How are handmade ceramics made? Part One: wheel thrown

Part 1: Throwing on the pottery wheel

At elph store, we pride ourselves on stocking a variety of ceramic styles created using a range of handmade techniques. If you happen upon Eloise in store, she loves to wax lyrical about the different techniques of each maker, however, if you are buying online, we think you should have a bit of extra knowledge too! So we asked her to put together a bit of a handy dandy explainer of different ceramic techniques. 

This three part series will cover three broad techniques of making to give you an idea of the scope of techniques available to potters.

Each of our makers has mastered one or more of these techniques through years of dedication to their craft. It is important to note also that these techniques are only a fraction of the skills that are needed to create a finished ceramic work. Alongside these techniques we will outline in this series, there are also myriad decorating, altering, glazing and firing techniques. Look out for explainers of these in future elph journal posts.

So let’s begin with Eloise’s favourite technique: wheel throwing.

If you have ever found yourself lost in the world of Instagram pottery videos or seen the movie Ghost, chances are you'll have seen a potter throwing on the pottery wheel. During this process, the clay seems to effortlessly glide from shape to shape in the potter’s hands as it spins. I think we can all agree that it is a strangely satisfying process to watch. As a teacher of beginners throwing, Eloise is all too familiar with her students exclaiming “wow you made that look so easy” and “this is so much harder than it looked!”. As a professional dancer makes seemingly impossible movements look blissfully easy, so too does the professional potter. Years of gaining knowledge through practice leads to the clay and maker working seamlessly together to form all kinds of objects on the wheel. So how do they do it?


A step-by-step guide to throwing on the pottery wheel

Step One: Prepare the clay. This is usually done by kneading (wedging in ceramic lingo) the clay into a spiral or ‘ram’s head’ shape. It looks a lot like kneading bread but it’s a different process! Wedging clay is often done to ‘wake up’ the clay (especially when its porcelain), to remove air bubbles trapped in the clay or to mix wetter and dryer clay together.

Step Two: Centre the clay. As with life, it’s much easier to get things done well if you are feeling centred. After sitting down at the wheel with a ball of clay, centring is the first and, unfortunately, the most difficult step to master. Beginning with throwing the ball of clay as close to the centre of the wheel as possible, you then must dip your hands in water and begin pushing the clay towards the centre of the wheel to form a cone shape. Once in a cone shape, the clay is then compressed back down to the wheel to form what I like to call a ‘puck’ shape. Usually this is repeated about three times to get all the clay through the process.

Step Three: Open the form. One finger is now placed on top centre of the puck and gently pressed down towards the wheel head. This forms a hole in the middle -  it important to leave a few centimetres of clay at the bottom to form the base of the shape (be careful not to go the whole way through!). Here it is important to note whether you are leaving enough clay to cut a foot or not as well as making sure that the internal shape matches the one you have in your mind. For example, a cylinder must have a sharp internal angle while a bowl will have a rounded edge. This is the part of the process which is most likely to elicit a ‘wow’ response!

Step Four: Lift the walls. Using your fingers to lift the walls will give the form height. You achieve this by compressing the clay at the base of the walls and keeping a consistent width as you lift to bring the clay up to form the walls of the vessel. I often tell my students to lift the walls to form a volcano shape as it’s very easy for the clay to go outwards but very hard to get it to go back in!

Step Five: Shape the form. Once the form is at a certain height, it can be turned into all sorts of shapes. From rounded bowls to straight sided cylinders, vases to bottles and jugs. This is where the form is most fragile and likely to fall, while also being an integral place to put personal flare onto your creation. A form that has its shape changed too many times is likely to collapse so it is important not to play around too much. 

Step Six: Cut and lift your creation off the wheel. The final step in the throwing process is cutting the form from the wheel. This is done using a cutting wire. The form is either slid off using water or carefully lifted using dry hands. At this point the form is extremely malleable and likely to collapse.

Now you must leave your form to dry to ‘leather hard’. Once leather hard, the clay can then be trimmed (or turned – think wood turning!) to cut away extra pieces of the clay and reveal a foot if desired. Other additions that can be made at this stage include handles, slip decoration and decorative carving. 

After your form is complete, it must be left to dry completely (what we potters call bone dry) then fired once, glazed and fired again.

Join us next week for Part 2: Hand-building!

Discover wheel thrown vessel by our makers here.

Images courtesy of Maya Vidulich or Broadsheet