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Pottery is the craft of transforming clay into decorative or useful objects. Most often, clay is shaped into items like mugs and bowls and dishes. This is the "pot" in the word "pottery."

Some potters use clay to make objects that are not exactly pottery. For example, they make wall mosaics and even sculptures out of clay.

Potters use a variety of methods to shape clay. They all start with moist clay and then set the finished item by baking it at a very high temperature. This is called "firing" and it's done in a special stone oven called a kiln.

One of the most common methods of shaping clay is called "throwing." This method is used for making pots on a "potter's wheel." This wheel is a platform that spins. A ball of clay is placed on the wheel. As the wheel turns, so does the clay. This way, the potter can shape it using their hands or wooden tools.

Another method of shaping clay is called "slab work." Using a slab of clay, potters roll the clay until it is flat, cut it, and then shape it into objects.

"Coil work" is also a popular method of shaping clay. Potters roll the clay into long ropes. Then they wrap or pile these ropes together to build a piece of pottery.

The most simple method of making pottery is called "pinching." If you ever took an elementary school art class, you're probably familiar with this method.

"Pinching [or] shaping the clay with your hands is the kind of clay work most people did in grade school," says potter Missouri Wayne Rives. "Most of the disfigured candy dishes we made our parents when we were kids were made with this method."

Most experienced potters have their own personal style when working with clay. This could depend on what they create or which techniques they prefer.

"Somewhere along the line, a potter will decide what they want to build and how to build it," says potter Linda Arbuckle. "In my case, it has taken a lot of experimenting to find my preferences and rhythm, and I'm just now starting to hone in on what works. It's trial and error."

Pottery is a very popular activity.

"You can't shake a stick in most towns without turning up a few potters," says Rives.

For many clay enthusiasts, pottery is more than the sum of its techniques -- it's a way of life.

"For me, the spirit involved in making pottery includes curiosity, adventurousness, patience, humility, optimism, the need to experiment, love of dust and dirt under the fingernails, willingness to take risk, and passion," says Judith Enright, a potter from San Francisco.

Clay is something anyone can learn to work with. You don't have to consider yourself an artist.

"Art in general responds to time, learning and practice," says Arbuckle. "Everyone is creative in some ways. What potters have is a fascination with making, and the willingness to work on the problems with diligence and persistence."

Pottery enthusiasts say working with clay is both a physical and artistic activity. "It's very satisfying after a long day to pound some clay for a while. Working the clay with my hands helps me to get rid of my frustrations. It's a kind of tonic for me," says Rives.

Pottery must be done in a ventilated area. Clay and glazes used for clay both contain silica, which is slightly toxic. Experts recommend wearing masks when making clay from paste or glazing. They also suggest keeping your clay area separate from your living area, preferably in a garage or shed with windows.

Clayton Bailey has a great sense of humor, so he put noses on his teapots!
Courtesy of: Clayton Bailey

Aside from a workspace, pottery can be done with very little equipment. For pinch work or coil work, all you need is some clay and a table.

Many potters begin by having their work fired at a pottery store. Costs vary per piece fired. In the long run, experts say purchasing a kiln is cheaper. It all depends how much pottery you do!

"There is usually used equipment available through newspaper ads -- wheels and kilns are inexpensive as used pieces. And kilns come in a variety of sizes for a hobbyist," says potter Tracy McEwen.

The most expensive piece of equipment for working with clay is a pottery wheel. These cost as much as $1,000. Since there are many other methods of making pottery, it's best to try the less expensive coil, slab or pinch methods until you are sure pottery is something you really want to pursue.

Pottery enthusiasts say this hobby is well worth the expense. "Working with clay makes me a better gardener, a better student, a better teacher, a better woman, a better human being. I stay centered -- grounded -- when I work with clay," says Enright.

Those who really like this activity may find employment related to it. Some run pottery studios. Some teach others how to work with clay and the technical skills related to glazing and firing.

Some potters are able to support themselves full time with their art. Clayton Bailey is a ceramic artist from California. This is his advice to future professionals:

"Make a lot of work, and get it out in front of the public. Sell your work, or get rid of it and make some more. Invent something. Make a statement. Try to be a good businessperson. Keep a portfolio. A self-employed ceramic artist must do the research, design, manufacturing and marketing for his company."

Getting Started

Experts say the best way to kick off a pottery hobby is to roll up your sleeves and dig in.

"Buy a small amount of clay and just try working with it for a few weeks. See what you can come up with by just using your hands or whatever 'tools' you might have lying around the house," says Arbuckle.

The next step for most potters would be to take a few classes in working with clay. A pottery instructor can show you the basic techniques useful for working with clay.

"Pottery is fairly accessible in every community. There is usually a potter's guild, high school or college workshops, or even city recreational courses. These learning environments allow you to learn the basics such as 'centering' on the wheel, kiln operation and how to apply glazes," says McEwan.

Once you have the basics down, you're off and running. All you need to get started working with clay are a few simple tricks.

"After you acquire a base understanding, it's just a matter of experimenting," says Rives. "If you're willing to put in the time and energy, you can produce some great pottery. I think you get out of this craft what you put in."

Every now and then, try attending a pottery workshop. This will help you improve your skills.

"It's nice to network with other potters and the workshops give you a chance to see some of the more advanced techniques," says Arbuckle.

Another good way to learn more about pottery is to join a potter's club or group.


Oregon Potters Association
3812 Northeast Milton
Portland , OR   97212

Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts
2915 Country Club Ave.
Helena , MO   59602
E-mail :


Ceramics and Art Sites
Links to galleries, suppliers, personal home pages and more

The Strictly Functional Pottery National Exhibit
An Internet exhibit for pottery that's useful

Minnesota Clay USA
A good online resource, with info about pottery stains, techniques and general advice

Tile Council of America Inc.
Many potters get into making tiles -- learn more here

WWW Virtual Library: Ceramics
A directory with links to suppliers

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