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Beginner’s Guide to Pottery: Everything you need to know

Caught the pottery bug after watching The Great Pottery Throwdown? Always wanted to give ceramics a go but not sure where to start? Read on for our top tips, pottery ideas and beginner guide from Katrina of Katrina Pechal Ceramics

Guide to pottery for beginners

I remember as a little girl of 11 being introduced to pottery at school. As I watched the potter on the wheel, I was filled with excitement and wonder. That lovely brown gooey mud, something from the earth was being turned into something before my eyes, a pot, a vessel, an object that you could drink or eat from. Like a magician working his magic. A kind of earthy alchemy that was transformative for me then and still is 45 years later. I’m a working potter and I run a school that teaches pottery and I’m still enthralled by that process. Its an art form that’s is for everyone. From the old to the very young, people love messing around with clay and making pots. Somehow it seems to be built into us, hard wired after thousands of years of making.

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The curious thing about pottery is that it has no cultural bounds, all societies ever since we settled into villages and towns on every continent have made pots for practical reasons.

I would argue that the invention of pottery is akin to human’s understanding and control of fire or the invention of the wheel – an essential building block of civilisation. When we gave up a nomadic life, we needed objects that we could cook in, eat and drink from and store things in. It can be argued that pottery is elemental to the development of civilisation.

When I say people make pots, I do mean that, its not a thing that has been done by just one gender or one class. Though history woman and men, the very old and the very young have all made pots from the earth.

Interestingly pottery’s popularity has never been higher than at the moment. In recent years YouTube, TV and social media platforms, have further enhanced people’s interest. There are many things that attract people to making clay objects and pots in particular. It doesn’t take years and years to become proficient enough to be able to make pots that can be used and enjoyed. After so many years of teaching and watching people from all walks of life working with clay, it is clear to me that everyone can enjoy and create with clay.

There are other benefits to the process of making pottery. I have seen this in myself and in others. There is a kind of feeling of Zen (if you will) a feeling of well-being and being lost in the moment while you’re making. You seem to slip away and forget yourself. You find your way easily to a place of just ‘doing it’ with nothing else in your head. The act of making seems to sooth away many of the stresses and troubles of a busy modern life.

Read on to discover our beginner’s guide to pottery – we’ve answered all your questions, from “Can I make pottery without a kiln?” to “What pottery ideas can I try?” and, of course the main question: “how to make clay into pottery”. You might also like our guide to The Great Pottery Throwdown or to listen to our podcast episode featuring The Throwdown’s Keith Brymer Jones.

If you’re really new to this and want to have a little dabble with clay, but aren’t quite ready to get firing, we’ve got some lovely starter test projects for you that won’t need you to get fully fired up (so to speak). If you want complete, kiln-free, starter level clay play, have a go with polymer clay. We’ve got a beginner’s guide to polymer clay to get you started, plus some lovely projects from Mollie Makes to test out your new skills – try our guide to how to make DIY clay coasters or a botanical clay trinket dish DIY.

Main image credit (above) © stockstudio

Pottery students work – biscuit fired and ready for glazing. The pots on the bottom shelf have been decorated with coloured slips
Pottery students work – biscuit fired and ready for glazing. The pots on the bottom shelf have been decorated with coloured slips

How to make pottery for beginners

Pottery does not have to be a difficult or expensive activity to start and it certainly doesn’t need a lot of specialist tools. The only issue will be getting pots fired, but finding a friendly potter or pottery centre that would be happy to fire your pots will help you get underway until you decide whether it’s a hobby you want to properly invest in.

Progressing to throwing however means you will need access to a potter’s wheel and I would suggest you start throwing lessons at a class or workshop before purchasing a wheel as they can be very expensive.

However, for hand-building all you need to get started is:

A bag of clay

You can order these from a ceramic suppliers (we’ve listed our favourites below)

Where to buy pottery clay

Tools

A few tools that can be found in your home

  • A spoon or implement to model the clay
  • A knife
  • Strong thread tired to a button at each end to use as a wire to cut the clay
  • A fork to texture the clay
  • Wooden spoon to paddle the clay
  • Rolling pin to roll out the clay
  • Sponge
  • An old plastic credit card or membership card – to smooth the clay

A kiln

OK so let’s face it, not many of us can afford to buy a kiln, or fit one in our homes. (Though if this is something you’re considering, you can pick up kilns on Etsy these days!).

