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Easy Basic First Steps to Throw on a Pottery Wheel - Part 1

Updated on November 2, 2015

Basic tools needed for throwing on a wheel- Picture 1

Here are the basic tools I feel you will need to start throwing on a wheel. Keep it simple. As I gained experience, I found that "non-traditional" items can be utilized to great effect and consequences. Keep everything as simple as possible at first.
Here are the basic tools I feel you will need to start throwing on a wheel. Keep it simple. As I gained experience, I found that "non-traditional" items can be utilized to great effect and consequences. Keep everything as simple as possible at first.

Have Fun!

Rule number 1 in pottery: Have fun!
Rule number 1 in pottery: Have fun! | Source

Two Wheels I like to Throw On.- Picture 2

This is a good basic wheel though I like the second wheel better as I utilized the hand control frequently. again it is a matter of taste.
This is a good basic wheel though I like the second wheel better as I utilized the hand control frequently. again it is a matter of taste.
This wheel is my personal favorite because of the option of the hand lever. I would recommend waiting until you took an inexpensive course to see what you like best. Used wheels can be found but not always easily.
This wheel is my personal favorite because of the option of the hand lever. I would recommend waiting until you took an inexpensive course to see what you like best. Used wheels can be found but not always easily.

Kneading the Clay- Picture 3

This clay shows how basic and easy it is to work the clay to rid it of lumps and air pockets.
This clay shows how basic and easy it is to work the clay to rid it of lumps and air pockets.

Centering clay on a wheel. - Picture 4

Centering on the wheel is so important to the ease you will have and the resultant piece. after the first couple of tries, it becomes easy and second-nature.
Centering on the wheel is so important to the ease you will have and the resultant piece. after the first couple of tries, it becomes easy and second-nature.
Another view of centering clay on a wheel.
Another view of centering clay on a wheel.

Opening of the Clay- Picture 5

One of many techniques shown to "open" the clay.
One of many techniques shown to "open" the clay. | Source

Lifting of the Clay- Picture 6

this picture is a good representation of a basic piece at the beginning of the lifting/pulls
this picture is a good representation of a basic piece at the beginning of the lifting/pulls
This picture shows a pot cut in half to show a visualization of how the hands/knuckles/fingers look as one is pulling clay up.
This picture shows a pot cut in half to show a visualization of how the hands/knuckles/fingers look as one is pulling clay up.
This picture represents one of the final pulls of the piece being made here. Again, do not be going after a ceramic skyscraper in the beginning.
This picture represents one of the final pulls of the piece being made here. Again, do not be going after a ceramic skyscraper in the beginning.

The Separation/Cutting of the Pot From the Wheel - Picture 7

this shows a finished pot and the potter taking the taut cutting wire and sliding it under the pot as close to the wheel head as possible
this shows a finished pot and the potter taking the taut cutting wire and sliding it under the pot as close to the wheel head as possible
Another picture demonstrating the separation of the pot from the wheel head.
Another picture demonstrating the separation of the pot from the wheel head.

Good Reliable and Inexpensive Clay For the wheel

Make learning on a wheel fun!

As much as I like to incorporate ballet into my articles, it would have proved difficult here. One could try to make a ceramic dance belt (Ouch!) or a tutu but we will leave all that for our imaginations and/or more advanced ceramics.

When I was working on my minor in art/art history, I had to pick a 'hands-on' art. Unless stick figures had become into vogue, drawing and painting was out. Sculpture??? A hammer, a chisel, expensive marble and me? Forget it. I had always wanted to learn throwing on a wheel and now I had the excuse and incentive to learn... and learn it and learn it well I did. I did so well that I became the teacher's assistant after my first course. It became very natural for me, very quickly. Of course if I can, you can. The fun, friends and well received future gifts I had and made were all wonderful benefits to this ancient art, an art that has been used and practiced not far different today than for the last 5,000 years.

I suggest you first look at the equipment you will be using and I will keep it simple and basic. In the above picture, Picture 1, the tools shown include a rib, sponge(s), cut-off wire and trimming tools. Before running out and buying a wheel and kiln, I suggest taking a class at one of the many studios or art centers, most of which are very reasonable in cost. You want to make sure throwing on a wheel 'is for you' and I can almost guarantee that it will be. Another nice aspect of throwing on a wheel, is how much you will learn from your mistakes. I still make mistakes and use what happened to improve my technique on whatever project I am working on. Mistakes allow one to refine ones technique and perhaps deviate from some standard form to create the technique that works best for you.

This article will show you and go over the basic steps and as time and experience goes on, you will learn how to become 'as one' with the lump of clay you start with. Remember, always have fun! You will learn to laugh at your mistakes. In the beginning I was one laughing fool.

