. I was thinking about getting up early and how some days coffee makes the sun rise. The brown decal sheet was the right coffee color. These were done on top of an already glaze-fired, plain white body majolica cup. Yellow, ochre, chocolate, and grey decal sheets used. If you’re at NCECA and want to talk shop about die cutters, come find the Connections group.

Arbuckle-2014-die-cut-decal-shapes-(3) Arbuckle-2014-die-cut-decal-shapes-(4) Arbuckle-2014-die-cut-decal-shapes-(7)