But good news, here in the UK there are a number of companies across the country who offer kilns for hire  – where you drop off your clay and then pick it up later, fired in the kiln. Here are a few examples:

Can you make pottery without a kiln?

Essentially yes you can, but most of the methods involved will still need you to fire your clay at high temperatures, so may not be practical for trying at home, depending on your set-up! We list a few different methods of firing pottery further down into this article (read on to find out more!), alongside some kilns for hire above.

We’ve also put some starter guides and projects for having a dabble with polymer clay in the introduction to this article, to give you some options to have a little play around before you jump into shaping, glazing and firing clay.

Pottery wheel (optional)

As we explain below, there are several methods of shaping clay and using a pottery wheel is just one of them. There are other, beginner-friendly methods where you shape the clay with your hands and simple tools. If however you do catch the bug, there are companies who offer the service of hiring a wheel, or if you’re going all in, you can always buy your own.

Check out these Pottery Wheels for sale on Amazon.

How to make clay: pottery ideas and easy methods to try

There are 5 main ways or techniques of making in clay.

Pinching pottery

From a ball of clay rolled in your hands and held in one, the thumb of your other hand used to press into the middle for the clay making a hole, your fingers can then start pinching the clay wall repeatedly as you slowing and evenly turn the ball around. Pinching between your thumb on the inside and your fingers on the outside. Continuing until you get a desired thinness and evenness to the wall.

Pottery ideas Pinch pot images
Coiling pottery

Staring with a clay slab bottom either flat or held in a curved form such as a bowl placed on a matt or board, that can be easily turned as you work. A piece of fabric under the clay is useful to stop it sticking to the bowl form. Rolled coils of clay are then attached around the edge of the form and more added to increase the height and size. The coils are blended together using a tool or your fingers and can be smoothed. All sorts of shapes and sizes can be achieved.

Pottery ideas - coil pot
Started from a clay slab pressed into a bowl
How to make clay - coil pot pottery ideas

The above shows the rolling of the coils, adding and attaching the coils to the top of clay pressed in to a bowl, forming a curved bottom. The fabric stops the clay from sticking to the bowl. More coils can be added increasing the size, and the contour of the pieces can be changed as you work depending on the circumference of your coils.

Slab building pottery

Clay is rolled out into flat sheets that can be curved or left flat, allowed to dry, cut up and attached together making all sorts of forms.

How to make pottery slab building

Carving pottery

A solid piece of clay is carved out with cutting and scooping tools to make a form.

Pottery ideas - carving a tea bowl

This is a tea bowl showing carving using a wire and scoop tool. Carving a foot ring, the centre and sides. This technique in Japan is called Kurinuki.

Throwing on a potter’s wheel

A wet ball of clay is held steady on the wheel, a hole is made in the centre, the wall pinched between the fingers of each hand, the hands together as they pinch move upward lifting the clay as the wheel spins.

How to make pottery throwing clay

A few pottery throwing tips to help you get started:

  • Keep your working movements, pressures and speeds steady, even and firm at all times
  • Try to keep contact between your hands and use them as one tool
  • Keep your body still as you work
  • Be firm and confident – not timid and scared

How to make clay: pottery tips

  • With hand building techniques, as the piece gets bigger or wider, allow it to dry a little before you continue building otherwise your pieces could collapse under the pressure
  • Works in progress need to be looked after, wrapped and sprayed with water to stop them drying out or to keep it in a desired consistency between working sessions
  • Clay joins are best between clay that is wet or firm but not dry and each piece the same consistency
  • To join, the clay should be scored and a little water or slurry applied, then pressed firmly together, soft clay can be smeared over the join for reinforcement
  • The clay consistency when working is so important and catching it just when it is right is key. It is so easy to get this wrong either being too eager or impatient and the clay is too soft so collapses or you leave the clay too long it dries out and then cracks as you work
  • Keep your supply of clay wrapped well to stop it drying out
  • Recycling the clay – all dried bits or scrap clay can be collected together in a bucket and covered with water. The dry clay brakes down into a slurry that can be dried on boards and then kneaded back into a useable consistency

How to decorate pottery before firing

Try these ways to add texture to your clay before you fire it….