The two wheels I pictured in Picture 2 are the types I like - actually the one I use the most resembles the one in the upper picture with the guard to cut down on making a mess, as the slip flies off, but it has the hand lever to control the speed along with the pedal as pictured in the second wheel. I like to utilize both depending on my focus and what I am making. I actually have a friend who prefers the kick wheel where you sit as if you are at a desk and spin the turn table with a lower kick wheel with your foot- as in most things, to each their own- I like to utilize the invention of electricity whenever possible.

One has to first knead and work the clay. This is called wedging. It reminds me of kneading dough before baking it. Take a chunk of clay - I recommend using pre-made clay in the beginning- and cut it in half. The goal of wedging is to remove all lumps and air. Trapped air not worked out often results with the pot exploding in the kiln as it reached high temperatures. It is not a major loss if that is the only pot damaged but the flying remnants can damage other pots in the kiln. If it happens, it happens. Take the one half and slam it on the work table and then throw the other half into it. Cut it again and repeat the previous step. Now start kneading it - the heels of the hands push into the mass of the clay. There is no magic number of rolls but at least 50 is a good number to start with. The clay begins to wrap around itself. There are other techniques but this one is the most simple and works for me. If you over knead, the clay becomes weaker to work with and one can actually dry it out to much. You will find what is best for you fairly quickly. I have found that a surface covered in canvas as the easiest to work with and knead on. Picture 3 shows the basic technique for working the clay but there are others. Until you gain confidence, do not be afraid to cut your clay several times with the cutting wire to visually see if you have a uniform lump of clay.

The next step is one of the most important in that you will find that the clay often 'wants' to be anywhere and everywhere except where you want it. I like to roll the clay into a ball and throw it rather hard and as close to the center as possible. Some people prefer having the wheel slowly moving but I prefer the wheel to be at a complete stop. Then I pad the clay with my hands to get it nearer to the center. Use some strength here and show the clay who is boss. I can remember in the beginning where I did not connect the clay with the wheel with enough force and the result was a clay UFO flying through the air. That provided screams and laughs and a learning tool.

Picture 4 shows some of the steps in centering. Once you are satisfied that it is as close to center as you are going to get it, it is now time to find the true center - fine-tune your first steps. You will have to wet the clay or you hands will stick to the clay. This is where I start the wheel moving slowly and then use a sponge or squirt water to moisten. Too much water will create too much flying slip (very diluted clay) but for me, this could provide some laughs and fun with the extra slip that will fly off. Personal story here: one of my best friends, Debbie, at Muskingum, used to meet me at the art school late at night. My teacher had provided me with a key to come and go as I pleased. Debbie had this classic old Thunderbird which we would ride to Western Pancake House after we finished sometimes as late as 3:00 AM and be covered head to foot in clay, looking like some monsters. Yes we did it on purpose but it added to the enjoyment. We did become a little slap happy at times.

Centering is what I like to call becoming one with the clay. You learn to work with it, not against it. You will realize what I mean when centering become much easier for you. Again, lumps and air pockets will sometimes cause it to constantly go off center but again, it is all a part of the learning journey. In the beginning you will probably have to use more strength than necessary but as time goes on- and it will be fairly soon- it will take less and less brute strength. You will find what works best for you.

Once you feel that it is centered, it is time for what is the 'opening' of the clay you just centered. In picture 5, I show several steps in the opening process. For me, the opening usually goes pretty fast. When using a bigger piece of clay, it is easier to put your fingers extended out, in a V shape. For smaller pieces I prefer to just use my thumbs while cradling the rest of the clay with my hands. As you open, be careful not to go all the way down to the bottom. you will need a thick enough bottom for the trimming and the stability of the piece as you work it. If the top become too thin, it will wobble and go off center. Simply apply pressure down to thicken the top. Practice, practice, practice! Keep your first pieces simple and basic- no umbrella stands at this point- not yet anyway. After you have opened the clay, with interlocked fingers, slowly pull the clay backward toward the body of the clay. Though I have seen it done, and it is natural - at first- to pull the clay laterally- in opposite directions. This often results in the clay becoming off centered. It is a good idea to take the tips of the interlocked fingers and undercut the surrounding clay. Then as you straighten the fingers, the wall of the piece moves into a more even and vertical position. Remember, the walls have to be a bit thick at this point so that you have enough clay to pull up.

