After babying my injured elbow for 6 months without much progress, I needed to come up with Plan B. I hadn’t thrown anything on the wheel in ages, and was concentrating on sculpture. But I missed making functional pieces for everyday use, and was finding sculpture a hard sell in these tough economic times.
I was using a shim-based slab roller at Pierce College to make slabs for plates and bowls using slump molds, and although I wasn’t crazy about moving large shims in and out, I thought some kind of slab roller might be a good option for me. So, I began my research. Not long after that, fellow artist and neighbor Rebecca Catterall offered me use of her North Star 24” standard slab roller to try.
North Star Slab Rollers are made in two series: the Standard series used by hobby potters and students and the massive Super series, at home in industrial, institutional and production settings.
Standard machines are made in `18″, 24″ and, on special order, 30″ widths. They have rolls 2 1/2″ in diameter, tables are 48″ long with the roller in the center and the handle drives the bottom roll directly. Super machines are much heavier. The tables are 72″ long, rolls are 4″ in diameter, and there is a 4.33:1 steel gear reduction between handle and roll. They are made 24″, 30″ and 36″ wide, and they come only with a wagon wheel handle.
All North Star machines have two rolls, much like the wringer of an old-fashioned washing machine. Both rolls have a small diamond pattern (“knurling”) machined directly into the metal to grip the canvas. The bottom roll is turned by the handle, but cannot move vertically. As it turns, it drives the top roll through a train of gears. The upper roll both turns and can be adjusted up and down. The two rolls turning together pull slabs through easily, and the vertical adjustment of the top roll gives an easy-to-set and infinitely adjustable thickness from paper-thin to over 2 inches. A reference scale allows setting and repeating openings to within 1/100 of an inch.
The design gives great flexibility in making slabs. Very thin, translucent porcelain slabs and thick, heavily textured architectural slabs are equally easy. A wide variety of texturing materials and objects can be passed through the machine along with the clay. Slabs can be rolled either direction or reversed on all North Star machines.
Bodies and rolls are made of cast and carefully machined high-strength special alloy aluminum. Gears are made of the strongest material available for this application, nylon or steel. Bushings are nylon and the remaining parts (except plastic gear covers and knobs) are machined steel. Table frames are 14-gauge steel. Tabletops are of moisture-resistant Medex with a melamine surface. Metal surfaces are zinc plated or coated with a durable powder coat finish. Virtually no maintenance is required, and the simplicity of the design ensures that any repair ever needed will be quick and easy.
A bottom shelf and extension wings (with or without buckets for clay scraps) are available for either the 24 or 30″ standard slab roller table.
At a Glance
■ Every part carefully designed and made for its intended purpose. No off-the-shelf or inferior parts or material.
■ Rust free and virtually maintenance free.
■ No clumsy heavy shims or boards.
■ No chains, cables or cast-iron gears.
■ Thickness infinitely variable from 0 to 2-3/4″ on Standard series, 0 to 2-1/4″ on Super series.
■ Slabs can be rolled in either direction; can be added or subtracted at any time.
■ The length of the slab is limited only by the space and canvas available.
■ Tapered slabs are quick, easy and precise.
■ Warping, curling and cracking are drastically reduced.
■ All machines accept press molds and a wide variety of texturing material such as burlap, plant materials, rope, cork and bark.
After rolling out about 150 pounds of clay with Rebecca’s slab roller, I was hooked. I eventually bought the same North Star 24” standard roller and the extension wings without the buckets, but it’s been 6 months and I haven’t used or even installed the wings yet. The slab roller and table were a cinch to put together–it took me about an hour.
One of the only drawbacks to this and other slab rollers is the canvas imprint they leave on the clay. I purchased two smooth Slabmats to fit the table, but haven’t been able to get them to work because North Star’s toothy rollers grip the canvas in such a way that the Slabmats just slip right out from under them. That being said, if it’s a smooth surface I’m after, I just go over the slab later with a few swipes of a soft rubber rib.
I LOVE my North Star slab roller and can’t say enough good things about it! I’m starting to experiment with veneers of colored clay, layering strips side by side on white stoneware, and the effect is stunning.