  • Add texture to the clay surface by marking, stamping or incising
  • Burnish the surface – by smoothing and compressing the surface until highly shinny
  • Try slip decorating – painting, printing, inlaying or trailing coloured clay slips or liquid clays on the clay surface
How to glaze pottery
Students bowls decorated with coloured slips under a transparent glaze

Here you can see some slip decorating techniques, mono printing with orange slip, scratching through a painted layer of green slip, pressing dried white porcelain crumbs into the clay and using a decorative wooden leaf stamp to texture and pattern the clay.

How to make clay slip decorating

Main stages in the pottery process

  • Making and decorating 
  • Drying 
  • Biscuit firing 
  • Glazing 
  • Glaze firing

How to glaze pottery

Biscuit firing pottery

Glazes are applied either before or after an initial low temperature firing called a Biscuit firing normally fired between 900 – 1000 C. The biscuit firing leaves the clay strong, but still porous which means it will absorb the glaze.

Glazing pottery

The main glazing methods are dipping, pouring, spraying and painting.  Glazes melt in the firing and become a waterproof, glassy, durable surface. There can be all sorts of textures and colours in glazes depending on the materials used.

Potters buy in or mix up their own glazes from the dry materials purchased from ceramic suppliers.

how to glaze pottery - effects and types
Different glaze effects

Glaze firings

There are 3 main temperature ranges for glaze firings. Potters choose depending on the effects they want to achieve or the clays used. Earthenware clays and glazes would over fire and could melt completely at stoneware or porcelain temperatures. And earthenware temperatures would not be sufficient to mature stoneware or porcelain glazes and clays.

So it is important that potters know the temperature range for their clays and glazes.

Temperature ranges

  • Earthenware – 1000 – 1150°C
  • Stoneware – 1100 – 1300°C
  • Porcelain – 1200 – 1400°C

How to finish pottery raw clay surfaces
Different effects without glaze: Top left burnished and naked Raku fired. Top right thrown, covered in china clay power and then stretched from the inside allowing the china clay surface to crack. Middle left covered in grit, oxides and dry clay crumbs. Middle right rake fume fired. Bottom left blue coloured high fired porcelain. Bottom right smoke fire with resist effects.

Glazes also change depending on the atmosphere in the kiln. Different kilns and fuels used cause different effects.

How to fire pottery

There are several main different types of kilns and atmospheres

  • Oxidation – a clean oxygen filled atmosphere achieved using an electric kiln
  • Reduction – an oxygen reduced atmosphere due to the live flame needing oxygen to burn, achieved with a gas wood or oil burning kiln.
  • Vapour filled / salt or soda fired – produced by adding salt or soda to a reduction atmosphere at high temperatures
  • Raku firing – a post firing technique when you place your red-hot piece from the kiln into a pit or metal dustbin full of sawdust. The sawdust burns producing interesting effects
  • Smoke or pit firing – building a fire around a biscuit fired and burnished piece in a bin or pit dug in the ground, covering and leaving over-night.

A short history of pottery

The oldest pots found in Mesopotamia, are dated from Neolithic times 10,000 – 4,500 BC.

It’s worth stating the obvious, pottery has a direct link to the cooking of food. The discovery that clay when heated became hard and didn’t disintegrate in water led potters to fire their creations and to build fire pits and eventually to what we now know as kilns.

The other invention of upmost importance is the invention of the potter’s wheel. Before the wheel early potters would sit on the floor and starting with a thick pad of clay supported between their feet, they would beat the clay into a vessel form.  Beating the clay from the outside with a paddle and supporting the inside with an anvil, a mushroom shaped tool, rhythmically patting and turning the clay.

