Crafting in clay: Cecil Deal's ceramics hobby-turned-business spans decades

Cecil Deal’s ceramics hobby started quite by accident.

Deal, who is “91 years young,” has been creating ceramic pieces for more than 45 years. And it all started because of his wife, Florence.

“My wife was making ceramics in Huron and the instructor asked her to bring over a piece I was doing because she was bringing home stuff for me to do,” Deal recalls. “And that was the wrong thing to say because when she took mine over there, the instructor told her, ‘He does a hell of a lot better than you do.’

“Three months later, she wasn’t doing it anymore,” he laughs. “I continued doing it. I took lessons and everything.”

Those lessons from a local ceramic company — Deal doesn’t recall the name — brought with it a lot of awards and maybe even some envy from the women in the classes.

“I was against a lot of women and I won several prizes,” he smiles.

Deal's basement houses his extensive collection of ceramics supplies. (Photo/Payton Werling)Deal’s story, of course, starts way before his hobby turned into a business.

Deal, who was born in Fremont, moved to Sandusky with his family at a young age. He worked in the penny arcade at Cedar Point from ages 18-21 and then was drafted into the Army. 

“I was one of the fortunate or unfortunate that was sent to West Point to train cadets,” Deal says. “If you go to West Point to train cadets, you’re in the boondocks and didn’t get to go out and do anything.”

After leaving the Army, he moved to California and would drive back to Sandusky to visit.

“The second year I drove here, I met my wife,” Deal says. “And then the next year we were married.”

The couple built their Bogart Road home in 1960, and Deal has lived there ever since. The home is a showplace for his ceramics business. As soon as you walk in (after being greeted by the bear standing on its hind legs on the front porch), you’re met with pieces both from Deal’s collections and others. 

That includes the violet pots sitting near his front picture window that are filled with African violets that once belonged to Florence. Florence died in 2004.

“Those have never been repotted,” Deal says of Florence’s violets. “They’ve been there all this time.”

Deal pours, fires, and paints the violet pots and sells them to Corso’s Flower & Garden Center, something he’s done for about 15 years.

“I can make them any way you want,” Deal says of the pots’ designs.

Walk a bit farther into Deal’s home and you reach the sunroom, which doubles as his ceramic showroom. Deal switches out his inventory to reflect the seasons and holidays. Right now, shelves of snowmen, snow-covered churches, Santa and Mrs. Claus, and Santa boots fill the room. Deal’s biggest sellers are his glazed and fired Christmas trees.

This year he thinks, though, that sales may be down because he has seen a lot of copycat trees of various qualities for sale on sites like Facebook.

Deal has been making ceramics for 45 years. (Photo/Payton Werling)“I always say when they ask me about those (that are for sale online), I don’t know what they are,” Deal says. “I know what these are.”

And what Deal’s trees are is beautifully handcrafted.

The creation process starts with the mold. Deal keeps his molds – more than 3,000 of them – in his basement, which is also where his kiln and clay mixer live.

But first, to get to the basement.

In order to do this, Deal uses his walker to get him to the top of his basement stairs, then transfers into a motorized chair that allows him to bypass the steep and winding staircase.

“I’m down there 5-10 times a day,” he says.

From there, he scoots past shelves of finished pieces, molds, and paint to the mixer, which sits behind a shelving unit. He supports himself with a chair and his walker in order to take the lid off of the mixer and then makes his way into the seat.

Each of Deal’s workspaces is organized to make the area functional for him.

“I’ve got everything set up for me,” he says. “I got everything I need.”
Once he starts the machine and allows the clay to mix, he is then able to fill a mold. To do this, he opens the mold (some of which are held together by straps because of their size and weight) on a nearby table and presses the trigger on a pump–much like a gas pump–and fills the mold.

Deal has a system that he has perfected.

Several nights a week, Deal’s daughter, Teena, stops by to help him move around items, carry in boxes from the garage, put up pieces and pack away items.
Once a week (usually on Tuesdays or Thursdays), Deal’s friend and helper Annie Berger, joins him to help him lift the molds, fill, and fire the pieces.

“She’s been helping me for about 10 years now,” Deal says. “She loves doing it.”

The process begins at 8:30 a.m. when Deal and Berger mix the slip – the clay slurry used to make the ceramic pieces. The slip takes about 15-20 minutes to loosen up before the clay can be poured into the mold. Once in the mold, the clay most set for about 20 minutes or more, depending on the size of the piece (for example, the larger Mr. and Mrs. Snowman pieces need to sit for about 20 minutes).

After dumping the piece out of the mold, it needs to sit for about a half hour.

“That takes us to 9 [a.m.],” Deal says. “Then at 10, we trim the outside off, then let it set until 5 p.m. Then we do anything extra that has to be done to it.”

That anything extra can mean extra trimming to cutting out the holes for the Christmas tree lights.

After that, it’s onto firing. 

Deal offers both painted and unpainted snowmen. (Photo/Payton Werling)If a piece is bisque (like Mr. and Mrs. Snowman), the piece is considered unfinished and only fired once, while greenware pieces are claylike and break easily, as they are not fired at all. Pieces like the Christmas trees are fired twice.

No matter the size of the piece, the firing process takes 24 hours, as the pieces bake in the kiln for four hours. The kiln automatically shuts off after that four hours, but if you open the kiln before the 24 hours is up, the piece will crack, Deal says.

“Some people rush it and take it out in 18 hours, but to me it ain't right,” Deal says, “I was taught in school 24 hours, so they stay in for 24 hours.”

It’s a labor-intensive process, but one that Deal enjoys.

“I like doing it, but you have to give me time to do it,” he says.

Deal says he enjoys making the Joseph pieces that read “I’m with you always.” “I’ve been selling a lot of those.” (Photo/Payton Werling)The trees probably require the most time, Deal notes, as he does all the wiring and painting himself.

“A tree takes three coats of paint and usually I do it in two hours,” Deal says. “They tell you two hours between coats, but if you know how to paint and know your paint you can do it in two hours. Your paint has to be shiny and as it dries it dulls. Once it’s dull, I can paint over it.”

The trees vary in size and color, but all bear the signature shine and colored plastic lights that Deal meticulously glues in himself.

“I can make them anyway you want,” he says. “Some people want a white tree but want all blue lights or want certain colors of lights in a certain tree.”

Ceramics isn’t Deal’s only artistic pursuit. He says he’s done it all — knitting, crocheting, painting — but ceramics is his passion. His advice for those who want to pursue the hobby?

“First of all, you have to like doing it,” he says. “It has to be a real hobby; otherwise you ain't going to get anywhere.

“I just love doing it. I love pouring it and I love painting it. And I love seeing the faces on the different people that come.”

And what would Florence think?

“She’d like it because I was out of her hair,” he laughs.

To purchase pieces from Deal, visit his home at 1302 W. Bogart Road. He says people can stop by any time of the day to shop.

“If I'm here, I'll answer the door," he says. "If I'm not, I won't.”