Picture 6 shows two stages of the lifting of a basic shape. There are various ways/techniques used to begin the lifting. I use various ones, depending on how much clay I am lifting. Many artists like to use the knuckle on the outside. I only use that rarely. On the inside, one can use one to three fingers but when using more than one, the fingers must be kept together- used as one. Generally, the right hand is used on the outside and of course unless you are a human octopus, that leaves the left hand to lift from the inside. No matter what one uses, fingers or knuckles, the fingers/knuckles must be directly opposite to ensure a successful pull. They must exert enough pressure so the thickness can be squeezed to a thinner thickness than what is above them. This is what creates the height. The clay you are squeezing to a thinner thickness has only one way to go and that is up thus creating your height. While maintaining pressure it is advisable to lift slowly and evenly. Centrifugal force created by the spinning wheel can be countered by pulling slightly inwardly. Even if you are making a bowel, you want to be the one deciding when to start widening your creation and mother nature has to take back seat. With each lift, you want to undercut the clay - push inwardly, so as to again create excessive clay to pull upwards.

Try to keep water out of the base of the creation as too much water will weaken the base. In the beginning, a 1/4 inch thickness (approximate) is a good thickness to strive for. A cylinder is the goal of most lifts, regardless of the final shape you have in mind. For all intents and purposes, all shapes will come from that basic cylinder shape. Also, during the lifting, the wheel should be moving rapidly- the energy from the spinning has to go somewhere and here it helps ease the lifting- mother nature working with you. If the cylinder does not rise it is usually because you have not exerted enough pressure. DO NOT worry if any of these things or others occur. You are making a clay pot, not performing brain surgery- everything that happens - good or bad- no matter how long you do this is all about learning.....and having fun. Frustration will occur at times, especially if something unexpected goes wrong near completion but some things are correctible here- some are not. It will become easy and not too time consuming to start over. Most of the time I just start over as doing corrective measures can sometimes take up time and then you start correcting corrections. That frustrates me!

I will leave shaping for another article. If you want to flare it out a bit- for the first piece, I will tell you something common sensicle: to flare it out a bit, the inside fingers of course have to exert more pressure than the outside fingers/knuckles. They move along with the inside but just to stabilize and support the curving out of the clay. The inside higher pressure of course begins to flare out the pot.

I will finish part one of my throwing on a wheel series with severing the connection of the pot with the wheel. Please see Picture(s) 7 for a demonstration. Of course it was a great help to have a good seal between the clay and the wheel but now that connection needs to cease. Making the cut is simple and easy. Some simply slide the cutting wire as close to the wheel and slices the pot from the wheel. I like the wheel to be moving slowly as it allows a quicker and more even cut.... for me. No matter which technique you use, the wire has to be as taut as possible. If you used too much water/slip and the pot is very wet, you may want it to sit for awhile before physically moving it. As you are pulling, it is important to keep the clay moist but too much water can weaken the pot until it dries out a bit.

If you feel the pot is dry enough, take a tile and put it slightly lower than the top of the wheel. I like to put a little slip between the pot and the tile to make the move go easier. It acts as a lubricant. With DRY hands evenly and gently surrounding the piece, gently tilt the pot and pull toward the tile. Once the pot hits the water(lubricant) it will move onto the tile easily. Of course, if you end up misshaping the pot during the moving, it can often be corrected later during the trimming aspect which I will go into that in the next article. Now one only has to wait for the clay to take on a drier - more leathery - feel and then you will be ready to do the final trimming and apply one of many artistic endeavors your imagination wants to follow. You practically have carte blanche in your final design.

Do not worry about remembering the steps I went over at this point. It is simply my desire to give you an idea of what road you will be traveling as you start working on the wheel. Literally everyone develops there own style and steps. The next time you visit a street arts festival.. and there are so many... I have always found professional artists happy to talk with someone who want to learn how they made a particular piece. Do not forget, if throwing on a wheel ends up not being the endeavor you had hoped, hand building is a great art form itself. this where my dance belt or a tutu could actually be made! Enjoy and have FUN!



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Nice Basic set of Pottery Tools- I like this set!

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    • Peter Grujic profile image
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      Peter Alexander 17 months ago from Pittsburgh

      Hi Tommy- You are the first person to read more than one of my articles. Thanks! Over time, you will find your own easy steps and perhaps be the professor's assistant as what happened to me! Keep me updated how you are doing and feel free to teach me things!

    • profile image

      Tommy Benson 17 months ago

      Hi Peter - I should have read this article first- I like this one a lot because you made the steps seem easy. I liked what you said about learning from your mistakes- like you said, it is only clay and can be reused. thanks!

    • Peter Grujic profile image
      Author

      Peter Alexander 18 months ago from Pittsburgh

      Thank you. Let me know how your class progresses. Pottery is one of those "things" where mistakes are great teachers. Always remember to have fun.

    • profile image

      John Adropolo 18 months ago

      I recently started taking a class in pottery. I find your article very helpful. I look forward to reading your other articles. thanks!

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