After the invention of the wheel in Mesopotamia around 3 – 4000 BC potters started using stone or wooden wheels to make their pots on. The wheel was either pushed or kicked around as they worked, enabling potters to spin clay into rounded shapes. Groups of potters started working together, sharing kilns and skills, and so began production potting.

Glazes were probably discovered by potters noticing that some clays, as well as ash deposits from the fire on the pots, were shinny. Ash and clay have all the ingredients needed to form a glaze at certain temperatures, sometimes matt or, when other reactions take place, highly shinny. The Far East, particularly China, were instrumental in the development of glazes and high fired porcelain.

As making methods developed further and slip casting (pouring of liquid clay) was invented in the 18th century by a British potter named Ralph Daniel, potters started using moulds to help form their pots.  The era of mass production of pottery began – artists became designers with a team of skilled labourers producing the wares.

Britain led in the industrialization of pottery, with huge pottery firms such as Wedgewood and Minton leading the world.  In 1851 the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace, London showcased an incredible collection of ornate and spectacular porcelain objects made in Britain.  Although it set the scene for a series of world fairs that helped make Britain famous for its pottery, the Exhibition in a way was the start of a movement away from the mass production. Most of the artefacts exhibited, although skilled, were aesthetically disastrous. Artist and craftsman had become separated in the vast mechanism that was the factory.

Demand for handmade work increased, which resulted in the Arts and Crafts movement and with it, a belief in a more honest approach to function and materials and a commitment to the enjoyment of the making process. Central to these developments was William Morris, whose ideas influenced artists and craftsman all over the world. Art schools and museums were set up and for the first-time artists could share skills and admire pots and objects from many distant countries.

After the first world war, The Bauhaus was established in Germany. Arguably the single most influential modernist art school of the 20th century. Practical crafts were placed on a par with fine arts such as sculpture and painting. Functionalism and simplicity swept away the old ideas of fussy ornamental designs in all art forms including architecture, furniture making, as well as ceramics.

At the same time in 1920 Bernard Leach returned to Britain after a period of study in Japan to set up the St Ives Pottery with Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) a fellow student in Japan. Bernard Leach is considered to be the father of studio pottery. His book A Potter’s Book, first published in 1940, is regarded as a bible of pottery. In it he outlines his working methods, influenced by the ideas of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement and by his philosophical approach which involved every aspect of life. It perhaps, more than any other single thing, has influenced studio potters throughout the world. He, along with Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi, were key figures in the introduction of Japanese aesthetic culture to the world of modern craftsmanship and of the modern arts of the West to Japan. Which became known as the Mingei Movement, preserving traditions of handmade functional objects with Buddhist principles of simplicity to form. They were among the most significant voices in the world of craftsmanship in the 20th century.

Leach’s numerous students and followers developed his ideas taking them back to their home countries, studios and classrooms and his ideas still influence potters today as they continue to explore, discover and push clay to it’s limits.

Potters like Lucie Rie, Hans Coper and Peter Voulkos, among others, later challenged the craft-oriented tradition of pottery making non-functional sculptural forms.

Significant pottery artists that followed William Morris are:

  • William de Morgan
  • The Doulton’s
  • The Martin Brothers

Some of the most notable of Bernard Leach’s pottery students.

  • Michael Cardew, UK
  • Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie, UK
  • Norah Braden, UK
  • Warren Mac-Kenzie, USA
  • John Reeve, Canada
  • Pierre Culot, Belgium
  • Gwyn Hanssen, Australia

Other ceramic artists to explore

  • Luci Rie
  • Hans Coper
  • Charles Fergus Binns
  • Marguerite Wildenhain
  • David Weinrib
  • Daniel Rhodes
  • Ruth Duckworth

About Katrina

Katrina graduated from Camberwell School of Arts with a BA Hons Degree in Ceramics in 1987 and set up her first studio in 1991. She is an accomplished potter selling her work internationally. She has always had a passion for clay and for sharing her ceramic skills as a teacher. Katrina has been teaching for over 25 years, setting up Forest Row School of Ceramics based in East Sussex in 2017.

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She is very proud to have mentored and inspired many of her students to set up their own studios and has numerous award-winning pupils, especially successful in ‘The Young Craftsman of the year award’ at The South of England Show.