Making a clay pot can be a very rewarding experience. There is a myriad of objects you can create for yourself or friends, from simple cups and bowls to more complex functional dishware or even abstract object d’art. However, if done improperly without the right techniques or frame of mind throwing pots can be very frustrating and difficult for the novice potter. I’ll cover the basics for beginners in a step-by-step approach to help you master the art of creating beautiful ceramic objects.
1. The most important step in throwing a pot is to remove the air bubbles from the clay body. Air trapped in the wall of a vessel can expand during the firing and create enough pressure to blow out of the pot, destroying the object and sending shards of clay towards nearby vessels in the kiln. Not a good scenario. However, the solution is a simple, but often exhaustive and time consuming process. To start you need your ball of clay. The size you can properly wedge will depend on either the size of the object you wish to make or the strength of your upper body. Take your ball of clay, whatever the weight, and knead it on a canvas or plaster top as if you were kneading bread. Using both hands on the clay push down with your palms at about a 45 degree angle. Be sure not to push all the way to the table top, but only about 4/5s of the way through the ball of clay. Now take the clay from the back, lift it up and push it down again into itself in the same motion as before, making sure not to trap more air in the process. The object is of course to remove air bubbles and this is done by creating a spiral effect with the ball of clay. You are effectively spinning the air out of the clay. If you cut your ball in half, a spiral pattern should be evident and there should be no air pockets. Repeat the process for several minutes per ball of clay. An alternative to this age old method would be to use a de-airing pug mill. But to the luddites or budget potters out there, tried and true will work best.
2. Now that you’ve gotten a de-aired ball of clay you can begin throwing. Remember to have all your tools at the ready. Nothing is worse than having to get up midway through throwing a pot to root around for a tool. The basic tools necessary are a bucket of water, a wire tool, a needle tool, a wooden knife, a sponge and a rib. For beginners a wooden batt is often used. This is a wooden surface that is placed on top of the metal wheel head to facilitate easy removal of finished products. Now that you have your tools and your batt ready, moisten the throwing surface lightly and smack your ball of clay down in the center.
3. The next step is crucial to the success of your object. The clay must be perfectly centered on the wheel or else your piece will be irreparably lopsided. The easiest way is to eyeball it to center at a slow speed. Simply pound and push until it looks centered. Then with your elbows anchored into your hips or thighs, the wheel spinning at the highest speed and with plenty of water, use the palm of your left hand (or right hand, for left-handed throwers) to push the spinning ball of clay gently into center. If you can see any wobbling, you haven’t done it right and you need to continue working at it until it is perfect.
4. When you have it centered you now open up the lump of clay to form the interior space. Reduce your speed and using the thumbs of both hands create an indentation on the upper surface of your centered clay ball. The indentation should be perfectly centered. Now using this dent as a guide, push your finger/s directly into the center of the clay, pushing down with even pressure until you come to within a ¼ or ½ inch of the wheel head. If you are unsure how deep you’ve gone, poke the needle tool through the clay until it hits the wheel head. Congratulations! If you’ve made a cavity in the clay, you’ve just made a pot, albeit not a pretty one, but it’s not finished yet. Now to widen that hole you’ve just created, take the fingers of one hand and like a hook, pull the wall of the clay towards you. Make sure to keep your fingertips evenly on the interior bottom of the pot so you create a level floor.
5. You should now have a squatty little pot centered on your wheel. The next step is to pull the walls up to make them thinner and the piece taller. To do this you reduce your speed a little and with your left hand inside and your right hand outside, pinch the bottom of the wall until it forms a lump of clay above your fingers. Stop pinching. You only need to squeeze the wall until some of the clay is moved above your fingers, pinching any more will result in too thin a wall at the base and the clay will most likely tear. Now with that mass of clay moved above your fingers slowly, no faster than the speed of the wheel and keeping the distance between your fingers even, move your hands up. This pushes the clay up, thus increasing the height of the piece. Do this again and again until you reach a desirable height or until the clay is too thin to move any higher.
6. You now should have a much taller and hopefully much more attractive vessel. What to do from here is entirely up to your artistic discretion. You could gently pull the walls toward you to form a bowl, or you could stop the wheel entirely and scratch designs in the surface. It’s your object now; do with it as you will.
7. The last part of the process is very simple. You want to take your sponge and sop up any water that may be inside your new vessel. When that is done you can use the wire tool to cut the pot off the wheel head. Simply stretch it out and drag it under your pot. If you’ve used a batt, you can pull it off the wheel and set it aside with your pot on top to dry. If you haven’t, then gently lift your pot off the wheel and set it in the drying area.
To sum up; remove the air from the clay, have your tools ready, center the clay, open up the clay, pull up the walls, finish the piece and remove it from the wheel to dry. Remember that not everything will go so smoothly the first time. Or the second time for that matter. Pottery is an art that takes lots of patience and practice, but if you stick with it, it can be an exciting creative outlet for years to come.
Mike Morrison is a 28 year old language teacher who loves foreign travel and learning new cultures. He has visited 20 countries in the last 10 years, including living in South Korea for two years teaching elementary level English. Mike enjoys blog and article writing on assorted topics including pets, hobby crafts, music, environmental issues, and physical fitness. Mike would love to hear from anyone sharing his interests. Contact Mike
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