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How To Start Making Handmade Ceramics

Updated on February 27, 2010

Interest in handmade ceramics is flourishing. A million artists strong, the clay arts have a tactile quality that grabs people. Whether it's the creator or the buyer, people like something that's unique, that they can hold and explore. And this is not about pre-fired greenware that is painted in a stop-and-shop manner. The boom is in the hands-on manipulation of raw clay into one-of-a-kind shapes and forms, which are then embellished, decorated or glazed.

Forms have been made from clay for more than 9,000 years. Using three kinds of clay, earthenware (a low-fired reddish clay body), stoneware (a high-fired clay that varies in color) and porcelain (a high-fired white, fine-bodied clay), the basic techniques have not changed much from antiquity, either. The process involves digging raw clay out of the ground, wedging and homogenizing it, forming it on a wheel or by hand, firing it in a kiln, and decorating or glazing it.

Every culture around the world produces pottery, both for its function and for its beauty. From the black-figured vessels of sixth-century Athens to the 1920s Japanese-inspired jars of master British potter Bernard Leach, from the Egyptian earthenware urns circa 3,000 B.C. to the modern-day burnished coil pots made by Native Americans, pottery reflects our historical, industrial and artistic sensibilities. Today's potters, whether they be professional or amateur, draw on this rich dish of history, but also find a way to make an individual statement.

The shapes and forms have been done again and again, but there's always a new, more personal way to interpret them. What's popular now in pottery is the "primitive" style. Wood firing, burnishing surfaces and creating simple shapes are appealing to 21st-century artisans. For example raku-fired candleholders are made by rolling out clay into a slab, cutting it into shapes and attaching those shapes together. They are fired in a homemade kiln filled with sawdust and leaves, leaving a shimmering skin of purple, green and smoky black. Raku is a centuries-old technique used in the Japanese tea ceremony.

To get started on this creative journey start by taking a class or college course to begin, and don't rush things. It could take a few years before you're ready to move into your own studio. But don't set up in your laundry room. This is not a clean hobby... Instead, prepare an identifiable space that is separate from main living quarters, such as a converted garage, utility room or back-yard shed. Or, share space with other artists in an industrial bay, warehouse or arts center.

As for equipment you'll need a room with few essentials: table and chair, plaster slab (for wedging), sink, potter's wheel, kiln, drying racks and shelves, glazing area and air vents. Implements include sponges, buckets, knives, scrapers, brushes, needle and trimming tools, and much more. Even a seashell can become a precious device, used to make impressions and textures in the clay. Once you get started you realize the possibilities are endless.

That said, the process can also be extremely simple. Take a ball of clay and start pinching. Before you know it, a delicate flower shape is forming. Is the clay too wet? Are the edges too harsh? Will the form be functional or decorative? What glaze will best tell this vessel's story? Clay asks lots of questions from its creator, and the fun is in the answering.

Clay Matters

Bisqueware: Clay that has been fired but not glazed.

Clay: A fine-grained and firm natural material that is "plastic" when wet and can be made permanent when exposed to high heat.

Coil: Building a pot using long, snake-like coils

Glaze: A coating on pottery, ranging from a dull, matte surface to a shiny, smooth one.

Greenware: Pottery that has not been fired.

Kiln: An oven used to heat clay so it becomes devoid of water. Kilns can be powered by electricity, gas or natural products such as wood.

Leatherhard: Clay that has not completely dried, allowing it to be trimmed, embellished, etched or attached to another piece.

Pinch: Pinching a ball of clay into a pot or shape.

Pull: Stroking clay with water by hand until it forms a handle; used for making teapots, mugs and jugs.

Slip: Liquid clay that can be colored; used for decoration.

Throw: Using the momentum of the potter's wheel to shape clay into various circular forms.

Turn/trim: Turning a pot upside-down on the potter's wheel and trimming the bottom.

Wedge: Prepare clay for use, similar to kneading bread, to remove air pockets and homogenize.

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