Pottery for beginners: the basics. Wheel-throwing.

posted on September 26th 2019 in Arts & pottery with 0 Comments

Woman throwing clay on an electric wheel

Have you ever watched someone work on a potter’s wheel, and found yourself captivated by the smooth vessel pulled up from a mound of clay? Are you curious about what it would be like to make your own wheel-thrown pottery? Some people wonder what wheel-thrown pottery is like for a beginner. Is it easy? Is it hard? Does it cost a lot of money to take a class? What should a newbie expect? I had all these questions too, that’s why I decided to enroll in the Potter-in-Training internship. I’m finding out some interesting things about this art, but today I will try to tell you the theory and steps I’ve learnt to throw a pot.


1. Wedge your clay

First you’ll need to wedge the clay to get out air bubbles. Gather a small amount of clay – the size of two fists put together is plenty for someone just starting – and form it into a rough ball shape. Then pick the ball up, and slam it against a canvas (so it absorbs extra moisture from too-wet clay). Push the clay with your hands forward in the same manner of kneading bread. Mold it into a ball, and repeat the process. To see if there are still air bubbles, use a piece of wire to cut the ball in half. The air bubbles will look like little craters in the smooth clay. If air bubbles are left in the clay the clay will almost never be centered and impossible to raise. When there are no air bubbles present in the clay, shape it back into a rough ball.

2. Center your clay

This is arguably the most important step of them all. Start by throwing the clay to the center of the wheel. Start to spin the wheel fairly fast now, and with a bowl of water wet hands and clay. Push the clay down and in on the wheel at the same time, letting extra clay and water slide away from your hands and off the wheel. The ball of clay should look even, and be rotating evenly, like the wheel of a car when viewed from the side.

Centering the clay means that its outer edges spin perfectly smooth with no bumps or wobbles. Make sure your body is centered over the wheel and legs are planted firmly on the ground.

Use your left hand at the side of the clay and your right hand on top. Both are pushing on the clay to smooth it out. Only use your palms and keep your arms locked against your body.

3. Open

Once the clay is centered, it is time to open it. To start you need to make a hole in the center. To do this, start by moving your finger across the top of the clay in a straight line. This is so you find the exact center. If the hole is not started in the exact middle, the clay will begin to wobble and you will have to follow the steps above to recenter it. Slowly push your forefinger straight down into the center of the spinning clay, about an inch from the bottom, using the other hand to cup the clay and act as a stabilizer at the same time. Slowly remove your finger from the hole.

4. Pull

To enlarge the hole, put your finger into the hole you’ve already created and slowly start bringing it towards your body. You will need to use your other hand to brace the wall that is being created. Enlarge this to the size of the base you wish your pottery to be. This created wall would generally be about an inch to two inches thick. With the wall created, the cylinder should spin perfectly symmetrical. In all these steps always remove hands and fingers and take the pressure off slowly.

5. Compress the bottom

After you have created an opening the bottom will need to be compressed to avoid cracks when the piece is fired. You can either use a wooden rib to take out all the off-center clay from the bottom or you can slowly smooth it out with your fingers.

6. Pull to raise the walls

Your left index finger braced against the inside wall toward the bottom, with the thumb braced across to the right hand or wrist. Because by now the clay is thoroughly soaked with water, a very small, say one inch sponge is held between index finger and thumb of the second hand. The index finger and sponge are pressed against the outside wall exactly opposite the finger(s) on the inside. They are squeezed and raised together, thinning the wall and raising the pot. This is done a little at a time from say 6 to 12 times, until the desired thickness of the wall is achieved, from an eighth of an inch to an inch depending on the type of pot or plate. The object is usually to thin the wall to the point where it still has the strength to stand up. The sponge is used to control the wetness and strength of the clay, the more wet the weaker, the less the stronger.

7. Even out the top

The top often becomes uneven and can be cut off at any time, but especially after the walls are finished. With a pin projecting from a wood cylinder, with the first hand press the pin into the spinning clay near the top, or cut off where desired. Press into spinning clay until it reaches the index finger of the second hand on the inside. When completely cut all the way around, simply lift up and off. This creates a cylinder.

8. Shape

Push inside the cylinder out while outside hand gently supports clay. Touch hands as soon as able for stability. Note that only finger tips are touching the pot.

You can also clean the bottom with a wooden tool.

9. Under cutting

Once you’re satisfied with your pot, you’ll need to run the cutting wire all the way through the base keeping it tight and straight to be able to lift your piece.

And that’s your pot done! Easy, isn’t it? Well, if you’re like me and never touched a potter’s wheel, expect a real learning experience. I will write about my experience on my first wheel-throwing class on the next post. Your experience may be different to mine, but it’s been an interesting process to watch and learn from from a psychological point of view. So keep tuned!

Photo by Juliet Furst on Unsplash

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