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Guidelines for the Beginner

Whether you are just getting started with clay or if you are getting back into pottery after many years, here are a few recommendations that should help you have fun and avoid trouble.

Each is a simple tip based on feedback we have had about the most common problems people encountered. 

Combined with a class, video or personal instruction, we hope these guidelines will help you to become a better potter faster.

1) Prepare your clay properly.

Whether you are hand building or throwing a pot, you will have better success and much more fun when you adequately prepare your clay.   Wedging is a technique used to prepare clay through kneading the clay then cutting it in half to check for consistency and air pockets.  When no air bubbles remain in a cross section of clay you may begin.  A good guideline may be about 50 kneading motions per 6-8 pound lump of clay.

One reason we wedge clay is to compress it or to align and press the particles tighter together. If clay is not compressed properly, it can easily pull apart while you are trying to work with it.  For example, have you ever had this problem?  While you are pulling up a cylinder, the top ring of clay tears and comes off.  Assuming you're using good clay and your pulls are consistent, this happens because the rim isn't compressed.

Under-wedged clay is hard to throw because it is not warmed up properly and you could pull a muscle so to speak.  Also, it's problematic because it allows air bubbles to remain in the clay.  For example, have you ever had a nice cylinder pulled up high and you find an air bubble in the bottom, this indicates you have under-wedged.  Try to pop the bubble with your penknife tool then smooth it over with a few pulls.  This may not work and you will have to start over.  If you find the air bubble near the lip, cut it off just below the bubble and proceed with some nice pulls.  For best results and more enjoyment, take the time to properly prepare your clay - especially for throwing pots.

2)  Allow your pieces to dry slowly.

For good results, whether you are hand building or throwing a pot on the wheel, you need a few guidelines for drying your pieces.  You need to use a board or a bat to store your pieces on after they come off the wheel for drying before trimming.  Ideally you want to completely wrap the piece on the bat in light plastic (dry cleaning bags are great because they are large and thin) and place them in a damp room a room where there is a lot of moisture so they will dry slowly and evenly.  After a day or two in the damp room your piece will be leather hard and ready to be trimmed.   After your piece is trimmed or if you are hand building and will continue to work on your piece, put it back in the damp room so it will dry out slowly over time.  By allowing your pieces to dry slowly you will prevent cracking that can occur from losing moisture too quickly.  Not all cracking can be prevented for example if you have a fault or weakness, it will likely come out in the bisque or final firing, this cannot be avoided by drying slowly.  Note: if you are drying tiles or a large flat piece such as a platter, you need to use something on top to weigh down the surface as the tendency is for the edges to curl up while drying.

3)  Never ever bisque fire a piece that's not completely dry.

This does not require much explanation. Any piece which isn't completely free of moisture, or bone dry may explode and destroy other pieces in the kiln.  If there is moisture in the piece, when you put it next to your cheek it will feel cold.  Handbuilt pieces with thick surfaces will take much longer to dry.  When in doubt - wait a day, it certainly won't hurt.

4)  Smooth sharp or chipped edges on bisque ware before you glaze and final fire your work.

Unfortunately pots are very vulnerable at the bisque stage and especially if you work in a community lab or you share a studio your bisqued pots are bound to get chipped or broken at some point.  Use sandpaper on broken or chipped areas or they will become razor sharp after a layer of glass has adhered to them!  Fortunately many hardware stores carry specially cut and reinforced smaller pieces which are perfect for smoothing over the rough bottom or edge of a bisqued pot.  It's a good idea to go over rough spots just before you glaze them. Sandpaper is our friend.

5)  Try many clay bodies.

The world of clay bodies is vast, you can use anything from clay found in the ground to clay purchased in bags. Clay can have many different attributes and will provide many different experiences depending upon the needs of the potter or ceramists. Many people begin their clay experience with terra cotta (red clay) or earthenware clay and then move on to stoneware then graduate to porcelain also hopefully raku clay.  Different pre-blended specialty clay bodies are available at retail stores, check with your local pottery and ceramics supplier to see what suits your needs.

