In the autumn of 2015 we were approached by local renowned artist Pete McKee to produce some custom design mugs for his Christmas collection.

We looked at some mugs that had previously been produced for the customer and discussed the specification and standards that would be required.  It was agreed that the previous mugs were a bit on the small side, and it was obvious the print needed to be of the highest quality possible to match the fine bone china mugs that he had used before.  We presented Pete and his team the Fine Bone China ‘ash’ Mug.  This was chosen as the base mug for the project; it was the right size for a decent cuppa and was a high quality ceramic that was not prohibitively expensive.

Pete presented us with the design, which was a full wraparound print going all around the mug with just a gap left for the handle.  We mocked this up onto the ‘ash’ mug with nothing more sophisticated than printing the design onto sticky paper and sticking it to the mug – this is a great quick way of showing clients exactly how the prints will appear on the piece, if the design needs to be larger, smaller or repositioned it’s no bother to re-print and stick!! The mock up was signed off by the client with regards to size and position.custom printed mugs for pete mckee

From previous McKee mugs the quality of the print was vital, as were the colours and how they would appear once the mugs were fired.  Viewers of the Great Pottery Throw Down on BBC2 will remember how difficult it was for the potters to know how colours would turn out on their pieces; we can be more accurate but there still is an element of uncertainty as subtle shades can change in the firing. 

The McKee mugs print utilised two very similar shades of brown and a pale yellow, so we decided to do a colour swatch test to see how these would turn out. The actual design was sent to us via email in the .psd format with a resolution of 500dpi which is perfect for producing a good quality print.

To make the prints we, again, turned to RC design of Stoke on Trent, who are specialists in screen-printed ceramic decals.  They organised the mixing of the pigments based on Pete’s Pantone references and produced some square swatches of colour that could then be fired onto an ‘ash’ mug to test the reaction of the colour to the firing.  These were fired and we presented the swatch fired mug to Pete and his team for comment.  It seemed that they had turned out a bit too pale so it was decided to do the full wraparound design in a shade darker all round.  We could have produced another set of darker swatches but the deadline for production (Christmas market) was nearing, so we thought it best to go ahead with print production.

I suggested to Pete that to get the best possible finish it would be best to use a screen-printed decal as opposed to a digitally printed one.  Firstly, the design lent itself to a screen-print as it used solid colour throughout with no shading or gradients of colour, and secondly a screen-printed decal, when fired onto fine bone china, will produce the desired shiny finish that was desired for this high quality project – digital prints can be a bit matt once fired.

backstamp on custom printed mugThe design also required a ‘Mckee’ backstamp.  This is the print that goes underneath patterned or printed pieces.  We did the backstamp as a digital print to keep costs manageable and these were printed direct from a computer file, and sent to the decorators who were to apply and fire the wraparound decal and backstamp.

A final twist was that Pete needed the mugs to be supplied with a suitable box so they could be sold in a box direct from his gallery or his on-line shop.  We sourced two suitable cardboard boxes that the mug fitted into perfectly.  One was a completely closed type whilst the other had a cut-out so the design could be seen. It was decided that the box with the cut out was by far the best solution and worth the few extra pence each box cost.  Viewability of the design was seen as a real plus point.

The mugs and boxes were delivered direct by ourselves to Pete McKee’s gallery/shop in time for the vital Christmas shopping period, and they have been very well received. The project took about six weeks from beginning to end which is longer than usual but getting the colours perfect was vital to this project and so firing of test swatches extended the production time a bit.

This project produced the best quality custom mugs that we have ever done, they look fabulous. It shows that attention to detail and technical knowledge is the way to go to produce top quality ceramics.