From Handbuilding to Wheel Throwing: Exploring the Diverse Techniques of Pottery

3 Mins read

With the rise of the mindfulness movement, the TV series The Great Pottery Throw Down, and even A-listers embracing their inner “potheads”,  there’s an undeniable spark that has ignited a fiery enthusiasm for all things pottery.

But how can you get started with ceramics yourself? Roll up your sleeves and let your creativity take the wheel as we guide you through three core pottery techniques to get acquainted with. Whether you’re a seasoned artist or just starting your clay-filled journey, we’ve got you covered.

1. Handbuilding

Handbuilding, the art of sculpting clay with your own fair hands, unlocks a world of creativity and craftsmanship without the need for any complicated equipment. In fact, the oldest known ceramic artefact, The Venus of Dolni Vestonice, was handbuilt. This piece of history dates back as early as 28,000 BCE, proving that all you need to embark on your own ceramic journey is a handful of clay and a few simple tools.

Air-dry clay is perfect for handbuilding pottery because of its soft, lightweight, and sponge-like composition. It doesn’t require a kiln for drying; instead, it naturally air-dries.

In contrast, porcelain clay is better suited for experienced potters as it is stiffer and more challenging to manipulate. You can easily find air-dry clay at local craft shops or online, and some companies, such as Pott’d, offer convenient starter kits that include all the essentials for handbuilding pottery.

To get started in handbuilding, there are three main techniques: pinching, coiling, and slab building. Begin with pinching, then progress to coiling, and finally venture into slab building for more intricate projects. With a little practice, you’ll soon be well on your way to making your own Venus.

2. Wheel throwing

When you think of pottery, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the potter’s wheel — a tool used to ‘throw’ clay into various forms like bowls, vases, plates, or sculptures. Despite the common misconception that this involves throwing balls of clay onto the wheel head, the term actually stems from the Old English word ‘thrawan,’ meaning to twist or turn.

Pottery wheels come in several different varieties, each offering something special for potters. Electric wheels are popular in modern studios because they give consistent speed and control. You can easily adjust the speed and direction with an electric motor.

But then there are traditional kick wheels, also called treadle wheels, powered by the potter’s leg movements. You just push a foot pedal, and the wheel starts spinning. It’s a more romantic, hands-on approach that lets the potter connect closely with the clay. 

If you’re trying to decide between an electric pottery wheel or a kick wheel, it’s a good idea to do some solid research —  they both come with a substantial price tag. You can find helpful guides online, like this one from The Ceramic School, which will give you all the info you need to make a smart choice for your pottery adventures.

3. Slip casting

Creating identical ceramics by hand can be quite a challenge. However, with slip casting, artists can produce numerous duplicates of their work effortlessly. This technique entails pouring a liquid clay blend, (known as ‘slip’), into a mould, letting the slip harden, and then extracting the mould to reveal the desired shape.

Wheel and Clay explains that “the history of slip casting can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans who used the technique to create pottery, figurines, and other decorative objects. The technique was also popular in China, where it was used to create porcelain pieces with intricate designs.”

While slip casting is commonly associated with production pottery or replicating more intricate pieces, it shouldn’t be overlooked by novice sculptors. In fact, it offers an excellent opportunity for beginners to deepen their understanding of clay’s properties and expand upon their existing ceramic experience. By experimenting with slip casting, budding potters can develop a stronger grasp of mould-making techniques, learn about the behaviour of liquid clay, and refine their skills in finishing and detailing.

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