Case study: Recently we heard from someone who liked the feel of throwing a white stoneware however the specific application was using a glaze called 'butter' which comes out a beautiful creamy white to light brown.  It looks better on a clay body which contains some iron as it produces iron spots and helps bring out the brown color.  White stoneware has less iron and impurities than stoneware so to get the butter glaze to come out in a white stoneware our experts suggested to try mixing iron oxide into the clay we were preparing for the day beginning with a small quantity such as 1 teaspoon.  Iron will help to bring out variations and brown spots in the glaze.  

6) Always mix & strain your glazes before using them.

Anyone who has tested this method can tell you how important it is and how much of a difference it makes. Mixing and straining glazes is something most beginner to intermediate potters don't do.  When you start doing it, it will make a huge difference.

The only correct way to glaze your work is to thoroughly mix and strain each glaze you use.  The proper way to mix is either with a wisk (if the glaze is not settled and hard) or an electric mixer tool.  Once the glaze is mixed, thoroughly strain it through a large sieve into a container suited to the pot you need to glaze.   If you don't already do this you will be amazed at what you don't find because you do find a lot more than you'd expect.  This is especially important if you work in a community lab or art center facility where many people use the glazes.

This single step will improve the consistency of your glazes and help to yield beautiful pots.

Note: You can tell who is serious about getting good glaze results by seeing who tracks their results.  Just like in business.  If you want to get serious, get out the glaze journal and record what you are doing when you glaze your work. Click here to start your own glaze journal

7) Experience the world of glazes!

When you are getting started the wide range of colors and textures can seem amazing but also overwhelming.  In the beginning - try everything.   What you will probably find is you quickly narrow it down to four or five of your favorites.  I'll save you some time and tell you some consistent cone 10 glazes that knowledgeable potters use again and again.  Shino, Temeku, Celedon, Copper Red, and Leach White.  In the beginning try many glazes as you will find specific applications.

8)  Don't stiffen up or quit breathing while you are throwing.

Relax and enjoy the experience at the wheel - even if it is frustrating at times.  As a beginner many people develop a rigid posture at the wheel and worse yet they all but stop breathing as they are in the throes of throwing a pot or taking it off the wheel.  Over time you'll develop a comfortable position for throwing.  You should keep your arms stiff from the elbow to the point at which your hands contact the clay while you are trying to center it or compress it and when you make any major changes to the form.  Otherwise you need to relax and breath and move around while you are throwing.

9) Get the right tools!

Beginner pottery tool sets are available at art, craft, even hardware stores usually for around $12-$15. One of the basic tools a beginner's set comes equipped with is a trimming tool.  It's great to get you familiar with trimming and but you may want to add a couple more to make your set complete.  Especially with trimming tools be sure you have the right ones for the job.

We recommend you use three tools for trimming. One with a small tip (step one) which is great to run over the bottom of a pot to get an even base, one with a squared off tip (step two) to smooth out the base and to finish it and a larger one (step three) which is for trimming the sides and making the bottom completely even.  These will naturally get dulled by the hard elements in your clay body so be sure to sharpen or replace them when they are too dull to effectively trim. You can achieve a nice clean cut with a sharp tool and it takes less time.

Another tool in your beginner set is an aluminum rib.   Ribs come in many shapes and sizes and can also be made of wood, plastic, other metals or rubber.  They are wonderful tools for shaping pots or for smoothing out the inside or outside of a pot.  Once you are acquainted, you should try a small and large rubber rib, they really do feel nice.  Recently, someone wrote us who began using a large wooden rib (a 6" diameter semi-circle) for creating a low flat bowl out of a cylinder.  They said it was a breakthrough!  The rib enabled them to achieve the shape they had been looking for and it was easy to use!  We hope you have as much fun discovering the right tools for the job.

After you have started with a standard set of tools here's some you may like to consider for your next upgrade.

Either soft or hard rubber ribs are nice to handle for shaping or smoothing surfaces.  At some point treat yourself to an elephant ear sponge which also feels great to work with.  A chamois strip is nice for smoothing over edges on rims (the inexpensive way is to use a piece of paper towel).  There is no reason to spend a lot of money on tools (some of the best are found or made) but we encourage you to try some because many exist to make your pottery life more productive.  We found a great application for an old manicure set, there is one tool with a slightly curved end which is perfect for taking off a bit of extra glaze around the foot of a bowl.

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